Hebrews 7:23-28 – Jesus Is Better

“Exodus” by Marc Chagall, 1952

Now there have been many of those priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore, he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.

Such a high priest truly meets our need—one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself. For the law appoints as high priests men in all their weakness; but the oath, which came after the law, appointed the Son, who has been made perfect forever. (New International Version)

Several years ago, I enjoyed serving communion with a retired minister in the church for which I was serving at the time. When we were in the middle of it, I leaned over to him and gave him a bit of instruction on what we were about to do. After I finished, he leaned over to me with a smile and said, “I didn’t hear a thing you just said, but I’ll figure it out!”

When it comes to the Christian life, I think we can learn something from the old Pastor. We are neither always going to hear well everything which is in the Bible, nor are we going to understand everything which is happening around us as Christians. 

The Jewish Christians, for which the book of Hebrews was originally preached, had a difficult transition from Judaism to Christianity. In Judaism, they knew what was happening. The sacrificial system was detailed and meticulously planned. The priesthood was clearly observed with men from the tribe of Levi. Worship was predictable.

However, becoming a Christian changed a lot of things. Being a Christian meant relying on the wild and unpredictable Spirit of God. There was no longer a tangible sacrificial system. Jesus is the high priest, but the believers never see him. 

There was so much living by faith, and so little understanding of what was going to happen, that the Hebrew Christians’ resolve began to break down. They became discouraged and started to lose patience with Christianity.

“The Painter and the Christ” by Marc Chagall, 1975

Today’s New Testament lesson is in the middle of an extended discussion by the author of Hebrews about the priesthood and sacrificial system. The Christian Jews were thinking about reneging on their commitment to Jesus and returning to their previous way of life in Judaism. 

So, central to the author’s exhortation is to demonstrate that Jesus is superior to everything in Judaism. Jesus is better than any Old Testament priest. Jesus is the once-for-all sacrifice for sins. Jesus is better because his priesthood is permanent, and his sacrifice is perfect.

In the ancient world, sacrifice was at the center of everyone’s belief system. Every pagan religion had some sort of sacrificial practice to satisfy the god(s) and ensure deliverance and/or prosperity. Jews, of course, had an elaborate sacrificial system of their own with detailed prescriptions of how to go about it.

We need to feel something of the original force of Christianity. It was a radical idea to have one sacrifice to end all sacrifices.

Everyone understood that sacrifices were temporary; you had to keep offering them over and over again. Christianity, however, asked the world to have a new understanding of sacrifice. No longer would there be any sacrifice – no grain sacrifice; no offerings of first-fruits; no animal sacrifices; no physical sacrifices whatsoever. 

In Christianity, Jesus as the once-for-all sacrifice to end all sacrifices was such a crazy notion for so many people that they mocked Christians for it. Both Jews and pagans could barely wrap their minds around such a progressive idea. It would be like saying to us today that there is no longer any need for money because some individual became the underwriter for everything everybody does.

“The Martyr” by Marc Chagall, 1970

All the things the old sacrificial system did for worshipers are now completely fulfilled in the person of Jesus.  Condensed in just a few verses of Scripture, we have a very rich picture of Jesus:

  • Jesus is not a temporary priest, but a permanent priest, the one who is able to intercede continually on our behalf without us having to perform a ritual sacrifice.
  • Jesus lives forever, which enables him to never cease his intercessory work.
  • Jesus saves completely.
  • Jesus meets our need.
  • Jesus has been made perfect forever.

Yet, sometimes Christians go back to the old sacrificial system, not by physically offering animal sacrifices, but treating Christ’s once-for-all finished work as if it were just too good to be true. We reason that we need to do something to help save ourselves. Although Jesus has saved us fully, and therefore, there is no longer any need for sacrifice, yet we still try:

  • To appease God through church attendance or other works, as if the Lord needs to be soothed into not becoming angry at us.
  • To satisfy God through our giving so that the Lord will not have a furrowed brow against us.
  • To assuage our guilty conscience through Christian service, believing this will give us some leverage with God.

In all these kinds of instances, it is going back to an old sacrificial system that is obsolete.

