Washed from dead works to serve the living God (Hebrews 9.11-14) [Sermon 11-1-2015]

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October 31, 2015 by jmar198013

The manuscript of my sermon for 11/1/2015 at Central Church of Christ in Stockton, CA.

Scriptures: Deuteronomy 6.1-9: Psalm 119.1-8; Mark 12.28-34; Hebrews 9.11-14.

The basic thrust of the sermon: Hebrews makes it clear that Jesus’ sacrifice is the sacrifice to end sacrifice. The life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus liberates to offer God the only sacrifices he ever wanted from people: wholehearted devotion to God and our neighbors (Mark 12.28-34; Deut. 6.1-9).


 

Sacrifice and the human condition

Our reading in Hebrews today continued this compare-and-contrast theme between Jesus and the sacrificial system of Israel. Of course, we’ve been following that thread through the most of the letter. In today’s lesson we heard: If the blood of goats and bulls and the sprinkled ashes of cows made spiritually contaminated people holy and clean, how much more will the blood of Jesus wash our consciences clean from dead works in order to serve the living God?

Here’s what I think that’s speaking to. You can go through all the motions, and still be haunted by your conscience. Or worse, you can go through all the motions of forgiveness and reconciliation, and become numb to your sin. Either way, that’s not what God is after. Yes, Hebrews tells us, the Torah gave people a way to purify themselves for God. But it wasn’t enough. It’s like, whenever the blood of the goat was smeared on the altar, and the scapegoat was shooed away from the camp, our wounds received a fresh bandage. But the wounds remained. And sometimes the wounds festered and stunk to high heaven.

She wants us to know, Hebrews does, that when Jesus offered his blood, when he was shooed out of the camp, that his sacrifice actually heals our wound. What Jesus has done for us gives us the power to go on.

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I suspect that part of the whole Jesus-offering-his-blood-for-us business is the hardest for us to grasp. We affirm, as Christians, that Jesus died for us. We have learned from Hebrews—and to a lesser extent, from Paul and John—that Jesus’ death is a sacrifice made on our behalf.

And we say—because we have always been taught this—that Jesus’ sacrificial death saves us.

But saves us from what? From God? That’s how a lot of popular preaching has it. We have offended God, broken his eternal laws. So we must pay an eternal price. It’s death forever for the lot of us. God would like to just forgive us, but he cannot or he would not be just. But then Jesus steps up and offers to take our punishment himself. And so you have the cross. Jesus takes the punishment we all deserve. God’s justice is satisfied. We can be forgiven by and reconciled to God.

There’s a lot of problems with telling the story that way, though. Like, if God is so just that he cannot simply forgive sinners, why does Jesus’ death satisfy his justice? Isn’t it less just to punish an innocent party for something that I did, than it is to forgive me? If someone else takes my punishment for me, can we rightfully call that forgiveness? Like, if you paid off my student loans for me, it’s not like the Department of Education forgave my debt. Someone else just paid it. And yet, the idea of forgiveness is central to what God is proclaiming in Jesus. You find that in Jesus’ words, in his life. You see that in how Paul talks about Jesus. Think about how the story of the Prodigal Son plays out. What if the story went that for the father to forgive his sinful younger son, he had to go out and slaughter his older brother? Somehow, I doubt we’d like that story very much. [1]

I suspect the ways we often speak about Jesus’ death plays more to our weaknesses—our shame and guilt and neurotic obsessions over who is wrong and who is right—than it does to our strengths.

Anyway, the Bible actually has a lot of answers to the question, What has Jesus’ blood, his offering of his life, saved us from? We certainly don’t have time to explore all those answers in one sermon! But the author of Hebrews gives us one answer to that question in our lesson today. She says that the blood of Jesus washes our consciences clean from dead works. So we’re saved from that vicious circle of shame and guilt and neurosis and despair that will either paralyze us or lead us to to sear our consciences because we can’t go on any other way. That’s awesome, but that’s not all. We are saved for something. Our consciences are washed clean so that we can serve the living God.

What I’m trying to say here—and the point I suspect Hebrews wants to make—is this: the death, the sacrifice, blood, the life-offering of Jesus “gives us the ability to be what we are and yet go on.” [2] That’s what priests offering the blood of goats and bulls and the sprinkled ashes of cows could never do for us. But Jesus offering himself did.

Who needs sacrifices?

I’m going to go way out on a limb here. I want to suggest something radical about the sacrifices we read about in the Old Testament. And since Hebrews is comparing and contrasting Jesus with those sacrifices, I’m going to argue that what is true for the Old Testament sacrifices is also true for Jesus’ sacrifice.

