To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father – to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen.
Over the past couple months, I think I’ve learned more about the United States Supreme Court than I ever remember learning in social studies or history class in school. Even if you tried to avoid it, the coverage was all over the news as our president appointed a second Supreme Court justice in under two years in office. It’s a big deal. Whether you’re politically red, blue, or something else; whether you watch CNN, Fox News, or just look at Facebook and hope for the best, every outlet is screaming in your ear about what a big deal this is. Why? Two words: lifetime appointment. Every legislator and politician wants to have a Supreme Court justice sitting on that bench who represents their views and can be another voice to push their policies into law. To have a Supreme Court justice who’s on your side and wants what you want is to have a powerful ally for years to come. That’s true, no matter what your political persuasion. The thinking is, if you’ve got enough justices leaning one way and the right partied president in the oval office and the right mix of the same in senate and congress…then you can really get some stuff done and push your party’s agenda ahead for decades to come. A lifetime appointment is a big deal, but here’s the problem with a lifetime appointment: it only lasts for life. Death or retirement, whatever comes first, you’re going to have to start the whole process over again, and who knows whether the next justice will lean right, left, or dead center.
In the Old Testament of the Bible, we see another sort of lifetime appointment. Moses’ brother, Aaron, and his descendants after him would serve God and the people of Israel as priests. The priests were descendants of Aaron, appointed from the tribe of Levi whose calling was to offer sacrifices and pray for the people. The priest served as the go-between – in the middle between a holy God and sinful humans. God dealt with the people through the mediation of the priest and the people approached God through the priest. Among those priests, there would be a high priest who would represent the people before God for life. A lifetime appointment is a big deal, but here’s the problem with a lifetime appointment: it only lasts for life. The high priest of Israel could only deal with the sins of the people at his time and his place, during his lifespan – which was fine if you had a good high priest. But what happened if the guy who was next in line turned out to be bad, corrupt, or unfaithful? What if you got a high priest like Eli whose wicked sons, Hophi and Phineas, abused the sacrifices of Israel for their own personal gain? Could you ever be sure that your sin was dealt with? What if you found yourself under high priests like Annas or Caiaphas, who seemed to be more concerned with political salvation than they were with saving people’s souls? How would you feel about your standing before a holy God?
This was a big deal, because sinful people ALWAYS need a mediator, a go-between to stand in the breach between the perfect righteousness of a holy God and the shameful sin of people. God’s demands in the law are clear. When those laws are broken, the lesson was just as clear – without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness. That was when the priests came in. The Old Testament priests’ job was to offer sacrifices for the sins of the people. Over and over again, bulls, oxen, rams, sheep, goats, birds were offered up on the altar of Israel. But before the priest could make an offering on behalf of the people’s sins, he had to make one for his own sins. He was human. He was sinful. For his whole life, that was the pattern – sacrifice for my sins, sacrifice for the people’s sins, repeat until I die…then someone else takes my place. That was how the pattern went, but then Jesus showed up. The writer to the Hebrews says, Now there have been many of those priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood…Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself. Jesus is your perfect high priest…forever.
Did you catch what seemed like an oxymoron in those words? Two things that can’t possibly both be true? Jesus offered himself as a sacrifice for sins, and yet Jesus lives forever? This Jesus is no ordinary high priest – first of all, he never needed to offer a sacrifice for his own sins (because he didn’t have any); secondly, his once-for-all sacrifice of himself on the cross paid for the sins of the world; and thirdly, Jesus didn’t stay dead. He rose from the dead! This Jesus is unlike any high priest the world has ever known. He accomplished what no other priest could – he made the perfect and complete sacrifice for the sins of the world - and there won’t be any need to appoint a successor. Do you see the logic here? Because Jesus lives forever, his sacrifice for sin counts forever!
But don’t we know this already? The people who received this letter to the Hebrews knew Jesus as well, but they needed the reminder. In the first century world, Christianity wasn’t a “legal religion,” but Judaism was. Judaism wouldn’t get you thrown into an arena with hungry lions, but Christianity did. Judaism was a historically established faith that pretty much everyone knew something about, so no one would really bother you if you were Jewish. But if you were a Christian, there was a chance that you could be taken away from your family, dipped in wax, and lit on fire to serve as a lantern for the emperor’s evening garden party. Judaism seemed the safe choice; was trusting in the Savior God really worth the risk? The first century Hebrew Christians who received this letter faced that very real temptation – revert back to Judaism or trust in the Savior God? There’s nothing new about that temptation.
