Sermon for High Mass – 2nd before Advent Sunday 18 November 2018
Sermon preached by Fr Alan Moses, Vicar
Readings: Daniel 12.1-3; Psalm 16; Hebrews 10.11-25; Mark 13.1-8
‘This is the covenant that I will make with them
after those days, says the Lord;
I will put my laws in their hearts,
and I will write them on their minds.” (Hebrews 10. 15)
The Epistle to the Hebrews is not really a letter but more a sermon and a theologically heavyweight one at that. In it the writer interprets Christ in terms of the Old Testament and the Old Testament in the light of Christ.
Our passage today comes at the climax of a long biblical exposition, a sermon within a sermon. It sets out the superiority of Christ over the Old Covenant with its temple, priesthood and sacrifices. These were all imperfect fore-shadowings or reflections of a more perfect access to, and relationship with, God. Because of the ministry of our great high priest, “holy, blameless, undefiled” (7.26), the curtain shielding the Holy of Holies has been parted, and the way to the living God has been opened. We can approach with confidence because the merciful voice of God announces, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.”
The writer contrasts the priest who must stand “day after day at his services, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins,” with Christ who, when he “had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God.’” That is, in the place of authority; his work, in one sense, complete. But, there, he waits for all of his enemies, all the manifestations of sin – disease, poverty, abuse, warfare, hunger, loneliness, anger, despair – even the final enemy, death – to “be made a footstool for his feet.”
Having taken his congregation through the work of Christ, the writer sets out to answer the question it poses: “If what you have said is true, what must we do?”
He answers in terms of worship. The high priestly ministry had made it possible genuinely to worship – not just to sit in our seats and go through the motions – but to have real access to the Holy Place, to be brought into communion with the merciful and generous God. In the days of the former covenant, the old high priest – and no one else – parted the curtain and entered into the tent called the “Holy of Holies.” The great high priest, Jesus, through his death , his “flesh”, has opened up a “new and living way” into the true sanctuary and beckoned us to come in with him: “Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus….”
The sermon understands the work of Christ as a great arc, with him moving down into human history, experienced testing and suffering of every kind, and then ascending back up into the heavenly places. This pathway that Christ travelled is also the pilgrim’s way of grace that we travel. It is a highway leading into the very presence of God, opened up by the ministry of Jesus the high priest, the “pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”
How do we make this pilgrimage toward the true sanctuary? How do we prepare ourselves to enter into the presence of the living God? How do we get ready for this authentic worship?
1. The opening words of this section, “Therefore my friends,” remind us that we worship as a community. We travel to the place of true worship together, as brothers and sisters who belong to each other and to Jesus. We are no longer strangers and outcasts, relegated to the outer tent; we are family, welcomed into the inner rooms of the house of God.
So “We have confidence to enter the sanctuary” (10.19). We can come boldly into the house of God as those who belong to God’s family. As brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ, we are welcomed into the place for which the human heart longs, as St. Augustine wrote in his “Confessions,” “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you,” to be, in the very presence of God. The Son who sits in majesty is no distant deity but our brother. We are no more strangers or guests, but children at home.
We come to worship as those who are baptized and forgiven. We enter the house of God through the gate of baptism, with “our bodies washed with pure water” (10.22). This outer purification is the sign that God has provided a deeper, inner cleansing so that we can approach God “with a true heart in full assurance of faith” (10.22). We come assured of God’s acceptance. In worship the “heart disease” of humanity, our half-heartedness, our brokenness, our disappointments and resentments, are all touched by God’s forgiveness and cured, “sprinkled clean” by the grace of God (10.22). On our way into church, we pass the baptismal font. We dip our fingers in the holy water stoup and make the sign of the saving cross. At the beginning of Mass, we confess our sins in penitence but also in faith in the God who has said: “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.” The priest pronounces the absolution to assure us of this.
Hebrews echoes again (as earlier in 8.8) the promise of Jeremiah (31.33), who speaks of God making a new covenant with his people. This promised an inward law: “I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds.” So, we listen as God speaks to us through the words of scripture.
If you or I were to need a heart transplant, it would not be like taking the car in to get new tires or brake-pads – something to be done and then forgotten about until it needs doing again. If we receive a new heart, then we will have to take drugs for the rest of our life to prevent our body rejecting the new organ. We will also have a responsibility to look after our new heart rather better than we might have the old one.
We receive a new heart as a gift from God and we receive the means of grace which puts the law of love in our hearts and minds as gifts also – but as gifts which must be used; and used day in and day out if our communion with God is to grow. Conversion, our sanctification, the perfection of our faith, is not a one-off matter but the work of a lifetime.
“Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who is promised is faithful.” We come to worship in hope, holding on to the promises of God. God has promised that a day is coming when war will be ended, when justice will flow down like a river, and when death and pain will be no more; that there will be a time when no mother will weep for her lost children, when all will have a place to live and food to eat, when many will come from east and west, north and south, for a great homecoming at God’s extravagant banqueting table; the banquet of which this sacrament is a foretaste. In the meantime, Christians must live in a world where “we do not yet see” the realization of these promises (2.8); therefore we must live by hope. We must “hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering” (10.23). Christian faith is expectant faith. It eagerly awaits the completion of God’s work in creation and redemption.
Hope for Hebrews is a strong cord and a steadfast anchor, linking us who are in the midst of the struggle, to the firm and sure promises of God. When we “hold fast to the confession of our hope,” we do far more that hold on to a doctrine or abstract idea. We hold on to the One who gives us hope: Jesus Christ – the “pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” The one who has gone before us, who has taken our humanity into heaven; the one will lead us home and bring our humanity to share his glory.
“Consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds” (10.24).When we come to worship, we come not just to pray and sing, but also to praise God with deeds of compassion and mercy. Since our natural inclination is, in the Prayer Book’s words, to leave “undone those things we ought to have done,” we are to be active, prodding each other to works of mercy. Preaching and spiritual guidance and church discipline is sometimes about correcting those who have gone wrong, but here we see something which should be prior to that: a positive encouragement of one another. Sometimes that is by direct words which challenge us. Sometimes it is by quiet example of dedication to prayer and service.
Finally, we come to the true and heavenly sanctuary to engage in pure and eternal worship by gathering with other Christians in ordinary sanctuaries like this one, for word and sacrament, psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, prayers and blessing.
Whether it is at High Mass in a church like this designed to speak of the courts of heaven; or a choral Evensong like the one in Exeter Cathedral where we worshipped on Thursday evening when I was in Devon to speak to the local bishops; a quiet weekday mass fitted in before, during or after work; an austere office chanted in a monastery chapel while the world sleeps on; Methodist hymns sung in a plain chapel in a dales village; even in some mega-church designed to look as unlike a church as possible; or any one of a variety of other forms of Christian worship; wherever Christians gather together for worship we walk through the doorway of an ordinary building, an “earthly tent,” and find ourselves in the company of heaven singing praises with the heavenly hosts.
Worship anticipates the fulfilment of all things in God’s purposes; the approaching victory of God; to which the coming season of Advent looks. A time is coming, as Paul writes, when “every knee shall bend and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2.10-11).
But, in the meantime, the knees that bend and the tongues that confess, our knees and our tongues, are to serve as midwives of God’s future, always with an eye on “the Day approaching.” So, as Mass draws to a close and we give thanks for the gift of our Holy Communion with God, we offer our souls and bodies as a living sacrifice; to be sent out into the world in the power of the Spirit to love and work to God’s praise and glory.