Arc of God’s Covenant
We’re entering our fourth month now of life under COVID-19. It was strange to realize that this week. I too easily lose track of time these days. March I remember as uncertain: most of us yet didn’t understand what was going on or what we were supposed to do. April felt like we were finally figuring things out: there were cute stories about people hosting parties by video call, jokes about how toilet paper kept selling out, people coming together to help each other out amid a crisis. May felt like a boiling over of whatever folks were feeling in April, as acceptance of social distancing either evolved into a grudging resolve as folks still kept their distance… or deteriorated into an indignant rejection of rules now felt as excessive. Now it’s June somehow, and I barely remember February. These past three months under COVID-19’s shadow, as one writer put it, feel like a gray, unending Monday.
This weekend, some churches in Michigan resume public worship under drastic quarantine measures. Many other churches continue to avoid in-person worship for the time being. Our own congregation oddly could not gather in-person even if we wanted to. If you stopped by our sanctuary today, you’d only see mounds of construction equipment and tarps. The water damage to our sanctuary is much more severe than anticipated, and repairs will likely stretch into early July. But this whole predicament has spawned a global debate among Christians: how do we balance God’s command to love to our neighbors, which includes avoiding infecting them… alongside God’s desire for us to worship? Does it matter exactly where, when, or how worship happens? Singing is so essential to Christian worship yet so incredibly contagious, so what does praising God look like now? Worshiping remotely still feels odd. But to cause a disease outbreak would be far worse, a violation of sacred trust, and a failure to show proper care for the vulnerable. There is no easy or perfect answer. No matter what, things won’t go back to normal for a long time. No matter what our church decides, someone will feel unhappy or hurt or left out. How do we be the church when we cannot be together?
The two chapters we heard from Hebrews today—eight and nine—are the final two chapters comparing Jesus Christ against the spiritual superstars of the Old Testament. At first, we heard how Jesus is superior to angels. Then we learned how Jesus is greater than Moses, and next how Jesus has a better priestly claim and title than the priests who ran the Jerusalem Temple. Today is the final Jesus vs Old Testament comparison, as Hebrews contrasts the old covenant and earthly Temple against Christ’s new covenant and eternal work in God’s heavenly sanctuary. If you read the full text of these two chapters, it’s easy to get lost in technicalities. Hebrews delves deep into the specific blueprints of the Jerusalem Temple, details of how blood sacrifices were made there, etc., and then goes equally deep into how and why Christ measures above it.
It’s easy to get lost in these two chapters, so it is therefore important to remember why these pages were written. If you recall my first sermon in this series, Hebrews was most likely written to an audience of Christians who converted from Judaism. But now these readers were going through hard times. Their newfangled Christian religion didn’t enjoy the respect, prestige or protections the Roman Empire gave to Judaism, so many were tempted to default back to Judaism out of social or safety concerns. And Christianity in those early days didn’t have church buildings. Christians could only meet in private houses for worship. So many early Christians missed the smells and bells, ornate rituals, gorgeous worship spaces, and so on of the religion they left behind. And while Judaism’s central holy text was largely codified then, in those first days the New Testament was obviously still being written, so many Christians felt less than for not having sacred scriptures about Jesus, only the Old Testament. All in all, these first readers believed in Jesus… but between social pressure… and missing worship like how they used to do it… and missing their old Bible study groups… and so on… lots of Christians were bitterly nostalgic for what was lost. These missed the way things used to be. Sound familiar?
When I was in third grade or thereabouts, I built a model of the solar system for school. Any of you ever build a model of the solar system? I built mine back when Pluto was still a planet. I made the Sun and planets of out Styrofoam balls in various sizes that I painted, and I jury-rigged a coat-hanger to hold up my solar system model. Each ball was about an inch apart from the others, as that was about as wide as I could stretch the coat hanger. I got an A.
About two years ago I watched a documentary where a computer modeled our cluster of space, where the camera slowly move from planet to planet. Rather than the one-inch distance between planets in my coat hanger solar system, this 3-D computerized model was to scale. So as soon as you left Earth’s orbit, space became an inky black void. It took an eternity to reach Mars, even at the simulation’s ludicrous speed, and though they sped up the camera over time, still giants like Jupiter remained tiny specks of dust for most of the film. Seeing that computerized model of our solar system made me want to throw up from terror at how utterly empty space was, or cling to the floor in prayer that I didn’t fall upwards into the impenetrably black void hanging overhead, or weep for joy over the fact that life existed anywhere at all.
And yet I know that, just as my coat hanger solar system was vastly outclassed by that to-scale computerized model of space, I know the real thing is yet more terrifyingly and awesomely huge. I cannot describe the realization of space’s vastness I had in that moment. All I can say is that I saw how insignificantly small my childhood model was, how pathetically tiny even the elaborate computerized one was, how infinitely large and beyond comprehension the solar system truly was, let alone the Milky Way galaxy, let alone the entire cosmos. Models and mere words fail to capture the sheer enormity and isolation and blackness of space. But seeing even that computer model gave me the tiniest glimmer of what the real thing must be, and that moment’s realization filled me with dread and awe and joy I shall cherish forever.
