Pastor Chris Tweitmann
The book of Hebrews is addressed to a community of Jewish Christians.
They are a community of people who have grown up with faith in the Lord and who have been raised with specific and regular practices through which to exercise their faith and to grow in their relationship with God.
Through this sermon written in the form of a letter,
the writer seeks to illustrate two things:
how Jesus is the fulfillment of everything Israel ever learned
and was taught to anticipate and therefore, (SLIDE #2)
how the way of Jesus is superior, better than
all their former traditions and practices.
It’s not that the old covenant – the former way of exercising their faith in God
– the Levitical priesthood, the sacrificial laws, and the Temple
– were pointless or bad.
It’s just that all of these things were intended to point to Christ.
They were temporary and symbolic serving to give us a picture for
recognizing Jesus as the Messiah, our Great High Priest,
and for better understanding what Jesus has done
and continues to do for us as our Lord and Savior. (SLIDE #3)
Last week, with the first part of chapter 9, we were focused on the building
and specific layout of the Tabernacle (and later the Temple in Jerusalem).
Together we learned how his structure which housed the localization of
the Lord’s presence among the Israelites anticipated the end of
our long-distance relationship with God as with coming of Christ,
God would make His home with and ultimately, through the Holy Spirit, in us.
Thanks to Jesus, our God is not far from us but as close as our next breath.
And the Tabernacle, the Temple of God’s Spirit, His presence,
is all of us who belong to and follow Jesus.
Today, we are going to reflect on yet another part of the human condition that Jesus attends to, something the writer briefly mentioned in our passage
last week and will repeat again. Today, we will consider how the work of Christ impacts one of the more challenging aspects of our humanity – the conscience.
(SLIDES #4 -7)
We are going to be talking about three things today:
What is the biblical understanding of the human conscience?
How exactly does the work Jesus does for us cleanse/clear our conscience?
What does it mean, what does it look like to live with a clear conscience?
(SLIDE #8) While it is not something we can see or analyze,
the idea that each of us possessing a conscience somewhere in our brains,
can be found in almost every human culture. We each have a conscience.
Biblically, we understand the conscience as part of our God-given faculties.
Our conscience is our critical internal compass that bears witness
to our thoughts and behaviors and then evaluates them in terms of
whatever norms and values we have in determining right or wrong.
To be more specific, my conscience is that ability within me that attaches itself
to the highest standard I know, and then continually reminds me
of what that standard demands that I do.
Having a conscience is a gift from God.
But how our conscience is configured can be self-determined apart from God.
Now the Bible is clear (SLIDE #9), our Creator has put knowledge of Himself
and His standards of what is right and what is wrong in each person.
Nonetheless, in our separation from our Creator, (SLIDE #10)
because of rejection and rebellion against God, the Bible also is clear
that we can sear or corrupt our conscience to our likings and preferences.
The truth is our conscience is shaped by the families we grew up with,
whatever we learned in school, the company we keep, and our life circumstances.
And then, we each have a tendency to design our own values and norms
based on what we want to accomplish in life.
This explains why everyone’s conscience can be different.
When we say, “That person has no conscience,” this is not a true statement.
It’s just that not everyone’s conscience reflects the same norms and values.
And herein lies the problem.
The diversity in terms of the human conscience
– our varying standards of what is right and wrong – is not a sign of our strength but of our weakness, our brokenness as human beings. (SLIDE #11)
Contrary to what we often think, the conscience is NOT the means
by which we tell what is right and what is wrong.
Our conscience cannot and should not be our final ethical authority
because the human conscience apart from God is fallible and changeable.
Our conscience is trained by what we believe, and therefore,
it shifts as our opinions and our values change.
As someone once remarked, the human conscience tends to excuse
when it ought to accuse and likewise accuse when it ought to excuse.
Some of us have hyperactive consciences that repeatedly accuse us
based on an expectation or standard that is unrealistic.
Others of us have immature consciences that rationalize or justify
thoughts and actions that are harmful to us and those around us. (SLIDE #12)
For this reason, our conscience must be primarily informed by the revelation of God.
This means what defines the standard of what is right and what is wrong
and what shapes the norms and values we live by must derive ultimately
from what the Lord teaches us through His word, the example of Jesus Christ,
and the witness of the Holy Spirit.
These days, many people, including Christians, attempt to reverse this order.
They seek to use their conscience to judge God and God’s rules for living.
Statements like, “I could not worship a God who would say or judge that
what I believe or what I am doing is wrong,” are appeals to conscience
over and above the revelation of God.
