From The Pastor's Pen

(Rev. Evan W. Hill)

November 11, Hebrews 9:23-28

"Nothing Stopping Us"

So, two weeks ago, we heard another passage from Hebrews, and I talked about how Hebrews is a letter that is concerned with the question, “Why Jesus?” Hebrews is written to a people who have lost their fire, who have stopped coming to worship, and who need to be reminded why they should devote their lives to this Jesus guy. The folks to whom this letter is written are mainly Jews, and so the writer of Hebrews makes big effort to explain Jesus in a way that would make sense to them. And so, the writer answers this question, “Why Jesus?” by talking about ancient Jewish rituals: temples, priests, sacrifices, and all that. Which is great if you are a Jewish person in the year 90, but not so great for most of us. So, a lot of Hebrews can seem strange to us. But the answers that are at the core of this letter are just as true for us today as they were for those Jews in the year 90.

Many people these days are still asking “Why Jesus?” Some of you here might be asking “Why Jesus?” What difference does Jesus make? Why is he the focus of everything? And the answer we are given today is this: Because Jesus “has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself.” Jesus removed sin once for all by sacrificing himself. Why Jesus? Because he got rid of sin.

Okay… that’s great! Jesus got rid of sin. That’s good news.

Well, sort of. The fact that Jesus got rid of sin is really only good news if

a) You know what sin is. And

b) You believe that sin is a problem.

Sin is not something most people go around talking about. Sin doesn’t come up in small talk. I don’t see very many social media posts about sin. Unless of course, it’s about something sexual, and then maybe people will mention sin. So, I don’t think most of the world around us has a very clear understanding of sin, much less why it’s a problem.

Sin is simply anything that harms our relationship with God. All people are meant to keep a relationship with God. And the way we keep this relationship is by loving God and loving other people. And anything we do that gets in the way of loving God and loving people, it has the effect of harming our relationship to God. We put our work and career before our love for God. That’s harming the relationship. That’s sin. We ignore a person who needs our help. That’s harming the relationship. That’s sin. We sin all the time. We’re all the time harming our relationship with God. Mostly we don’t even realize it. We’re too wrapped up in ourselves to even notice that we’re not loving God or loving others. Too into our own world to notice the damage we’ve to this relationship.

But there’s another part to sin that the Bible talks about. And we talk about it even less than we talk about harming our relationship to God. The harm we do to our relationship with God doesn’t just go away. Sin has lasting effects. It creates a wound.

Think of it this way: let’s say you choose to ignore your spouse for a few days, refusing to talk to them, refusing to respond to them in any way. That’s going to cause some harm, right? And that harm you do to your relationship isn’t just going to go away when you stop ignoring them. The harm you’ve done is going to leave a wound. It’s going to continue to hurt your spouse, and it’s going to hurt you. It’s going to be hard to restore that relationship with that wound between you.

It’s the same way with our relationship with God. The effects of sin don’t just go away when we turn back to God. Sin leaves a wound.

In its own way, our world knows how to deal with sin. It’s what our legal system is set up to do. If you do harm to another person or to the stability of society, then you are punished. You get a fine. You get community service. You get probation. You get jail time. You go to prison. That how our world traditionally deals with the harm of a sin against another person.

More recently, our world has started dealing with sin in another way. For sins that don’t fit neatly in legal code, we’ve taken to dealing with them through public shaming. The social media has made it far easier to make someone’s sins known far and wide. So, sins like sexual harassment are being dealt with through the punishment of public shame.

We have our ways of dealing with sin. But our world doesn’t know what to do with the wounds of sin. Our world doesn’t have good ways for healing the wounds between people. If it did, we wouldn’t be such a divided country right now. And our world definitely doesn’t have a way to heal the wounds between us and God. But our Scripture does.

The writer of Hebrews tells us that Jesus has removed sin by sacrificing himself. But clearly, there is still sin. Turn on the TV. Look at your news app. Another mass shooting this week. Twelve lives taken, and for what? Sin is alive and well.