The biblical and theological truth is that Jesus has thoroughly saved us from our sin, and, so, has cleansed us from all guilt, including a guilty conscience.

Jesus meets our need and has completely satisfied God’s wrath against sin. Jesus is our mediator and intercedes for us as we come to God’s throne of grace. That means we do not need to try and get God’s attention with some incredible sacrifice that will somehow obligate him to take notice. 

There is no longer ever a situation where we must run to some spiritual liquor store to pick up a Captain Morgan because the Captain of our souls, Jesus Christ, has already given us everything we need.

Since Jesus has been made perfect forever; is our great high priest; and is the once-for-all sacrifice to end all sacrifices, we have all the grace we need. 

We need not worry anymore about being good enough because Jesus is perfect. Christ’s work is made complete in us. The constant anxiety of feeling we don’t measure-up is not from God. The person and work of Jesus is sufficient to deliver us from guilt and shame.

“Well,” you might say, “if everybody believed that, then nobody would ever do anything.” No, it’s just the opposite. When we feel like we don’t measure up, we do less, not more. A low level discouragement sets in, and we do nothing because we intuitively know it will never be enough. We do just enough to squeak by, never quite knowing if it is doing anything. 

“Crucifixion” by Marc Chagall, 1961

Just like the Hebrew Christians of the first century, we consider giving up because Christianity doesn’t work for us. Yet, when we grasp Christ’s sacrifice to end all sacrifices, and are overwhelmed by grace, then everything we do in the Christian life is a simple desire to say “thank you” with our life and our lips. 

It is the grace, and not the wrath, of God that teaches us to say “no” to ungodliness and worldly passions and to live upright and godly lives (Titus 2:11-12).

The old system wasn’t bad. It served a purpose. Now, however, the old has given way to the new, and there is a better hope by which we draw near to God. The sacrificial system pointed forward to a perfect sacrifice by a permanent priest that would bring us to God forever.

Going back to the old system is like living permanently in a tent, and believing you are home.

Therefore, we must choose what is better. The options are not so much between what is bad and what is good, but between what is good and what is better than good. It is possible to do all kinds of good things and miss the better thing God is doing. 

So, how do we choose the better thing? How do we embrace the new, which is Christ, and not the old, which is the sacrificial system?

  1. Learn to say “no” to the treadmill going nowhere. Since we do not need to impress God, we have the freedom to say “no” to keeping up with the spiritual Jones’s; “no” to cajoling God’s favor, approval, or attention.
  2. Learn to say “yes” to engaging in spiritual practices which remind us of Christ. Say “yes” to the new way of the Spirit, which is by faith and not by sight. This present spiritual age is often intangible, ethereal, and unseen. It requires a new set of spiritual eyes to see.
  3. Let Christianity be about Jesus, and not about us. Resist the allure to rescue others, or have others rescue you. The work of rescue has already been done. Christ saves, we don’t.
  4. Know the better thing over the good thing. Pause before acting or re-acting. Are we expecting someone else to do what Christ has already done? Are we looking to do something we think will make God like us better? Remind yourself of Jesus and his redemption every day in small ways through Scripture reading and prayer, fellowship, and loving service.

Good people can love God, and yet, miss the opportunity to see they are already justified through Christ’s blood. We do not need to justify ourselves. We need to live into the justification we possess by grace through faith.

May it be so to the glory of God.

Mark 8:22-26 – A Ministry of Touch

“Healing” by Ivan Filichev

They [Jesus and his disciples] came to Bethsaida, and some people brought a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. When he had spit on the man’s eyes and put his hands on him, Jesus asked, “Do you see anything?”

He looked up and said, “I see people; they look like trees walking around.”

Once more Jesus put his hands on the man’s eyes. Then his eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. Jesus sent him home, saying, “Don’t even go into the village.” (New International Version)

Spirituality is, of course, a matter of the spirit. It is also a matter of the body. It may be lost on us that the way our spirituality is expressed is through our very real physical selves. A disembodied spirituality is really no spirituality, at all.

Christianity is profoundly physical. A core doctrine of the Church is the incarnation of Christ, God becoming man. Jesus has a real flesh and blood body. His physical body was the vehicle by which he did the will of God. Christ’s earthly ministry directed attention to people’s holistic needs – including the physical body.

