Who Needs Sacrifice?

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Ordinary Time 33
November 14, 2021
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: These passages, remote as they may seem to modern and postmodern ears, reflect a reality about the human condition that speaks as insistently to us, today, as it did to the early church finding its identity in Christ.

What in the world is this biblical passage talking about? "Sacrifice?" "Sins"? "Sacrifice for sins?" "Perfected?" "Sanctified?" Who needs any of it?

Yes, this might be the reaction to this passage that conveys some of the basics of our faith - reaction from the very people we are trying to reach. And this reaction might seem hard to hear for those of us raised reading passages like this, who can make them roll off our tongues without feeling any need to think about what they might mean in a world of increasing doubt and skepticism, if not outright hostility, to all things religious. Many of us insist that "sacrifice for sins" is the only truly Christian way to understand Christ. No "imitation of Christ," no moral model, but ... sacrifice for sins! Period, full stop, thank you very much.

Nevertheless, there are even faithful Christians who might find these concepts outmoded. And, of course, in the secular world, doubters, modernists, skeptics and postmodernists find such expressions laughable. The notion of "sacrifice" has a bad reputation, today.

There are many reasons, in church and out, why it may seem strange to talk about "sacrifices that can never take away sins" and Jesus making "for all time a single sacrifice for sins" - strange even, to some in the church, and especially to the secular folk, whom we need to reach if the church is to survive.

Ultimately, of course, the church's survival isn't in our hands - it's in God's hands, as is conversion - and what is embedded in this talk of "sacrifice" addresses that reality, too.

For all that, this passage still seems dated. What shall we make of it? Is this simply dogma - something we must profess, whether we believe it or not, and cajole or browbeat others who would join us to do so as well? Or does this passage give expression to something real, if hidden - something we will inevitably stumble over as we walk the walk of faith?

Just to clear things up: homiletical midrash

One commentator tells us that the letter to the Hebrews is "a homiletical midrash based on Psalm 110."1 "Homiletical" means that the letter was meant to be a sermon, and a sermon's purpose - one of them, anyway - might be to answer a pressing question. "Midrash" was a means of debating used by rabbis before, during and after the time of Jesus and the early church. Midrash creatively employed texts taken from scripture, using these proof-texts, interpreting them - some might even say "twisting them" - but it was standard practice in that day. And to be honest, it is still standard practice in our day. We do it all the time, even if we may call it by a name other than midrash; we take texts out of context and twist and bend them to suit our ends.

The same commentator puts this in the context of the letter to the Hebrews: "Midrashic composers were resourceful apologists with amazing skill in manipulating words, phrases and passages to suit their own needs in ways that were far removed from the original meaning of the text .... They were primarily dogmatic theologians who used scripture to prove the points they wanted to defend."2

Why did they do this? Because their scriptures were considered their sole means of authority. Human logic, human reason is terribly fallible. Scripture was seen as the definitive word from the Lord, the sole means of offering vision as to the plans and the will of God.

What we have in this letter to the Hebrews is a sermon using the biblical passage of Psalm 110 as a basis for declaring to its audience words of hope and encouragement.

A word from the Lord

So, Psalm 110, sacred scripture, lies in the background of what the author of Hebrews says in today's passage. The first verse of Psalm 110 reads, "The LORD says to my lord, 'Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.'" The psalm was considered to be a poem written by David. In Psalm 110, David is quoted as saying, "The LORD says to my lord ...." If God is the LORD to whom David refers, then who is David referring to when he says "my lord"? (Jesus raises the same question himself, in Mark's gospel.3)

Indirectly, the author of Hebrews says in our passage for today, that the "my Lord" being referred to in Psalm 110 is Christ. He makes that point in verses 12 and 13 by midrashic interpretation of the words of Psalm 110, that Christ is the one who sits down at the right hand of God and will have his enemies as a footstool.

So, as the author of Hebrews reads Psalm 110, the LORD God is saying to Christ "sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool." The Hebrews author is saying that Psalm 110 points directly, and only, to Christ. And Jesus Christ is none other than the expected Messiah. He is linked to David's line by physical birth, but he is none other than the Son of God.

The Hebrews author goes to say that the one addressed in this psalm by David as "my Lord," is also a priest - and not just another priest in Aaron's line of succession, but a priest forever - the only priest we will ever need.

A priest forever

What did priests do, back in the days of Jesus and the early church? They presided over the offering of sacrifices, literal blood sacrifice of lambs and goats and bulls and birds, offered up daily, and considered sacrifices of atonement, to appease an angry God for the sins of the people.

The author of Hebrews is arguing that these sacrifices, offered in the temple day after day after day, are no longer effective. They don't do what it is claimed that they do. They do not remove sin. They do not put those who offer them in a right relationship with God. They don't save. They never did.

They were but a foreshadowing of the one sacrifice that did, that does , save. One sacrifice, offered once, for all time, by one who was both priest and sacrifice : Jesus. Jesus is the sacrifice, offered once, for all time, on the Cross, that erases sin - for all time. Jesus' sacrifice, on the Cross, is the one through whom God's forgiveness lands directly upon us. Jesus is the sacrifice, offered once, for all time, that "perfects" us in the eyes of God; Jesus' sacrifice, on the Cross, is the one that makes us right with God.

Where does this leave us?

This "homiletical midrash" was no doubt an effective sermon for those still in thrall to temple sacrifice and its demands while trying to establish a new understanding of faith, with Jesus at its core. But what does it say to us, today? What does this passage tell us about God, and our relationship with God, and about what Jesus does for us, what Jesus shows us? "Sacrifice"? "Forgiveness"? Are we talking about some kind of human sacrifice? Is God not allowed to forgive until someone gets his throat cut? Are we supposed to feel better if that "someone" was God's own Son? And what shall we say, what does this say, to those in our world who see themselves as being in no need of forgiveness, from God or humans?

"For by a single offering [Christ] has perfected for all time those who are sanctified," the Hebrews writer says. This is the claim that engages us today. It is a claim as bold now as it was in those early years in which the church began to identify itself as a separate entity no longer bound by temple ritual. It is a claim as bold today in its assertion of accessibility, of perfection, of a perfectly right relationship with God. We are in a right relationship with God, Hebrews says - then and now. And we can be assured of that perfectly right relationship precisely because in Christ, God has done it for us.

Understand Christ's death on the Cross however you will: a "sacrifice for sin," a triumph over the power of death, a model of faith lived out perfectly, the price for confronting evil. But however you view it, it was a deliberate action of God that altered forever our standing before God. Because of what happened on that Cross, we are in a right relationship with God, now and forever, and all we have to do is accept that.

On that Cross, God showed the world, once and for all, that God does not hold our sins or our evil against us. Yes, acknowledge it or not, our sins are many, our evil, manifold - and God holds none of it against us. God takes our vicious affronts to God upon God's self without retaliating and overcomes our death-dealing. And he returns - returns to lead us into a new day.

What shall we do?

First off, love God with the gratitude that can be only shown to one who has saved our lives, forever.

And then extend that love to the world around us, to friends, to family members, to church members, to seculars, to atheists, to enemies, to everybody - especially to those who suffer the world's cruelty, as Jesus did on the Cross. May it begin with you and me.


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