God is listening

Hebrews 9:11-14

11But when Christ came as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation), 12he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. 13For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, 14how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God!


            I went to a pastor’s appreciation dinner on Tuesday, and I decided to wear my navy blazer, which most of you have never seen before because I so rarely wear it.  I was looking classy that evening with my starched-white shirt, navy blazer, and khaki pants.  I was, that is, until the lady next to me asked me to pass the sweet and low and I reached a little too low for it and dragged my sleeve through the chocolate cake on the table.  But of course I did not know immediately what I had done.  So I rested my arm at my side, I sat it on the table in front of me, I put it on the back of my chair.  And by the time I noticed what I had done, I had spread chocolate all across the right side of my fancy blazer, the chair, and the white table cloth.  By this time I was not looking as classy as I had when I left the house.

            So what did I do to clean it all up?  I rubbed some blood and ashes from a burnt heifer on the chocolate stains.  No, of course not!  I’m still looking for a good dry cleaner in the Staunton area.  Blood, ashes, what are these things going to clean?  I’ve cut myself enough times and cleaned enough fire pits to know that these things do not clean, they do not purify.  They stain.  I saw a joke on the internet this week saying that the best thing to do when you get a blood stain on a t-shirt is to spill more blood around the stain so that it doesn’t stand out as much.

            So there is something counterintuitive about God’s cleaning agent, because it is by the blood of Christ that we are made clean.  It doesn’t make sense, and perhaps that is one that we can chalk up to the humor of God.  I did not choose today’s scripture because it is an easy one to preach on or because it makes sense, but I hope that we can all be challenged to grow by looking at God’s cleaning agent.  Today I want to look at two different things that have come about because of the actions of Jesus: the atonement and purification.

            Today’s scripture is full of references to Judaism, which we might expect by the name of this particular book of the Bible: Hebrews.  The author of Hebrews is writing to Jewish people and is attempting to show them how Jesus is the fulfillment of the Jewish messianic expectations.  So in order to understand today’s scripture, we need to understand Judaism a little better.  Actually, I would say that in order to understand scripture at all, we need a pretty good background in Judaism.  So it might seem like today’s sermon is a little heavy on the Jewish teachings and practices, but I believe that this is essential for us to understand what scripture is intended to teach us.

Verse 11 begins by telling us that Jesus came to the greater and more perfect tabernacle or tent.  This is a reference to the old, portable tabernacle that the Israelites took with them as they wandered from captivity in Egypt to the Promised Land over a period of 40 years.  Then, as they set up in the Promised Land, they continued to worship in the tent style tabernacle up until Solomon built the temple just after the year 1000 BC.  So we have a couple hundred years where the Israelites worshiped God in a moveable tent, or more precisely a series of tents.

            When Solomon built his temple, it in many ways was structured the same way that the tabernacle made out of the series of tents was to be assembled.  Both had a holy place inside where the priests would perform the religious practices and then there was the Holy of Holies, or the Most Holy Place where only the high priest could enter one time each year on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, to make sacrifices to God to atone for the sins of the people.  To atone for something means to compensate for something done wrong, ie the forgiveness of sins.  These two rooms, the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place were separated by a curtain, or perhaps two curtains.  God was believed to dwell within the Holy of Holies and if anyone other than the High Priest went into the Holy of Holies they would die.  If the High Priest went into the Holy of Holies without first going through the correct rituals to purify himself, he would die.  I’ve even heard it said that the High Priest would tie a bell around his neck and a rope to his leg that way if they were struck down dead by God when they entered into the Holy of Holies the other priests would hear that the bell stopped ringing and they could pull the priest out with the rope.

            Before the High Priest went into the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement they were to get two goats and a bull and bring them into the temple.  The High Priest would then take the bull and slaughter it as a sin offering to atone for his own sin and the sin of his household.  If he didn’t do this, he didn’t live through the whole process.  A sinful person could not enter the Holy of Holies and have direct contact with God. 