Try this: at the end of your day, reflect on each part of your day. Ask yourself, “Was I loving God? Was I loving other people? If not, what was stopping me?” It can be surprising to go through your day like that. It makes it clear that sin is definitely alive and well.

So, what is the writer of Hebrews getting at? How can sin have been removed? If we look closely at this passage, we see that it is not simply sin that Jesus has removed, but the wounds of sin.

Hiding under the surface of our scripture today is a passage from Leviticus that describes the rituals for the Day of Atonement. On the Day of Atonement, which occurred once a year, the high priest would enter into the holiest place of the temple – a place that could only be entered on this day, once a year. This is the place where God’s presence resided. So, the priest would go into the presence of God and restore the relationship between God and the people.

The priest would do this in two different ways. One of things the priest did was to take a goat, put his hands on the goat’s head, and confess the sins of the people, putting them onto the goat. Then the priest would send that goat out into the wilderness, effectively dealing with the people’s sins.

But dealing with the people’s sins was really only a small part of what the priest did on the Day of Atonement. Most of what the priest would do on the Day of Atonement was to heal the lasting wounds of sin.

The way the Old Testament tends to talk about the wounds of sin is by talking about uncleanliness. It makes sense because untreated wounds are unclean. And in Old Testament culture, if you were unclean, then you weren’t fit to be around other people or in relationship with God. So, on the Day of Atonement, the priest cleansed the holiest place in the temple. He got rid of the uncleanliness that separated people from God. For all of God’s people, the priest healed all the wounds that sin created during that year.

And this is exactly what Jesus has done in his death on the cross. Except what Jesus has done was not just for a year and not just for the people of Israel. Jesus healed the wounds of sin once and for all people.

Yes, sin is still alive and well. But the wounds of sin no longer have to separate us from God anymore. The harm you have done to your relationship with God, it has already been healed. The harm you will do to your relationship with God, it too has already been healed as well. Whatever guilt, whatever shame, whatever wound is keeping you from fully embracing the love of God, Jesus has already dealt with it. Nothing is stopping you from having a relationship with the One who created you. With the One who gives you purpose. With the One who loves and affirms you.

All you have to do is trust and accept the gift of Jesus’ healing.

But Jesus didn’t only heal the wounds between us and God. Jesus healed the wounds between us and them. Jesus healed the wounds of sin that exist among all people. So, the wounds of sin no longer have to separate us from each other anymore. The harm you have done in your relationships, it has already been healed. The harm you will do in your relationships, it too has already been healed. Whatever guilt, whatever shame, whatever wound is keeping you from forgiving or accepting forgiveness, Jesus has already dealt with it. Trying to hold onto your wounds is like keeping an old band-aid. It’s no longer doing you any good.

If we trust in what Jesus has done, there is nothing stopping us from restoring our broken relationships.

Why Jesus? Because this world is full of broken and wounded relationships. This world is full of broken and wounded people. And this world can’t do a thing about any of it. But Jesus, who was God right here in the flesh, he can. And he already has. Trust, accept this healing, and see what God has done. Amen.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Ecclesiastes 9:1-10;

 1 Corinthians 15:12-20


So, let’s talk about spiritual stuff. If you look at the recent surveys about religion in American, one of the fastest growing groups of people are those who claim to be “spiritual but not religious.” These are the folks that believe that there is something deeper in life that connects us all, but that religion doesn’t lead us to it. They are the people who think that you have to seek the spiritual life all on you own. They usually have a whole mish-mash of practices like prayer, yoga, meditation, reading various spiritual books. They usually have some kind of belief in love as a unifying force. A lot of my friends and people my age fall in this spiritual but not religious group. Baby Boomers, however, make up the largest portion of the spiritual but not religious, so it’s not just young folk.

And you know, these spiritual but not religious people, they’re not all wrong. They have every reason to be suspicious of church and religious organizations. Certainly, churches can be painfully human places. Certainly, religious organizations have abused their power. And the spiritual but not religious are on the right path as far as love is concerned. But here is the thing about modern spirituality: it’s not really spiritual. At least not spiritual in the way that Paul or the rest of Scripture understand spiritual matters.

