When I was a child, a Sunday school teacher told me God was everywhere. And that’s definitely true in a spiritual sense. But as a child, when I heard God was everywhere, I took it literally and therefore logically concluded God being everywhere meant I probably bumped into the Lord a whole lot by accident. It’s a cute mistake to remember now, but back then, it was horrifying because a) how rude and b) you really don’t want to tick off the Almighty. I felt bad, but I also sort of felt like it was God’s fault for being both invisible and everywhere. I remember mentally apologizing to God for stepping on his foot each time I took a step while setting the table that night, since I was never sure where God was hiding. Thankfully, my mother caught on and set me straight. But for a good moment, I was a walking apology machine.
But even us adults act that way sometimes. We all have odd patterns when it comes to doing wrong and do these routines all the time. Perhaps we just act like our misdeed never happened, even shushing others who dare to name it. Or perhaps we deflect the blame with excuses and justifications, like a bad golfer throwing his club into a lake. Perhaps we promise to do better next time, pat ourselves on the back for such a bold resolution, change nothing about our behaviors, then act surprised when the same mistake happens again. Perhaps we get angry when we realize we acted badly and so lash out at others to redirect attention away from our bad behavior by making them fixate instead on appeasing our rage. Perhaps we crack a joke to diffuse tension but never actually do anything to fix the hurt we caused. What’s funny is these patterns apply to just about everything, from avoiding blame after passing gas… to trying to beat addiction… to carrying the weight of those personal guilts only known to our innermost selves. We are all like my childhood self in a way, never quite sure how to deal with our mistakes.
Today’s scripture is the central idea of the Book of Hebrews: everything either builds towards or follows from this moment. The crux of the contrast that today’s scripture draws is best summed up in Hebrews 10:11-12: “Every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, ‘he sat down at the right hand of God.’” Note that Hebrews is not saying the Temple sacrifices are bad. It’s rather that the Temple sacrifices are like spiritual whack-a-mole in Hebrews’ mind: they deal with sins as they pop up but can’t stop sin from popping up in the first place. Or imagine a car engine that required weekly oil changes: eventually you’d realize there was an underlying problem you hadn’t addressed. Or to draw on a sadly topical idea: compare washing your hands, wearing a mask, keeping your distance… to life once a vaccine for the coronavirus is developed. We all will keep having to do these daily wellness tasks… until the disease itself is finally defeated by a vaccine that eliminates the danger entirely. That’s the contrast Hebrews draws between the repeated Temple sacrifices and Christ’s singular sacrifice on the cross: both are good… but the reason Christ only needs to do it once is that his sacrifice addresses the root problem of sin. The priests stood daily over Temple sacrifices because they could not root out sin at its core, whereas Jesus now sits beside the heavenly throne because through his sacrifice “it is finished,” as Christ himself declared from the cross.
Why is this the case? Hebrews takes Psalm 40’s discussion of sacrifices and puts its words into Jesus’ own mouth: “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me.” The idea that Hebrews teases out of that Psalm is that sacrifices, burnt offerings and the like… it was never about the sacrifices themselves. As Hebrews 10:1 says, such things are “only a shadow of the good things to come and not the true form of these realities.” God ordained ritual sacrifices for the ancient Israelites… but it was never about the sacrifices per se. Rather, the goal of sacrifices was that—by giving up the best of their harvest and flocks—the people might understand that the Lord must be first in their lives. It was a ritual act meant to teach a spiritual lesson: God should come first. That’s why the quoted Psalm, in contrast to animal sacrifices it says God does not desire, instead declares, “See, God, I have come to do your will, O God.” Animal sacrifices could never change a human heart on their own. Rather, the hope was these ritual acts would inspire people to put God first, not only when it came to distributing their harvest but across their whole life. Changed people is God’s goal, not burnt offerings.
And that inward change is exactly what Hebrews 10 claims Jesus has done. “Jesus abolishes the first—animal sacrifices—in order to establish the second—you and me living as God desires. And it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified—which means made righteous, at last living as God created us to live—sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” In other words, because the Lord Almighty in the person of Jesus Christ took on a human body, lived a perfect life, died a sacrificial death, and rose in glory… because God took on a human body, our own bodies can now receive the perfection that God desires. And this perfection is not of our own doing and not by our own strength. Rather, as Hebrews quotes from Jeremiah, God promises, “I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write [my decrees] on their minds. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” This is what God desired from the beginning, what the Temple sacrifices were meant to teach, what Jesus through his own sacrifice did achieve for us: we are made into new people. And the root cause of sin, the underlying evil responsible for every individual manifestation of wickedness at last was rooted out and removed, by the power and mercy of Jesus. As ones who now know the Lord intrinsically, who not only hear God’s law but have it written on our hearts, whose sins have been utterly forgiven… sin no longer holds any sway over us, so daily sacrifices of atonement are no longer needed.
Obviously things aren’t perfect right now. One look at a newspaper could tell you that. Obviously each of us still has sins and bad habits they routinely find themselves unable to put down. Hebrews is not saying everything is peachy keen already. Rather, it tells us that Jesus has solved the root cause of our spiritual problem—sin—such that when God looks at you and me in all our faults, the Lord doesn’t see our mistakes but only sees the perfect life of Jesus Christ. It means, while we should always strive to be better because that pleases God, that we need not agonize ourselves in guilt and shame, that no misdeed can separate you from God if you cling to that hope in Jesus, that you have an example of perfection to follow when the way seems unsure. If it’s Jesus’ work that makes us right before God, if it’s Jesus’ perfect life and Jesus’ perfect sacrifice… then it means you and I bring nothing to the table of God’s grace. It’s given to us freely. It’s not grace plus being really nice that saves you but always and only grace. So if like me as a confused child it feels like you’re apologizing to God with every step you take, if you find yourself troubled by sins you just can’t escape, if shame and guilt haunt your dreams despite all the prayers and petitions… know that you can let it all go… because the grace of the Lord is given to you, so you are declared forgiven, declared a new creation, declared spotless and clean.
I don’t have a practical suggestion for living your life this week. Hebrews’ whole point today in this keystone scripture is to highlight how if you have Jesus you have all you need, that you don’t have to pile anything extra onto the grace of Jesus to be right with God, that Jesus alone gets to the root of sin and makes us spiritually right with God today and in eternity does indeed develop us into actually perfect in love and action, just as the Lord intended us to be. It was written to people who were drifting away from Christianity back to the religion they grew up in, as a reminder that—while their childhood religion was fine—Jesus offers something so much more substantial and good. For us today, it’s a reminder that God did not send a Messiah to rescue those who were already perfect… but to make perfect those who were broken, sinful, and lost. It’s a reminder that shame need not cling to us, because Christ’s once and for all sacrifice has given us the hope of perfection that nothing else in life can offer. Praise be to God for this gift of everlasting love, of perfection through Christ, of joy and peace forevermore. Amen.