So this now-atoned-for priest takes the goats and one of them will be sent out into the wilderness as a scapegoat, a symbolic carrier of the sins of the people away from the camp, and the other one is slaughtered for the sins of the people.  The High Priest then takes the blood of the goat and blood of the bull and smears it on various things within the Holy of Holies and within the tent of meeting.  The bodies of these animals are then burned as an offering, and the remains are taken out of the camp and disposed of.  Then they did it again the next year, and the year after that, and so on.  Every year, on the Day of Atonement, they went through this process.

But the author of Hebrews says that Jesus came as High Priest in a perfect tabernacle.  And in verse 12, “he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.”

That, my friends, is what we call the Good News.  No longer do we need to slaughter a goat and cast our sins upon another goat and send it out into the wilderness to atone for our sins.  But Jesus came and acted as both the High Priest and as the sacrifice, atoning for the sins of all those that would know him as Lord.

Now there is a clear division between verses 12 and 13.  Verse 12 is comparing the Day of Atonement in the Jewish tradition and the way that Jesus has served as both priest and sacrifice in his death on the cross atoning for the sins of his followers.  There is a stipulation here.  If you are a follower of Jesus, then this atonement is for you.  It’s not just for Jews, it’s not just for Mennonites, but it is for those that know Jesus as Lord.  However, I would say that verse 13 changes gears a bit and goes from the atonement and transitions to purification. 

The Israelites had a fair number of purity laws concerning what they could and could not touch, what they could or could not eat, with whom they could or could not eat it with.  You cannot touch dead people or you will be ceremonially unclean for a week and you can’t enter into the temple for worship, you can’t be in contact with other people.  You can’t eat shellfish, pork, and other animals, or else you will be unclean and you cannot enter into the temple and you can’t be in contact with other people.  Don’t eat with a Gentile, or…you get the idea.

In Numbers 19 we find an interesting ritual that was used for the purification of the people when they became unclean.  The priest was to slaughter and burn a red heifer, and the ashes of the burned heifer were to be mixed with water and dumped on the unclean person.  Then, after the prescribed time had passed, that person could enter into the Jewish community and into worship, into the presence of God once again.  This is what the author of Hebrews is referring to when he says, “13For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, 14how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God!”

I would say that atonement is contingent on making Jesus your Lord, but this purification is universal.  These are separate acts that took place through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  We often focus in the church on the atonement aspect of Jesus death and resurrection, but we should not take lightly this purification that took place.

It is because Jesus has purified all people that we can approach God without going through the High Priest.  At Jesus’ death, the Gospel of Luke says that the curtain that separated the common people from the Holy of Holies was torn in two.  God does not reside in the Holy of Holies.  Now God lives with us, among us, and within us in the form of the Holy Spirit.  And again, there is nothing that we have to do to acquire this.  Jesus already took care of it.  So whether you are the finest, clean cut, church-going Christian, or a drug-dealing, thieving, lowlife, God will hear your prayers.  Jesus bridged the gap that once divided God and humanity, the gap that once could only be bridged by a High Priest who had gone through the purification rituals.  And I believe that Jesus bridged that gap because Jesus, as God incarnate, came and dwelled among us, among the sinners, the tax collectors and prostitutes.  Now all can come directly to God.

Would you not agree that all people can come to God in prayer?  Or does God only hear the prayers of those who are righteous and upright?  If God does not hear the prayers of sinners, then when I prayed to God and asked him to be Lord in my life, that prayer was not heard.  I was not a Christian when I dedicated my life to following Jesus.  If I had already been a Christian, then I would have already made that decision.

In Luke chapter 18, Jesus tells a parable about two men that went up to the temple to pray; one a Pharisee and one a tax collector.  First the Pharisee stands up to pray, makes a big show about things, and prays out loud, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”

But then we hear from the tax collector, the un-holy one, the one that the Pharisee used as an example of what he was glad to not be like.  And the tax collector beats his breast and says, “God have mercy on me, a sinner.”  And who does Jesus say is heard by God?  Trick question!  They are both heard by God.  But the tax collector is the one that goes home on God’s good side.