Paul starts this section of his letter to the church in Corinth by saying, “Now to touch on the spiritual…” But it quickly becomes clear that Paul’s not thinking about spirituality the way most modern people think about it. Paul doesn’t talk about seeking a spiritual connection to God. Instead, Paul talks about a spirituality that happens to us.

In our culture, spirituality is something that we do. It’s like a relaxing hobby. Some people do woodworking; me, I have my spiritual practices. But for Paul, spirituality is something that God does. Listen to what he says: “no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3). To confess that Jesus is Lord of our lives is not something that we do on our own. It’s something that happens by the Holy Spirit acting within us. The Spirit of God comes into us and changes us. It allows us to speak the truth that we could not speak before.

Our culture’s version of spirituality is like dipping a toe into a warm swimming pool. It’s a pleasant thing to do. But scriptural spirituality is like being hit by a big wave at the beach. It’s God overwhelming you and not leaving you the same as before. It’s not in your control.

Don’t get me wrong here. We all have to make the decision to allow Jesus into our lives. We all have to choose to participate in the work of the Holy Spirit. That much is in our control. But what the Holy Spirit does with us and in us afterward, that’s all God. If you have been baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then you should expect the Holy Spirit to do new and surprising things in you.

When the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples on the day of Pentecost, do you think they were expecting to suddenly be able to speak in other languages? No. But the power of God came upon them, and they were able to do something they could not have done before. They didn’t choose that gift of tongues. It wasn’t in their control. It was the power of God overwhelming them and leaving them as changed persons.

And right now, the Holy Spirit desires to powerfully work within you. To use you for God’s purposes. To surprise you with new ability that you didn’t know was possible. To make you a truly spiritual person.

Christian spirituality is not some bland practice of searching after God. It is an exciting adventure of God doing new things in you.

The church in Corinth to whom Paul is writing was well aware of this kind of spirituality. As Paul says at the beginning of the letter, they weren’t missing any spiritual gift among them (1:7). They had people speaking in tongues and interpreting tongues. People doing miraculous healings. People speaking deep wisdom and knowledge. God was certainly doing new and surprising things among them.

And yet, earlier in the letter, Paul says that the people in the church in Corinth are still unspiritual (3:3). They’re living lives of the flesh, he says, meaning they’re not living as people born of the Holy Spirit into the family of God. How can that be? If the Holy Spirit is giving people new and amazing gifts, how can they not be spiritual people? But here’s Paul’s main problem with the Corinthians: He says, “For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh and living lives that are merely human?” (3:3, my paraphrase). The Corinthians couldn’t possibly be spiritual people if they are failing to simply get along. This is mistake too many of us make about spirituality. We assume it is what God is doing in me and my life. We make spirituality all about us.

But here’s the truth: spirituality is what the Holy Spirit does in you, for the sake of other people.

So yes, the Holy Spirit had blessed the church in Corinth with many spiritual gifts. But the church was using these gifts to play a game of spiritual one-upmanship. “I’m clearly more spiritual than you, because I speak in tongues.” “No way! I’m clearly more blessed because I healed that guy.” “Nope, I’m obviously more spiritual than the both of you because I speak true wisdom.” They were using their spiritual gifts to create hierarchy and division in the church. They were using their gifts to make themselves look better than other people in the church.

But Paul is having none of it. “There are different spiritual gifts, but the same Spirit.” Whatever your gift is – tongues, healing, wisdom, knowledge, prophecy, great faith – it comes from the same God as every other gift. One gift isn’t any better than the other. It’s all God. One gift might seem more impressive than another, but that’s not true spiritual thinking. God gives diverse gifts because God’s got a lot of people to save. God has more than one tool in the toolbox. God’s not going to use a hammer when a saw is needed. The gift God has given you is important. As important as any other.

That is, however, as long as you use your gift for the common good. Because spirituality is what the Holy Spirit does in you, for the sake of other people.

