Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Third Week of Spiritual Renewal for Capital Campaign (Hebrews 10:19-25)

“We have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that He opened for us through the curtain, that is, His flesh.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning, this third week of spiritual renewal for our capital campaign, comes from the tenth chapter of the letter to the Hebrews. Dear friends in Christ, in the temple hung a curtain. This curtain divided what was holy from what was not; it divided the people of God from the holiness of their God. It hung there to shield God’s people, to defend them, to keep them from holiness so pure that it was a terror to sinful man. The curtain proclaimed one message: God is holy—you are not! But man should’ve had no need of a curtain to tell him that; the curtain is only the necessary consequence of that truth, a truth that has stood since our first parents grasped after holiness on their own terms, and found only corruption. 

God is holy—you are not! He is pure love, pure righteousness, pure justice. You are a child of Adam and Eve, corrupted and divided from God at the moment of your conception by the sin you inherited from them. You are filled with hatred and anger, you have soiled yourself with the thoughts and deeds of darkness, you have treated others as you wish no one would treat you, you have destroyed reputations by words and actions. Even if no curtain ever hung in Jerusalem, a curtain still stands between you and your God; between His holiness and your impurity. In your sin, you can only approach Him in terror; you have no access to His holy places, and when the unclean and unholy approach the holy God on the Last Day, that holiness is a consuming fire—for eternity.

There had to be a curtain in the temple, there had to be a divide, because that was reality, that was the truth. That is what the Law in all of its severity, all of its sternness was meant to teach the people: God is holy—you are not! And as long as that curtain hung, the people of God knew that unless someone intervened, a curtain would stand between them and their Creator for eternity. The blood of bulls and goats entered within the veil, but they knew it was not enough. That curtain still stood, blocking them from their God; preventing entrance into the holy places. Someone needed to tear it down, or we would be divided from God for eternity, and someone did.

“Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up His spirit. And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split.” At the moment of His death, as Jesus was at the pinnacle of His humility, His abandonment by His Father, as He gave up His dying breath, the temple curtain was torn in two. At that moment, with the Son of God hanging dead upon the cross, the barrier between God and man, between your impurity and His holiness, was destroyed. Christ has put Himself between God and man; through His flesh we are finally brought near to our Creator. “We have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that He opened for us through the curtain, that is, through His flesh.”

The former priesthood could never fully atone; they entered behind the curtain, but the curtain continued to stand. Nothing that sinful man did could remove that barrier. What Paul called the ‘dividing wall of hostility’ still stood. That is, until Jesus came. Christ Jesus came to shed His blood, His holy, precious blood; the price of the Lamb without stain, the blood of the man who is also God, the only price that would suffice. He came to tear down every barrier between creature and Creator by paying the price for your sin, ripping down the curtain and all that it proclaimed. He came not just to show you the way to God, but to be Himself that way, and to bring you through it.

He tore that curtain in two and then put Himself in its place, not to divide you from God, but to bring you near. No doubt, within days of Good Friday, the religious officials hung another curtain in the temple, but it no longer reflected reality. The great High Priest had done what the former priesthood could never do; Jesus had destroyed the division between God and man, between you and the God who created you, by offering the sacrifice of His own flesh and blood. The new curtain is His own flesh, and you are brought through it to the holy places, you have access to your holy God by the forgiveness of your sins. What the former priesthood could never do Christ has done, and the people of God rejoice. “We have a great High Priest over the house of God,” the author to the Hebrews joyously proclaims, a great High Priest that offered Himself as the sacrifice.

Therefore, since we have such a great High Priest, since we have been given access to the holy places of God through His shed blood, let us draw near. “Let us draw near with a true heart in the full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” Let us draw near, for Christ has brought us near through His death. Let us draw near, for our hearts have been sprinkled clean by the blood of Christ in the waters of Holy Baptism, our bodies have been washed with pure water, the water joined with God’s holy and precious Word. The doorposts and lintels of your heart are marked with the blood of the Lamb. You are holy, your sins are forgiven, for you are the baptized, and you are brought near to God our Father. And that, dear friends in Christ, is what the Church is all about.

Here in this place, the curtain is torn, and you draw near to God’s holiness through the blood of Jesus. Come boldly, come with confidence, not in yourself, but in Christ, whose shed blood has been sprinkled upon you, in whose living stream you have washed your robes and made them white. Here your sins are forgiven, here the holy God comes to you through the flesh and shed blood of His Son. Let us draw near to this altar, for here the catechized are given the very Body and Blood of their Savior. The same Blood shed to give you access to your God is given to you to partake of in this feast. Heaven is open to you, God Himself touches your lips with Himself, giving to you all He won on the cross. Such contact with the divine held only terror to those separated by the curtain, but for you, who have been sprinkled clean from an evil conscience, whose body has been washed with pure water, this is pure joy, this is something worth telling the world about.

And so the author to the Hebrews exhorts us to speak: “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful.” Let us cling to the confession of Christ without wavering, because only through Christ do we have access to the holy things of God, and only through His Blood, given and shed on Calvary’s cross, and given and distributed in the Lord’s Supper. Let us refuse to give up that confession, no matter what the world does to us, let us be willing to die for it, for this confession conquers the world, this confession gives life. Let us confess to and against the world that salvation was won for us upon the cross and is given to us in the means of grace, that the Word, Holy Baptism, and the Sacrament of the Altar give us access to God that is found nowhere else. Let us confess boldly what the Supper is; not some mere memorial of an absent Christ, but the opening of heaven, the incarnate Christ touching our lips with the same Body that hung upon the tree, the same Blood shed there to tear down the curtain that stood between God and man. Let us confess that in this Sacrament is given forgiveness of sins, life and salvation, that this is the very medicine of immortality, the feast that is access to God and that gives access to God.

And let us exhort our fellow saints to partake of it. “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” Let us encourage both children and adults to be catechized and come to the table; let us exhort those who are catechized to come eat and drink. Let us stir one another up, let us be troublemakers, let us bother others, let us be the ones to ask about church attendance and the use of the means of grace, not out of a spiteful spirit, but in concern for our brothers and sisters, and always in love. Those who stay away from the means of grace are trying to walk in the desert without any water, and they are forsaking their fellow believers who are struggling on their own pilgrimage. We are not individuals, we are part of a body, the Body of Christ, that receives the Body and Blood of Christ in the Supper.

There is no renewal in the Church without a renewal of the Lord’s Supper. It is not worth pursuing a capital campaign, or any other effort in the Church, without a renewal of the use of the means of grace, without a renewal of the Sacrament of the Altar. The Supper is the center of the Church’s life, as week after week the incarnate Son of God touches the lips of the saints for the forgiveness of their sins. Here the body of Christ in this place comes together in unity around one table, and the Lord knows what strength comes from gathering together around His gifts. Let us stir up ourselves, let us stir up one another, to partake of Christ’s gifts, for the means of grace take us through the curtain of Christ’s flesh into the holy places of God on that final, triumphant Day.

On that Day, this body that was washed by the water and the Word, that was fed by Christ’s Body and Blood, will be raised, and you will draw near to God’s holiness forever. The Sacrament of the Altar is food for the journey, the journey from Baptism, where you were sprinkled clean by the blood of Christ and washed with pure water, to the Day when your Baptism is completed at the return of Christ. On that Day, you will draw near with boldness, because you enter through Christ, the new and living curtain, who shed His blood to tear down the old curtain, to destroy the dividing wall of hostility, to bring you to your God. God is holy—so are you, through Christ. In the Name of Jesus, our great high priest who offered the sacrifice of Himself, once for all sin, once for all sinners, Amen.

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