Yes, I believe that God hears all prayers.  If we truly believe that God is all-knowing, then God must hear all prayers, regardless of our outward piety.  Righteousness is not a criteria in the New Testament for being heard by God and righteousness in not a criteria in the New Testament for God answering your prayer.  The criteria in the New Testament that we are given for God answering prayers is when we ask for things according to God’s will in Jesus’ name.  And it was God’s will to forgive the tax collector in Jesus’ parable.

This was not the case in the Jewish way of thinking.  If we look at John chapter 9, the story of the man born blind and healed by Jesus, we find that the Pharisees were questioning this now-healed man about Jesus to see if he sinned by healing on the Sabbath.  And this man born blind says that Jesus could not have sinned by healing him because God does not hear the prayers of sinners.  Chapter 9:31, “We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will.”  He is saying, Jesus couldn’t have been a sinner because God answered his prayer.  We find scripture in the Old Testament that confirms this in Proverbs and Psalms.  But because Jesus has come to this earth in the form of a human being, spent time with the sinners, and torn the curtain separating the Holy of Holies, now all can come to God in prayer.

            This is hard for some of us to understand today.  We want to believe that we are the ones that God hears and nobody else.  We want to be like the man born blind and say, “God does not hear the prayers of sinners.”  We feel like we are entitled to God hearing our prayers and not the prayers of the sinners, not the prayers of riff-raff and vagabonds.  We have dedicated our lives to serving God!  We have sacrificed money, fame, power, prestige.  We have given to the poor, loved our enemy, forgiven people that did not deserve to be forgiven.  God must hear our prayers; God must hear my prayers.  It just doesn’t seem fair to think that God would hear the prayers of all people.

            But then we realize, Christianity isn’t about what I have done.  Christianity is about what God has done through Jesus Christ.  And to be honest, sometimes that scares me.  That scares me because I like to be in control.  If I just do this, and if I just do that, then God will love me more, then God will hear my prayers, then God will answer my prayers.  But no, it is not about what I do.  It is about what God has done.

One thing that I get from time to time when people find out that I am a pastor or a church-going man is that they will ask me to pray for them.  And it is not that they are asking me to pray with them as they pray, but to pray for them because they think that they are not good enough to pray to God.  They believe that they are sinners and that there is this separation between them and God and that God can not hear them across that gulf.  I try to assure them that my prayers are no better than their prayers.  God will hear you whether you are the pope or a prostitute, a reverend or society’s reject.  Perhaps the best thing that I could do for people in that situation is to say, Yes, I will pray for you.  Will you pray for me?

Today is All Saints Day.  We in the Mennonite Church don’t often make a big deal about All Saints Day because we don’t like to venerate individuals.  Perhaps that is a good thing, because as I have said, it isn’t about what we do, but about what God has already done that deserves veneration.

But yet we do have a decision to make.  We are faced with the decision to accept the gift of grace and follow Christ, or not.  And to be honest, accepting grace is the easy part, following Christ, what we call discipleship, is not.

In his letters to the Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians, Paul addresses his recipients as “saints”.  To the saints in Corinth, to the saints in Ephesus, Philippi, Colossae.  Paul doesn’t call them saints because they are perfect, but because they have made the decision to follow Jesus, accepting the atonement brought about by his blood, and not the blood of goats and bulls, and dedicating themselves to a life of service.

As I look out upon the faces of the saints of Staunton, we know that we are not perfect, but we are here today because we seek to serve the living God.  Maybe you wouldn’t think of yourself as a saint.  Maybe you can think of a grandparent or a neighbor that was truly a saint.  But me, a saint?  Come on!

If that is where you are today, praise God, because we serve a God that came to this earth in the form of Jesus Christ to bridge the gap between sinful humanity and a holy God.  Now sinners like you and sinners like me can come to God to ask for healing, to ask for guidance, to ask for forgiveness so that we can work toward becoming the saints that we are called to be.

Blood and ashes leave stains.  I’ve got the shirts to prove it.  But the blood of Christ has cleansed us.  Is this counterintuitive?  Yes indeed.  Is it effective?  I’m counting on it.  And I am thankful that everyone, sinners and saints, can come to our Lord.  Praise God.


About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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