Paul says, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (12:7). God shows up in your life, overwhelms you with the Holy Spirit, makes you part of the family, blesses you with gifts and abilities you didn’t know were possible. And why? For the common good. So that you can use those gifts to bless other people. And not just the people you like. Not just the people you get along with. But for the blessing of all.

My baptized brothers and sisters, whether you realize it or not, the Holy Spirit has gifted you with extraordinary gifts. I’m not talking ordinary talents and skills that you’ve worked on your entire life. I’m talking gifts that make other people ask, “Where’d that come from?!” And you say, “I don’t know… It’s just a God thing, I guess.” No baptized person should consider themselves just some ordinary church-goer or just a regular, old pew-warmer. Total nonsense. You are part of the family of God, and the Holy Spirit is working in you so that you can be a blessing to all the rest of us.

“But Pastor Evan, I’ve been a Christian nearly all my life, and I’ve had nary a hint of a spiritual gift show up. Not even the faintest flicker.” And I say to you in response, “With all due respect, I don’t believe you.” You may not have noticed it. You may not have claimed that gift. You may not have felt yourself to be worthy of such a gift. But that doesn’t mean the gift isn’t there. And it doesn’t mean that other people haven’t noticed it. Sometimes we have a hard time seeing how the Holy Spirit is working on our own. We need other people to help us see. Go to fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. Ask them what they have seen the Holy Spirit working in you. They’ll tell you.

Take a look at the gifted people around you. If God is for us, who can be against us? What can’t this church do? God has made you spiritual people. God has given you amazing gifts. Now, how are you going to use those gifts for the good of all? How are you going show what the Holy Spirit has done with your life? Amen.


"Wide Awake"

Sometimes I forget just how surprising the Bible can be. I’ll be doing some devotional reading, making my way through one of the biblical books, and I’ll come across something that makes me say, “How did that get in there?” Sometimes it’s a particularly violent story in the Old Testament, or one of the prophet Ezekiel’s X-rated metaphors that he was so fond of using, or even just a detail in one of the Gospels that I’d never noticed before. If you’re paying attention when you read it, the Bible is full of surprises.

But I’m not sure anything has surprised me in the Bible as much as the first time I read Ecclesiastes. Can you remember that moment when you realized that Ecclesiastes was more than “a time for this and a time for that”? I don’t know about you, but I was pretty surprised to find that there is a whole book in the Bible devoted to making the point that everything in life is vanity. Pointless. A chasing after the wind. I was shocked. Ecclesiastes can sound almost blasphemous. “What’s this doing in the Bible? How did that get in there?”

Ecclesiastes can be so surprising, that we tend not to pay much attention to it as Christians. Except for the “there is a season for everything” part in chapter 3, of course. But I think, this is a mistake on our part. I think Ecclesiastes has an essential role to play in our sharing of the good news of Jesus Christ. Because no other book in the Bible is more brutally honest about what it is like to live without the hope of salvation.

Ecclesiastes makes it crystal clear why death is the enemy of every single person. Listen again to how the Teacher of Ecclesiastes describes the human condition: “Everything that confronts them is vanity, since the same fate comes to all, to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to those who sacrifice and those who do not sacrifice. As are the good, so are the sinners…This is an evil in all that happens under the sun, that the same fate comes to everyone” (Eccl. 9:1b-3).

Death comes for everyone, no matter how you’ve lived your life. Death makes life pointless. So, death must be the enemy. Death is an inescapable evil.

The world in which we live is increasingly ruled by the kind of thinking that says, “If you can’t see it, and you can’t measure it in any way, then it doesn’t exist.” It is a way of thinking that has no room for spirituality or faith of any sort. Especially not any life beyond death. And so, according to much of the world around us, Ecclesiastes is exactly right. Death comes for everyone, no matter how you’ve lived your life, so what’s the point of anything? What’s the point of being good or being holy? What’s the point of riches? What’s the point of staying healthy, eating right, and exercising? What’s the point of any of it if we’re all just going to die?