So, perhaps it ought not surprise us when Jesus intentionally and literally touches people. From one person to another, Jesus was attentive to the power of compassionate and healing physical touch. For healing does not happen from afar; it is close enough to be personal, touching the spirit, the emotions, the mind, and the body.

In today’s Gospel lesson, some folks came to Jesus with a blind man in tow. They were evidently concerned and close enough to the man to beg Jesus to touch him. Yes, touch him. The small group of people were looking for a tangible reach from Jesus.

Just the other day, I visited a dear lady in the hospital for which I’m a Chaplain. As I began to speak with her, she reached out her hand, and I took it. I then realized that she was blind. This patient, in the dark because of her eyes, and in a strange unfamiliar place, needed more than a verbalized healing prayer from me. She needed a very real physical connection. The ability to compassionately touch another person has tremendous power.

“To touch is to give life.”

Michelangelo

Skin-to-skin contact is vital for our mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical health. Sensory deprivation is a real thing, and it’s a pervasive problem, especially during a pandemic.

We now know that whenever we feel unusual stress and pressure in our lives that the body releases the stress hormone cortisol. One of the biggest things actual physical touch can do is reduce the abnormal stress, allowing the immune system to work the way it should. What’s more, touch helps calm our heart rate and blood pressure, enabling us to have a more regulated way of life.

Jesus took the blind man by the hand and walked him outside the village. Let’s pause on that factoid for a moment. There was a man who literally walked with Jesus, hand-in-hand, for perhaps a few miles. I wonder what he experienced, just in that walk. What seems clear to me is that this event of walking was part of the man’s healing. He quite simply needed this bodily experience with Jesus.

I find it a bit humorous that some commentators struggle with the process of Christ’s healing the blind man, as if Jesus himself was struggling with trying to heal the guy. However, by taking the approach of an embodied spirituality, we can discern that this man required a great deal of touch from Jesus. The spitting, the putting the hands on the eyes, and then doing it again, was all deliberately tactile and just what the man needed for his healing of both body and soul.

Christ’s physical body was an instrument of grace. And our own bodies are meant to bless others with appropriate and compassionate touch. I realize this gets complicated with social distancing practices and concerns with health during a pandemic, yet we can still be agents of healing through simple acts of touch, including the following:

  1. Hug others. Hugs are healthy. I completely understand that some people aren’t huggers, and we ought to be guarded hugging others we don’t know very well. I usually ask before I hug someone outside of my family or church. Unfortunately, many people have had bad experiences being touched, and my heart goes out to them. Yet, the need for meaningful and positive touch still remains both for us and for others.
  2. Pet the dog. My wife’s little dog is a prima donna. He drives me nuts sometimes (maybe most of the time). Yet, because of his disposition, he is the perfect little gentleman when in a care facility or in public. He likes the attention. If you have a pet, let other folks pet them. I’m a busy guy, but when it comes to taking time for neighborhood kids to pet the dog while I’m walking him, I’m all in. It is a simple ministry that anyone can do.
  3. Hold hands or offer light touch. This can and perhaps should be a liberal activity within most families. It can also be done with others. It’s not weird to do this, even in some contexts with strangers. For example, when leading someone in the hospital to their appointed place, depending on the circumstance, I place a light hand on the back or shoulder. Hospitals aren’t exactly destination vacation spots, so folks can be nervous when in them. Simple ways of appropriate touch help calm the anxiety.
  4. Fist pumps and elbow bumps have replaced handshakes, and that’s a good thing. Fist and elbows just aren’t the same thing as a good old fashioned tight handshake, yet it is still an opportunity to touch. Some touch is better than no touch. Don’t give up on practicing ways to physically connect, even if those ways aren’t ideal.
  5. Use your eyes. There are just going to be some circumstances and places where you cannot offer an actual physical ministry of touch. So, use your eyes. Imagine in your mind offering a hug or a handshake to the person and intentionally focus that picture to your eyes. Since our physical eyes communicate a lot, the other person will pick it up.

