Real Forgiveness (Hebrews 9:23-28)

By Marc Chagall, 1941

It was necessary, then, for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these sacrifices, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made with human hands that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence. Nor did he enter heaven to offer himself again and again, the way the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood that is not his own. Otherwise Christ would have had to suffer many times since the creation of the world. 

But he has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself. Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him. (New International Version)

In truth, I could preach on the Cross every Sunday and never exhaust the immensely rich implications of Jesus Christ’s death for us. 

Perhaps, for many Christians, today’s New Testament lesson seems like a re-hashing of things we already know. Yet, it is important to keep plumbing the depths of Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice, because, through continual examination of Christ and the Cross:

  • We will know, both intellectually and experientially, that our forgiveness is real. 
  • We will be able, both spiritually and emotionally, to extend real forgiveness to others.

The original recipients of Hebrews were experiencing spiritual fatigue due to their difficult circumstances. The believers were so worn down from swimming upstream of their problems, that they considered throwing in the towel and giving up on Christianity (or at least the Church). 

The author of Hebrews truly believed that the way to combat this tiredness was through a robust understanding of Christ and the Cross. So, he sought to demonstrate that Jesus is superior to the old sacrificial system and has superseded it. 

There are three main distinctions between the old sacrificial system and the new way of Christ so that we will be encouraged to know that our forgiveness is real.

Reality vs. Simulation

The Old Testament sacrificial system, and its worship rituals in dealing with the sin issue, were only a copy and a shadow of the real sacrifice, which is Christ. The Temple sacrifices, in other words, were merely a facsimile of the real thing.

The difference between the old temple sacrifices and the sacrifice of Christ, is like the difference between riding a mechanical horse and an actual horse. Mechanical horses are merely a simulation of real riding.

Since Christ has come as the real sacrifice for sin, we need no longer be content with simulations and copies of the real deal. The Christian’s forgiveness is neither a simulation nor a copy because Christ is the real thing. 

By Marc Chagall, 1952

Jesus did not just mechanically mouth words of forgiveness to us; Christ secured real forgiveness through his death on a cross. This is no cheap imitation of forgiveness. Christ died an actual violent death.

The emphasis in Scripture on blood and sacrifice can be upsetting for many people. Yet, we need to understand that the brokenness of this world is so bad that it requires drastic action. Christ’s death reflects the horrible sin of humanity. Since Jesus has secured forgiveness for us at such a steep price, we are to receive it with great humility and joy, knowing that God loves us that much.

Permanent vs. Temporary

Jesus Christ dealt with the sin issue once and for all through his blood. He came to do away with sin, not just veneer over it. The old sacrificial system was like whitewashing a barn – it took care of the issue for a while, but it would need to be done over and over again.

We are familiar with temporary arrangements. For example, annual fees need to be paid and renewal stickers have to be put on a car’s license plate every year. Christ’s atonement, however, is no temporary arrangement. The forgiveness Jesus offers is permanent.

There is no need to keep offering sacrifices over and over because Christ is the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. The forgiveness we possess is not like paying an annual fee and getting a forgiveness sticker for the year. In Jesus Christ, we are forgiven! And this forgiveness was purchased with Christ’s own blood.

The cross that held Christ’s naked and marred body, exposed the violence and injustice of this world. The Cross revealed what kind of world we have and what kind of God we have: a world of gross unfairness, and a God of sacrificial love. Because Jesus was willing to do this on our behalf, we have a permanent forgiveness, settled once and for all, through his blood.

This old world needs real forgiveness that lasts forever – not a cheap sentimental forgiving that is merely a flash in the pan. 

Salvation vs. Judgment

A lot of religious energy can be spent trying to figure out how to make ourselves acceptable to God.

Part of the good news is that, in Christ, we do not need to fear the future. We have been made right with God through the death of Jesus. Through Christ’s sacrifice, the doors to heaven and earth get flung wide open. The way has been secured, the trail has been blazed, and the road has been made smooth to come to God.

