This morning I will reflect primarily on Hebrews 10. To set the stage, I refer briefly to 1 Samuel and to Mark’s gospel. Then we look at the Letter to the Hebrews and ask what God is saying to us today.
1 Samuel 1:4-20. The story of Hannah’s barrenness and the birth of Samuel is a basic part of God’s mighty saving acts in the history of Israel. You remember how Hannah had no child, although Peninnah had several. So she went to the tabernacle at Shiloh to pray for a child. Eli, the priest there, thought at first that she was drunk, watching her pray silently and desperately to God. When he understood her real desire for a child, he sent her home with the promise of a son. The son was born, and she named him Samuel (sounds like: God hears). Later she gave her son to God to serve him there at Shiloh, and he became the priest in Eli’s place and the judge of all Israel (7:16-17).
One notes Hannah’s persistence in prayer, which can serve as a model for our theme this morning: Never give up. One notes also that God brought salvation to Israel through the marginalized, which is the way that God has often acted in human affairs. Hannah’s song in chapter 2 serves as a model for Mary’s song at the birth of Jesus.
One notes finally that the tabernacle represents the dwelling of God, so that what is done in the Tabernacle is done before God’s face. We will return to this idea.
Mark 13:1-8. In the gospel reading, Jesus has been teaching near or in the Temple—watching people make their offerings in the passage we read last week. As they left the Temple one of his followers commented on the wonder and appearance of the Temple (built by Herod to please the Jewish people). Jesus replied that the Temple is only temporary. It points beyond itself to the End of all things, when it will be destroyed. He continued with warnings about “the beginning of birth pains”, which bring in the End.
Two thoughts: One is that the disciples were headed into dark troubles, which are reflected in the context of the Letter to the Hebrews. Two is that the Tabernacle was a copy of God’s presence in Heaven, and the Temple was a more permanent Tabernacle. Both in the end fade before the coming of Jesus, who is the very presence of God. As the physical Temple is destroyed, the church becomes the place where God lives on earth.
The Letter to the Hebrews
We don’t know who wrote this letter. You can research possible authors for yourself—from the traditional answer of Paul to the contemporary answer of Priscilla. We have a better idea of who the letter was written to: Jewish Christians, perhaps in Jerusalem. (I am unconvinced of the location: Jerusalem makes sense in terms of the content, but the quality of Greek suggests a writer and an audience in some place outside of Jerusalem, such as Rome.)
The letter was written to encourage Jewish Christians who were wavering in their faith not to relapse into Judaism, but to hold on to Christ. To achieve this purpose, the writer makes the case that Jesus is the perfect High Priest—better than Aaron or any of his successors, “after the order of Melchizedek” (that is, called directly by God). Jesus the High Priest is “the exact representation of God’s being”. Jesus the High Priest is also one with the human race. He understands us and brings us fully into God’s presence.
Look at the verses we heard read this morning.
Verses 11-14: The priests in the Levitical priesthood repeated their sacrifices for sins every day, because they did not really work. The fact that they remain standing is a way of emphasizing the fact that they had to repeat the sacrifices endlessly. Jesus, in contrast, sacrificed his own body “once for all”, after which he sat down at the right hand of God. With that sacrifice Jesus also brought us into the perfect relationship with God that the Levitical sacrifices were unable to achieve.
Verses 15-18: This action is sealed by the Holy Spirit, fulfilling the promise of Jeremiah 31 to write the new covenant on human hearts. We no longer need to participate in the sacrificial system in the Temple, because Jesus has made the perfect sacrifice. [This line of argument is part of the evidence for an audience living in Jerusalem before the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D.—they were people who could have participated in the Levitical system.]
Verses 19-25: Therefore we can live as people who enter God’s presence thanks to the sacrifice Jesus has made for us. As people who walk with God, we can hold on to the promises of God. [This was the temptation that “the Hebrews” faced: To leave their walk as ones saved by Jesus, “walking in the resurrection” and to re-enter the old system that does not actually work.]
Therefore also we “provoke one another to good works”, and we continue to meet together regularly to worship God in Christ. Especially as we anticipate the end of all things. [Unlike Peninnah in 1 Samuel, who provoked Hannah by jeering at her, we “provoke” each other by encouraging each other to do better.]
We see in this argument the truth that human efforts do not save us, but they do enable us to participate in God’s work, which does save us. In 1 Samuel 1, we meet Hannah in the Tabernacle, praying to God in a shadow of the eternal Tabernacle in Heaven (Hebrews 8:5). The Temple (in Mark 13) appeared more permanent than the old Tent of the Tabernacle, but in truth it also would be thrown down. Jesus then enters the true Tabernacle, the presence of the eternal God (Hebrews 9:24). The sacrifice of Jesus’ body on the cross replaces the old shadow and the system attached to it and brings in a new covenant with God, written on the hearts God’s people.
One can find a variety of applications as we think of these passages in our world today—copying Hannah in our readiness to take our situation to God; the way that God so often works through unexpected and humanly marginalized people; the importance of being ready for the End; the fact that problems in our world remind us that the End is coming [so that, for example, the terrible news of this past Friday in Paris is part of the “beginning of birthpains”—that is, signs of the coming End]. I have chosen one theme that relates to these and other themes.
If they had heard the critique in Hebrews, the Levitical priests could have felt that they were wasting their time offering sacrifices that could not take away sin. But of course they were doing what God called them to do. There was a time for the shadow or copy of the Heavenly Tabernacle to do its work. Those sacrifices were not wasted, even if they were ineffective.
