“He Sits So We Can Shine”
November 15, 2009 - Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Our waiter plopped into an empty chair at our table, leaned back, smiled, and said, “So what can I get you tonight?” My mother was flabbergasted, and, at 16 years old, I thought it was kind of cool. Our family was trying out a hip new restaurant in my hometown, Santa Monica. This place called itself “The Great American Food & Beverage Company” and it was on the cutting edge of laid-back California style.
Whatever you might think of it, seated table service does not seem to have caught on. Your and my expectation is still that when we go out to eat the servers will stay on their feet, whether it’s to take our order or to carry in the food. A sitting server seems like a contradiction. They have to be standing to do their job properly.
That servers need to stand is the writer’s mind in our text from Hebrews 10 today. Verses 12 and 13 take an image from Psalm 110 and picture Jesus Christ sitting down at the right hand of God. Unlike the service of priests in the Jewish temple, the service of Jesus is finished, complete. So He can sit down now, just like the busy waitress whose shift is done. She goes home, sits down in a easy chair and puts her aching feet up on a soft footstool. Jesus sits and “waits for his enemies to be made his footstool.”
Ancient Hebrew priests never sat in the presence of God. Unlike both Protestant and Catholic clergy, they stood throughout their service before the Lord. There were no chairs in the temple, only the Mercy Seat, which belonged to God. Even after offering sacrifices, they did not dare sit down there in the holy place.
So our writer wants to give us the feeling that the temple service was never finished, never complete. Verse 11 says, “Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices…” In both Jewish and pagan worship, animal sacrifices were constantly offered, over and over. Sure, the priests went home and sat down at the end of the day, but in their temples there was never any feeling that it was all done, all finished, whether for themselves or for those who brought the sacrifices.
As Christians we may think we’ve have gotten past the Old Testament idea that there has to be a constant, never-ending ritual and sacrifice for dealing with our sins. We believe verse 11, that an animal’s blood could never wash away our guilt. We don’t do that anymore. We know we have God’s forgiveness without all that sacrificial hocus pocus.
Yet do we really get the implication of these verses? Don’t we still have some—or maybe a lot of—lingering guilt over our own sins? Don’t we carry with us burdens and remorse over things we’ve done that we can’t quite believe are really, completely forgiven?
We often try to deal with our failures by offering apologies and making amends. We feel better when we say we are sorry to someone we’ve offended or when we find a way to make up for or repair some loss we’ve caused. Yet there are those guilty memories we keep carrying. The person to whom we need to apologize is far gone or perhaps even dead. The hurt we’ve caused can’t be fixed or healed by any action we could possibly take.
A young man in our previous church failed to properly secure a trailer he was towing behind his truck. The trailer came loose, crossed the center line of the highway and a car coming the other way crashed into it. A woman and her baby were killed. For months and months he carried an enormous sense of sin and blame and guilt and there was nothing he could say or do that could possibly remove it.
Yet we try. We have no animal sacrifices, but you and I fall into thinking that we can create forgiveness for ourselves through the religious duties we have today. We come to church. We give offerings. We show up for youth group or Bible study or to serve in the homeless shelter. And part of our motivation may be the sense that somehow, if we just try hard enough and often enough, we will be able to work off that guilt we carry around with us all the time. If we just make enough “sacrifices” of a more modern sort, we will feel ourselves forgiven.
It never works that way. When you and I try to create our own atonement, our own way of dealing with sin and guilt, it only gets more and more hopeless. Whatever we try to do, we will have to do it, just like the ancient priests, “day after day,” “again and again.” If you and I want to work off guilt through service, we can’t ever sit down. Even as we try to put our consciences to rest we feel more and more like we can’t stand up straight.
In John Grisham’s latest book, The Associate, there’s an alcoholic, drug-addicted character named Baxter who has committed a terrible wrong, a rape. He finds Christ at a half-way house and his heart changes. Yet, he can’t quite manage to accept and feel the Lord’s forgiveness for what he’s done. He believes he needs to apologize to his victim and somehow make it up to her. What he doesn’t realize is that he can’t fix it, that his apology is only going to make things worse for her, and cause problems for other people involved in the story. His attempt to cleanse his own conscience will cause more pain.
Please don’t misunderstand. It’s not that we ought not to apologize or make amends or offer ourselves up in service to God, but we can’t expect doing those things to produce forgiveness. If we do them to get forgiveness, they may only make our guilt and our pain worse. Forgiveness is God’s gift through Jesus Christ. It’s His work, not ours.
That’s why verse 14 is so, so important to our faith: “because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.” One sacrifice, forever. It does not need to be repeated. As verse 10 says just before, “we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” Once for all. It’s done, complete. That’s why Jesus could sit down at God’s right hand. His work, His service to us, is finished.
Still, there’s a tension in verse 14. It says, “he has made perfect forever, those who are being made holy.” What He’s done for us is complete, but we are not complete. We are still being made holy. We still wrestle with our sins. Our consciences still hurt. We are not yet what Jesus died and rose again to make us. We are still not holy people.
That same tension shows up in the next few verses. Quoting Jeremiah 31, verse 16 says that in the new covenant which comes through Jesus, God will put His laws inside us, in our hearts, He will write them on our minds. He means us to go through a process of change. Yet verse 17 says that Jeremiah adds “Their sins and lawless acts, I will remember no more.” God’s process of changing us begins with total and complete forgiveness for all the sins we have done or will ever do.
Yet, as Paul tells us so clearly in Romans, complete and total forgiveness in Jesus is by no means a license and excuse for more sinning, for neglecting our spiritual duties, or for living as if what we do does not matter. We discover in the rest of our text that our unconditional forgiveness is supposed to give us an unflappable confidence to do what is right.
