The Relationship Beyond the Ritual – Simply the Best Pt. 7
Pastor Chris Tweitmann
The New Testament tells us that Jesus is many things.
The Good Shepherd. The Bridegroom. The Light of the World.
The Bread of Life. The Chief Cornerstone. Our Rock. Our Redeemer.
Our Deliverer. Our Savior. The Risen Lord of all. The King of Kings.
Only the book of Hebrews, this sermon offered in the form of a letter,
declares Jesus is our priest—our great High Priest. (SLIDE #2)
This unique concept is the central message of Hebrews,
the main idea from which everything else flows.
According to the author, priesthood is the purpose for which
the Word became flesh (2:17).
The priesthood of Christ is the reason we should hold fast to our faith (4:14).
And as we learned last Sunday as we closed out chapter 7,
the distinctively superior priesthood of Jesus
replaces the former Levitical sacrificial system.
Today, as we begin to read chapter 8, (SLIDE #3)
Hebrews continues to explore Jesus’ particular work as our great High priest
– specifically, what Jesus offers, what Jesus has done and continues to do for us
as our meditator, our intercessor. (SLIDES #4 – #7)
This passage begins by pointing back and basically repeating the argument of
the previous chapter. So, let’s briefly remind ourselves of that argument.
The former Levitical priesthood, men from the tribe of Levi,
representing the people before God and God before the people. (SLIDE #8)
This representation consisted of mediating atonement for
all the sins of the people – including their own as part of the community.
Through a series of visceral, daily offerings and sacrifices consisting of
both the harvest & the livestock that marked the everyday lives of the people, the problem of sin, all the things we do wrong, in contradiction to God’s rules for life
– willfully, accidentally, and even unconsciously, unknowingly
were addressed – covered and cleansed.
But all those generations of Levitical priests,
who were just as flawed and just as in need of grace
as the rest of are, and the repeated offerings and sacrifices
could never fully and completely deal with
the reality and the consequences of human sin.
The Levitical priesthood and the sacrificial system
always were meant to be temporary,
to lay the groundwork for something else, for someone else. (SLIDE #9)
Here in chapter 8, the writer of Hebrews underscores this point
when he speaks of the work of the priests in the Tabernacle in the wilderness
and later the Temple in Jerusalem as being a shadow or a copy of
the heavenly reality to come. (SLIDE #10)
In the church office, we have some old copies of the building plans
for this sanctuary. There was a time when those plans were necessary.
Those plans served as the law by which this building would be made.
Those plans outlined a picture of what this sanctuary would look like.
But now that the building has come, now that we have this sanctuary,
it is not necessary for us to remain fixated & to keep laboring over those plans.
Instead, we ought to occupy and live out of the building
to which those plans always pointed.
In a similar way, the Levitical priesthood, the sacrificial law and the Temple established a pattern for us. (SLIDE #11)
All those precise instructions, intricately detailed practices,
and graphic displays of blood and death, what our Creator was teaching us
to recognize is just how precarious our existence is, just how broken we all are.
The former sacrificial law was designed to instill within us
a sensitivity about what redemption costs, what reconciliation involves
as well as providing us a proper understanding of how atonement is made.
(SLIDE #12) Atonement, how everything gets made right in the world,
how we can attain perfection – wholeness, completeness –
in our relationship with God, in our relationship with ourselves, and in
our relationship with each other, atonement is not something we can make.
Atonement is not about us making amends for the wrongs we’ve done
and making things right because all we can offer is what we were
to supposed to have given to God, to ourselves, to each other, in the first place.
Being imperfect, we can’t perfect ourselves. But we can be perfected.
Biblically, atonement is something make for us, done to and through us by God.
(SLIDE #13) The old covenant presented by the Tabernacle & later the Temple,
was designed as a pattern or a copy to prepare us and to point us
to reality of the new covenant – God making atonement for us in Jesus Christ.
The Levitical priesthood, and all the sacrifices and offerings,
were but a shadow of the eternal, perfect priesthood of God in Jesus Christ
come down from heaven to offer the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. (SLIDE #14)
The writer alludes here to this declaration he made back in chapter 7,
when he speaks of “Every high priest is appointed in order to offer gifts and sacrifices, and so it was necessary for this one also to have something to offer.”
“This one” is Jesus.
Every priest had to bring an offering to the altar of God.
The priests of old brought lambs and bulls, grains and oil.
Jesus, like the priests of old, has something to offer too.
And yet, the priesthood of Jesus is distinctive – better – superior
– because Jesus offers Himself.
For themselves or for the people they represented, the priests of old
had nothing to offer, to give beyond what they already had been given.
They offered back to God what belonged to God in the first place.
The Gospel is that when, because of sin, something had to give, and we had nothing to offer, God came down in the flesh in Jesus Christ and gave us Himself.
Our Creator took on our humanity to become both of our priest & our sacrifice.
Hebrews is going to unpack the significance of this in the chapters to come.
But for now, the point is, that Jesus Christ, who as our great, high priest,
didn’t need to make an offering for Himself in order to be there for us, nonetheless, offered us what no other priest ever could or can – (SLIDE #15)
a willing, perfect sacrifice – unnecessary for Him but completely needed by us.
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.
This is why Hebrews stresses Jesus is the culmination of the Levitical priesthood.
The old system of making daily sacrifices and shedding blood is
not to be repeated because those sacrifices are not to be repeated.
No more blood needs to be spilled.
Christ is the reality that has replaced the shadows.
The audience to whom Hebrews was first written is being encouraged
to distinguish between the shadow and the reality.
They need to stop clinging to the copy – of the old priesthood,
the daily offerings and sacrifices, and the Temple – and instead need to
take hold of and live out of the real thing – the person of Jesus Christ.
Our context today is much different from theirs.
And yet, like them, we need to distinguish between the shadow and the reality.
Like them, we can struggle with holding on to other stuff in the Church
rather than embracing and living out of our relationship with Jesus Christ.
To be honest, initially this was the point in the sermon
when the application of this message was going to be, (SLIDE #16)
Christianity is not a religion; it’s a relationship.
This is a very popular mantra these days.
I know I’ve even used it a few times myself.
However, in continuing to reflect and to pray on this passage,
the message of the book of Hebrews in total, the Bible as a whole, it soon
became clear that this saying while catchy and appealing is not entirely true.
The idea of Christianity as a religion being opposed to
a relationship with Christ is a false dichotomy. Let’s break this down.
At its essence, a religion, any religion, is a group of people
adhering to a particular set of beliefs and practices. (SLIDE #17)
In this sense, all people are religious in some way in that we all adhere to particular beliefs and practices that shape our lives – what we talk about,
where our focus is, how we engage the time, energy, and resources we have.
Biblically, we are all religious in the sense that we are what or who we worship.
We all look for purpose and meaning. In that universal quest,
we all devote ourselves, we inevitably submit our focus, time,
energy, and selves to something or someone.
Whatever or whoever that is,
is the object of our worship, is the basis of our religion.
We exercise our religion through rituals.
Our daily rituals are the actions that point to what we hold
as ultimately the best and truest thing in existence – what matters the most.
Sports fans are religious. They are zealous in following their favorite team.
They idolize their favorite players.
They faithfully attend either live or via media their team’s every performance.
We could apply this rationale to the realm of music and the arts as well.
And how many of us, are devoted to our electronic devices?
Just think of how much of your average day and how you engage it,
how much of your identify, how you express yourself is dictated by
this little pocket god. (Social media posts, selfies, apps & content all in one place).
Even so called “atheists,” who reject the notion of religion, are in fact,
as religious as they may claim to be rational, in that atheism,
like all religions, is driven by a set of particular beliefs and practices.
Insisting that nothing created everything while craving community
and seeking to practice morality is being religious.
So, we can be religious even if we religiously deny that we’re religious.
The key is where does your religion, whatever it is, take you.
To what, to whom does it ultimately lead?
And is where that religion takes you, true or false?
Can it deliver on what it promises?
I’ll push this a step further. (SLIDE #18) Everyone has a relationship with God.
One might argue,
the religion we practice is a reflection of our relationship with God.
Idolatry, giving the highest level of our attention, priority, and submission,
our worship to anything other than our Creator is itself
a posture of relationship towards God.
The problem has never been that we lacked a relationship with our Creator.
The problem always has been that our relationship with God
is hostile, indifferent, or engaged.
Despite these THREE default options we’ve created for
defining our relationship with God, the Bible declares only TWO ways
of (DTR) defining one’s relationship with God
we stand either in rebellion against and rejection of God
or we stand reconciled to God in Christ.
Notice, the apostle Paul elsewhere doesn’t call us to be in relationship to God
in Christ but to be reconciled to God in Christ.
Biblically, there is no middle ground. There is no apathy.