That’s the question the Old Testament Israelites would face as they were on the brink of entering the Promised Land. That’s where our Old Testament lesson takes us. God had brought Israel out of slavery in Egypt, marched them through the wilderness, and was about to give them a land flowing with milk and honey – complete with cities they didn’t build, fields they didn’t plant, and vineyards they didn’t tend – all theirs for the taking. Is following my Savior God really worth it? When the Lord has been so unbelievably generous to you, you’d think the answer would be obvious – I can’t think of anything I want more than to hear his word and obey it. But that’s not how it happened, is it? The Hebrew Christians were thinking of jumping ship because their lives were on the line. The newly planted Israelites in the Promised Land would trade the blessings of their Savior God for a pretty wife who happened to be an unbeliever, and worship of Baal that looked a whole lot more fun than animal sacrifices. Is it worth it to trust in the Savior God? That’s not an old question, because people still ask it today.
What about you? Is trusting your Savior God really worth it? I’ve never been physically persecuted for my faith, but I know the sinful nature inside of me and inside of you only wants to turn back and serve myself. Whenever the word of God says something unpopular with the world around you, and you don’t want to feel that heat, the sinful nature says, It’s too hard! Just leave! Whenever you look at yourself, your work, your family, your church, and you assume that the grass must be greener somewhere else – with or without God – your sinful nature says, Turn back, God wants you to be happy on your terms! But what’s the real problem here? Isn’t it the same lie the devil told in the Garden of Eden? God’s holding out on you – If he really loved you, then he wouldn’t say things that disagree with your notion of right and wrong! This temptation spirals down and down until we hit the source – it’s a simple thought with disastrous consequences: I know better than God. Realize what’s happening when we think that. We’re answering the question, “Is it worth it?” with a resounding , “Yes it’s worth it – to follow a god of my own making – me. Is there a sacrifice to pay for the sins of humans who elevate themselves into gods? Only the true God who humbled himself to become human – Jesus, our perfect high priest.
The writer to the Hebrews said, Because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them. Jesus, your perfect high priest never once turned back from God’s rescue plan – even when it meant bitter suffering and a shameful death…for you. Jesus, your perfect high priest, made the ultimate, once-for-all payment for the sins of the world, and that means he’s paid for your sins, too. Jesus, your perfect high priest hung with arms outstretched on the cross so he could utter the perfect benediction that Aaron and all the high priests after him never could – “It is finished.” Jesus, your perfect high priest, is the giver of the law, he is the keeper of the law, he is the One who declares you to be perfect through faith in him. Jesus, your perfect high priest’s work is done…but it isn’t over. He has a permanent priesthood. He is the high priest and sacrifice that never wears out and has no limit. To put an even finer point on it, we read, He always lives to intercede for [you].
What does it mean for you to have an eternal high priest in heaven? Let me put it in the context of one single day of your Christian life. Each day, God sends you out to live to his glory and to take his blessings to everyone you meet – from each breath you breathe to each step you take. At the start of each day you have the best of intentions. But at the end of each day, you come to your brother Jesus with the fresh blood of sin on your hands and tears in your eyes, and all you can manage to say is, “I’m sorry.” Jesus says, “I’ll talk to our Father for you.” In the throne room of the just and holy God, Jesus begins his confession with the first of your sins and he doesn’t stop until he’s reached the last and he says, “Father, all these sins I have committed against you.” Then he returns to you and, taking your trembling hands in his nail scarred hands, he washes every stain of sin from yours. He looks at you with the same compassionate look he did yesterday and the day before and then he says, “Our Father told me to tell you, you’re forgiven. I love you my child, I always will. No go and make me proud.” That’s what it means to have an eternal high priest in heaven.
Do you see how that changes the way you look at the word of God? Is it worth it? seems the wrong question to ask. Is anything else worth it compared to the Savior who loved me all the way to hell and back? The forgiven child of God rejoices to follow his word. What wouldn’t I do for him who’s done everything, and I mean everything, for me? Set free in the gospel, you hardly need to tell me to love the Lord with all my heart, soul, strength, and mind, and love my neighbor as myself. Why not? Because I have been so loved. Through Jesus, my perfect high priest, I want nothing more than to keep his commandments close to my heart, impress them on my children, talk about them when I get up, lie down, at home or away. I can honestly say with the psalmist, Direct me in the path of your commands, for there I find delight. The forgiven child of God rejoices to follow the word of his perfect high priest Jesus. Why? Because the sins you can’t forget, he promises never to remember. Because of his nail scarred hands, Jesus will remember forever that your debt is paid, heaven is your home, and he’s your perfect high priest.
To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy – to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen.