Well the day is almost upon us - the day I deliver my first sermon as a reader-in-training.
The reading is Hebrews 7:23-28.
Can you imagine what it was like to make animal sacrifices at the Temple day after day?
I don’t know about you but I find it really difficult. This kind of sacrifice is outside of our experience. We are separated from it by time, geography and culture. We can only try to grasp what it might have been like. The sight of animals being bound and ritually killed, the sounds they might have made. The smells of animals and people and death and burning.
Every day the High Priest would look on while a lamb was butchered and burnt. One in the morning, and one in the evening. One for his own sins and one for the nations sins. Every day. Day after day, year in and year out.
It was a bloody and messy business and it happened on every day of the year. On special occasions, such as the Day of Atonement, the people would bring their own sacrifices to offer for their own sins. Even more blood, even more mess. Year after year.
So day after day the High Priest made his sacrifices for himself and his people until the day he died. As we read in our extract from the letter to the Hebrews – there were many of these priests because death prevented them from continuing in Office. After his death another Levite would take over and continue to make these sacrifices year in, year out, month after month, week after week and day after day.
So what are you thinking?
I’m thinking ‘what did that achieve?’, ‘what difference did it make?’
The point of the system of animal sacrifices was to two-fold. Firstly it kept the sin of the nation and a persons own sin ever before them. The people were forever and constantly reminded that they were sinful, and that sin was a serious matter. Secondly, the sacrifices provided a limited forgiveness, it was a sign of the peoples sorrow, an apology, a recognition of their sin and an acknowledgement of God’s mercy since the animals sacrificed came from what God had given to them.
Since the sacrifice was repeated every day, year after year, we can assume that really it was a pretty inefficient method. The priests were not able to stop the people from sinning or fully absolve their guilt since they too were guilty. The priests were called to live a sinless life but they, like us, were weak and unable to keep themselves from sin but God was still able to use them and many were influential in the Old Testament story.
Under the old covenant priests had a useful but limited ministry with mixed results. They could not remove the peoples sin and sooner or later, no matter how good they were, they died.
Something – someone else was required. A new covenant, a new method, a new way of doing things, a new Priest.
The Jewish people had waited a long time for a new priest, even longer than we here at St Peters.
The new priest was not of the tribe of Levi, Though fully human He did not sin and even though He died – He lives still.
The New Priest is Jesus.
Jesus became the sacrifice – not only for the Jewish people but for the whole world. He is the sacrifice for your sin and for my sin.
Unlike the sacrifices of the days gone by Jesus has no need to offer Himself time and time again. He does not need to die every day.
Jesus is both the Priest and the sacrifice. He gives Himself, once, for all people, for all time. His giving of Himself, His sacrifice, is perfect because He is perfect.
Jesus became the Lamb without stain or blemish. The perfect offering. The perfect sacrifice. His death was bloody and messy and we can only imagine what it must have been like. The sight, the sounds, the smells of a violent death.
His sacrifice was perfect because He is perfect. Because He is perfect Jesus does not need to make a sacrifice first for himself and then for us and there is no need for repetition. Jesus does not need to die again and again, day after day. His sacrifice is made once for all, for the sins of the whole world. For your sin and for my sin. His sacrifice is extremely efficient and effective. Jesus death removes the stain of sin from humanity. His death frees us from sin, past, present and future.
In the risen and ever living Jesus we have everything we need in a High Priest. He is holy, pure, set apart from sinners and exalted above the Heavens.
Jesus lived a holy and pure life, dedicated to God, and though He lived and worked amongst sinful people, he remained blameless, free from sin.
Jesus lived a life on earth with all of its joys and all of its sorrows. He wept at the death of a friend, he lost his temper with the traders in the temple, he shared meals with friends. Yet through all that life threw at him he remained faithful to God, faithful to his purpose and ultimately faithful to us.
Verse 25 of our passage says that Jesus forever lives to intercede for us. It’s easy to miss what this is getting at. What it is the author is actually saying.
Put straightforwardly Jesus is always praying for us. Constantly and without end. He lives to pray for us. He lives to bring our needs to God. He lives to ask God to forgive us our wrong-doing. He died to save us from sin and now He lives to save us from sin. He is our sacrifice and our priest. And he is able to do all this because he knows what it means to live on this earth. He knows the trials and the frustrations, he knows the challenges and the struggles. He understands our successes and our deepest failings. He knows because he lived it too.
So, what are you thinking?
I’m thinking ‘what did that achieve?’, ‘what difference did it make?’
Jesus is our eternal priest and as such there is now no need for an endless string of earthly intercessors to make sacrifice first for their own sin and then for ours. Jesus death and resurrection marks a turning point in history. We go from BC to AD, from the Old Covenant to the New covenant from animal sacrifice to a sacrifice of thanks and praise.
Under the law of the Old Covenant none could be made perfect but now all who come to Christ are made perfect in Him. The old system of animal sacrifices brought a temporary relief from sin, an easing of the conscience, but Christ’s death brings freedom from sin for eternity.
The priests of the Old Covenant were weak and sinful and eventually died but Jesus lives forever. His priesthood never ends.
Although Jesus made His sacrifice a time and a half ago in a far off land, in a far off culture, it is not a miss it and its gone event. His offering of Himself was, and still is, made once for all, for all time. It is not stuck in a particular time, or a particular culture or a particular people. It is now, it is for you and for me, for Radford and Nottingham and for all who would come to sit at Jesus feet.
We still make our sacrifice week after week, year after year, ours is a sacrifice of praise. The Old Covenant animal sacrifices were costly, giving up precious animals was not cheap, and they always gave the best, without spot or blemish. For us too, our sacrifice of praise can be costly. We come to praise God when we want to and when we don’t. We come when there is nothing better to do and when we would rather be elsewhere. We come not because of who we are but because of who God is.
We come not to ease our conscience for the sins of the previous week. We come not because we hope to somehow earn a little forgiveness. We come not to earn brownie points with our church leaders or God.
We come because Jesus invites us to. We come to remember that we live in the grace of God bought for us by Christ’s perfect offering of Himself. We come in praise and thanksgiving for the hope we have in Jesus.
In the Eucharistic service Jesus invites us to come and sit with him as his disciples sat with him in that upper room so many years ago. We gather around and share a meal with Jesus, our friend and our redeemer, our sacrifice and our priest. Like millions of Christians before us we share in the bread and wine, living symbols of Christ’s selfless act of love.
We add another act of remembrance to the long line of similar acts stretching back to that upper room, where Jesus gathered with His friends and said ‘do this in remembrance of me’.