We are either engaged in our relationship with God
or we have divorced ourselves from our relationship with God.
It’s worth noting, rebellion and rejection are our choice
– how we can define the relationship.
On the other hand, being reconciled to God – is God’s choice
– what the Lord desires, what the Lord wills, what God makes possible for us
by coming down in the person of Jesus Christ.
Here we are back to what ATONEMENT means biblically.
It’s God’s choice and not ours in that we cannot reconcile ourselves to God.
Only God can choose to reconcile Himself with us.
What only God can make possible and does in Christ is
an invitation we then can either choose to accept or choose to reject.
Conversion, coming to and yielding to Christ is
the transition between those two states.
To bring this reflection on religion and relationship full circle, let me add this.
(SLIDE #19) Of those who know of Him, everyone has a relationship with Jesus Christ.
The devil has a relationship with Jesus. Pilate had a relationship with Jesus.
The question is whether that relationship
we have with Jesus is on His terms or ours.
To put this another way, is our religion based on our relationship with Jesus
or are we trying to have a relationship with Jesus
while we are practicing a different religion?
While we chew on this for a bit, let’s look more closely at a declaration
the writer of Hebrews has made about Jesus a few times already
but that we’ve haven’t explored yet in this sermon series:
Jesus as our mediator. (SLIDE #20)
What is a mediator?
In most instances, particularly legal conflicts, that term
describes someone who settles disputes between two parties
who cannot come to an agreement. (SLIDE #21)
The mediator keeps the dispute neutral and serves as
an acceptable negotiator and message bearer for both sides.
The meditator seeking the best interests—or the best compromise
—for all involved, ideally at a lower cost to both sides.
This is our understanding of a mediator.
Here in Hebrews and throughout the revelation of the scriptures,
Jesus is presented as an entirely different kind of meditator. (SLIDE #22)
First of all, contrary to how some want to frame it,
understanding Christ as our mediator doesn’t mean the two opposing parties Jesus stands between are sinful humanity and a holy God
– as our Creator stands in opposition to us.
After all, the marvel and mystery of the Incarnation is
God coming down to us in Christ – not standing apart from us
but taking on our humanity to be with us and for us.
On the Cross, it is God in Christ who does not turn His face away
but suffers and dies for us.
The two parties in dispute Jesus mediates
between those two postures of relationship we can have with God
– one of rebellion and opposition and one of seeking and submission.
Another way to say this is Jesus comes to reconcile the tension we all live with, then when it comes to our being all that God created us to be –
“we do not understand what we do. What we want to do we do not do,
but what we hate we do.”
And as our mediator, Jesus doesn’t just meet us in the middle.
Again, God doesn’t shy away from us,
God in Christ comes all the way to where we are
– as we are – broken, flawed, helpless.
For those who want to persist that a holy God could not and cannot
have anything to do with broken sinners like us, let us remember,
Jesus throughout his earthly ministry did not remain ceremonially clean.
Mingling with tax collectors, zealots, prostitutes, and pagans
– daring to touch lepers, the impaired, and even the dead, God in Christ
allowed Himself to risk being defiled, to be contaminated by our unholiness.
God in Christ meets us where we are but refuses to leave us as we are.
In other words, as our mediator, Jesus doesn’t simply negotiate
the most acceptable or palatable solution we can afford. (SLIDE #23)
Through the Cross, Jesus affords us the final solution to the problem of sin,
forgiveness that bears a cost we cannot cover, mercy that makes an offering
we cannot achieve or earn on our own – the selfless giving of
His perfect, unblemished, willingly, lovingly offered life for all the world.
(SLIDE #24) Through the Resurrection, the power of His indestructible life,
Jesus as our mediator offers us more than a compromise than we can live with.
Jesus brings life to the dead. Christ extends to us a life beyond death itself
– a hope and a future for tomorrow for full, abundant, and everlasting life,
that we can begin to experience TODAY.
This brings us back to this notion of a religion versus a relationship. (SLIDE #25)
We are all religious in some way.
Every action we take is an act of worship. Our rituals reveal our religion.
We all have a relationship with God one way or another.
But is our relationship with God the basis of our religion
– what we believe, where we focus, and prioritize,
how we make decisions and interact with the world?
Or are we practicing a religion that is based on rituals but lacks the relationship?
The Hebrew Christians to whom this letter was written
were trying to find satisfaction in the rituals of their faith
without engaging the relationship to which those rituals pointed.
