Sermon for Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: Ruth 1:1–18; Hebrews 9:11–15 & Mark 12:13–17, 28–34
I wanted to begin this morning by taking a look at our second reading from the Letter to the Hebrews. In order to understand what the author is talking about in this passage, we need to actually look at what the Old Testament says about the ritual of offering sacrifices to God.
When the author of Hebrews talks of “the blood of goats and calves, and sprinkling the ashes of a heifer”, they are referring to detailed instructions given by God to Moses and his brother Aaron regarding two specific ritual sacrifices that are to be made to God on behalf of the people of Israel. Moses received these instructions from God during the forty years the people of Israel spent wandering in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt.
At that time, the Ark of the Covenant travelled with the people of Israel. Whenever the Israelites camped, the Ark of the Covenant was placed in the ‘Holy of Holies’, the name given to the inner sanctuary of the Tabernacle, which was supposed to be the portable earthly dwelling place of God. Only the High Priest, who initially was Aaron and subsequently was a descendant of Aaron, was permitted to enter the ‘Holy of Holies’, and even then they could only do so on one day of the year, which was the day of Yom Kippur.
Yom Kippur, which is translated as the ‘Day of Atonement’, is the holiest day of the year in Judaism. It’s central themes are atonement and repentance, and the instructions that relate to it can be found in the Book of Leviticus (16:2–10). Aaron was instructed to bathe himself before wearing specific garments and making sacrifices of a bull and a goat as a sin offering, and of a ram as a burnt offering. He was to also take a second goat, which he was to lay his hands on and pray over, before releasing the goat into the wilderness. By doing this he was transferring the sins of the people of Israel onto the goat, and sending the goat into the wilderness meant that the sins of Israel went with the goat and away from the people.
The second set of instructions referred to by the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, relate to the Book of Numbers (19:1–9). These instructions involve both the sacrifice of a heifer, and the burning of that heifer, after which the ashes of the heifer are collected and used for the ritual purification of someone who has come into contact with a corpse. Under Jewish law, if a person did come into contact with a corpse they were considered to be ritually unclean and were not permitted to remain within the community until such time as they were purified.
Now that we’ve got that background, let’s unpack today’s passage from the Letter to the Hebrews. When the author talks of Christ as a high priest, and of the good things that have come through the “greater and perfect tent”, they are really saying that Jesus has replaced Aaron as the one who offers sacrifices on behalf of God’s people, and that Jesus has also replaced the Tabernacle, the earthly dwelling place of God, because of course Jesus is the incarnation of God in human form. And Jesus has entered once and for all into the Holy Place, that is the ‘Holy of Holies’, which in other words means that Jesus has entered into God’s eternal presence, not through the sacrifice of goats and calves, as was the ritual practice, but through the sacrifice of himself on the cross.
The author also suggests that if these traditional forms of sacrifice have the effect of purifying those who have been made ritually unclean, then how much more significant will be the effect of the self-sacrifice of Jesus? Jesus therefore is the mediator of a new covenant between God and God’s people. This new covenant supersedes the covenants that God made with Abraham and then Moses on behalf of the people of Israel. God’s covenant is no longer just with the people of Israel, but with ALL people who believe that Jesus is the Messiah, God’s ‘Anointed One’.
Just think about these words from the Eucharistic Prayer in last Sunday’s service: “By his death on the cross, he offered the one true sacrifice for sin, and obtained an eternal deliverance for his people”. Whereas the sacrifice on the ‘Day of Atonement’ had to be made by the high priest every year in order for the sins of the people of Israel to be forgiven, the death of Jesus is a one time event that allows for the sins of all people to be forgiven forever.
The question of the need for offerings and sacrifices is also dealt with in today’s passage from the Gospel of Mark. Hearing Jesus arguing with some Pharisees and Herodians, a scribe asks Jesus which of God’s commandments is the most important. Jesus naturally responds by offering the Two Great Commandments, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. And, you shall love your neighbour as yourself.” The scribe then says to Jesus, “This is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices”.
Listen to these words that I will recite on behalf of us all during the Eucharistic Prayer a little later: “Accept, we pray, our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving”. And now listen to the words that we will recite together after communion: “Father, we offer ourselves to you as a living sacrifice through Jesus Christ our Lord”.
The only sacrifice that God wants to receive from us today is our self-sacrifice. To love Him with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength. And to love our neighbours as ourselves.