Okay, here I am, out on the limb: The Old Testament sacrifices were not for God. God didn’t need the sacrifices. The sacrifices didn’t change how God felt about people. The sacrifices were for people.  We needed a sacrifice. God allowed his people to have sacrifices because that’s how people related to their gods in those days.

Probably that sounds crazy to a lot of you. Of course sacrifices and offerings are for God, right? Why would God give instructions about sacrifices if sacrifices were unnecessary?

But the Bible itself has some interesting things about this. Especially the prophets.

One of the most famous words from the prophets about sacrifices and offerings is found in Hosea 6.6. If you’ve ever read the Gospels, you’ll learn that Jesus was fond of quoting this gem: I desire faithful love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God instead of entirely burned offerings. God is speaking through the prophet, and tells the people that he wants a faithful people who offer themselves for a face-to-face relationship with God.

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Perhaps the most startling words from the prophets on the sacrificial system come from Isaiah 1.11ff. Just like we saw in Hosea 6.6, the prophet is speaking from God’s perspective. Through the prophet, an exasperated God shouts: What should I think about all your sacrifices? I’m fed up with entirely burned offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts. I don’t want the blood of bulls, lambs, and goats. When you come to appear before me, who asked this from you, this trampling of my temple’s courts?

You know what I find fascinating about God’s question there—who asked this from you, this trampling of my temple’s courts? God is obviously talking about the herds and flocks of sacrificial animals being brought to the temple. It’s their feet trampling his temple’s courts. And God complains: Who asked this from you? Whose idea was this?

And I’m sure all these people who’d been raised on the book of Leviticus would respond: Well, Goddidn’t you ask us to bring you all these sacrifices? It’s in your Torah, after all!

And through Isaiah, God shouts back that they misunderstood. Here’s what God really wants from his people: Remove your ugly deeds from my sight. Put an end to such evil; learn to do good. Seek justice: help the oppressed; defend the orphan; plead for the widow.

According to Isaiah, the sacrifice God wants from his people is them offering their lives to their neighbors in need. Make sacrifices to feed the poor and stand up for the weak and speak for the voiceless and hold up the powerless and for God’s sake—make sure the widows and orphans aren’t being exploited.

There are actually many more passages in the Hebrew Scriptures that say the kinds of things we’ve just heard. [3] We don’t have time to dig into them right now. The thing is, it seems that all God has ever needed or wanted or desired from his people is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, being, will, and ability; and love your neighbor as yourself. Just like we heard in our readings from Deuteronomy and Mark today.

The purpose of the atoning sacrifices we see in Leviticus 16-17 was always to remind God’s people of their special relationship to him. What he had done for them. What he continued to do for them. How they had promised to live in his presence. What kind of people they needed to be to be hospitable to the Lord who tabernacled among them.

Every year, the high priest slaughtered a goat and smeared its blood on the altar. By doing so, he was acting out the people offering their obedient lives to God. Remember Lev. 17.11: I have provided you the blood to make reconciliation for your lives on the altar, because the blood reconciles by means of the life.

And every year the priest laid the sins of the people on the head of another goat. And that goat was led out of the camp. Taken to the wilderness. Gone. This showed the people that God had forgiven them.

God didn’t need those sacrifices. The people did. Don’t forget, ancient Israel didn’t grow up in a bubble. They had neighbors like Egypt and Canaan, who had their own gods and their own sacrifices. Their neighbors believed that they had to sacrifice innocent victims to their gods to turn away their wrath. Most of the time, those were animals. But sometimes when things got desperate—famines and droughts and plagues and military losses—they upped the ante. Started sacrificing people. Even children.

A sacrifice always communicates the character of the god being sacrificed to. And the nature of the relationship between that god and the people. The gods of Israel’s neighbors were ruthless and bloodthirsty and greedy. They had short fuses. They were easily provoked to wrath. They stood with arms crossed, eyes narrowed, waiting for people to step out of line. And when their wrath flared up in disasters and disease, they needed blood before they would forgive and be reconciled.

Israel’s God—who is also the God of Jesus and the church—made sure that his people’s sacrifices told a completely different story. He is a forgiving God. A loyal God. A trustworthy God. And he desires a loyal, trustworthy people. A people who are devoted to him.

