From The Pastor's Pen
(Pastor Evan W. Hill)
From The Pastor's Pen
(Pastor 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.
The following is Pastor Evan's message from our January, 2021 newsletter.
Each New Year's Eve, we all engage in a bit of magical thinking. We stay up late on December 31 (or, at least when we're young we do); we count down the clock; and we cheer when it becomes 12:00 AM on January 1. Then we go to bed with the fantasy that the next day will be somehow different: that it will be fresh and new and full of promise. As a bit of fantasy and magical thinking, I have to say, I'm all for it. I like going to bed thinking that I will be greeting a new world on the first day of the year. I like dreaming that the sickness, sadness, and strife of the past year will suddenly vanish like the morning fog. I like imagining what the year ahead could be if we were unburdened by the weighty events of the previous year.
But of course, the truth of the matter is that the burdens of the year past do not magically vanish as we replace the old calendar with the new one. We are still living through a pandemic where many are becoming sick and dying. We are still living through a time of great political division. We are still reckoning with the racism that lingers within so many hearts and institutions. We are still seeing the young generations turn from Christianity in unprecedented numbers. "Alas!" as we hear the biblical prophets cry out.
So, if magical thinking isn't any help to us at the new year, what will be? What attitude does the Bible point us toward in a time such as this? The answer is an attitude of patient endurance.
The key biblical word here is hypomone in the Greek, a word that occurs 33 times in the New Testament, most frequently in Romans and Revelation. The word is variously translated as endurance, perseverance, steadfastness, patience, or patient endurance. It is a key part of a Christian's character. To have patient endurance is to "keep the main thing the main thing," no matter what. It is to be rock-solid in our loyalty to Christ and unswerving in our commitment to the good news. It is to always be about the work of Jesus, even when the world puts up great resistance. As Jesus says, to have this kind of patient endurance is to gain our very souls (Luke 21:19).
Patient endurance is what I'd like for us to have in 2021. I don't want us to have a false optimism that everything will be better. Instead, I want to us to commit ourselves to Christ and the work he has given us, no matter what the year brings. I want to put special emphasis on the "patient" part of patient endurance, too. We may not see changes as fast as we would like, but that doesn't mean that God isn't working or that we should give up. Our faith is in God who works even while we are sleeping: "The one who calls you is faithful, and He will do this" (1 Thess. 5:24). Amen, and Happy New Year!
Sometimes when I read the book of Acts, and especially a story like this one, I end up feeling a little disappointed. I don't get disappointed in the scripture. How can you be disappointed in an exciting, dramatic story like this one? But I get disappointed in my own Christian life. I get disappointed in what I know of the Christian Church. Because it seems like my Christian journey and my experience of Church is just a pale shadow of what those earliest apostles and evangelists experienced. Do you ever feel that way? It is like there is this huge gap between the witness of folks like Paul and Silas and my own witness. And it’s more than time that separates us. There’s a power in those earliest apostles that I just don’t see too often.
Now, some people might question if we should even compare ourselves to those early apostles and evangelists. These are people who had seen Jesus’ resurrected body. They experienced the Pentecost miracle. True, but it’s not as if the Holy Spirit has stopped working since those biblical times. And these biblical figures came from humble backgrounds: fishermen, tax collectors, persecutors of the Church. So why is it that we rarely see such witnesses to Christ as Paul and Silas?
Because in our scripture today, Paul and Silas are powerful and confident in their witness to Jesus Christ and his resurrection. When an enslaved woman with a spirit follows them around shouting and drawing unwanted attention to them, Paul orders the spirit out of her in the name of Jesus. And immediately the spirit comes out. God’s power acts through him.
When the slavers see that they can no longer make money off of exploiting this woman, they decide to get back at Paul and Silas. The slavers capture them and then falsely accuse them in front of the authorities and crowds. So, Paul and Silas get beaten severely and thrown in prison. They’re put in the most secure cell, chained, and their feet put in the stocks. All for being witnesses to Jesus Christ and the freedom that comes in his name. Let this be a lesson: We should never assume that living out our faith and sharing it with others will be easy!
And yet, Paul and Silas handle this painful turn of events without ever losing confidence. They sing praises to God in their prison cell! And when at midnight an earthquake comes, shaking loose their chains and opening wide the prison doors, it becomes another opportunity for them to bear witness to Christ. The jailer comes wanting to be saved and ends up baptized before the sun comes up.
It’s awe-inspiring, isn’t it? How is it that they could have such a powerful witness to Christ? How could they be so confident?
Well, notice their behavior. You can learn a lot about someone by observing how they deal with failure and defeat. When Paul and Silas are at their lowest moment – arrested, beaten, bleeding, in chains, in the most secure cell in the prison – in this moment of defeat, they turn their hearts to the Lord. In stocks and unable to move, they sing and pray to God. There’s an old Stanley Brothers song called “Paul and Silas.” And it's about this moment of Paul and Silas singing to God in prison. But as the Stanleys tell it, Paul and Silas are singing “Who shall deliver for me?” Who will rescue us? But with all due respect to the Stanley Brothers, I think they got this one all wrong. In this low moment, Paul and Silas aren’t singing the blues or crying out in despair. They’re singing hymns. And as the word is used in Scripture, a hymn is a song of praise to God. So, they’re praising God even though their locked in chains. They don’t curse or say, “Why me? Why is God doing this?” They turn their attention and their hearts to God.
