Monday, November 09, 2015

Better Hope

Better Hope
Hebrews 7:18-28[1]
Throughout the ages, the human family has been aware of a gap between themselves and their “gods.” Almost all religious rituals from the beginning of time involved some kind of sacrifice. The sacrifices had many meanings across the centuries.[2] Sometimes they were meant to appease the anger of the gods. Sometimes they were meant to purify the people, or to otherwise prepare them to meet their gods. But at the heart of the human understanding of the gods was that one could only approach them with the proper sacrifice. To do otherwise would be to court disaster. And so, from the very beginning, religious rites of all kinds reinforced a fearful approach to the divine—we humans who are flawed and weak must continually make an effort to please our gods. The only hope for a life that could be happy and prosperous was to ensure that one offered the right sacrifice at the right time and in the right way.
Into this age-long tradition, the Christian faith introduced a radically different understanding about God. Our relationship with God, and the blessings that come from it, are not dependent on us. Rather, God himself takes the initiative and acts on our behalf through Jesus Christ. And the outcome of this revolutionary understanding of God was that salvation is a gift that we could never earn no matter how hard we tried. Fortunately, we don’t have to. All that goes along with the promise of salvation—peace with God, peace with ourselves, peace with others—is ours not because we’ve obtained it through the right rituals, but rather because God has chosen to give it to us through Jesus Christ.
This is the main point of our lesson from the Letter to the Hebrews for today. The language of the Scripture reading may be confusing to us, because the author uses an analogy for salvation that may not be familiar to us: the sacrificial system of the Hebrew Bible. [3]  However, he contrasts the sacrifices of the Jewish system with the sacrifice of Jesus in terms of their effectiveness.  He makes two main points: the sacrifices were not permanent, and the priests were just as flawed as anyone else.[4]  By contrast, Jesus’ death on the cross is presented as a sacrifice that is both perfect and complete.  It is perfect in that it effects permanently what the other sacrifices could not—free and full access to God.  And it is complete in that it never needs to be repeated; because he lives forever “he is able, now and always, to save those who come to God through him” (Heb. 7:25, TEV).[5]
This analogy and the finely tuned logic that supports it in the Letter to the Hebrews may not make much sense to us in our day and time. In fact, it is interesting to note that since the beginning of our faith Christian theologians have used a variety of analogies to explain what Jesus’ death on the cross means for us. The “official” view that most people live by today was developed by Anselm in the 11th Century.[6]  Anselm used the analogy of the medieval feudal system to explain the meaning of salvation.  In this system, common people swore allegiance to a lord in order to have the opportunity to work his land and live under his protection. Anselm said that human sin was like breaking that oath and therefore offending God’s honor, and that the only way for God’s offended honor to be satisfied was for a penalty to be paid.  Anselm went on to say that Jesus paid the penalty for us so that we would not have to.
I don’t know about you, but this analogy doesn’t do much for me. Talk about the offended honor of a feudal lord that is satisfied by a penalty being paid may have worked a thousand years ago, but today it carries some implications that don’t fit the Gospel.[7]  It suggests an image of God as strict, exacting, and punitive; a God who keeps track of every little mistake we make and refuses to forgive even the slightest failing without extracting a “pound of flesh” from us. For me it doesn’t communicate the meaning of the Gospel any more effectively than the intricacies of the Jewish sacrificial system.
In all fairness to the author of Hebrews, however, there are some interesting clues that there is more to “salvation” than just some kind of heavenly balance sheet.  He speaks of true freedom (Heb. 2:15) and lasting rest (Heb. 4:9-10).  He says (Heb. 8:8-12) that Jesus brings the better covenant of Jeremiah 31, where the prophet promises that God will change the people’s hearts and forgive their sins. And in our lesson for today, he speaks of the ability to “come near to God” that is granted to us through Jesus’ death on the cross. And so it is that through Jesus we are promised a “better hope” (Heb. 7:19).
Those analogies speak more to me than talk about penalties and punishments.  The good news is that God is out to make right all that is wrong with humanity.  Whether you call it alienation, fragmentation, or selfishness; violence, greed, or falsehood; there is something about our lives that just doesn’t seem to be right.[8]   It keeps us from being our true selves, it keeps us from relating to others in a healthy way, and it keeps us from the life we were intended to live. But the good news is not that we have to somehow find a way to heal ourselves. Rather the good news is that God is working to set us free from all that binds us now.  God is working to heal the wounds, to right the wrongs, and to restore the beauty of life.[9]  God is working to overcome violence with peace, to end all forms of oppression with true justice, and to expose all the lies with the truth that sets us free. To me, that’s what salvation is about—freedom, peace, beauty, and life.  It’s about having a relationship with God because of what God has done, not what we do. It’s about having a better hope through our Savior Jesus Christ.

