The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. Otherwise, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins. It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. (New International Version)
Sometimes, we silly people confuse the sign for the real deal. It’s important to distinguish between the two. We discern the difference all the time when it comes to more mundane affairs.
People generally know that looking at a movie poster is not watching the actual film; that wearing a string of cheap pearls is only mimicking the real and expensive ones; or that sitting in a doctor’s waiting room isn’t the same thing as being in the appointment.
However, when it comes to our religion, we seem to blur the lines between sign and substance. Praying a “sinners prayer” or making a profession of faith isn’t the same as growing, maturing, following, and living a committed Christianity.
Knowing some Christian lingo and/or going with the flow of cultural Christianity doesn’t necessarily mean that Christ’s words and ways are being followed.
And today’s New Testament lesson is a reminder, and not a guilt trip, that the law points to the actual substance of religious life – and is not life itself.
The laws surrounding the old system of animal sacrifice were never meant to be an end in itself. It pointed forward to the real deal and was, therefore, completely inadequate to bring deliverance from sin, death, and hell to anyone.
The very fact that sacrifices needed to be repeated year and after year demonstrated that they were ineffectual in saving a person. Rather, those sacrifices were designed to cause the worshiper to long for a sacrifice to end all sacrifices – to anticipate that the sin issue would be settled once and for all.
The only thing the sacrifices did was remind people they were sinners in need of a savior. Just as a slap on the hand is grossly inadequate for handling a murderer, so offering an animal was never going to do the trick in taking care of divine justice.
And besides, God has never been pleased with a bunch of sacrifices anyway. So, what is God really pleased with? The Lord is pleased with a heart devoted to obedience and fealty to Jesus Christ; God cares about inner attitudes and dispositions of the spirit which are inclined toward righteousness, holiness, mercy, humility, and justice for all.
Sacrifices, in and of themselves, have no power; they are like a toothless lion who couldn’t bite into you if he tried. The way to set things right is through the once for all mighty sacrifice of the Son – an offering to end all offerings.
God doesn’t want a checklist of daily sacrifices, any more than a spouse only wants supper on the table at night, or a paycheck every month. It’s nice but falls short of the full scope of marital interactions and relations. A marriage built on law won’t stand. It needs real flesh and blood relationship, complete with a devoted heart, sincere attitudes, and loving words and actions.
Since Christ has ably and permanently taken care of the sin issue, what sort of impact ought that to have on the Christian’s life? What kind of people are we to be?
To begin listing things to do is to go back to law and fail to grasp the gospel. And that’s where many churches and believers get tripped up and miss the grace of God altogether. Observing rules of cultural Christian activities or holding to some accepted Christian norms isn’t going to cut it.
Jesus described the sort of people who go beyond ritual regulations and rules to embrace the true spirit and end of the law:
“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.
“You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.
“You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.
“You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.
“You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for.
“You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.
“You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of competing or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.
“You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom. (Matthew 5:3-10, MSG)
That describes folk who have embraced faith as the fulfillment of law. It’s a summary of the law’s intended purpose and end.
So, let’s worship Christ; and not some caricature of him. Maybe carefully reading through the entire book of Hebrews in one sitting will help.
Blessed God, purify your people by your abiding presence. Enlighten the minds of your people with the light of your good news. Bring wandering souls to an awareness and knowledge of Jesus Christ; and those who are walking in the way of life, keep them steadfast to the end. Guard those who are strong and prosperous from forgetting you. Increase in us your many gifts of grace and make us all fruitful in good works for the sake of Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.