Sermon for Ordinary 21
The Reverend Dr Sam Cappleman
‘Much Better than expected’
We had many people come to our Woodland Burial Ground Open day yesterday. Many of theme were new to the burial ground and had come after hearing Charlie and Janet on the radio or seeing the advert in the papers. Some had been following the progress of the Woodland on the web and had now come to see what it was all about.
It was a great day and typical of the comments that were made was, ‘I’m not quite sure what I was expecting but this is much better than I expected’ and ‘…its better than I ever imagined’
That s the kind of message that the writer of Hebrews is trying to get across in our Epistle reading today. ‘You haven’t come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire and so on… …to darkness gloom and storm…’, ‘…but to Mount Zion and the heavenly Jerusalem…’
Mount Sinai was the mountain where the God of the Old Testament met with Moses and gave the 10 commandments, where God spoke in the burning bush, the wind and the fire.
But now through Christ all Christian believers were offered an opportunity to meet with God, have al relationship with Him and the promise of eternal life in the heavenly Kingdom, something which was infinitely better.
As the book of Hebrews name implies it was almost certainly written to a group of readers thoroughly familiar with the Old Covenant. They were Jewish Christians, perhaps even a group of Jewish priests, as there is a huge focus on ceremony of Jewish worship in the book.
Whether priests or not, having become Christians they have now left Jerusalem to find a place to live and worship, possibly Antioch or Caesarea. It would appear that they are now tired of exile and think longingly of the splendour of Temple worship and the place they played in it.
Their (new) faith is not very strong and they don’t fully understand it, they’re increasingly persecuted and are on the point of giving it all up and reverting back to Judaism. You could imagine them thinking that their life and worship had begun to loose meaning and wondering if their faith in Christ was a big mistake and that they have been duped.
The letter to them (Hebrews) is written to try to prevent this from happening…
We’re not sure who the author of the book of Hebrews is. It has the analysis and thinking of a Paul but does not use his structure and vocabulary so it’s unlikely to be him. The author could have a Hellenistic background because of the constant use of the Platonic construction of the contrast between the heavenly and earthly realms, possibly Appolus.
Hebrews presents the Christian life in the context of a story which is fundamental to Judaism, the Exodus and the importance of faith from the Red Sea encounter forwards
But for the writer of the book of Hebrews every thing about the new faith is infinitely better than the old. The destination is not the promised land of Israel but the promised land of the heaven Jerusalem. Jesus is presented as being superior of the angels, to Moses, to Joshua and of a higher priesthood of Aaron, that of Melchizedek.
The worship and sacrifice of the Aaronic and Levitical Priesthood of the Old Covenant has been superseded by the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus. The Passover of the Jews has become the Passover of Christ
The exodus and the way to the Promised Land of the heavenly Jerusalem is guided not by Moses but by Christ as an incomparably superior leader
The letter therefore shows how the early Christians understood the harmony between the Old and New Testaments and how they understood the redemptive work of Jesus in terms of God’s whole plan of salvation.
Because of this, combined with the instructions it contains regarding the central points of Christian faith, it make Hebrews one of the most important books of the New Testament
The Hebrews needed a fundamental change to the way in which they viewed, and experienced religion. Up to now the Jewish faith had been a very sensual faith with elements that could easily be touched and felt.
For the Jews this sensual element of religion was critical, the sacrifices, the incense, the priests entering into the Holy of Holies, the blood of the sacrifice, the wearing of prayer shawls (Tallits) and phylacteries, the re-enactment of the exodus each year and so on were central to expressing their faith.
But now the focus was not so much on the sensual but the spiritual, the relationship with the creator God through His Son Jesus Christ. And in some ways, although that made their faith more dynamic, it made it harder to express.
They needed to add a spiritual dimension to their sensual one and then focus on the spiritual not on the sensual, focus on the core of their belief rather than the trappings which surrounded it. Focus on Christ and their relationship through Him with God rather than the law.
And in so doing, God was able to transform their faith into something better than they ever imagined and give their life and worship new meaning.
The law, with which the Jews were so familiar, was only a means to and end, not an end in itself. Over the years they lost sight of that reality.
And whilst we may smile at the Jews and their somewhat slavish adherence to the law it’s very easy for us to fall into the same trap.
We can do the same, when the structures of our religion become the end in themselves not the means to an end, a deeper and more spiritual walk with God. We can get carried away with the material things that surround our faith, our churches, our organisations our structures, forgetting that at its core our faith is centred on having a spiritual relationship with God.
We end us settling for second best, a faith that is based almost solely on ritual.
God wants our relationship with Him to deepen day by day. To be dynamic and real. To be based on us being open to Him to touch and transform our lives as we expose more of them to Him. To become more Christ like day by day.
Structures such as church services can have an important role to play as they help us understand more about Jesus and help us worship Him together.
Our church structures, the forms of worship we use, following the cycles of the Christian year are all part of the way in which we open ourselves to God. In our worship we meet to, to ask his forgiveness of our sins, to hear and receive his holy word, to offer Him praise and thanksgiving, words we use week by week in our services.
Opening ourselves to be more Christ centred and less self centred, giving everything that we do meaning and purpose. Hence the old hymn writer writing ‘We have a purpose to fulfil’. Without that the rituals themselves just become more and more empty and meaningless, just as they were doing for the Hebrews
Hebrews, perhaps more than any other book in the bible reminds us of the importance of our spiritual heritage. It also reminds us too that our faith needs to be firmly fixed on our spiritual relationship with God through His ultimate sacrifice of His Son Jesus. As we focus on Christ, our faith, our worship and our lives themselves becomes ones which take all of our life and experiences (of worship and more) to date, just as it did for the Hebrews, builds on them to turn them into something better then we ever imagined.
Slowly the Hebrew Christians got the message. Their faith moved from the ritualistic faith of the Old Testament to the dynamic and living faith of the New. Life empowered by their dynamic faith, became much better than they ever imagined.