Every day is an opportunity, for the believer, to walk with Jesus along our life’s journey. As we allow Christ to touch our lives, we, in turn, are able to touch others both spiritually and sometimes even physically through compassionate ministry.

May you know the grace of being touched by Jesus, and the blessing of touching others with the love of God.

Nehemiah 1:1-11 – A Prayer of Solidarity and Confession

These are the memoirs of Nehemiah son of Hacaliah.

In late autumn, in the month of Kislev, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes’ reign, I was at the fortress of Susa. Hanani, one of my brothers, came to visit me with some other men who had just arrived from Judah. I asked them about the Jews who had returned there from captivity and about how things were going in Jerusalem.

They said to me, “Things are not going well for those who returned to the province of Judah. They are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem has been torn down, and the gates have been destroyed by fire.”

When I heard this, I sat down and wept. In fact, for days I mourned, fasted, and prayed to the God of heaven. Then I said,

“O Lord, God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps his covenant of unfailing love with those who love him and obey his commands, listen to my prayer! Look down and see me praying night and day for your people Israel. I confess that we have sinned against you. Yes, even my own family and I have sinned! We have sinned terribly by not obeying the commands, decrees, and regulations that you gave us through your servant Moses.

“Please remember what you told your servant Moses: ‘If you are unfaithful to me, I will scatter you among the nations. But if you return to me and obey my commands and live by them, then even if you are exiled to the ends of the earth, I will bring you back to the place I have chosen for my name to be honored.’

“The people you rescued by your great power and strong hand are your servants.O Lord, please hear my prayer! Listen to the prayers of those of us who delight in honoring you. Please grant me success today by making the king favorable to me. Put it into his heart to be kind to me.”

In those days I was the king’s cup-bearer. (New Living Translation)

I believe that nothing of eternal significance happens apart from God. Jesus said it clearly: “Apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5, NIV) 

There is simply no substitute for a close relationship with God. The will of God can only be accomplished through the spiritual practice of prayer. Prayer is not a passive activity. If done well, prayer takes time, a great deal of effort, and a sense of priority. It is quite possible that biblical praying can be the most challenging, exhausting, laborious, and rewarding thing we do.

Through prayer we can become filled with the Holy Spirit, gain wisdom to make godly decisions, and access spiritual power that can melt the hardest of hearts and change the minds of the most stubborn of people. 

In prayer we have the privilege of expressing our concerns and needs, as well as having God’s agenda revealed to us for what to do. Our personal and communal holiness is in direct proportion to the great task of prayer.

When faced with the reality that his hometown, Jerusalem, was in trouble, Nehemiah, the king’s wine steward, prayed. In prayer he owned the problems Jerusalem faced. He owned it through a prayer that emphasized and reminded God of the covenant with God’s people; he confessed the sins by which Israel violated that covenant; and he held onto the promise that God would lift the curse on the city if the people would only repent.

Nehemiah had a compassionate heart that was attentive to what was going on in his native land. Hearing the tragic news of the city’s condition, he immediately wept, mourned, fasted, and prayed.

Nehemiah was profoundly disturbed by the news that Jerusalem was in trouble. Rather than being preoccupied with himself and his own situation as an exile in Babylon, Nehemiah sought to do something about the security and spiritual health of his people.

In his prayer to God, Nehemiah was genuine, persistent, confident, humble, and submissive to God. He did not distance himself from the sins of the people, but clearly identified with them through a prayer of confession.  That confession was intense, honest, real, and urgent.

Sin always needs to be identified, acknowledged, and pardoned. If it isn’t, there is no hope for things to be different.

There is a season for everything. Hunting seasons may come and go, but it is always open season for prayer.  And Nehemiah’s prayer is a solid biblical model for us to emulate. We have our challenges. Like Nehemiah, let’s own those challenges through prayers which are biblically focused, compassionately offered, and spiritually curious to know and do God’s agenda for the church and the world.

Let us continually have a spirit of prayer to God in everything we say and do – prayerful spirits that above all seeks God’s will and implementing that will through God’s love.

