When I began this year, I was convinced 2018 was going to be better than 2017. It hasn’t turned out that way for many of us. Already death has touched some of our families. Heartbreak looms after Christmas for many others. Between job stresses, family struggles, and illness for so many, it is hard to believe we are hanging on and hanging together as a presbytery. And yet the struggle for life continues, and new life and hope does ultimately come. It just doesn’t feel like it yet for a lot of us.
The ability to turn from a troubled past, or turn from difficulty and embrace a new future is something that is hard to do. One of the key ingredients for any Christian to move forward into a new life is revealed in our passage from Hebrews today: forgiveness.
First we hear of Christ as the mediator of a new covenant, “that redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant.” Then the writer of Hebrews explains things in terms we don’t hear in our churches much these days: in terms of blood.
“‘This is the blood of the covenant that God has ordained for you.’ And in the same way he sprinkled with the blood both the tent and all the vessels used in worship. Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.”
All this blood talk may seem a bit strange! And it is! We must always remind ourselves of the prominence of the Temple in the lives of the first readers of these texts, and the Temple’s (over-reliance) on blood sacrifices. Their whole theology is around blood, and blood = life.
So we encounter deeply mystical metaphors like: We are a people washed in the blood, and we have come out clean on the other side. And while it sounds a lot like the cup of salvation we pass around at the Lord’s Supper, we are talking about the crucifixion here – the blood that was poured out for the salvation of the earth. It is only after this event we can truly come to understand love, and forgiveness, and a new covenant.
In a mysterious and strange way, God brought us closer to him through this event. It is not that God is a sadist, killing his own child, but that God himself took on the role of sacrifice, atoning and blessing us, just as the ram did for Abraham and Isaac, or the lambs on the Day of Atonement, or the doves of the Temple Mount.
Every one of my groups to Israel has stood on the Temple Mount with me! We visit this holy place, where for centuries Jews offered their sacrifices up to God, including Mary who offered her two turtle doves in presenting Jesus as the Temple. This is also the site where Abraham almost sacrificed Isaac, sacrificing a ram instead. In the picture above you can see Brian and Martha Pat Upp, who traveled with me to Oberammergau one year, and to Israel the next. Rest in peace, Martha Pat.
I have been known to blow the Shofar (ram’s horn) that I acquired in Israel for a children’s sermon on a week we talk about forgiveness. Blowing the Shofar was a call to prayer and to a life of sacrifice. Every pilgrimage to the Temple Mount was a call to turn your life around.
In the sacrifices, the people turned from their wicked ways and renewed their covenant with God. They “got back on track” as it were. In the same way, as Christians, God is clearly saying to us is that in order to experience new life, we must have a new lease on life, free from the bondage of sin. In Christ God has said, “Go ahead. You are free now! Live like it!” Like Isaac on the mountaintop, you have experienced a divine intervention. God has provided for the needed sacrifice already, so that you can move forward.
May God continue to radiate in your lives, remind you of the redemption that is at hand, and may you go in peace.