Summary: Christ has made a marvelous sacrifice for each of us; he has not only freed us from the bonds of sin, but also the chains of guilt. The gates of heaven are flung wide, and we cannot help but respond!
In just a few days, we will be gathering with family and friends to celebrate Thanksgiving. It’s the first big celebration in what we have come to call the “Holiday Season,” that spans from late November through the New Year. In just two weeks, churches around the world will kick-off Advent, which is the season of preparation leading up to our celebration of Christ’s birth. Advent is also the beginning of what is called the liturgical year. Over the course of each liturgical year, we move from Christ’s birth through his baptism, teachings, healings, miracles, death and resurrection, and on to his glorification as the exalted Son of God, the Messiah. So it is fitting that as we close out this liturgical year and look forward to the coming Advent season that we come to this passage from Hebrews—a broad sweeping view of the work of Jesus and its significance for each of us.
The image the writer of Hebrews uses to portray Christ’s accomplishment is one of Jesus, seated at the right hand of God the Father, casually awaiting the day when his enemies will be made into a footstool for his feet. It’s the picture of rest at the end of a long work day; relaxation at the completion of great project, the satisfaction a mission accomplished. So what is it, exactly, that Christ has accomplished. Well, the writer of Hebrews tells us that, too, by way of contrast. For generations, “every priest” the writer tells us, “stands every day serving and offering the same sacrifices over and over, sacrifices that can never take away sins. But this great high priest, Jesus, offered one sacrifice for sins for all time.” Here finally, concludes the author of Hebrews is the fulfillment of all the promises of scripture and the prophets; Christ has achieved that day when the law will be placed on our hearts and written in our minds, but our sins and lawless behavior are forgotten. And “when there is forgiveness for these things, there is no longer an offering for sin.”
Christ has done for each of us what no other priest has yet been able to do. Day after day, year after year, generation to generation, the priests have been hard at work at the Temple, offering sacrifices to God on behalf of a sinful people. And yet the sin remains. Fallen humanity is still separated from their God; the Holy of Holies is still closed off to all but the highest of priests on only the holiest of days; no one else is worthy.
Have you ever been paralyzed by guilt? Many of us struggle under the weighty pain of regret and guilt regarding our past behaviors, especially when those behaviors have caused harm to others. I remember something that happened when I was a little kid; still in elementary school, still in the single digits. I was at daycare one summer day, and on that particular day, one of my friends had brought a bunch of craft supplies. During the morning hours, the girls sat around the table doing crafts together, and we had lots of fun. When it was lunch time, our care giver had us clean up the crafts, and then she put them away in a safe place for the rest of the day.
Well, I enjoyed those crafts so much that I decided I needed to take some of the craft supplies home so that I could do more of them. So after lunch, I went to the “bathroom” and on the way, found the craft supplies and helped myself to a few of the things. Needless to say, I got caught. I told the care giver that I was putting away some extra crafts I had found still sitting out, but of course she knew, and of course she told my Mom when she came to pick me up that afternoon. As you can imagine, I got in trouble, and I was appropriately punished, but my Mom never got mad at me. That night, as my Mom was putting me in bed, she said, “Well, what did you learn today?” I just started crying. I wasn’t crying because I had gotten in trouble—that had passed. I wasn’t crying because my Mom was mad at me—because she wasn’t. I was crying because I knew I had done something wrong; because I thought my Mom should be mad at me; because I felt guilty. In fact, I felt so guilty that I didn’t even understand why my Mom wasn’t angry with me. I was a bad person who did bad things; I wasn’t worthy of being loved unconditionally. That is the way it’s supposed to work, right?
Interestingly enough, my thinking wasn’t too far off from the reality of the Israelites and their relationship with God up to the point when Jesus came. They were a people whose entire sinful existence was spent trying to appease an “angry” God through sacrifices. No sacrifice was great enough, and it was continually pressed into their brains that they were not worthy of entering God’s presence; they were not blameless enough to be in relationship with God; they were not deserving of God’s unconditional love. Can you imagine how that must have made those people feel?