Almighty and gracious God, we lower our heads before you and confess we too often forget that we are yours. Sometimes we carry on our lives as if there was no God and we fall short of being a credible witness to you and your incredible mercy. For these things we ask your forgiveness and strength. Give us clear minds and open hearts so we may witness to the love of Christ in our world. Remind us to be who you would have us to be regardless of what we are doing or who we are with. Hold us to closely and tightly in your good strong hands. Build our relationship with you and with those you have given us on earth, through Jesus Christ our Lord, in the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen.

Psalm 34:1-8 – Deliverance from Trouble

I will praise the Lord at all times.
    I will constantly speak his praises.
I will boast only in the Lord;
    let all who are helpless take heart.
Come, let us tell of the Lord’s greatness;
    let us exalt his name together.

I prayed to the Lord, and he answered me.
    He freed me from all my fears.
Those who look to him for help will be radiant with joy;
    no shadow of shame will darken their faces.
In my desperation I prayed, and the Lord listened;
    he saved me from all my troubles.
For the angel of the Lord is a guard;
    he surrounds and defends all who fear him.

Taste and see that the Lord is good.
    Oh, the joys of those who take refuge in him! (New Living Translation)

Gratitude and praise are more than a nice thing. They have the power to spiritually form us, emotionally buoy us, and mentally change our brain chemistry for the better – not to mention connecting us with divine help.

Today’s psalm is a song of thanksgiving. The psalmist intentionally recalls being delivered by G-d from trouble and hardship. And he invites us to experience G-d’s salvation, as well.

Desperate people who are between a rock and a hard place need divine help. The Lord is able to intervene in both small and large ways. David, the psalmist, crafted this psalm in a time when he had no resources available to him. He was alone with nothing but the Lord. And that was plenty. Even a little bit of G-d is enough to thoroughly rescue.

Take note of the verbs used to describe G-d’s activity in helping David: “answered” “freed” “listened” “saved” “surrounds” and “defends.” These multiple actions of the Lord were all activated through David’s initiative with one single verb of his own: “prayed.”

It is one thing to pray because of expectation or routine. It is altogether a different thing to pray out of desperation from the depths of your gut.

So, when David encourages us to taste and see that the Lord is good and to take refuge in G-d, he is calling us to pray – to know something of God’s promises, presence, provision, and power and to actively ask, seek, and knock for help.

David, the psalmist, really wants us to experience prayer. He desires us to cry out on behalf of ourselves, as well as lifting up others to G-d. Yet, truth be told, helping those with afflictions and sickness through prayer is something we don’t always handle well.

We might too quickly and reflexively dispense our homespun opinions and ideas, as if we are experts on another’s situation, rather than hurrying to G-d in prayer. In our pride, we believe that if folks will just follow our recommendations that all will be well.

And then there are the silly and even hurtful things we say to others in their distress, rather than interceding for them before G-d. We may toss out a flippant and simplistic statement like, “God will heal — just pray.” Then, we leave them to do that alone. And sometimes, even after prayer, medicine, and doing the right thing, change doesn’t happen, and nobody knows quite what to do.

We can also be guilty of reducing trouble to only the physical when the trouble might be emotional, mental, relational, or any combination thereof. These are the hurts and troubles plaguing us all, because we live in a broken world where everyone needs redemption.

Many times, we have no problem believing G-d will work on behalf of others. We trust the Lord for deliverance and the miraculous for them. Yet, when it comes to us, we harbor serious doubts of whether G-d will rescue us, or even wants to.

There are a lot of things we just don’t know. However, what we do know is that the God of David promises help in Psalm 34, and to redeem lives from desperate situations. And this is why David could boldly invite us to tell of the Lord’s greatness, and call us to praise G-d’s name together.

May the risen and ascended Christ, mightier than the hordes of hell, more glorious than the heavenly hosts, be with you in all your ways. 

May the cross of the Son of God protect you by day and by night, at morning and at evening, at all times and in all places. 

May Christ Jesus guard and deliver you from the snares of the devil, from the assaults of evil spirits, from the wrath of the wicked, from all base passions and from the fear of the known and unknown.

May the blessing of God almighty – Father, Son, and Spirit – be upon you and remain with you always. Amen.