In similar fashion, Hebrews reflects on the sanctuary rituals and Old Testament covenant that meant so much to its original readers, those Christians nostalgic for the good old days who were tempted to abandon their new faith for what was familiar. So Hebrews here reminds us that the trappings of Jerusalem’s Temple—the golden cherubim, burning incense, sacred relics, ritualized prayer and sacrifices—all these things are what Hebrews calls “a sketch and shadow of the heavenly” worship of God. Just like my coat hanger solar system was dwarfed by the computer’s scale model, which in turn pales in comparison to the actual vastness of space… all the relics and rituals of the earthly sanctuary of the Lord… are mere foretastes and copies of the heavenly sanctuary of God. Hebrews likewise tells us that animal sacrifices occurred at the Temple because “it was necessary for the sketches of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves need better sacrifices than these. For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.”
This is not to say that the Jerusalem Temple is bad. Not at all! Hebrews thinks the Temple is a wonderful thing. But it is a mere preview, an imitation built by human hands, of the glory of the Lord’s actual heavenly throne. It has sacrifices that imitate but cannot possibly duplicate the once and for all sacrifice which God made in Jesus. The earthly Temple provides ritualized purity in imitation and reflection of the purification of souls which Christ offers. In similar fashion, my childhood model of the solar system wasn’t bad: I got an A on that project! And the computer model of space was phenomenal: it taught me a lot about our universe. But though both copies are good, neither compares to the real thing. They couldn’t possibly. Hebrews says something similar about all earthly sanctuaries built by human hands. They are good, yes, wonderful even. But they exist only to reflect and point us towards the real, eternal, heavenly sanctuary of God.
As Christians debate what worship should look like under COVID-19—as our own congregation’s own session debates what our reopening strategy should be once construction is completed on our sanctuary—I hope we remember this answer from Hebrews. I myself do not have the perfect Christian response to this mess the world is in right now. But Hebrews reminds me that our human worship, our earthly sanctuaries and churches… these are mere reflections and shadows of the heavenly sanctuary where Christ leads the faithful as our true high priest. If we have to do worship mostly online for now because we physically don’t have a sanctuary to worship in, that’s okay… because our own sanctuary is merely a reflection of the heavenly one where worship never ceases. If we cannot gather together for the moment, that’s okay… because as Christians we are united with the Church universal across all human history and all creation. Hebrews today reminds me that all these mortal things of ours are important, yes. The smells and bells, the choirs and organ, the stained glass and burning candles, everything… all of this has beauty and value. But they matter not because of themselves… but because they point us to Jesus our high priest, because as reflections of the heavenly sanctuary they help us join that unending chorus of praise. And if that is the purpose of human sanctuaries—to point beyond themselves to the eternal celebration of God in paradise—then it’s okay for me spiritually if I have to give up worshiping in a sanctuary for the moment. Because worship was never about the physical church building or 10:30am Sunday start time or fancy clothing. Worship is always about God. And all the externals? Those are shadows and reflections, meant to help us see the real deal a bit better.
I hope we can return to some sense of normalcy soon. I hope construction gets finished and COVID calms down enough that we can begin hosting worship in-person, even if in small numbers. But until then, I am not discouraged. Because I remember that worship isn’t about the place or time… but about the God who is worshiped. And we can worship the Lord anywhere. When the Israelites of Exodus only had a desert tent, worship went on. When Solomon’s Temple was burned, worship went on. When Christians had no sanctuaries of their own, merely houses and homes, worship went on. Though the Church universal split into countless denominations and small congregations, worship went on across them all. Because church is not a building or human institution but the people… and because Christian worship is not an hour on Sunday morning but an unending melody of praise that we merely reflect back from time to time.
And Hebrews tells us all these things about the sanctuary of God, the holiest of holies into which Jesus our high priest has entered… so that we might trust in the new covenant hope we have in Jesus. Because it is when God’s people were despairing that the Lord spoke through the prophet Jeremiah what our scripture today echoes in chapter eight: “[In the days that are coming,] I will put my laws in their minds, and write them on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall not teach one another or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they shall all know me already, from the least to the greatest.” This promise of unending love, of God building us up into pure disciples, of us fully knowing God just as we are already fully known… this covenant promise is sealed for us… by the eternal, unending priestly work of Jesus Christ, our high priest, who intercedes on our behalf in the heavenly sanctuary. It is this eternal holiest of holy places which our mortal churches and sanctuaries serve as mere reflections and copies of. The worship we do—whether in-person together or separately at home—our human worship serves only this function: to draw us closer to that eternal, unending theme of praise continually going on in heaven by the grace of Jesus our true high priest, to the glory of Jesus our Savior. Paise God for this unending gift of grace. Amen.