There is a hopelessness at the root of our modern world that few are willing to acknowledge. But we see its effects everywhere: in the opioid epidemic, in the rising rates of suicide, in the violence of mass shootings, in the hoarding of wealth by the very rich, in the ways we ruin our environment. These are symptoms of a hopeless world. These are symptoms of a world that cannot imagine a future for itself. These are symptoms of a world that believes that death is always victorious. These are symptoms of a world that believes that death has the final say.

And this is exactly why Paul is so upset with the church in Corinth. There are some in the church who believe that there is no general resurrection of the dead. They believe that Jesus was raised, but no one else will be. They probably thought about death as going down to a dark place of nothingness with no connection to this world and no connection to God. They thought that Jesus brought hope for this life, but not beyond this life.

So, Paul is kind of freaking out that the Corinthians have gotten the gospel all wrong. He says, “If we hope in Christ only for this life, then we are the most pitiful people” (1 Cor. 15:20 my paraphrase). Because Paul is a good and faithful Jew, and he’s read Ecclesiastes. He knows that death is the enemy who robs all life of its purpose and meaning. Paul even makes a reference to Ecclesiastes here in this passage. He says, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile” (15:17). And the word for “futile” is the same word that gets used again and again in Ecclesiastes: “vanity” or “pointless.” Paul is saying that if you don’t believe in resurrection, then Ecclesiastes is right: Everything is vanity and pointless. Even faith in Jesus is pointless, if there is no resurrection.

If that sounds like a bold thing to say, it’s because it is a bold thing to say. Paul is not playing around here. He’s going all-in on resurrection. Putting the whole faith on the line. Forgiveness, healing, feelings of salvation, whatever. If there is no resurrection of the dead, then none of it matters.

Let’s be honest. Believing that a man was dead for three days and rose up into a new kind of bodily life is a pretty out-there thing to believe. And believing that we will eventually do the same thing is maybe even more strange. I get why it’s a stretch for a lot of folks. I get why people want to make these beliefs into metaphors about natural cycles of death and renewal. But these aren’t unimportant little doctrines that we can agree to disagree about. Having faith that Jesus was raised and that we too will be raised is what Christianity is all about. If there is no resurrection, then the rest of it doesn’t matter.

One thing that we tend to miss by reading a translation of the Bible is some of the wordplay in the original language. If you read a King James Bible, you’ll notice that it doesn’t say “those who have died” in this passage, but instead it says, “those who have fallen asleep,” which is a more accurate translation. New Testament writers often say that people have “fallen asleep” when it means that they have died. But what most of us don’t pick up on is that the word “raised,” as in “raised from the dead,” also means to awaken from sleep. So, reading the Bible in English, we don’t notice that Paul is saying that those who have ‘fallen asleep’ will be ‘awakened.’

We don’t realize that resurrection is literally an awakening, waking up into a new kind of bodily life. A life beyond the chains of death.

Too many people around us are sleepwalking through life. Too many people are fumbling their way through life with no sense of direction, no sense of purpose. Too many people are just lulling themselves into a deeper sleep with mindless materialism and frivolous pleasures. Too many people are living endless, miserable nightmares without a hope of ever waking up.

Too many people who don’t know that Jesus was raised from the dead, the first of many to come. Too many who don’t know that “death has been swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor. 15:54), that death does not get the final say upon our lives, that death does not eternally erase us out of existence. Too many who don’t know what it is to wake up each day knowing that their lives and their actions matter. Too many who don’t know that Christ’s resurrection is our wake-up call into a life of purpose and hope.

Too many people who don’t have faith in the good news.

So, what about you? Do you have faith in resurrection of Jesus Christ? Do you have faith that you will be raised when Christ returns? Have you been awakened to a life of purpose and hope?

If not, know that Jesus is calling your name at this moment, calling you to wake up. Open your eyes and see what he has done for you!

And if your eyes are already open, and you have faith in resurrection, don’t ignore all the people sleepwalking through life around you. Share the good news. Share your hope. Bear witness to the resurrection. You never know whose eyes may be opened. Amen.