The problem is, his people began to mistake the symbol—the lamb’s blood on the altar, the scapegoat being led from the camp—for the thing it symbolized. They misunderstood. The sacrifices were supposed to remind them of God’s forgiveness and loyalty, and the responsibility that comes with being his special people. But the people  started to think that sacrifice and forgiveness was more like a cause-and-effect relationship. You smear the blood on the altar, say the right words, and God isn’t angry anymore.

They mistook the Lord, the God of Israel, for the gods of their pagan neighbors. The sacrifices which were supposed to empower them for holy living were instead turned to play on their weaknesses: their shame, their guilt, their fear, their deep sense of their own inadequacy. That’s not what God meant those sacrifices for!

And the only way for God to communicate just how wrong they had been was to send his Son to be the final sacrifice. To offer his life—his blood—to tell the truth about God, and the truth about us. That’s what the cross confronts us with, after all: The truth about ourselves, and the truth about God. God sent Jesus to show what the sacrifice and offering that he really wanted looked like. It wasn’t butchered animals. It wasn’t something you offer God to make him feel differently about you. Jesus came to be the sacrifice to end all sacrifices.

Jesus’ offering of himself has accomplished—and continues to accomplish—what the old sacrificial system never could quite do. Jesus has washed our consciences clean from dead works in order to serve the living God.

In other words, the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus—his sacrifice, his offering, how God responded to his offering—has made it possible for us to be the people God desires his people to be. A people who have been saved from sin and shame and fear of death to love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength; and to love our neighbor as ourself.

Jesus and the truth about sacrifices

My point is this: We have seen from the prophets that God does not need sacrifices and offerings to forgive us. His wrath is not turned away by blood offerings. God doesn’t cry out for blood. The blood is not for God. The blood is for us. We need the blood.

What was it Hebrews said? She said the blood of Jesus washes our consciences clean from dead works in order to serve the living God. Not that the blood of Jesus pacifies the wrath of God. Not that God can finally be reconciled to us rotten sinners because he has taken his anger out on Jesus. None of that. The blood of Jesus—his life-offering—washes our conscience clean.

The human conscience is a beautiful thing. We need to feel the weight of the wrongs we do. We should feel bad when we hurt someone. Some voice within should be nagging at us that we are capable of doing better. But conscience can also be a nasty thing. Indeed, our conscience can morph into Satan himself.

How can I say that? Because the biblical words Satan or the devil— they don’t mean “wicked red guy with horns and a trident.” They mean the Adversary. The Accuser.

Like in the book of Job. What is Satan doing? He’s accusing Job. He’s accusing God, even. This guy Job only worships you because you do nice things for him.

Satan shows up again in Zechariah 3. God’s people had just returned from exile in Babylon. They were going about the painful work of rebuilding their lives. Rebuilding their temple. Naming a new high priest. And so they select this priest named Joshua. And in Zech. 3.1, this is what we see: Then the Lord showed me the high priest Joshua, standing before the messenger from the Lord, and the Adversary—that’s Satan in Hebrew—was standing by his right side to accuse him.

Wait a minute. Satan was at God’s right hand? Satan was allowed to come into God’s court and bring charges against God’s people?

Hey—I didn’t write it.

But it proves my point. Our consciences can, indeed, act like Satan. That’s what happens when we let our consciences be our master instead of our servant.

But according to what we have heard earlier in Hebrews, Satan has been booted out of his spot at the right hand of God. Heb. 1.3 says: After Jesus carried out the cleansing of people from their sins, he sat down at the right side of the highest majesty.

The crucified and resurrected Son has kicked Satan off his perch, and our Accuser has lost his authority. The right hand of God is now occupied by our Advocate, our great high priest. And if Jesus is at God’s right hand, there is no one left to accuse us.

How does that work? I said earlier that the cross tells two truths: the truth about us, and the truth about God.

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The truth about us is that we all share in the sin that killed Jesus. Some of us are like Caiaphas and Pilate. We’re afraid to do what’s right, so we do what is convenient. Even if someone who is innocent is hurt in the process. Some of us are like the crowds who shouted, Crucify him! We are hurt. We are oppressed. Our lives are a wreck. And we feel like we have suffered injustice long enough, and somebody’s got to pay! We don’t necessarily care who that somebody is. Some of us are like Judas or Peter—we have sold out. We have abandoned our friends and neighbors when they needed us most. Some of us are like the Roman soldiers who drove in the nails. Just doing our jobs. Some of us have been down with the soldiers gambling over Jesus’ clothes as he died. We have profited from the misery of someone else. Some of us are like the ones who mocked Jesus as he died. Blame the victim. Make fun of the person who is suffering. They were asking for it, after all! If they had only conformed, only complied, only stayed in their place, this wouldn’t have happened. Better them than me.

