The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s151e06 Advent 4 24/12/2006
'he abolishes the first .. to establish the second' Heb 10.7
Christ abolished something, not to establish a better or more effective method of achieving the same thing. Christ has abolished something because the things he abolished were no longer relevant the things they sought to do had been fixed. The better and more effective method had happened and it didn't have to be repeated.
So the Eucharist, the Holy Communion, doesn't now achieve what the sacrifices and offerings under the Old Covenant failed to achieve as if God gave something defective in the past, something that ultimately was always going to fail. That would be the cruellest of jokes on a people who least deserved to have such a betrayal inflicted on them.
Burned offerings are offerings that were once valuable to the giver but by their burning no longer have value to them. They are truly given up. What value they once had is destroyed given to God. I have to confess some considerable disbelief when I say the words at the offertory: 'Blessed are you, Lord God, through your goodness we have these gifts to share; accept and use our offerings to your glory ..' I often think that the subtitles actually read 'provided you remember those who these gifts are from and reward them.' They are still someone's offerings, they are not yet God's. It is of course important here to affirm that the sacrifices we make to God must be our own and not someone else's otherwise there will be hell to pay as the story of David and Uriah illustrates dramatically. The iconoclasts destroyed many offerings, all of them were someone else's offerings. The preparedness to burn a personal offering indicates a rather higher degree of devotion. The un-preparedness of many good Christians to allow someone else to take over 'their' job in the church heaven forbid that they might do a better job is what I am talking about here. If we have this attitude how can we expect the Church to grow?
Each year there is a 'Burning Man' festival in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada in the United States. Artists gather and create, but at the climax they burn their completed creations. This burning is a form of cleansing, to enable their next creation to be something completely new.
Sin offerings are offerings that seek to restore atonement between the worshipper and the deity, but this is no longer necessary, this is something that the Cross and resurrection has fixed.
So the Cross and resurrection, and the Holy Communion that this makes present, are not about making us give more to God because we recognise the supreme sacrifice that Jesus made for us, or to deal with our separateness from the Almighty. It is about doing God's will.
And so doing God's will is not about giving to God or trying to bridge the separateness we think exists between us and God. Therefore it is not about us going to Church, giving lots of money and getting our sins forgiven.
In my years of education, one of the most fundamental things I was taught is to answer the question that is set, and not anything else. 'Read the question' is so obvious. There is no point whatsoever answering the question 'What is 3+4' as if it were '3*4'. '12' is the correct answer to the wrong question. The correct answer to the right question is 7. And this example also illustrates that we often assume that the question is harder than it actually is. So someone skilled in their multiplication tables might consider an addition question below their expertise. Answering the incorrect question, the multiplication question, even if harder and correct, still is marked as incorrect.
If I was asked to write an essay on the history of Australia, and I mistakenly wrote an essay on the history of Austria, just think of the wasted effort I might put in, and all for naught!
So, as I look to organising my bookcase of biblical and theological tomes, I begin to wonder if we have actually believed? Sin has been done away with. It is time we got on with accepting one another and enjoying life. We don't do God's will by reading about justification (justifying our justification? :-), we must get on and do it.
I often think of the prophet Isaiah, cringing before the vision of the Almighty, proclaiming his unworthiness and the unworthiness of his nation, as any good Anglican would! God lifts him up and tells him to go back to the real world, to the very people who are unworthy.
And the prophet Elijah, fed and strengthened by the angel of God so that he could get to the mountain of God, only to be told after this epic trek: 'What are you doing here, Elijah?' He was meant to be where he left!
One of my correspondents recently commented about a theologian (thanks Jim :-): 'His material fits what I compare to a bucket brigade, the handing down what has been heard from another.. and another.. and another without giving any real thought and authenticity to it.' And this led me to think that bucket brigades are used to douse fires, and if sin has been done away with, and if our bucket brigade has been used to douse the fires of our sins, then they are well and truly extinguished already. So this led me to ponder why the Church keeps doing this, dousing a non-existent fire with water, and I suppose it is because it keeps us busy, pretending all the while that we are doing the Lord's work. Yet there is a certain self righteousness in being busy for the Lord and there is a corresponding distain for those who don't join in the bucket brigade. Particular distain is, of course, most often directed at secular society for whom the concepts of sin and forgiveness have been long ago left and they have got on with doing useful things.
So the question I ask, do we in the Church actually believe that our sins have been forgiven? If we don't then we will join in the bucket brigade. If we do, then we can forget about all that and get on with being useful for others. And that might well be to acknowledge that secular society have actually believed in some ways more that church people all along, and have got down and worked as they felt called to do.
For us in the Church, this might be a bitter pill to swallow, yet the one whose birth we celebrate tomorrow came amongst ordinary lowly people, and was crucified for associating with people other than those engaged in the bucket brigade in his time.
And we see how we come back to a competition about whose offerings to God are the more acceptable, and this takes me back to the reason for the first recorded murder in the Bible, when Cain killed Abel. The words of the Lord to Cain are as much directed towards the Church: "Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it."
One of the lovely British comedy TV shows we enjoy in Australia is entitled: 'Keeping Up Appearances' starring Patricia Routledge as Hyacinth Bucket and Clive Swift as Richard. Hyacinth is an indomitable character and everyone around her has to share her obsession that they are from the upper class. Their son Sheridan is never seen in the series but continues to write letters to Hyacinth asking for money. He is obviously gay but Hyacinth naively wonders why he isn't married. Her efforts to 'keep up appearances' become more and more bizarre, and exhausting. And in some ways I think the Anglican Church of which I'm familiar is trying to keep up appearances - the appearance that we are 'a cut above' others, that the church is not in decline, and that as long as we close our eyes to the truth and close our eyes to others, everything will turn out right. But closing our eyes to the truth and closing our eyes to others is exhausting and we will not find God's grace to do this.
As Christians we are redeemed sinners, no different from anyone else on this planet, and our faith leads us to open our eyes to the struggles of others and an appreciation of the worth of others. This is the correct answer, this is what God has come to establish in Jesus.
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