Jesus the High Priest Who Offers Forgiveness and Purification

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Ordinary Time 32
November 7, 2021
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: In both the sacrificial system of the Hebrew Bible and the sacraments of the Christian faith, God works to bridge the broken relationship between God and humanity.

The Bible talks about sin in a variety of ways. No single comparison describes sin in all the ways we need to understand it. One of the common ways of understanding sin uses the sport of archery. Whenever we sin, we miss the target. Perhaps this idea lies behind Paul's statement that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God."1 An archer whose arrow plunks into the ground in front of the target falls short.

Another way to understand sin compares sin to a debt we cannot pay. This idea lies behind Jesus' brief parable about two creditors. One owed 500 denarii, the other fifty.2 The bigger the debt forgiven, the greater the gratitude.

The author of Hebrews compares sin to dirt. If we have ever looked at a piece of furniture a few days after dusting it, we come close to understanding his point. Nothing ever stays clean. Our author here takes his understanding of sin seriously. Just as dirt finds its way into the hardest-to-clean places, so sin has managed to settle into the heavenly temple. We may need to ponder the idea that heavenly things need a good cleaning, but just before our passage starts, the author seems to say just that: "Thus it was necessary for the sketches of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things need better sacrifices than these."3 We might hear this as saying that, even though we take responsibility for our own sin, the impurity reaches into all creation. The cleansing must be thorough.

Underlying all these understandings of sin we find the most prominent one: a broken relationship. We can see how some of the other understandings of sin support the larger understanding of it as a broken relationship. If we fall short of someone's expectations, we might worry that we have disappointed that person. Don't all the experts warn us not to lend money to family?

Finally, who wants to hug a dirty person? Broken relationships of all kinds run throughout the Bible - hurt, betrayal, grief and heartache seep into every book. Added all together, the books of the Bible show husbands and wives, friends, siblings and children weeping tears of sorrow.

We will focus here on our broken relationship with God.

Sin as broken relationship

We need to flip only a few pages into our Bibles to find God walking in the garden looking for the couple with whom he has spoken and begun to build a relationship.4 God cries out plaintively "Where are you?" Every parent whose child has wandered off knows how God feels in this scene. Let us just imagine God's anguish knowing the relationship will never be the same. The two cherished people are hiding from God. The relationship has broken.

In the book of Hosea, God tells the prophet to name his son Lo-ammi , which means "not my people."5 After God had called the people, guided them, forgiven them and sustained them, God couldn't go on with them. We change the picture to use this comparison, but suppose a boy sees a level of racism, greed or dishonesty in his family and decides, "this is not my family anymore." When God names the children of Israel "not my people," the divine heart breaks.

In another example, a psalmist, pouring out his heart, confesses his sin. He lays his soul bare. He pleads for forgiveness. He cries out in terror, "Do not cast me away from your presence."6 The psalmist feels estranged from himself. He hopes his sin does not define the way he sees himself in the mirror. He desperately hopes also that his sin does not separate him from the divine love.

God's restoration

We can understand the Bible as God's attempt to restore, to heal, to bridge the broken relationship. One part of God's attempt to heal the relationship came in the system of sacrifice. We may not understand the system of sacrificing an animal to heal the relationship with God. For now, though, let us look at that system as God's way of getting past the brokenness. Let us put aside the debate about whether humans developed this system and see it as a way of connecting with God. God would smell the smoke and experience joy at the offering from the people.7 The smoke connected God and the people.

We Christians have our rituals as well. We can't even agree about the name of one of our sacraments. Our brothers and sisters in other traditions call it something different from what we call it. Whether we call it Communion, or Eucharist or the Lord's Supper, we have a ritual that we believe connects us to God. We lament that what Christ gave us to unify us has divided us, but at its heart, the ritual connects us to God. We name the language of sacrifice in our ritual. We connect our ritual to the rituals of the Bible.

Forgiveness comes from a loving God

The author of Hebrews has some comments about the sacrificial system that we need to ponder. We cannot read these words lightly. In the next chapter, he states, "And every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins."8 Certainly, the biblical writers and the priests themselves, as well as the people, understood the sacrifices as part of the atonement for sin.

We should listen to the author of Hebrews but listen carefully. We contemporary people of faith believe that the sacraments involve forgiveness of sins. If we think carefully about the words of Hebrews, we can say that our rituals, even though we associate them with forgiveness of sins, do not accomplish one certain thing: They do not change who God is. Neither the sacrifices nor the sacraments change God from an unloving God to a loving God. They do not change God from an unforgiving God to a forgiving God. Forgiveness flows out of God's love and grace, part of who God is in God's very nature.

In the sacrificial system, the priest carried out the sacrifice of the animal. Hebrews presents an understanding of Jesus as the high priest, who sacrificed himself as the way for humanity to connect with God. Hebrews understands the cross as Jesus' sacrifice. We must tread lightly as we walk through Hebrews. Jesus did sacrifice himself on the cross. That sacrifice was an act of grace and forgiveness. Yet, we cannot say that God would have refused to forgive apart from Jesus' sacrifice. God acted through the cross; God connected with humanity in the cross, but even the cross did not change God's nature.

The cross of Jesus - the sacrifice of Hebrews' high priest - empowers us for all the ways we fall short of the mark, the ways we miss the target. The sacrifice of Jesus enables us to know that God has canceled the debt we could not pay. The cross cleanses us from the stain of sin. We do not need to fully explain these understandings of the cross. We need only to understand that we no longer worry about falling short, about carrying a crushing debt, about an uncleanness we cannot scrub. God has acted in Jesus to bridge the gap, to restore the relationship.

For now, we celebrate our sacraments as rituals that help to bring us closer to God and to each other. We rejoice in the sacrifice of Jesus that did what we could not do. We show love to others because Jesus showed such love to us. We look for the day when God fully restores the creation. As Hebrews expresses it, Christ "will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him." God will finish the work begun in Jesus and redeem all of creation.

How do we eagerly wait? We wait in fellowship with one another. We wait in patience, but in an active patience that does the work of the church, even when we feel frustrated. We wait in hope, as we look for what God does now, before the redemption of creation. We wait in love, as we support one another, encourage one another and strengthen each other's faith.


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