And yet, despite all our attempts to reprogram and manipulate
the human conscience to our liking and preferences, no one has ever
fully erased the base code which God writes into our spiritual DNA.
Even people who attempt to prove there is no such thing as right and wrong
end up being confounded as their insistence that it is right for you to agree
with them & wrong for you not to, violates the very foundation of their argument.
(SLIDE #13) The minute I argue there are no absolutes, I have just disproved
my own argument by making an absolute statement.
What makes something a sin is not merely being
out of alignment with our norms and values.
What makes something a sin is when we choose our own will over the will of God – when we shape our norms and values rather than let God shape them.
Try as we may to assert that all morals and ethics are relative and arbitrary, everyone possesses a God-give sense that we ought to do certain things & not others.
That God-given sense, whatever fraction of it remains in our conscience,
reacts subconsciously, under our knowledge, pinging us internally,
both before we do something – nagging and prodding us – and after the fact
– either approving, accusing, or excusing what we’ve done.
We all know we have not done all we should have done
or felt all we ought to have felt.
The realization of our failure to do what we ought to have done, (SLIDE #14)
what is right, is what we call guilt. Guilt is a universal experience.
It is a universal experience because none of us have a clear conscience.
Everybody has made wrong choices— sometimes costly,
sometimes embarrassing, sometimes painful, & sometimes very insignificant.
A guilty conscience is a hard and painful master.
Our guilt can keep us awake at night, costing us sleep.
Our guilt eats at our memories and torments our minds, driving us mad.
Our guilt left untreated inevitably turns to shame. (SLIDE #15)
Whereas our guilt is tied to something we did wrong.
Shame is tied to our sense of self. When our guilt turns into shame,
it’s no longer “I did something bad,” it is “I am bad.”
Shame is the scar borne of the wound of untreated guilt.
Shame leads us to believe we are unworthy of love and belonging.
Too many people carry the burden of guilt and shame
– a conscience that is not clear but compromised.
On our own, we can manage our guilt. We can attempt to make up for it.
But there is nothing we can do to free ourselves from our guilty conscience.
What the writer of Hebrews wants us to understand is
this doesn’t mean nothing can be done about our guilty conscience.
(SLIDE #16) Jesus, he insists, through the work He has done for us,
pointing towards the Cross, has cleansed our consciences.
But how exactly does this work?
How does Jesus dying on the Cross result in
our conscience being made clean, being made clear?
What the old covenant system with the priesthood
and all the offerings and sacrifices taught us was
that sin – our rejection and rebellion against our Creator
– draws blood, it takes life from us.
In one way or another when we do our own thing either individually
or as a group, someone else, some other group gets left out, compromised,
or worse, abused and violated in some way.
Human history is replete with examples of the truth of is.
Every advancement in human civilization, the rise of every great nation,
has been built on the backs and the misfortune of
another culture, race, ethnic group, or tribe.
Or to express it more individually, if we belong to one of the
dominant groups in society racially, economically, or in terms of our gender,
we gain an inherent benefit – an advantage or privilege – that those
who do not belong to that dominant or majority group do not receive.
To put this another way, when I become the center of the universe,
when the world revolves around me and I take the place of God,
then someone has to serve me, has to bow down to my will. This is sin.
Sin draws blood. Sin takes life. So, the cost of sin is blood, the giving of life.
Our lives being from God already belong to God.
Therefore, giving our lives to God won’t suffice,
because we can’t give back what we already owe.
Our death is the consequence of our sin. It cannot be an offering for our sin.
More than this, what we learn from the old covenant is that
atonement isn’t just about making amends – making up for what has been lost.
Atonement is about taking responsibility for making things right
– not just addressing the damage but resetting everything,
creating a new possibility, a reality that is not defined by
the damage of the past, by what went wrong.
This is important. Something we miss.
Forgiveness was a part of the old covenant.
Through the Levitical sacrificial system, the people had a means
to confess their sin before God and to receive His forgiveness.
What all the blood of goats & bulls, all those repeated sacrifices (SLIDE #17)
could not accomplish was salvation, “eternal redemption” as the writer calls it.
Forgiveness was always there.
Going beyond forgiveness to resurrection – something beyond sin and death,
that could never be provided by the sacrificial system.
But it could and it would be provided by God coming down in Jesus Christ.
The debt we owe for all we’ve taken that we can’t repay, Jesus covers.
Being innocent, blameless, and not needing to make sacrifices for his own sins, Jesus, in willingly giving his life for us, in becoming the death we deserve,
offers what he doesn’t owe.
And therefore, Jesus, in offering his perfect life,
gives infinitely more than all we have taken away through our sin.