Jesus, unlike any Levitical priest, has entered God’s presence, providing access to the living God. Christ did not need to offer sacrifice for his own sins but offered himself solely on our behalf. Jesus did more than offer the sacrifice; he himself became the sacrifice. It was a sacrifice to bring deliverance to humanity, not judgment.

Either to justify or to judge is God’s business, not ours. Our concern is to believe in the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus that brings a permanent forgiveness; and, to share that life-giving message with others so that they, too, can experience deliverance from sin, death, and hell.

We can have such a hard time forgiving others because we struggle with experiencing our own forgiveness. The path to extending grace to others is in deepening our knowledge, understanding, and awareness of God’s grace in Christ.

Conclusion

The author of Hebrews meant for the Christian life to be an exciting and abundant adventure of following Jesus, the pioneer of our salvation.

And yet, many Christians do not know anything about this kind of life. They only see the Christian life as a duty and a chore, a kind of cross to bear. We must recognize that it is the Savior, Jesus Christ, the object of our faith, who has delivered us so that we can live a new life of freedom, enjoying our forgiveness and inviting others on the journey.

For he has rescued us from the kingdom of darkness and transferred us into the Kingdom of his dear Son, who purchased our freedom and forgave our sins.

Colossians 1:13-14, NLT

Jesus didn’t die on a cruel cross, then rise from death so that we could live ho-hum Christian lives.

Christ has granted us forgiveness so that we will enjoy the Christian life, appreciate the Word of God; relish in laboring together for the Gospel; and look forward with anticipation to how the Spirit will transform lives through Christ’s forgiveness. 

Real forgiveness opens our minds, hearts, and energies to live for Jesus, the pioneer of our salvation.

Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace. Clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name. Amen.

Think of the Needs of the Group (1 Corinthians 10:23-11:1)

Looking at it one way, you could say, “Anything goes. Because of God’s immense generosity and grace, we don’t have to dissect and scrutinize every action to see if it will pass muster.” But the point is not to just get by. We want to live well, but our foremost efforts should be to help others live well.

With that as a base to work from, common sense can take you the rest of the way. Eat anything sold at the butcher shop, for instance; you don’t have to run an “idolatry test” on every item. “The earth,” after all, “is God’s, and everything in it.” That “everything” certainly includes the leg of lamb in the butcher shop. If a nonbeliever invites you to dinner and you feel like going, go ahead and enjoy yourself; eat everything placed before you. It would be both bad manners and bad spirituality to cross-examine your host on the ethical purity of each course as it is served. On the other hand, if he goes out of his way to tell you that this or that was sacrificed to god or goddess so-and-so, you should pass. Even though you may be indifferent as to where it came from, he isn’t, and you don’t want to send mixed messages to him about who you are worshiping.

But, except for these special cases, I’m not going to walk around on eggshells worrying about what small-minded people might say; I’m going to stride free and easy, knowing what our large-minded Master has already said. If I eat what is served to me, grateful to God for what is on the table, how can I worry about what someone will say? I thanked God for it, and he blessed it!

So eat your meals heartily, not worrying about what others say about you—you’re eating to God’s glory, after all, not to please them. As a matter of fact, do everything that way, heartily and freely to God’s glory. At the same time, don’t be callous in your exercise of freedom, thoughtlessly stepping on the toes of those who aren’t as free as you are. I try my best to be considerate of everyone’s feelings in all these matters; I hope you will be, too.

It pleases me that you continue to remember and honor me by keeping up the traditions of the faith I taught you. (The Message)

“To know how to free oneself is nothing; the arduous thing is to know what to do with one’s freedom.”

Andre Gide

Extreme individualism wants what it wants and doesn’t give a thought about anyone else – which is why we always have such a peck of trouble in the world all the time.

We need to get a phrase into our language which will become a continual mantra we say and observe:

Think of the needs of the group.

Christianity is a religion of community, of being attentive to and meeting one another’s needs, and of caring about the common good of all persons throughout the world. Christians dishonor their Lord and buck their spiritual tradition whenever they go rogue and base everything they say and do on what sort of advantage it is for them without considering others.

