(Hebrews 8: 1-13)
Back when I was the District Attorney of San Jacinto County, Texas, I hired a retired Los Angeles Homicide detective as one of my investigators. Tal was a great guy and good addition to our office. Tal, an African-American, grew up in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, and he survived the Watts riot, two tours in Vietnam, and a career as a police officer in South Central Los Angeles. There wasn’t much that spooked him as he had pretty much seen it all. However, he came back to the office one day, spooked. He told me he had been at the local grocery store where he had been approached by a black woman who kept demanding to know: “Who’s your people?” He said it kind of freaked him out. I asked him if he got her name and he told me her name was Rosie Reed. After a good laugh, I told him Rosie was harmless. Rosie, you see, is a little mentally challenged but she has a huge heart, a heart of gold and she truly loves her church and Jesus. She would support her church by going around town selling little pecan pies, and she would always come to the courthouse because she knew I was always good for several pies. Then she would go across the street and sell Teresa a few more pies for Mr. Scott. Rosie grew up in San Jacinto County and never left, living with her disabled brother and elderly father. She really did know everyone, white and black. When she asked Tal who were his people, it was based upon her knowledge that you had to have come from one of the five or six black families in the county. As she didn’t recognize him, she needed to know who his people were. Tal and Rosie got to be very close and, as Tal and his wife had no family in the county, they became part of Rosie’s family. When Tal died unexpectedly, she had lost a member of her family, one of her people.
Who’s your people; is the question the writer of the book of Hebrews is asking. In the Jewish tradition they had a well-established hierarchy with a priest for everything. At the top of this hierarchy they had high priests who were pretty much in charge. The high priests were tasked with interpreting God’s law and making sure that the people strictly complied because, after all, it was written in stone. Between the demands and requirements for living under their interpretation of God’s law and the rules of the occupying Romans, somebody was always telling you what to do, where to do it, and when. If you were told to jump you asked how high on the way up. The writer of Hebrews is telling his readers, Hebrew Christians, that they too have a high priest, one who sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, and who serves in the sanctuary, the true tabernacle set up by the Lord, not by man. He says that every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices, and so it was necessary for this one also to have something to offer. If he were here on earth, he would not be a priest, for there are already men who offer the gifts prescribed by law. And, by law, they had to be from the tribe of Levi, which Jesus was not. A break from tradition, a break from the law. The writer says that these priests serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and a shadow of what is in heaven. The tabernacle built by Moses, according to the instructions he received on the mountain was built to exact specifications. But, our writer declares, the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, and it is founded on better promises. And, the writer points out that if there had been nothing wrong with the first covenant, no place would have been sought for another.
At this point it is probably important to remember that his audience was primarily made up of Jewish converts, some probably second generation converts. As Jesus hadn’t come back as soon as they expected and things were getting worse, they were probably getting complacent and backsliding into old traditions and practices. The writer reminds them that God found fault with the people and reminds them of God’s words spoken in the Book of Jeremiah, chapter 31, verses 31-34. God said the time was coming when he would make a new covenant with the house of Israel and Judah. This new covenant wouldn’t be like the old one he made with their forefathers when he took them out of Egypt. This new covenant will put the law on their minds and will be written on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.
God had found fault with the people and needed a new covenant, one that was inclusive. The old covenant, made with their forefathers, was the covenant of law between God and Israel. The new and better way is the covenant of grace, Christ’s offer to forgive our sins and bring us to God through his sacrificial death. This covenant is new in extent, it goes beyond Israel and Judah to include all the Gentile nations. It is new in application because it is written on our hearts and in our minds. It offers a new way to forgiveness, not through animal sacrifices, but through faith. Some of the Jewish believers were clinging to the obsolete old ways instead of embracing Christ’s new covenant. All the joy of new-found faith and all the relief of fresh forgiveness had given way to a kind of boredom that was never supposed to be. Growth in the early church had stopped. So, the writer reminded them about this new covenant that God had spoken about in Jeremiah where his promises are laid out. These promises are confirmed in a covenant written on their hearts rather than on stone, and those who belong to this covenant will all know the Lord and experience forgiveness for injustice and sin. John Wesley, the founder of our Methodist denomination, wrote that this covenant of grace did not require us to do anything at all for justification but only to believe in him. The new covenant is the promise of abundant life with God now and forever.
If our hearts are not changed, following God’s rules will be unpleasant and difficult, and we will rebel against being told how to live. The Holy Spirit, however, gives us new desires, helping us want to obey God. And, with new hearts we find that serving God is our greatest joy. Under God’s new covenant, God’s law is inside us. It is no longer an external set of rules and principles. The Holy Spirit, God’s gift to us, reminds us of Christ’s words, activates our consciences, influences our motives and desires, and makes us want to obey. Now doing God’s will is something we desire with all our heart and mind. Now, it is important for us to understand that a life in Christ is never complete. It’s heaven that promises completeness. Until then, growth in Christ is the normal pattern where we learn from others and by our mistakes. This growth in serving Christ often endures seasons of drought and drabness, which is also normal and to be expected. Nobody ever said it would be easy. As a church and a people, we must think about what we are doing that might be spiritually ineffective or obsolete, inhibiting or stunting our growth. To stimulate that growth, we must include in our lives a daily devotion to Christ through Bible study and prayer. We must be in the Word and seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit. So, perhaps you need to intensify your study and find helps that provide more substance. Perhaps you need to grow by engaging in new areas of service that express your faith in different ways. As this new covenant is not one of rigid rules and rituals, you need to seek God for how he would have you keep growing in your faith, on what was written on your heart and not on a stone tablet.
God is our God, and we are his people. So, who are these people of the new covenant? Who is it that make up this family of God? Who did Jesus reach out to? Who were his people? They were people like the woman at the well, a believer who had fallen short and was far from perfect. They were people like the thousands who flocked to hear him preach words of hope and forgiveness, the have-nots. They were hungry and he fed them spiritually. They were the lame, the blind, the demon possessed and the leper. Those kinds of people, the ones you pretended didn’t exist. They were the least of these; the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the thirsty, those in jail, the disenfranchised, the people whose lives didn’t matter to those in power, those in control. And, who did the disciples reach out to? They reached out to the Gentiles like Cornelius the Centurion, the Ethiopian official, and the men of Athens who worshiped all sorts of gods. People who needed to know about the one true God.
So, in response to Rosie Reed’s question; Who is your people? Who is your people? Are they the homeless, the hungry and the unemployed? Are they the people who live in the very shadow of your church, of our church, and have yet to know the loving kindness and mercy of Jesus Christ? Churches that are dying and diminishing don’t know who their people are. They are clinging to the old ways and the old days. They need to read what’s been written on their hearts and embrace the new covenant. And, we need to embrace the new covenant more now than ever before and know that God is our God and we are his people, and as his people we embrace the ministry of our Savior Jesus Christ that is founded on a better promise. A promise of a life in eternity with him.
Please pray with me.
Gracious and merciful Father, how grateful we are for the new covenant we have with you where your instructions are written on our hearts. Help us to live those instructions in our daily lives as we endeavor to lead a life worthy of being called your children. We praise you for being our God and for making us your people. Keep us mindful of who we are and renew in us each day our commitment to do your work and your will for those who need to know the deep and abiding love of your son, Jesus Christ, and to know that they are loved by us, their brothers and sisters in Christ. We thank you for loving us, especially during those times in which we are hard to love. We pray that we grow daily in the light of your love. In Jesus’ name, we pray, Amen.