The burden we can’t bear for making everything right,
Jesus bears for sake of making all things new.
Jesus places on heaven’s altar the deepest possible sacrifice
– his pure, innocent life bearing the full weight of the pain, the suffering,
and the evil – all the sin, all the brokenness of the human condition.
This is what he willingly embraced on the Cross – all that is wrong with us
placed on His shoulders – on everything that is right & good, which He, Christ, is.
And as a result, Jesus achieves in this “once for all” sacrifice
what all the other previous sacrifices pointed to
but which they could never achieve. Christ saves, Christ redeems us completely.
The assurance of our eternal redemption, the sign that what Jesus has done
for us on the Cross is not just some passing thing but very work that
changes everything forever, is Christ’s resurrection from the dead.
When death, the ultimate consequence of our rejection and rebellion
against God, is conquered, new possibilities emerge for us.
Our lives no longer have to be defined by our failures,
our mistakes, our brokenness – from our separation from God.
Our lives can be reborn. Both our present and future can be rewritten.
Our conscience can become clear in Jesus Christ. (SLIDE #18)
For, in Christ, there is nothing left on us.
In Christ, through confession, there is no residue or build-up from our past left,
no stain that won’t come out.
In Christ, through repentance, there is no break that can’t be reconciled;
no loss than can’t be redeemed, no death from which we cannot be resurrected.
In Christ, there need be no more guilt, no more shame, no more fear,
over our mistakes, our imperfections, and our failures, repeatedly haunting us.
Is your conscience clear in Christ? Or is your conscience bothering you today?
Is our conscience nagging at us? Maybe even keeping us up at night?
For some, the struggle is that we need to align our conscience with Christ.
(SLIDE #19) We profess belief in Jesus. We say we follow Jesus.
But truth be told, we’re actually doing our own thing, going our own way.
Our conscience, what we value and the norms we hold,
are being shaped less by Jesus and more by other priorities – idols
– people or things around which our decisions and our action revolve.
Who or what defines what is right and wrong for you?
Our habits matter.
Habits are developed by performing an action repeatedly, over time,
until it becomes an automatic reflex.
Rejecting God’s authority over our lives can become a habit.
Continually rebelling against the Lord’s direction and living according to
our own rules for life rather than His, becomes an automatic reflex.
The habit of sin can sear the conscience that has been cleared in Christ.
This is because having a clear conscience in Christ isn’t a matter of a transaction
– some exchange Jesus does for us on the Cross.
Having a clear conscience is about embracing a relationship with
the God who seeks to shape and transform our lives.
Is God’s word a daily, regular, source of wisdom and truth for us
or are we treating the Bible more like a fortune cookie, cracking it open
every once & a while for a quick verse or two of inspiration or encouragement?
Are we following Jesus – looking to learn from his example
how to engage and interact with this world, with others, like he did?
Are allowing the Holy Spirit to lead and to empower us
– preaching the Gospel to us daily – reminding us of who we are
and whose we are or are we living out of our own strength?
Our habits matter. But to be clear, it’s still Jesus who clears our conscience.
It is Jesus in His relationship with us that sets our minds and our hearts free.
The habits, the practices, I’ve just outlined are the result of a clear conscience,
they are not the means by which we clear our conscience.
This is very important for us to understand.
Because while some of us struggle with aligning our conscience WITH Christ, others of us are trying to clear our conscience by doing things FOR Christ.
If we read this passage carefully, the original audience to whom (SLIDE #20)
this letter was written weren’t struggling with a troubled conscience
because of sinful deeds, but because of “dead works.”
The readers of this letter were Christians who professed to believe in Jesus
– all that Christ had done for them and yet apparently, they still persisted
in trying to put their conscience to rest by continuing to make offerings
and to provide sacrifices at the Temple.
These are dead works being referred to here – all the religious activity
these Christians were doing in order to ease their troubled conscience.
Our author is telling them (and us), not only is this unnecessary;
it remains entirely ineffective. Can we relate? (SLIDE #21)
Are any of us here today still trying to put our conscience to rest
by attempting to do good things FOR God?
Is there something in your past, some specific sin, some previous mistake,
failure, or wrongdoing for which you keeping laboring to make amends?
Is your relationship with Jesus marked by a lot of religious activity
– of trying to do what is good, what is right, in order to please God?
How exhausting it is to live this way – to live out of a place of guilt and shame.
To always be doing things for God in order to try and please God.
And yet simultaneously being preoccupied with thoughts of whether
whatever it is we are doing is enough, wondering if we are measuring up, worrying if maybe WE are not enough.
