A sermon based on Psalm 16 and Hebrews 10:11-25 preached on November 15th, 2015
I do not understand this week’s news from Paris, France. I do not understand terrorism. I cannot understand why anyone’s religion, no matter what is it, could ever lead them to harm another being. What Islamic extremists (or anyone who does harm in the name of, or for the sake of their religious beliefs) think might happen as a result of the violence they perpetrate upon the innocent is beyond me. I cannot see how ending the life of some and profoundly disturbing the lives of many could ever lead anyone to start listening to you.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that.
Dr. Martin Luther King spoke those words many years ago, and they echo in our Christian witness.
So, a day or two later after the attacks half a world away but yet so close to us, here we are, along with the rest of the world, mourning the death and destruction and the chaos that terrorists among us perpetrate. Here we sit with all of our unanswered questions, our anger, confusion, shock, dismay. All of it a jumble of emotions—and it’s alright to sit there for the moment—to sit with all those things, because we sit alongside others when we do so, and we feel-together, we sit in solidarity with those directly and indirectly harmed by the baffling and meaningless violence.
I wonder if it’s the expectation of ISIS that with each act of terror, that people will react in fear, that we will one day alienate one another in response—that we will scatter in a million different directions all at once. But we know from this attack, as well as many others before it, that such a thing never happens. So far, the good people of every shore have never responded to terrorist attacks with the fear they were meant to cause. In fact, they do the opposite. They run towards one another. They stand in solidarity with each other. Whenever violent acts of terrorism are perpetrated upon a people, they rise up and care for one another. And since that’s the response we have to terrorist attacks, it makes them all the more empty and meaningless.
The New Testament book of Hebrews is a sermon to the early church. It’s a dense book—very philosophical in parts—and it lifts Jesus up to a new height.
Our passage for this morning is what the preacher of Hebrews has been climbing up to from the beginning: Jesus as our priest—as the One who is high and lifted up, who sits at the right side of God in the seat of holiness and power, and there He stays to this day with all the world under His feet.
Before Jesus, there were Hebrew priests—Levites whose job it was to stand in the Holy of Holies in the very center of the Temple, and continuously offer animal sacrifices to atone for the peoples’ sin. For centuries upon centuries this was the rhythm of worship. Just a mindless, repetitious killing of animals for the atonement of sin. That’s hard for us to understand these days, as as that ritual moved forward, an increasing amount of folks saw how empty it was. For 1,000’s of years, Israelites offered these animal sacrifices, and for 100’s of years prophets rose up from among the people and declared to all of them that none of that was doing anyone any good—that God did not desire the external sacrifice of animals but the internal sacrifice of our hearts. God wants us to turn our hearts and lives over to Him.
This passage quotes from Jeremiah as he declares,
There will be a day when God will place His laws within their hearts (no more of this external stuff) and God will write them on their minds.
As we might remember from the end of Mark’s gospel when Jesus took His last breath and died, the curtain to the Temple—the one that separated the Levite priests from everyone else—was torn in two, ripped from top to bottom. With Jesus, there was no more separation between God and the people, no more hiding, no more veil standing in between us and God, for we have seen God’s face in the face of Jesus Christ, who is God among us, God with us and for us. When we look at Jesus, we see the very heart of God. Jesus is the first and last priest we need. He is the sacrifice that opened up the door for all of us so that there was no more separation or alienation or darkness shrouding our vision of God. Jesus is the Light so we can see, the One who chases out darkness—the life-giving Message that chases out death.
Wherever there is darkness, light comes along to chase it away. And whenever violence tries to close doors, there are many, many more that open up.
This time, we are all witness of this hopeful truth through a social media response to the terrorist bombings in France called Port Ouverte. Port Ouverte is French for “open door,” and all over social media, people are using this hashtag—this phrase—to let their neighbors know that whoever needs shelter, a safe space to be, a sanctuary away from the violence that has cast its darkness over France, could come and their doors would be open to them and they could stay. #StrandedinUS, a similar hashtag that is being used in the U.S., is there to let French citizens who are stranded here know that they have a place to stay until it’s safe to fly home.
We all need shelter from the storm—a place of safety and rest. Somewhere we feel welcomed and cared for. A light in the darkness.
Every once in a while, when people learn that I’m a pastor, they’ll say something that usually goes like this:
I’m more spiritual than I am religious.
I ask them what they mean, and they’ll say something like:
My faith is more personal. I like to practice it on my own. In sunsets, and ocean waves, and birds that fly overhead. I see God all over the place, so there’s really no reason to go to church.
Now, I hate these conversations because I’ve been in way too many of them. They all go the same way:
I can do faith on my own.
There was a religion professor who was asked by one of his students,
Where does it say in the bible that we should go to church?
The professor smiled and pointed him to this passage from Hebrews: verse 25:
Don’t stop meeting together with other believers, which some of you have gotten into the habit of doing. Instead, encourage each other…
It really can’t be put more straightforwardly than that. We meet together for a few reasons, the preacher of Hebrews says. We meet to spark love and good deeds in one another. We meet together to encourage each other in the faith, which means that we’re here to infuse one another with courage. And isn’t that what we need, especially in moments like these: courage.
Wherever there is despair, we can open our doors to one another and find hope. Wherever there is darkness, we can meet together and light each others’ way. Wherever there is fear, we can gather in together and encourage each other. That is why our doors are open. That is why we are church.
Jesus is our high priest. He is our Open Door. Our place of safety, refuge, and sanctuary. The One who offered himself as a once-and-for-all sacrifice that opened the door so that we can see God, stand in His Divine presence, and know who He is.
Right now, though, we live in the in-between time. Between the Already and the Not Yet. It’s a time that is full of questions and shadows—sometimes darkness.
We, like the preacher of Hebrews, pray for a day when the Light will shine brighter. When, like Paul writes, we will begin to see clearly, and not through a glass dimly. The veil between creation and Creator may be torn in two, but there’s so much that still veils our vision, that keeps us from seeing God’s radiant glory among us.
We won’t start talking about why it’s so hard for us to see right now. That gets us into talking about the problem of evil, and there’s no time for that. In fact, I don’t think there’s ever a good time for that.
What we can start talking about is how we can encourage each other—build each other up in the faith and hope that we have in Christ Jesus our Lord. How we can, in the meantime, help each other see, even if our vision is clouded over with all that we don’t know or cannot reconcile. How we can continue meeting together to be each other’s vision until that day when all the clouds of unknowing scatter and Jesus becomes All In All. Let us encourage one another until that day when all that is live-giving replaces all that is death-dealing, and the goodness of the Lord will be seen and known by everyone, everywhere. Until that day, we gather together to encourage one another. That is why we are church.
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!