Seward United Methodist Church
Friday, September 21, 2018
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Hold On To What Lasts

Mark 13:1-8 and Hebrews 10:11-25

 In Mark 13, we read how Jesus’ disciples, who came from the small towns of Galilee, could not help but to be impressed by the grandeur of the Jerusalem Temple:  the massive stones, the high walls, the sheer scale of it.  They must have been tempted to think that such a grand edifice would surely last forever!

 Of course, they should have known better!  The temple in Jerusalem in their day was not the first Temple that stood there.  The first had been built by Solomon in the 9th century BC, and it had been leveled by the Babylonian armies 400 years later.  If one could fall, so could another.  And it did.  Within 40 years of Jesus’ words, the Romans destroyed the second Temple in response to the rebellion of the Jewish Zealots.

 The temple itself was not a source of security.  Neither were the sacrifices offered there.  They could not give a person real security before God.  Why not?  Because they were never finished.  They had to be repeated, day after day, week after week, year after year.  They were never completed, only repeated.  Day after day, the priests stood at the altar, offering the same sacrifices, over and over.

 Until finally, a new high priest came and offered a perfect sacrifice, his own life, free from sin.  And having offered the perfect sacrifice once and for all, he sat down.  The author of Hebrews is referring to Psalm 110, which we looked at a few Sundays back:  “You are a priest forever in the line of Melchizadek….  The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit in honor at my right hand until I humble your enemies, making them a footstool under your feet.’”  Hebrews builds up the case that Jesus is a different kind of high priest who offers a different kind of sacrifice.  And now his work is done.  He can sit down.  A priest couldn’t do his work sitting down, so we know that Jesus’ work of sacrificing is over and done.

 Now, there is no longer a need for that sacrificial system that endured for over a thousand years in the Temple and the Tabernacle before it.  And in fact, it is gone.  After the second temple was destroyed, it was never rebuilt and sacrifices never resumed.

 Before Jesus came into the world, all religions, or at least all religions in that part of the world, were built around the idea of blood sacrifices.  Now there are few in this world who still offer sacrifices, especially of blood.  The idea is almost extinct, and we find it rather repugnant to think of offering blood.

 Verse 19 speaks of us coming in through the blood of Jesus.  Some people today say we should stop using that kind of language because it offends the sensibilities of modern listeners.  And in a way, they have a point.  But in Jesus’ day, a person’s blood was their life.  We come in through the life of Jesus offered on the cross.  We can say it that way instead.  We’re talking about the same reality.  

 So effective was Jesus’ sacrifice that verse 14 says, “By that one offering, he perfected forever those whom he is making holy.”  I think that verse captures the whole idea of salvation.  On one hand, our salvation in Jesus is already perfected, completed, finished, done and over.  But at the same time, it is still happening.  We are still being made holy.  One verb is past perfect, something that has already been decided.  The other verb is present continuous, something that is still happening.  

 While the theological terms aren’t being used here, the author is talking about justification and sanctification.  We are justified.  We have been declared not guilty of our sins because we are covered by the sacrifice of Christ.  And at the same time, we are being sanctified, being renewed according to the image of God.  We could even go a step further and say our renewal won’t be finished until we pass from this life into eternity in glory.  If someone were to ask me, “Are you saved?”  I might answer, “I have been saved.  But I am also being saved.  And I trust that one day I will be saved to the uttermost.”  Because all three are true.  

 This is not because of anything we have done, but all because of Jesus.  He has accomplished our salvation.  Through him we enter “heaven’s Most Holy Place.”

 The Most Holy Place, of course, was one of the divisions of the Jerusalem Temple.  We’ve also talked about that in the last couple months.  There were these concentric squares in the Temple, each one more restricted than the one outside it.  There was the Court of the Gentiles, where anyone could go.  There was the Court of the Women, where only Jews could go.  There was the Court of the Men, where only Jewish men could go.  There was the Holy Place, where only priests could go.  And finally, there was the Most Holy Place or Holy of Holies, where basically no one could go.  Only the high priest could ever set foot in there, and then only one day a year.  It was separated from the Holy Place by a curtain, and that curtain represented the divide between humanity and God created by sin.  That curtain was torn in two when Jesus died on the cross.  