You know what it takes to get on an airplane these days. You need a boarding pass and proper ID. You have to go through security screening. Take off your shoes. Put any liquids you’re carrying in a quart-size plastic bag. Make sure you’ve removed any metal from your pockets. Even though I’m well-prepared and used to it, I always get nervous. Have I missed some change in my pocket? Have I left my pocket knife in my backpack? Will the TSA agent not like my looks and pull me aside to be frisked? Will I get delayed and miss my plane? You can’t be confident about entering an airport in these times.
Entering into the presence of God is much more daunting and nerve-wracking than entering an airport. Psalm 24:4 says, “Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place? The one with clean hands and a pure heart…” It’s a daring thing we do every Sunday to come here to this sanctuary and deliberately and intentionally seek to come into the presence of the Lord of the universe. There’s no way that you and I, by our own merits or rights, could pass the security clearance.
Imagine a sin detector at the doors of this place. As you walk through, you do your best to own up and confess the failures and faults of this past week, yet passing through bars the buzzer goes off and lights flash. You go back and pause and search the pockets of your heart and pull out a few more sins you missed, then try again. The buzzer sounds once more. Back you go to stand outside and pat down your soul, trying to discover all those secret sins you even hide from yourself. But you know what will happen. That buzzer will go off over and over, again and again, as long as we keep trying to deal with our sins by ourselves, in our own way, through our own strength. It would be hopeless. No one could enter.
The great good news here is verses 19-22, “Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus… let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.” The only security at the door of God’s House is His own gift of grace through the work of Jesus. The only boarding pass needed is His forgiveness and the sign of baptism. He cleanses our conscience. He purifies our hearts. He makes us holy. That’s how we get into His presence.
You and I stride through those doors every week to stand here in the presence of God and praise Him with confidence, confidence that He welcomes us, that He accepts us, that He forgives our sins and will make us into holy people. Jesus is seated in heaven so that you and I will be free to stand here and worship Him.
Verse 23, then, is our response to the warnings we heard from the other passages of Scripture we read today. There is a Day coming, a Day of terror and judgment, a Day, says Daniel, of distress such has never been seen before, but you and I can be confident and hopeful even as that Day approaches. We are forgiven in Christ. We are washed clean by baptism into His death and resurrection. “Wars and rumors of wars”, says Jesus, “but do not be alarmed.” We have confidence that Christ is seated at God’s right hand and that He’s already done everything needed. “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we professed, for he who promised is faithful.”
The practical side of all this is boiled down in verses 24 and 25. If we have this great hope, if we are blessed with this superb confidence in Christ, if we are free to come and stand and worship together in the presence of God, then let’s do it. We read, “Let’s consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
We have this great privilege, this great freedom, this great confidence to be able to come and stand and worship because our sins are forgiven in Jesus. We have this privilege, so let’s not waste it. To stay away from worship is like being given free season tickets to Duck football or to the opera or two free nights at a luxury bed and breakfast or a free guided day of fishing on the Umpqua River—and then deciding to stay home. God has given us this great free gift of forgiveness so that we may enter together into His presence. Let’s not squander it.
There’s a strange thing happening during this economic recession. In the great Depression and during other recessions, church attendance has gone up. Facing losses and trials, in the past people turned to God for help and for assurance of hope that money can’t buy. Yet during this recession, church attendance has remained flat. Leaders in the Covenant tell me that in our established churches older than 15 years, it’s even gone down. There seems to be a growing habit, as the writer says, of neglecting to meet together.
Our president has talked a lot about hope, but I get the sense that many people around us feel more and more hopeless. We may feel hopeless. It may stem in large part from this habit of neglecting worship. This is the place and the time when we renew our hope. These are the moments when we seek our Lord and encourage one another to hope in Him. Here is where we spur and prod and provoke each other to stand up and join in the joy and blessing of serving the Lord through love and good deeds.
Yes, I know some may think they can find more hope and joy and beauty by listening to Bach or Casting Crowns. Some believe they are closer to God looking out over Oregon forest from some mountainside or listening to the waves roll in at the coast. Some feel they draw near God by being with family at a sporting event or just taking a restful morning at home. Those are all fine and wonderful places to be and to experience God’s presence. Yet when we intentionally, deliberately, set aside all our other pleasures and hopes and concerns and confidently come as forgiven people into the household of God to worship, we are in the place where the best and greatest love and hope and joy is found.
We encourage each other. If you’re not here, you won’t hear Jim’s passion about for emergency shelter. You won’t hear Carolyn invite you to warm feet by bringing socks or Diane ask you to bless a child through a shoebox. If you’re not here, you won’t be blessed hearing one of us read God’s Word with the assurance that it’s absolutely true. You won’t benefit from thoughts carefully prepared in meditation. You won’t join in the offering of prayers. You won’t rejoice to see Will’s face light up as he beats his drum or Larissa’s smile as she strums her guitar. You won’t be greeted and hugged and encouraged by people who meet you as you come in or who wish you well as you go out. And perhaps most important of all, if you’re not here, you won’t be able to greet or encourage or bless the person who needed your help today, who needed to see you and shake your hand and hear your voice in order to hold on to his hope for another week.
The Day is approaching. Daniel said it. Jesus said it. The writer to the Hebrews says it here. It’s full of trouble and terror and fear. Yet for those of us who believe that Jesus is seated at God’s right hand, it’s a Day of hope. Daniel said that on that Day, “Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.” That’s why we come here, to encourage and lead each other to righteousness through Jesus, so that together we may shine in His presence. Let’s not neglect to meet together. Let’s keep the lights on. Let’s help each other shine, forever and ever.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2009 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj