“The Mediator of a New Covenant”

Hebrews 9:1-15, Matthew 12:1-6

Where does God dwell?

In the sky?

All around us?

In our hearts?

In nature?

Or maybe that is a question that makes no sense, because God is omnipresent.

After all, we can’t hide from God. Adam and Eve couldn’t.  Jonah couldn’t. We can’t. Or maybe we don’t have an answer at all.  That’s ok too.

In ancient Judaism- not modern Judaism, but ancient Judaism, there was an answer. The presence of God dwelt in a temple. In the time of the Exodus, this was a tent.  Later, David and Solomon built a temple.

It might be helpful for us to refer to our little maps of Solomon’s Temple at this point. More specifically, the presence of God abided in the mercy seat, along with the ark of the covenant, an urn holding the manna of heaven, the rod of Aaron, the tablets of the covenant.

If you take a look at your little map, this is what resided in the holy of holies.

But most people would never have seen these objects of faith and power regularly.

Our reading reminds us that only the high priest would have been allowed into the direct presence of God, and for him, it would only have been once a year.

If this seems well, restrictive, this doesn’t mean that God didn’t continue to be present in the tornado or the still small voice or in the heavens, or in nature.

But rather that God had promised that there would be one place where he would be, guaranteed. There are some Christian churches that actually have a similar structure.

In Eastern Orthodox churches, such as the Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, etc., The place where the pews are is not called the sanctuary, but the nave of the church. 

The Sanctuary of the church is up at the front of the church, behind a barrier called an iconostasis, which is filled with different holy pictures of Christ.

And like the temples, most folks aren’t allowed up on the sanctuary- mostly just the priests and deacons.  It’s in the sanctuary that the priests perform the liturgy of communion, behind the iconostasis, a barrier of pictures and screens, through which folks in the pews have a general idea of what happens, but its through a mirror darkly.

For Orthodox Christians, the church is like a seashore, the place that connects heaven and earth.

But before we get too deep into church architecture or its theology, this scripture passage, like this sermon, however, aren’t really about the content of the holy of holies, it’s just our initial hook.

No, the real meat of this passage, as I hope the real message of this sermon, is about Jesus Christ.

This scripture explains one way to make sense of Jesus Christ; as the mediator and high priest, the man of Nazareth who is fully divine and fully human, able to travel between the outer temple and the holy of holies.

And not just in the earthly temples, but in the perfect one- Jesus doesn’t just go to the seashore, but into the direct presence of God, for he is God.

He does this in order to perform the perfect sacrifice: the one that does not use the blood of goats or calves, but the very blood of Christ.  It is through the work of Christ, and only the work of Christ, that as Christians we have been reconciled unto God.

All of our good works, from charity and kindness, our personal missions, to our worship together, our prayers, baptisms and communion, do not what reconcile us with God, that which make the relationship whole. 

They are, as our scripture tells us, like the things that happen in the outer temple.  Useful and good works that we should fill our lives with, but not the defining factor in our relationship with God.

If that sounds strange or odd, I believe it is this that is the reason there is nothing on heaven or earth that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Indeed, I believe that the alternative is horrifying.

Let me explain.

Back around the year 400ish, there was a monk living in what is today the United Kingdom named Pelagius. 

Pelagius was not a bad guy. He was, by all accounts, a pious man, who lived a harshly plain life.  Even his greatest opponents would find little to decry about his personal behavior.

Perhaps it was because of his own piety that he began to develop beliefs which emphasized free will, and our own ability to get closer to God by exercising that free will.

Free will isn’t a bad thing by itself.  A belief in free will is an essential part of our conception of liberty and freedom. That individuals are autonomous and have a right to govern and order themselves is key to our society.

And Pelagius, for his part, perhaps did get closer to God through his own piety and practices, using his free will.  This began to have him ask the question, why aren’t other people be able to?

Indeed, what does it say about us if we can’t? Or simply don’t?

If some become reconciled to God through their own willpower and free will, what about the many who don’t? or can’t?

Well, the implication is that for those of us that aren’t quite as pious or good or holy or plain and simple in our living as Pelagius, is that we would be personally affronting and insulting God with every act of ours that did not draw us closer to God.

Every sin that we committed would be unforgivable if we did not repent fully and turn from our wicked ways.

Although Baptism offered a clean slate, what happened afterward would be a stain on our souls, unless we stopped all sinful behavior, no slip ups allowed. 

For God demands perfection. This led to some weird stuff happening: there was a short period of time in which baptisms were delayed until the deathbed, to ensure forgiveness of all sins.

For under this system, every time we continue to covet our neighbor’s wife or house, to continue to not love our neighbor as ourselves, to not love God with our whole heart, soul, strength, and mind, even when we promised we would tears us from the bosom of God.

If the human will is the arbiter of salvation, than it is we who must attempt the act of the sacrifice of our blood and lives, and those that fail to do so properly are not a part of God’s plan of salvation.

And I don’t know about you, but that sounds like hell to me.

Thank God, and I mean this is the most literal way, Thank God, that our salvation and reconciliation with God is less about us using our free will to choose God and live perfect lives, but more about God having chosen Jesus Christ and God’s love for the world.

Thank God that the hard work of reconciliation- and don’t let anyone tell you that reconciliation and forgiveness are easy- has already been done by Jesus Christ, the high priest and mediator, and that one day, it will be fulfilled in whole.

Thank God that as the old song softly and tenderly goes, Jesus is watching and waiting by the door, able to bridge the gap between humanity and divinity.

For we are not called as Christians to do the work of the high priest in the holy of holies.  That’s the work of Jesus Christ. 

Nor am I as your minister, exclusively called to do all the priestly work in the outer temple, the holy place. The book of Hebrews calls them the baptisms and regulations, but I don’t believe that means we should dismiss them.

Indeed, as Christians, I believe we should understand that the work of the outer temple, although they won’t perfect the conscience, won’t reconcile heaven and earth, are still good, and they are still the work that Jesus calls us to occupy ourselves with until Jesus comes again in glory. 

As Christians, we are called to, as I say in my benediction every week: Go forth into the world in peace; be of good courage; hold fast that which is good; render to no one evil for evil; strengthen the fainthearted; support the weak; help the afflicted; honor everyone; love and serve the Lord our God, rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit; and also to make disciples of all nations, uphold justice and righteousness, to love our neighbor as ourselves, and to love God with all our hearth, strength, and soul, and mind.

We are called to try. Thank God that if we fail, and we will, that it will be ok.  That God will still love us, that Heaven and earth will still be reconciled.

That God loves us not just in spite of our failures, but as a parent loves a child grow through struggle, because of our failures.

Thanks be to God.