 Jesus has opened the way through the curtain by his death on the cross.  The author of Hebrews explains it like this in chapters 6 and 9:  Jesus leads us “through the curtain of heaven into God’s inner sanctuary.  Jesus has already gone in there for us.  He has become our eternal high priest….  “The earthly tent,” that is the Jerusalem Temple, “and everything in it, copies of the things in heaven, had to be purified by the blood of animals.  But the real thing in heaven had to be purified with far better sacrifices.  For Christ has entered into heaven to appear before God as our advocate.  He didn’t go into the earthly place of worship, for that is just a copy of the real Temple in heaven.  Nor did he enter heaven to offer himself again and again like the earthly high priest.  If that had been necessary, he would have to die again and again.  No, he came once for all time, to remove the power of sin forever by his sacrificial death for us.  And just as it is destined for each person to die only once and then face judgment, so also Christ died only once to take away the sins of many.  He will come again, but not to deal with our sins.  This time he will bring salvation to all who wait for him.”

 Through Christ we draw near to God.  We know the presence of God and have relationship with him.  We trust in God, confidence in our salvation, and assurance of God’s love for us.  

 The author of Hebrews was writing to his fellow Jews who had become Christians.  Sometimes they were tempted to deny that Christ had truly saved them by going back to their old ways, perhaps to fit in better with their fellow Jews.  But the author reminds them to hold tightly to the hope they have.  

 It’s not easy to hold onto what we have.  We are always tempted to go looking for something more, something better than what we have right now.  In Mark 13, Jesus warned the disciples not to chasing after false messiahs.  False messiahs, even if they don’t take that name, are basically those who say, “I have something better.  Jesus is great, but if you really want to be saved, then you also need this.”  And that’s basically how most cults operate.  They offer something more, in addition, to faith in Christ.  

 Rather than going after something new, we should hold tightly to what we have and encourage one another to do likewise.  We should spur one another on to deeds of love and righteousness.  And we should not give up the habit of meeting together to encourage one another.  

 It might surprise us to think that even in the first century, there were some Christians who were already giving up meeting together.  Why would they do that?  For the first readers of Hebrews, it might have been to fit in.  Jews who became Christians faced persecution from other Jews.  They were seen as apostates, those who turned against their faith.  And if they were outed as Christians, then they could face persecution from the Romans.  You see, the Romans required all people in the Empire to worship the emperor and make sacrifices to him.  It was basically a test of loyalty.  The only people exempted from that were the Jews, because they were all hung up on monotheism.  If Jewish Christians were thrown out of the synagogue, then they were required to participate in the Imperial Cult.  So there was an advantage to laying low.  If people knew you were a Christian, you faced persecution.

 What’s our excuse today?  Why do so many who claim Jesus forsake the meeting together with other believers?

 I think part of it is our intense individuality as a culture.  We treat religion as a private thing.  Just me and Jesus.  Perhaps it’s also a sign that our churches are failing.  Our churches are failing to be meaningful and relevant faith communities that help people to grow and who change the world around them.  Perhaps it’s simply that there are so many other options.  In the last century, we’ve become a culture obsessed with entertainment.  We always have at least 100 options on how to spend our time.  And I won’t lie to you, most of them are more entertaining than worship.  Not more beneficial, but more entertaining.  

 Perhaps it’s persecution again.  In the last half-century or so, our culture has turned against its Christian heritage.  We are now seen as backwards, unenlightened, judgmental, even intolerant.  And quite frankly, some Christians don’t help the matter; they are judgmental and intolerant!  Maybe standing out as a Christian today is not a benefit.  Better to lay low.   

 But the author of Hebrews reminds us that Christ will return.  And Jesus promised us in Mark 13, that things would become more difficult for believers before his return, not easier.  The world is going to discourage us.  The world is going to make faith in Christ harder.  So we need to encourage each other, so that we do not lose heart.  

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