They were fixated on the copy, the shadow and were missing
where the former sacrificial system – including the Levitical priesthood
and the Temple – was intended to lead them – to Jesus Christ.
In a similar way, our tendency can be to go through the ritual motions
of our faith in Christ – praying, singing, reading and studying our Bibles,
attending church services, coming up for Holy Communion,
even engaging in local service projects or going on mission trips
– without ever really engaging the One who seeks to encounter us,
who promises to mediate His presence, His wisdom, and His guidance
to us through such actions.
It doesn’t take much for us to become overly fixated on
the rituals of this religion we call Christianity,
the kind of songs we sing and who is leading them,
the kind of prayers we pray and how they are structured,
the way we practice Baptism or how we receive Communion,
the translation of the Bible that is used,
the length or style of the sermon and the service,
what the pastor is wearing, what we are wearing,
where we are serving, who we are serving, how we are serving others,
and to find ourselves never reflecting on where Jesus is present, how Christ is being represented, how the Spirit is leading and informing what we are doing.
Some of you here know more about the rituals
– the traditions you grew up with, the religious practices you prefer
than you do about the content of God’s word & the experience of the Holy Spirit.
But the rituals, by themselves, are not the relationship. (SLIDE #26)
All the rituals are intended to lead us into our relationship with Christ.
Rituals without relationship is a religion based on performance and not grace.
Rituals without relationship become a straitjacket of rules and regulations
we are trying to obey in order to prove ourselves to Jesus
rather than exercising those practices as means of
being in the presence of the One who comes to make us alive
– to raise from the dead long before we end up in the grave.
Rituals without relationship cause us to focus on the right,
the correct execution of what we are doing rather
than abiding in what Jesus has done, what Jesus is doing for us.
I think part of the reason we can end up just performing the rituals
and missing the relationship with Jesus is because we think of His work
for us as being past tense. Christ died for us. Christ was risen for us.
Jesus did his part and now it’s about our part.
We’ve been forgiven. We’ve been saved.
Where we go from here
– pulling ourselves together, straightening ourselves out,
the rest of it is up to us. How’s that working about for you?
But notice, the writer of Hebrews earlier declared something radically different.
(SLIDE #27) While Jesus has finished the sacrificial aspect of His ministry
– Christ’s perfect and final sacrifice has been offered once for all –
Jesus remains an active priest. Jesus keeps mediating on our behalf.
(SLIDE #28) Through the Holy Spirit, Jesus is making constant intercession for us
– laboring within our divided selves, continually shaping
the works in progress that we are so that we would believe and receive,
so that we would be transformed and live out of the truth
of His finished work for us.
Our forgiveness. Our redemption. Our salvation. Our resurrection. Our hope.
In the midst of our setbacks and our struggles, our questions and our doubts,
Jesus intercedes, through the Word and the Spirit, reminding and assuring us
of our identity in Him, that we are His beloved and nothing in all creation
can separate us from His love.
Jesus continues to intercede for us, bringing good out of evil
redeeming both our mistakes and failures
as well as the injustices and wrongs done unto us.
Jesus continues to intercede for us, calling us forward, guiding us
through valleys, the mountains, and the unexpected turns this life will take.
Jesus continues to intercede for us, reaching out to us when
we get lost or fall away, prompting and leading us back towards home
– to the place he has prepared for us in our Father’s house
– a full, abundant, and everlasting life.
On the cross, Jesus said, “It is finished.” Jesus did not say He was finished.
Jesus remains our intercessor. Christ continues to minister to us,
clearing away all the obstacles that get between us and Him,
opening up the doors we tend to close,
clearing out all the junk we insist on carrying and
assuring us it is quite alright for us to come before the throne of grace,
empowering us to follow Him – to go deeper and wider with Him.
To experience this work of Christ, to get know to Jesus in this way,
we can’t just be performing rituals for Christ,
we must exercise the practices of faith as the means
to cultivate an active, vibrant, and maturing relationship with Christ
– a relationship with Christ that is not by ourselves (Jesus and me)
but a relationship with Christ and His Body – all of us together.
Beloved, together we are the temple of God and our great High Priest,
Jesus Christ, dwells inside us,
continuing to intercede for us through the Holy Spirit.
Let us embrace the promise and the fulfillment of all we were created to be and of all we hope to become, not through the performance of Christian rituals
but by engaging the relationship beyond the rituals of our faith
– the active, ongoing, and transformative, relationship we can have with Jesus. Amen.