The truth is, we have all probably acted a lot of those ways. The cross holds up a mirror to us all. Tells us the truth about who we are and what we have done.

But even as the nails were driven in, what was it Jesus said? Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing (Luke 23.34). We often don’t grasp what we are doing. We have such pretty ways to convince ourselves that what we are doing is not, in fact, sin. It’s business. It’s strong leadership. It’s justice. It’s survival.

The cross will not let us make those excuses anymore.

But God did not allow the cross to have the final word. God did not allow our murder of his child to determine his relationship to us. The good news of the cross is not that Jesus saves sinners from the hand of an angry God. The good news is that God saved Jesus from the hands of angry sinners. He did not let our sin have the final word in Jesus’ life. And, by that same resurrection power, he fully intends to save us angry sinners ourselves. He does not will that our sin have the final word in our lives.

If Jesus cries out for mercy as we murder him. If the cross was God’s way of turning the other cheek. If we believe all that, no one has the right to accuse us. Not Satan. Not the powers of shame and despair and death. Not even our own consciences.

The blood of our crucified and risen high priest has washed our consciences clean of dead works. That stuff can be in the past. We don’t forget it. We don’t minimize it. We don’t say, It’s okay because God already took his anger out on Jesus. We are not off the hook that easily.

No. Our consciences have been cleaned so that we can serve the living God. Without shame paralyzing us. Without Satan condemning us. Without despair telling us that whatever we offer to God or our neighbor doesn’t really matter. When Jesus’ blood is sprinkled upon the altar of our hearts, his life enters our lives, and our lives enter his.

And with consciences cleansed, we are no longer invited to dwell upon our own sin. We are no longer free to dwell upon what rotten and dirty and nasty and scummy people we have been. We are invited to live with and in and through and around Jesus, loving the Lord our God with all of our heart and being and will and ability; and loving our neighbor as ourself.

Which is the only sacrifice God has ever really wanted from us.


[1] For an imagined re-telling along these lines, see “The Prodigal Son (Penal Substitution Style” at http://www.nomadpodcast.co.uk/the-prodigal-son-penal-substitution-style/ Accessed 10/29/2015.

[2] Stanley Hauerwas, “Character, Narrative, and Growth in the Christian Life,” in The Hauerwas Reader, ed. John Berkman and Michael Cartwright [Durham: Duke University Press, 2001], 229 n.14.

[3] Ps. 40.6-8; Ps. 51.16-17; Jer. 7.22; Micah 6.6-8. Every one of these speaks to the point I’ve made throughout: the sacrifices God wants from his people are justice toward your neighbor and loyalty to God. He did not need animal sacrifices to forgive humans. According to Jer. 7.22, just as in Isaiah 1.11ff above, sacrifices were not even God’s idea.

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4 thoughts on “Washed from dead works to serve the living God (Hebrews 9.11-14) [Sermon 11-1-2015]

  1. Xyhelm says:

    I agree with your principle about God’s view of the Mosaic sacrifices and how God did not need them. But what about the times when those sacrifices did please God? I mean all those times when a blood sacrifice was a pleasing aroma to Him?

  2. jmar198013 says:

    I think they were a pleasing aroma to God when the conduct of the people lined up with the story the sacrifices told.

    But God seems mostly to be ambivalent about sacrifices. I’m thinking again of the verses in Isaiah I referenced in the sermon. But then there’s Jer. 7.22-23: “On the day I brought your ancestors out of the land of Egypt, I didn’t say a thing—I gave no instructions—about entirely burned offerings or sacrifices. Rather, this is what I required of them: Obey me so that I may become your God and you may become my people. Follow the path I mark out for you so that it may go well with you.”

    There is definitely a tension–and a deep one–in the Hebrew Scriptures when it comes to the sacrificial system. I’m not sure how to resolve it, so I basically look at the practice of sacrifice as an accommodation God made, but regulated. And when it no longer served the function God intended, he gave the prophets a message that their sacrifices weren’t his idea to begin with. And he’d rather have an obedient people.

  3. Xyhelm says:

    I think your conclusion is great.
    What was the story that Noah’s sacrifice told (Gen 8:20-22)?

    • jmar198013 says:

      In the most ancient of times, the type of sacrifice we see Noah offering could tell several stories.

      One was simply to say, “Thank you.”

      Another was the idea of humans and divinity sharing food = sharing a table = a sign of reestablished friendship.

      In Noah’s case, both would have been appropriate.

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