Living our lives out of that posture of “never enough” (SLIDE #22)
– of not doing, of not being enough, is a prison that makes
it nearly impossible to enjoy each day, nearly impossible to be free to just be,
to enjoy our relationship with God, with ourselves, and with one another.
Are you living in this self-made prison?
Is freedom from guilt and shame so foreign to you
that as soon as it happens you start feeling guilty for not feeling guilty?
Too many of us exist in this space where we remain
so focused on our guilt and shame despite what Christ has done
and forgetting the work Jesus continues to do for us.
How many of you came to faith through this simple picture… (SLIDE #23)
It’s a picture of YOU on one side and God on the other side
and in between is this great chasm caused by sin.
The story that goes with this picture is that we are separated from God by sin. Because of the problem of sin, we can’t get to God.
Because of the pollution of sin, God can’t come to us—or we will die.
God can’t be near us because being a holy God,
God cannot possibly get close to our sin, our imperfections, our unholiness.
This is how we are often taught to think about God—even in terms of the Cross.
We are told that when Jesus took on the sins of the world,
God abandoned Him because God cannot “look upon” sin.
(SLIDE #24) Yet thanks to Jesus on the cross, a bridge is built
so that we can cross the chasm, so that we can be reunited with God.
Beloved, sin doesn’t create a chasm between God and us. (SLIDE #25)
The God who came to us in Jesus Christ became sin for us,
so that we might become the righteousness of God.
Sin doesn’t create a chasm between us and God.
Sin creates a huge disconnect between who we are and who we are meant to be.
The Cross is not our means to get to God.
God doesn’t wait on the other side for us to get our act together.
God comes to where we are.
Our Father creates a way in coming to where we are to make us
not only aware of sin—of the chasm that stands before us
—but in coming over to the other side, He provides from our side
a way to deal with it.
The Cross is our assurance that our God is with us until the bitter end
…and leads us beyond the veil and the smoke that blinds us to His presence.
So where is God when we sin?
Exactly where we left Him – in the midst of our lives, our brokenness.
He is there, unafraid of our disobedience, willing to embrace us as we are,
to clear our conscience, so that we can be set free and transformed
– if we will but listen once again, if we would but trust and follow Him.
The Cross is the place from which God leads us from
where we are, dead in our sins,
to where we have always been intended to be, cleansed from our sin
and resurrected from death, to be with Him and to become
who we always were created to be—holy as He is holy.
God in Christ comes to where we are and in standing with us,
alongside us, going before us, through Jesus, says,
“I am making you holy. I am teaching you how to walk with me. I am giving you what you need to be in relationship with me. Follow me. Take my hand.”
Some of us have convinced ourselves we stand better with God (SLIDE #26)
if we live in a perpetual state of guilt and shame. But this is not of the Lord.
If we’re feeling guilty all the time, believing we’re just not enough,
then the truth is, we’re obsessed with ourselves rather being focused on Jesus.
If we’re trying to pay Jesus back or to do our fair share,
then our hope isn’t in Christ, it’s in ourselves.
Too many of us choose to live in the shadow of our past
rather than the light of the future we can have in Christ.
We are so practiced in using guilt and shame as our motivation for living,
we can’t honestly imagine living any other way.
But the Gospel invites us to imagine what it looks like
to no longer live out of guilt or shame. Imagine that. (SLIDE #27)
Imagine going forward from today, for the rest of your life,
no long worrying about doing or being enough.
Imagine seeking to do good and trying to live rightly not to prove yourself,
not to make yourself feel better, not to earn someone else’s approval,
not because you have to but because you want to.
Imagine serving God not out of a sense of duty but out of sheer delight
– knowing you are loved, trusting you have been forgiven,
believing your life is being redeemed, anticipating and not fearing
what lies on the other side of the horizon, beyond death.
How much space, how much energy, how much time would open in your life?
How much envy and jealousy, how much unforgiveness and bitterness,
how much anxiety and stress would decrease within you?
Imagine if we were free of all the guilt and shame you insist on carrying
how much more love and gratitude we’ve have to share with each other?
The good news is we don’t have to just imagine what our lives would look like, would feel like, without being driven by guilt or shame.
The good news, the Gospel is Jesus Christ has given us a clear conscience.
All that’s left is for us to start living the life that results from
our forgiveness and our redemption in Christ.
Let us then, stop managing our guilt and shame.
Let us stop ignoring our conscience.
Through the Holy Spirit, let us live out the freedom,
the fresh start, the clear conscience we have been given in Christ. Amen.