Are you just holding on?
The letter to the Hebrews is filled with much imagery that comes from the people of Israel and their places of worship and worship practices. For us today these practices and the buildings in which they were offered seem an eternity away from where we are today. Even if we read about the Temple in Jerusalem and learned something of the rituals practiced in the Temple, I am sure that it never really made a great impression on us as something that was vital to helping us understand what God’s incarnation in Christ meant and how that forever changed the rituals of faith.
Over the centuries religious practice among the people of Israel had evolved from a simple tent to a permanent temple. The people had gone from finding God wherever they wandered to believing that the presence of God resided in one place and that was in Jerusalem. And even though the exile had shown them that God could indeed be found anywhere, there was still the strong belief that only in Jerusalem could God be properly and fully honoured and worshiped. Jerusalem was the heart of the faith. It was the royal seat of the kings of Judah and it was the place where the High Priest – the most important religious leader of the people – resided. Along with the other priests and servants, the High Priest presided over and was responsible for the religious life of the people. It was his responsibility to ensure that all things were done decently and in good order and that God would remain the ally of the people.
To that end, the people would come and make their sacrifices according to the prescriptions laid down in the law as they sought to honour God and pray that God would remember them and protect them. And while the offering of sacrifices to God was a daily ritual, there was one day on which the nation would ask for forgiveness from God for its sins individually and collectively. This day is the Day of Atonement. That day is still kept by Jewish people. I remember my friend Larry telling me of this day and how he was expected to visit everyone against whom he had sinned and ask for their forgiveness. In the time of the Temple in Jerusalem, this was the one day of the year that the High Priest could enter into what was the inner sanctum of the Temple – the Holy of Holies. On that day the High Priest and only the High Priest – provided that he was free from all blemishes himself – on that day he would go behind the curtain that separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the Temple and offer a special sacrifice on the behalf of the nation. The hope was that the sins of the past year would be forgiven and a new year could begin with a clean slate.
But as often as the people made their sacrifices and as often as the High Priest visited the Holy of Holies on an annual basis, the people and the nation never felt that full assurance that indeed their sins were forgiven and that all was right between them and God. As close as they may have felt to God, there still was this gap. And when we consider that the High Priest needed to be physically perfect before even he could begin to ritually ask for the people’s sins to be taken away, we begin to understand how people could believe that only our perfection could bring us into the presence of God.
But the author to the Hebrews reminds the people of an event connected to the death of God in Christ. On the day of the crucifixion, at the moment of death, it is said that the curtain in the Holy of Holies was torn apart. For the first time anyone could look into the Holy of Holies. That place wherein only the High Priest had been able to enter to stand in the presence of God now was open to all.
The author to the Hebrews reminds the people that the torn curtain was a sign that no longer would there be a barrier or division between God and the people. No longer would the people need an intermediary to seek forgiveness for their sins. In fact the people could now be assured not only of the forgiveness of their sins for today and even this year but forgiveness of their sins for eternity. But it wasn’t just the act of forgiveness that was signalled by the tearing of the curtain. It was a sign that God was no longer to be feared but to be embraced. It was a sign that God was no longer distant and isolated from the people but that now the people could gaze on the glory and face of God and live.
Those who had been alive and met God in Christ as He walked on the earth and even those who had not met God in Christ in that time could be assured not only of the forgiveness of God for their sins, not only be assured that God loved and cared for them but they could also be assured that they could approach to the very throne of God without fear and look on His face and live.
Certainly this was a great revelation to a people who for so long had felt God to be anything but close and loving. The relationship which was now open to them was one in which they could see God as a loving parent, as a good friend, as a trusted companion. All the barriers between them were gone. They were now invited to enter into that most inner place where God was thought to dwell and encounter a Person whose true heart was one of love and mercy.
That’s the truth which the author to the Hebrews is seeking to impress upon the readers of his letter. But it seems that many of them have lost the vision of what God had done in Christ. They had begun to doubt that it was real and their hope that truly God had accomplished an everlasting forgiveness of sin had begun to wane. Many of them had begun to question the value of their weekly meetings for worship. Their community and their lives were losing purpose and meaning. Hold on, says the author; hold fast to the confession of your hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.
When our life in Christian community becomes simply keeping the faith, doing the ritual, maintaining the shell, we lose the real reason for why we are here. Certainly we are here for ourselves but we are also here for one another. We are here to reveal the love of God to one another. We are here to care for one another, to be kind and merciful to one another. We are here to encourage one another as we seek to live a new life that has come to us from God in Christ.
Our challenge is not to just hold on to that new life in Christ but to grasp that gift and live it as best we can knowing that no one of us lives for ourselves. We live for one another.
I remember one of the first lessons I learned in choir was this. If you are not singing a solo, you should not be heard above the others. A choir is to be one voice even if it be composed of 10 or 20 or 100 or more. So we in this community are many and yet we too need to be one voice for we share a common faith, a common baptism, and a common life.
May God richly bless us as we seek to be a community of His people in this place and may we not just hold on to our faith in God but grasp it and live it in word and action!