Yes, believers in Jesus have freedom in Christ. The cross has released the shackles that kept us in sin’s bondage. But, no, that doesn’t mean we get to do whatever we want, whenever we want. That’s the way individualism looks at it. That’s not how a communal people, the church, are to look at it.

Freedom hinges on two very important and seemingly small grammar prepositions: from and to.

Freedom always involves two elements:

  1. Freedom from what hinders or oppresses us.
  2. Freedom to become who we are meant to be.

In Christianity, believers are saved from sin, death, and hell – released from guilt and shame. There is redemption from the pit of despair. The bonds that hindered are now broken through the cross of Christ. The power of the world, the sinful nature, and the devil are taken away.

Yet, in no way does that now mean that we now get to do whatever we want, as if we’ve finally outgrown childhood and parental authority.

The extreme individualist Christian looks at freedom solely from this vantage. As a result, such a person considers the church as nonobligatory, involvement in issues of justice as optional, the use of personal funds and resources as discretionary, and accountability to others as arbitrary.

Such individualism sees Christianity as a fire insurance policy from hell, and a ticket punched for heaven. Until Christ returns, the reasoning goes, I can do whatever the heck I want. It’s my life, not yours.

Christians, however, are still servants. Whereas we were once enslaved to the dark forces of this world, now we are slaves to Christ. We exchanged masters. Satan is no longer the deceitful and lying task master over us. We are now under new management and have a new Master, the Lord Jesus. We’ve changed allegiances.

And now, submitted to Christ, we embrace our mandate of freedom to become whom we were always meant to be: At peace with our Creator and in harmony with all creation. We are now free to enjoy right relationships with God and others, to walk in faith, hope, and love, and to bless both the church and the world.

The Christian’s freedom came at a price: the very blood of Christ Jesus. Therefore, we are not to abuse that freedom by focusing solely on our freedoms from all that once bound us. We are also responsible and accountable for using that freedom in going to the world and proclaiming the gospel in word and sacrament, as well as loving God and neighbor.

Freedom is only freedom when it has the well-being of everyone in mind.

Think of the needs of the group.

Lord God, almighty and everlasting Father: Help us to live into the freedom you have brought to us. May we exercise our freedom, with the heart of a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ, to serve your purposes. Unite us, protect our sacred liberties and rights, and defend us from every evil. Strengthen your people as a foundation of moral clarity, justice, love, and gospel proclamation. Grant all this by the power of your Holy Spirit and in the Name of Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord. Amen.

The Divine Warrior (Isaiah 59:15b-21)

The Lord looked and was displeased
    that there was no justice.

He saw that there was no one,
    he was appalled that there was no one to intervene;
so his own arm achieved salvation for him,
    and his own righteousness sustained him.
He put on righteousness as his breastplate,
    and the helmet of salvation on his head;
he put on the garments of vengeance
    and wrapped himself in zeal as in a cloak.
According to what they have done,
    so will he repay
wrath to his enemies
    and retribution to his foes;
    he will repay the islands their due.
From the west, people will fear the name of the Lord,
    and from the rising of the sun, they will revere his glory.
For he will come like a pent-up flood
    that the breath of the Lord drives along.

“The Redeemer will come to Zion,
    to those in Jacob who repent of their sins,”
declares the Lord.

“As for me, this is my covenant with them,” says the Lord. “My Spirit, who is on you, will not depart from you, and my words that I have put in your mouth will always be on your lips, on the lips of your children and on the lips of their descendants—from this time on and forever,” says the Lord. (New International Version)

The Lord inhabits a lot of roles as God: Creator and Sustainer, Father and Mother, Helper and Healer, Sovereign and King, Shepherd and Spirit, and much more. In today’s Old Testament lesson, we see God as the Divine Warrior and Redeemer.