[1] © 2015 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/25/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Mircea Eliade, A History of Religious Ideas 1:258-59, where he summarizes the various meanings of sacrifice among the Greeks, the Hebrews, and Christians, as well as in India.
[3] Cf. Barnabas Lindars, The Theology of the Letter to the Hebrews, 126, where he says that this understanding of Jesus’ death on the cross as the work of a great High Priest who not only effects salvation but also is able to empathize with humanity because he shared their weakness is the unique contribution of Hebrews toward a New Testament understanding of Jesus.
[4] These points are emphasized in earlier in the chapter. Cf. Fred B. Craddock, “The Letter to the Hebrews,” New Interpreters Bible XII:89, where summarizes the argument: “the entire system under which Israel lived would change with the arrival of the ‘different’ priest, the priest after the order of Melchizedek. The inability to perfect the people was the flaw of the entire system and not of the priests themselves. The levitical (Aaronic) priests were called and appointed of God (5:1-4), but they functioned, says the author, in a system that was incomplete, unable to fulfill its adherents.” However, Thomas G. Long, Hebrews, 87, makes an important correction to a common misunderstanding of this argument. He says that when the Preacher says that “the law” “made nothing perfect,” he is “not thinking so much about the law given at Sinai, the Ten Commandments, or the heart of the law, in short, the ‘law’ that Jesus said he came to fulfill (see Matt. 5:17); he is speaking more of the cultic law regarding sacrifices, the law that rests on the Levitical foundation and that ‘the people received … under this priesthood.’”
[5] Cf. Long, Hebrews, 88, “We do not have a priest who gets sick and dies, or who goes on vacation, or falls down on the job, or grows tired of our need, or compromises his office, or takes advantage of us for his own gain; we have a faithful and steadfast great high priest who can be trusted, who ‘always lives to make intercession’ for us (7:25).” Along these lines, see also Craddock, “Letter to the Hebrews,” NIB XII:95: “Without this vital doctrine, the church lives in a barren desert between ‘Christ was here’ and ‘Christ will be here again.’ Meanwhile, back at the church, Christian faith consists of believing in an extraordinary past and an extraordinary future. Christ as intercessor transcends the constraints of time and place and restores ‘today’ to the relationship between God and the believer.”
[6] Cf. Anselm of Canterbury, Cur Deus Homo (Why God [became] Human). On this, see Otto Weber, Foundations of Dogmatics 2:207-214. Anselm was primarily concerned to show that the incarnation was made necessary by human sin. As Weber notes (p. 211), it was Anselm’s contribution to recognize that sin affects our relationship with God.                                       
[7] Cf. Weber, Foundations 2.213-14. He points out that Anselm’s doctrine is based on a theoretical (“a priori”) necessity related to his own theological presuppositions (p. 213): “God must realize ‘satisfaction’ in the Son. Otherwise he must either cease to be God or he must destroy mankind.” Weber also points out (p. 214) that Anselm’s theory make faith a matter of cognitive knowledge and “in the process loses its personal character” (i.e., as a matter of a relationship) because salvation is turned into an “objective” transaction.
[8] See Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, vol. 2, 47-55, where he speaks of sin as “estrangement” under three headings: estrangement from God, estrangement from self and estrangement from others.
[9] Cf. Hans Küng, The Christian Challenge, 120: “God’s cause will prevail in the world. This is the hope that sustains the message of the God’s kingom.” He defines that kingdom by saying that it will be a kingdom “of absolute righteousness, of unsurpassable freedom, of dauntless love, of universal reconciliation, of everlasting peace.”

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