If nothing else (and I think there is a great deal more than only this point), they helped prepare the way for the coming of Jesus. The priests—who had to keep standing because their work was never done—were faithful to what God called them to do. In the End of all things, God will reward them for their faithfulness. Perhaps God already has.
We find ourselves in a similar situation. We believe God has called us to do certain things. In worship we gather and pray and read Scripture and encourage each other. These are all good, but sometimes we may wonder how much they really matter. Our text suggests that they matter because they are a copy or a shadow of the real thing in Heaven, and they prepare us to participate in the real thing in Eternity.
Our society has a fixation on efficiency and effectiveness. We want to know what works. If something does not work quickly and effectively, we are inclined to stop it. So we come together in worship, and sometimes you will hear someone say, “What did you get out the service this morning?” But this emphasis on getting something out of the service is a short-sighted emphasis on results, giving in to our society’s obsession with technique and effectiveness.
So the writer to the Hebrews says, “And let us 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” (verses 24-25). We gather as a weekly discipline, whether we see results or not. We gather together each Sunday to sing and pray and encourage each other. The reason that it works is that what we do is a copy or a shadow of the gathering of the saints before the throne in Heaven.
Some days the service works wonderfully. We feel God’s presence. God’s Holy Spirit touches us inside, where no one else can see, and we say, “That was such a good service!’ Maybe we give credit to the music, or the singing of hymns, or the special music, or the prayer time, or the presence of friends, or even the sermon. The truth is that, when the service “works”, it does so because God is here, and we are participating in Christ’s perfect act of sacrifice and worship and praise. Some days the service seems more like a formality. We can’t put our finger on the cause or identify what is missing, but we feel as though we are going through the motions. That’s okay. Go through the motions. Keep on with the routine. We are still acting out the copy or shadow of the gathering of the saints before the throne in Heaven. We are still participating in Christ’s perfect act of sacrifice and worship and praise.
Do any of you exercise regularly? You know that some days you will feel as though the running or exercise routine is wonderful, and other times you will have to push yourself to finish. But every time that you work out, you are getting stronger, moving towards the goal of greater physical fitness. Similarly, every time we continue meeting together, copying our Lord in worship and praise, God is growing greater spiritual strength in us.
A Sample Case: Relationship between worship and social action
Ron Sider has written about the importance of Christian faith for maintaining a strong commitment to social action. He writes about his own journey:
In 1979 I spent two wonderful weeks lecturing in South Africa. One of the most fascinating persons I met was a young university student named James. He came to the annual conference of an evangelical university movement where I was speaking about Jesus’ concern for the poor and his resurrection on the third day. Like most other parts of the South African church then, this evangelical movement had split into four groups: white Afrikaans-speaking, white English-speaking, colored, and black. The students at the conference were mostly white English-speaking.
James was not a Christian. He was Jewish and an ardent social activist. His passion in life was the struggle against apartheid. Somehow, however, these devout white Christians had caught his attention. James and I quickly became friends during the conference, talking about South African politics hour after hour.
Abruptly one evening after a three-hour conversation, James said: “Ron, I’m burned out.” I wasn’t surprised. He was trying to be a full-time activist and a full-time student, but his next comment startled me: “God told me that if I would come to this conference, I would learn something about his Son.”
I looked at James and replied, “James, I believe that Jesus died on the cross and rose again for you.”
He paused for a second and then astonished me again: “I believe all of that, Ron, I really do.”
Still he held back. Something obviously was blocking his acceptance of Christ. After a moment he said quietly, “I don’t want to be like these white Christians here. They sing about the love of Jesus and the joy of heaven, but they don’t care about justice in South Africa. If I become a Christian, will I have to give up the struggle?”
“Goodness no, James. Jesus wants to strengthen your passion for justice …”
I waited quietly for a moment and then added, “I’m not in any hurry, but if you’d like to pray together, I’d be glad to do that.” … He prayed a beautiful prayer, confessing his sins and accepting Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Savior.
After I finished praying, I looked at James, and his face was shining. I’m sure mine was too. …
During that same period , I happened to meet on a plane one day a man who had been a key leader in ecumenical social action circles in the sixties. He had done great work fighting for civil rights. As we talked, however, I realized that he was no longer a Christian. During seminary he had lost all belief in historic Christian orthodoxy. All he had left was the ethics of Jesus, so he threw himself passionately into the civil rights movement and became a leader in social action for mainline Protestants. But by the time I met him around 1981, he was discouraged. He had lost his hope and his faith.
Good News and Good Works, 15-17.
The basic point for our purposes in Sider’s narrative is this link between continuing to do God’s work in a broken and failing world. If we think primarily of effectiveness and what works, we turn into disillusioned pragmatists. The writer to the Hebrews directs our attention back to Christ. How do “provoke one another to good works”? One way is by continuing to meet together and to act out our copy of God’s great work in our world. We may fail. We may find ourselves as helpless as the Levitical priests who could not really deal with sin. But we keep on keep on copying our Lord, following our Lord, resting in the great work of salvation that Jesus has already done. “Jesus, I am resting, resting in the joy of what Thou art. I am finding out the greatness of Thy loving heart.”
Never give up. Not when terror strikes in the heart of the French capital. Not when the bombs explode in Beirut and Baghdad. Not when Syria and Iraq struggle to hold together as States. Not when the University of Missouri experiences hatred and racism. Not when we hear again of problems in the North End, or in our own homes. We live in a world that no human action can redeem, but God can and does. In our worship together this morning we are participating in Jesus’ perfect sacrifice, in anticipation of Eternity with God.
Grace Bible Church, 15 November 2015
Texts: 1 Samuel 1:4-20; Hebrews 10:11-25; Mark 13:1-8