Readers of the New Testament will pick up on the warrior language in Isaiah’s prophecy (Ephesians 6:10-20). The Divine Warrior readies for battle by putting on armor: a breastplate of righteousness and the helmet of salvation. The Lord prepares to intervene, to make war on injustice, because there are no earthly human warriors willing to eradicate unrighteousness, redeem the oppressed, and establish deliverance for the needy.

The “bystander effect,” or “bystander apathy,” is a social psychology term that refers to cases in which individuals do not offer any means of help to a victim when other people are present. In experiment after experiment over the past fifty years, social psychologists have found that the more bystanders there are, the less likely any one of them will help. 

For example, researchers Bibb Latané and Judith Rodin staged an experiment in 1969 around a woman in distress. 70% of the people who were alone called out or went to help the woman after they believed she had fallen and was hurt. Yet, when there were other people around, only 40% offered help.

The social psychologists found that individuals find it far too easy to stand with their hands in their pockets, whenever there are other people around that could help and do what is right and just. 

The Lord your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. (Zephaniah 3:17, NIV)

The Lord noticed that justice had disappeared. God was plenty displeased with the lack of justice – and became downright disgusted when no one was doing anything about it. 

“Rationalization is a process not of perceiving reality, but of attempting to make reality fit one’s emotions.”

Ayn Rand

The rationalizations for not becoming involved and avoiding the work of justice in the world are legion: 

  • “Someone else can do it better than me.” 
  • “But what if I screw up?”
  • “I don’t have time for this.”
  • “How could I possibly make any difference?”
  • “That’s not my job.”
  • “They made their own bed, now they can sleep in it.”
  • “I don’t know what to do.”

God puts the responsibility for ensuring that everyone has what they need to live and thrive on us. We truly are our brother’s and sister’s keeper.

So, let’s come back to the Divine Warrior image in the New Testament. Christians are to take up the armor of God, not only to protect themselves from evil, but also to fight the dark forces that keep people locked in systems of injustice. Read the following text from the perspective of ensuring justice for the common good of all people:

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. 

Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place,and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Ephesians 6:10-20, NIV)

The under-privileged, the under-represented, the under-served, the disadvantaged, the deprived, the indigent, and many more groups of people exist because of ignorance and apathy toward their needs. Everyone, including you and me, need to own this and not rationalize why we cannot participate.

The prophet Isaiah lets us know that none of us are anonymous; we have all been given gifts as the people of God in order to serve the greater good. 

The Lord dispenses grace and glory primarily through active people who forsake being bystanders and respond to God’s call on their lives. 

Let’s not bring out the Divine Warrior because of our own negligence. Instead, let’s be attentive to justice, righteousness, and redemption. Perhaps then God will get a more positive press in the public square.

God of justice and righteousness, you care about the people of this world receiving the things they need to live and flourish in life. Inspire and empower all of your people, including me, to spread a spirit of service in our local communities, churches, workplaces, and everywhere we live and go, through Jesus Christ our Lord in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Get Me Out of This Scary Dungeon Cave! (Psalm 142)

I pray to you, Lord.
    I beg for mercy.
I tell you all my worries
    and my troubles,
and whenever I feel low,
    you are there to guide me.

A trap has been hidden
    along my pathway.
Even if you look,
    you won’t see anyone
who cares enough
    to walk beside me.
There is no place to hide,
    and no one who really cares.

I pray to you, Lord!
    You are my place of safety,
and you are my choice
    in the land of the living.
Please answer my prayer.
    I am completely helpless.

Help! They are chasing me,
    and they are too strong.
Rescue me from this prison,
    so I can praise your name.
And when your people notice
your wonderful kindness to me,
    they will rush to my side. (Contemporary English Version)

The modern holiday of Halloween is kitschy with a funny sort of scary. But there’s nothing funny about being truly frightened and feeling helpless. Its anything but a holiday.

The psalmist, David, was in both a literal and a metaphorical cave. Before he ever became king of Israel and Judah, David was on the run from King Saul. He hid in a cave. He had more suspense and was on the edge of his seat much more than any horror slasher film could portray.