Because Paul and Silas know that prayer is the primary way we keep connected to God. Prayer keeps us in relationship with the Lord, who is our Redeemer and Savior and the Source of our life. No matter what situation we’re in, our God never changes. So, no matter our situation, it is always right to pray and sing God’s praises. Especially in our moments of defeat. Especially when it feels like the world is conspiring against us. Because prayer is the channel through which we receive God’s grace, God’s comfort, God’s freedom and God’s power. When we are empty, prayer is the faucet that pours living water into us. God wants to pour life into us. God wants to renew and restore us. And when we seek God in prayer, it’s like turning on that faucet.
The key to a powerful witness is a strong prayer life. And Paul and Silas are clearly praying persons. It's no coincidence that earthquake shakes loose their chains and opens the doors as they are praying and singing. Because God’s grace and power set us free. And that grace and power comes to us by prayer. God works through prayer. God works through prayer to set Paul and Silas free. Not so they can break out of prison, but so they can share Christ with jailer and his family. God sets them free so they can be witnesses.
When I was in seminary, I worked as a chaplain intern at a minimum-security transitional women’s prison. It was a place that helped women transition back into freedom as they finished up their prison sentence. Once a woman was there for a month, she would be evaluated, and if the evaluation went well, she could get a job on the outside. So, most of the women worked regular jobs, but their off time was spent in the prison.
There’s one woman I worked with there who has made a lasting impression on me. Her name was Helen, and from the moment she first came to one of our Bible studies, I could tell there was something different about her. She was quiet as we talked about the scripture, but you could tell she was totally focused on the study. At the end of our time, we opened the floor for anyone to pray. And Helen stepped up. Then she let loose this joyous, powerful, spirit-filled prayer. It was like the Holy Spirit was set loose in the room as she prayed, and when we said Amen and opened our eyes, it was like, “Wow, where’d that come from?!?” And Helen modestly said something about how good God is.
One day, I came across Helen in the lounge, and I could tell something was wrong. She was seething and pacing and holding back tears. She’d had her evaluation for approval to get job. And she hadn’t passed. The warden wanted Helen to express guilt and remorse for her crimes. But Helen wouldn’t. She couldn’t. Helen told me that she could not feel guilty for those crimes because Jesus Christ had forgiven her of her sin. Jesus had washed away the guilt of her sin. Christ had set her free, and no one was about to take away her freedom in Christ.
That wasn’t a good enough answer for the warden.
Then Helen began telling me all about her life. And it was a sad and tragic story: sexual abuse, physical abuse, drug addiction, poverty, homelessness, and loss. Prison had saved her life because in prison, she’d turned her life to Christ. And as she told me her story, I couldn’t help but wonder, how could this woman in prison who seen so much of life’s sorrows have such a powerful witness to her faith in Christ? With a life of suffering how could she bear witness to God’s love?
Helen’s powerful prayer at that Bible study was not a one-time occurrence. Helen was steeped in prayer. Prayer connected her to the love of God in Jesus Christ. In prayer, she saw how God had been with her throughout her life, even in tragedy. Through prayer, God gave her new life. Through prayer, God set Helen free.
When we are steeped in prayer, when we have a strong prayer life, our connection to God becomes clear to whole world. When we are closely connected to God, it shows in our spirit; it shows in our actions. Our prayer life doesn’t simply help us to be a witness to Christ. Our prayer life is a witness to Christ. It’s a witness to the ways in which God’s power and God’s grace transform our lives.
Now, you might say, “I’m just not one of those people. I’m never going to be one of those super-spiritual people. I’m not one of those on-fire-for-Jesus evangelists. That’s not me.” Granted, we’re not all called to the same work. We’re not all going to be evangelists or apostles. But we are all called. We’re all called to make disciples of Jesus Christ. And too often, we give up on that calling before we’ve even started, thinking we can never live up to the examples of people like Paul and Silas.
But here’s the thing: rarely ever does God transform someone into a powerful witness overnight. Instead, God seems to prefer to change us over time. If we want a powerful witness to Jesus Christ, if we want our connection to God to be clear to the whole world, it is going to take practice. It’s going to take time spent seeking God in prayer. Time spent praising God. Time spent asking God’s will be done. Time spent paying attention to God. Time spent listening to God in Scripture. Are you putting in the time?
God’s grace is powerful enough to transform each and every one of us into a witness like Paul and Silas in their prison or Helen in her prison. But there’s no shortcut. It takes our effort. It takes our intention. But, oh, how greatly we are rewarded! The walls will shake, the doors fly open, our chain will fall off, and we will be free! Amen.
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.