(Hebrews 10: 11-25)
My four years as the Jefferson County Drug Court Prosecutor was one of the greatest educational experiences of my life to date. As I sat around the table each Thursday morning it wasn’t long before I realized that my addicts, who were working a recovery program, were a lot like struggling Christians who were also looking for freedom, freedom from their own addictions or sins. They both had this heavy baggage that impeded their forward progress, their efforts to find true freedom and peace. At each two-hour session I would sit at the table mesmerized as they unburdened themselves in an effort to come clean, to clear their consciences, to talk about what was holding them back. Almost all of them were dragging some pretty heavy baggage behind them that they just couldn’t seem to let go of. It was the baggage of their past that had a death grip on their future. Ironically, their baggage wasn’t really any different than the baggage toted by non-addicts. They carried the baggage of failure, shame, and an overwhelming sense of unworthiness. Drug use was just their way of dulling the pain and obscuring the memories. Our job, the task of the Drug Court Team, was to help them slowly rebuild their self-confidence with small accomplishments and wins as they worked their way up to facing their real demons, which is why the program was a 24-month program. There was no easy fix. No matter how many times we would tell them to leave their baggage outside the courthouse doors their guilt and shame was so powerful and their fear of success so great, that they would look for ways to sabotage their own success. They just didn’t feel worthy of this second chance at life, a life free of addiction, guilt, and shame. It just couldn’t be that simple.
And it was that being worthy of a life of peace and freedom in Christ that the writer of Hebrews was trying to convey to his readers in our scripture reading for today. They had been doing it one way their whole lives, as had their ancestors, and this new way couldn’t possibly be that simple. There had to be more to it. What were they going to do with all the baggage they hauled to the temple each year for the high priest to seek forgiveness? The preacher had just told them that the law that they’ve been living under, the Law of Moses, is only a shadow of the good things that are coming and not the realities themselves. Christ is the real deal. He’s telling them that the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year can never make perfect those who draw near to worship. If it did, they wouldn’t have to come back every year to make atonement for their sins. They would have been cleansed once and for all and would no longer have to feel guilty for their sins, their baggage. These annual sacrifices were a yearly reminder of their sins that never really went away. But with Christ you can check your bags at the door once and for all. And, if you are ever to be reminded of your shortcomings, your failures, it won’t be by Christ. When you come to him with your troubles, that which is weighing heavily on your heart, asking him to mediate for you with the Father, he won’t say: “Yeah, but do you remember when you did such and such? How will I know it will be different this time?”
The preacher tells them that every priest, every priest since the Law came down from God to Moses stands every day serving up and offering the same sacrifices over and over again. Sacrifices that can never take away sin. He says: But when this priest offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, he sat down at the right side of God. The preacher is pointing out the limitations of the sacrifices offered under the old covenant. First, they didn’t cleanse the worshipper completely, and second, they did not effectively remove sin as they, the sacrifices, had to be repeated continually. See you next year, same time, same place. Try to do better. In contrast, Jesus’ one-time sacrifice of his own perfect body and his willingness to do God’s will, brought an end to the old ineffective sacrifices and enabled Jesus to become the source of holiness. Jesus, by his sacrifice, finished his work and sat down in a place of honor at the right hand of God waiting for his enemies to be brought down, to be his foot stool. In essence, he’s saying stop wasting your time asking for forgiveness of your sins every year. He tells them: When there is forgiveness for these things, there is no longer an offering for sin. Your sins are forgiven, now get to work doing God’s will for his creation in preparation for the coming of the New Jerusalem.
The preacher continues by stating: Brothers and sisters, we have confidence that we can enter the holy of holies by means of Jesus’ blood, through a new and living way that he opened up for us through the curtain, which is his body, and we have a great high priest over God’s house. He’s telling his readers that Jesus’ supreme sacrifice removed the curtain, and now all believers may walk into God’s presence at any time through Christ Jesus. We can now approach God boldly, free from our guilty consciences, and in full assurance because of the work of Jesus Christ who has freed us from the heavy burden of our baggage, our formerly sinful life. Under the new covenant, our hearts and consciences are cleansed completely from the stain of our former sin. The Father remembers them no more, so why keep bringing them up? With the issue of our past sins now resolved forever, the preacher says: Therefore, let’s draw near with a genuine heart with the certainty that our faith gives us, since our hearts are sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies are washed with pure water. What a great image. Our hearts are sprinkled clean, and our bodies are washed with pure water. Because of this he tells us to hold on to the confession of our hope without wavering because the one who made the promises is reliable.
I think the writer knows that this change in doing something this significant will be difficult, especially considering the fact that they’ve always done it that way. There is no doubt that they believed in God and worshipped him faithfully, as they had the writings of all the prophets and the stories of how God had protected the nation of Israel from their enemies for generations. For all its’ limitations, the Law of Moses had seemed to have worked for them so far. But now they are being told that, as God’s children, they can know that their life is fully cleansed and acceptable before God, even as they are at the same time becoming more like God, growing in holiness, moving towards perfection. They have been cleansed once and for all and can now move forward in their lives growing in their holiness without having to worry about the negative effects of their past sins, sins forgiven through Jesus Christ. John Wesley, the founder of our Methodist denomination recognized this and believed that there were a variety of stages beyond the initial experience of salvation. It was his belief that Christians attain that perfection, that freedom from sin, through the work of Christ in this life beginning when they are newly saved and continuing by growing in sanctification and love. Working and living to be more like Jesus in our daily lives is the perfection we strive for in all that we do.
Such being the case, we should not be surprised, ashamed, or shocked that we still need to grow. God is not finished with us. He has work for us to do, work that can more easily be accomplished if we just check our baggage, the baggage he has forgiven at the door. Without this baggage of our past weighing us down we can encourage this Christian growth process by deliberately applying Scripture to all areas of our lives, working the steps so to speak, knowing that we may falter, and by accepting the discipline and guidance Christ provides giving him control of our desires and goals. If we do this, we will realize the significant privileges we have that are associated with our new life in Christ. We will have personal access to God through Christ and can draw near to him without an elaborate system of priests and sacrifices. We may grow in our faith, overcome the doubts of our worthiness and questions regarding our role in the kingdom, and deepen our relationship with God the Father. And we can live to enjoy the Christian motivation we receive from one another as we continue to meet as a congregation of believers and worship together in good times and bad.
Christ forgives completely, so there is no need to repeatedly confess our past sins. As believers, we can be confident that the baggage of our sins we confess and renounce are forgiven, forgotten, and checked at the door to be remembered by God no more.
Let us pray.
Gracious and loving Father, we know that in our present condition we are no more than old chunks of coal. But we also know that with your love and the guidance of the Holy Spirit we will someday become diamonds that sparkle and shine for you. We seek to daily grow and grow in our walk with you as we work to attain that Christian perfection that transforms the world. May all we do for you in your service put a smile on people’s faces as they too experience the love of Christ. Keep us mindful to kneel and pray every day so that we don’t become vain along the way, pursuing that which satisfies our selfish desires. We pray that we can find a better way of talking the talk and walking the walk, and that each day our flaws become less noticeable as we work to become a friend in Christ to all. In Jesus’ name, we pray, Amen.