David was hiding and just trying to stay alive. There was nothing in his life which deserved such maltreatment. It was sheer jealousy on Saul’s end of things that caused him to give his soul over to oppressive pride. And David was the brunt of that oppression.

As biblical readers, we know the end of the story. Saul is eventually killed in battle and David is exalted as the new king. Yet, here, in today’s psalm, we have the genuine cry of a desperate man who longed for the justice of God – not knowing what the end of it all would be.

One of the reasons David was a person after God’s own heart is that he was humble and remained connected to God without succumbing to the bitterness of his situation. I strongly suggest that David was able to keep his life free from pride because he regularly liberated his spirit through real and raw expressions of his emotions and experiences to God.

Spiritual confidence cannot be ginned-up through pretending that all is well, and everything is okay. Rather, spiritual courage is forged in the most awful of circumstances through loud cries of emotional pain to the God who truly hears it all.

Anyone who tells you different is flimsily trying to maintain their puny sense of delusional power. God sees you in the dark place and he hears your cry for mercy. He knows your dark cave better than you know it yourself.

One of the reasons I love the psalms so dearly is that they know the human condition. There is no pretense with the psalmist, David. He opens his mind and heart. He lets the genuine feelings of his life pour out in an offering to the God who pays attention to the humble and contrite.

The proud and arrogant will forever be flummoxed by the psalms, not understanding why they are even in the canon of Holy Scripture.

Yet, here they are, for all to examine and experience. Whereas the piously insincere are continually putting up a false front of godliness and keeping up appearances of superior spirituality, here we have authentic religion smack in front of our faces.

For me, the psalms liberate us from the shackles of trying to be someone I am not and enable us to connect with a God who encourages us in our strange wonderings, our emotional pain, and our sometimes horrific situations.

The Lord is perfectly at home with hearing loud cries, agonizing shouts, and desperate prayers directed to heaven.

Those who oppress others, I believe, are easy to spot because they:

  • Ask rhetorical questions to make a point.
  • Assume their thoughts and ways are always best.
  • Accuse without evidence based on their faulty assumptions.
  • Seek to harm and destroy.
  • Enjoy chaos and thrive on taking advantage of others’ misfortune.
  • Refuse to listen and learn from others.
  • Suppress all competing voices contrary to their own.

Autocrats are too smug and too far into their delusions of power, authority, and self-righteousness to be able to hear any voice other than their own.

A self-absorbed despot in power feels like being in a dingy dank prison cave with no ability to leverage a release.

A self-abnegated deliverer in authority feels like being in a wide open field with freedom to help others in bondage.

God hears when others don’t. The Lord advocates on behalf of those caught in the crosshairs of tyrannical injustice and maltreatment. Divine benevolence is always on the lookout for those being oppressed.

The Almighty uses power to listen and respond when distressed persons are scared silly with maltreatment. Voices raised to heaven shall never go unheard.

Since God listens to those in need of mercy, this is precisely the disposition we are to adopt, as well.

The proud, convinced of their superiority, either cannot or will not see those languishing underneath unjust power structures. There is no space within arrogant hearts to accommodate the cries for justice from people beneath them.

Therefore, recourse for the oppressed comes from God – because God acts with equity, integrity, and justice.

It is not the oppressed who need our pity; it is the ungodly, because they don’t know anything about pity, or empathy, or mercy. Oppressors have no stomach for any of that. So, they keep people locked in systems of oppression. They maintain relational distance and turn a blind eye to the genuine frightened screams of those under their boot.

The weak, the distressed, and the spiritually tired in this corrupt world, however, have the chance for appeal. They can call out to the God who knows them and their situations.

Although cries for deliverance may not happen immediately, we can be assured that divine help is forthcoming. And that is scary good stuff.

Lord Jesus Christ, by your patience in suffering you made my earthly pain sacred and gave me the example of humility. Be near to me in my time of weakness and pain; sustain me by your grace so that my strength and courage may not fail. Heal me according to your will. Loving Jesus, as you cried out on the cross, I cry out to you in my desperation. Do not forsake me. Grant me relief and preserve me in your perfect peace. Amen.