A New and Living Way
The letter to the Hebrews is very much true to its name. It was written to encourage Jews who were grappling with the new revelation of God in Jesus. It was written to help them understand that what had been revealed in Jesus was not something disconnected from their ancestral roots with God but rather it was the culmination of those roots and that what God had done in Jesus was meant to bring a final peace and hope to a people who had struggled to find real peace and hope in their lives.
We need to remember that the first people to come to believe in what God was revealing through Jesus were Jews. Throughout his time on earth, Jesus taught the people from the word of God that they had known for centuries. The commandments that God had given the people were the same commandments that Jesus reinforced through his teaching and his ministry. But there was a new energy, a new interpretation of those commandments that made Jesus’ message seem more radical than it really was. Jesus’ emphasis on mercy, love, forgiveness revealed a God whose desire was to break down the walls that separated the people from God.
In the beginning of the faith, a personal relationship with God was possible only for special people who had been chosen by God to be the bearers of God’s will to the people. Those communicators spoke with God and the messages were communicated to the people. God was near to the people yet distant at the same time. The glory of God was revealed but only to a few. For the most part, the people remained in the shadows.
Yet there was ever a hope among many of the people for a relationship with God that would bring them face to face with their God and allow them to experience fully the love, mercy and forgiveness that the prophets and other leaders so often told them God truly had for them.
The people would bring their sacrifices to the place where God was said to dwell. First in a tent that moved with the people on their nomadic journeys and later in a temple erected in the city that God had ordained to be the capital of the people’s homeland. And no matter whether it was in a tent or in a temple, the people remained close yet distant from God. They could approach just so far and could only imagine what it was to experience the presence of God. The tent and the temple were holy places designed to allow the people to come close to God and never forget that they were the people of God but there ever remained a barrier – a curtain – that kept the place known as the Holy of Holies shielded from all except for one of the people – the High Priest whose responsibility it was to intercede on behalf of the people to God. Access to God and to the voice of God, the touch of God was limited. The people had to rely on the High Priest not only to communicate to God but to communicate to the people.
As we read through the history of the people, we discover that while this way of communicating with God remained, there were prophets who began telling the people of God’s desire to take away the curtain that separated them from him. He began to speak of no longer being content to have the people obey with their minds as they followed the written commandments, he wanted to write his laws on their hearts. He wanted them to not be people who obeyed out of fear but people who obeyed out of love and devotion. Things of the mind can be listened to or ignored but things of the heart pierce to the very centre of our being and demand our attention.
If that curtain remained, the people would never be able to even come close to allowing God to write his laws on their hearts because they would ever be bound by the laws and commandments that required them to offer sacrifices in the temple. The curtain needed to be torn so that God could be clearly visible to the people and the people be allowed to see the God who had given them life and who sought to be in a true and lasting relationship with them. And so, it was recorded for us in the Gospel of Matthew that at the time Jesus breathed his last, the curtain in the temple tore in two. What was behind that curtain has never been spoken of, but the symbolism is clear. God has taken away all barriers, all walls, all coverings that could ever keep the people of God from coming face to face with God.
Where once sacrifices of animals and oil were offered and the High Priest’s entrance into the Holy of Holies to secure the hope of forgiveness from God, now the people themselves could come with sincerity of heart and not just the hope of forgiveness but the fulness of faith in the forgiveness of God for their sins because now it was the blood of the Son of God that had been shed. The sanctuary, the Holy of Holies, the heart of God could now be entered with full confidence because God had made a sacrifice that would never need to be repeated – one that was made with the very humanity of God. His flesh is our flesh, his blood is our blood. The sacrifice of God himself binds us to God in a way that no other sacrifice could. And so, we can each approach God’s heart with no barrier, no intermediary between us. We do not need the temple, we do not need one to mediate on our behalf. Each of us can look into the heart of God and experience God’s voice, God’s touch and God’s heart.
As a teacher and a leader, it is not my place to grant or deny access to God for God has declared himself to be open and available to all who seek him with sincerity of heart. I can lead us in rites and services that can draw us to God but to receive the sacraments of our faith, to experience the love and mercy of God is for God to communicate to each one of us.
Notice that the author does not say that leaders are to arouse others to love and active goodness but that every believer is to do so. Each one of us is to see how best we can arouse one another to love and to active goodness.
We have been granted by God a new and living way to have a relationship with God that generations past could only imagine and for whom it was a faint hope.
May we celebrate that gift of God of relationship and forgiveness given to each one of us and ever encourage one another in faith, in hope and in love.