This is a sermon for the 25th Sunday after Pentecost. The Scripture it references is Hebrews 9:19-28.
I wonder what you do to build your own resilience? Is it something you do consciously and deliberately, or is it fairly instinctive (like, in my case, reaching for the chocolate)?
There are, of course, as many different ways of building resilience as there are individual people, but one which is very commonly used now is imaginative visualisation. So there are no end of resources out there helping people to imagine, say, a peaceful place, a place of complete safety, to calm anxiety; or warmth to ease pain; or a comforting touch to allow you to have compassion for yourself. These are incredibly powerful techniques, and widely used across various caring and healing professions.
But what brought them to mind for me today is the way the author of Hebrews is doing a very similar thing. He (or she, perhaps, since we don’t know who wrote Hebrews; but he for convenience) is using words to describe something none of his readers or listeners have ever seen, inviting them to explore and interpret that reality in relation to their own lives.
What I mean is this; the part of Hebrews we read this morning compares the system of sacrifice in the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, with which the people who received this letter would have been familiar, with what Christ has accomplished in heaven; which these people would, of course, not have seen; but can imagine as the author builds a picture out of elements familiar to them.
So the author here compares Christ’s ascension to heaven to a priest going into the sanctuary of the temple; and says that Christ has accomplished everything the priests accomplished, only more perfectly, more fully, more completely, and more powerfully, than any merely human priest ever could.
The overcoming of sin? Christ did it. All enemies defeated? Christ did it. Emptying death of its power and terror? Christ did it. Destroying the powers of destruction? Christ did it. Human beings made holy and acceptable to God, able to enter into intimate and loving relationship with God? Christ did it. Allowing us to experience freedom, confidence, flourishing and hope? Christ did it. Christ has done what is needed, to stand in the place which makes all these things possible for us.
This is the image the author of Hebrews wants us to come back to: Christ eternally in heaven, in the very presence of the depths of God’s being, on our behalf. Whenever we’re anxious or overwhelmed or feel defeated or worthless, this is what we’re supposed to hold onto as the “sure and steadfast anchor of the soul.” Christ is in heaven, and his presence there is sovereign and effective in our circumstances here and now. Holding onto that, reminding ourselves of that, helps us keep all our struggles and concerns in the perspective of eternity.
Part of the interesting thing about the images here is that it seems the author has kind of mashed up different events to do with the Exodus and the giving of the law, and says that what Jesus has done expresses the ultimate meaning of all those things. Because there’s no time in the Old Testament where Moses is described doing exactly what is described here; but there are lots of references to Moses and blood and hyssop and sprinkling, which each separately contribute something to our understanding of how God was present to and active in the ancient Israelite community.
From Moses escaping Pharoah’s edict to kill all the baby boys, to the river Nile being turned to blood, to the calves sacrificed for sin, to the goats sacrificed for protection from death at Passover, to the waters of the Red Sea parting, to the scarlet wool and hyssop that the law required for cleansing a leper… all of this incredibly rich imagery from Exodus and the law drives home one point: God is absolutely in control of the forces of life and death.
(As an aside, there are worse things you can do than to read over Exodus again, looking for how it connects with the gospel).
But the image of the tent – the primitive sanctuary – is central. To put it in really blunt terms, for ancient Israel, God was in the tent. That was the place where people could know God’s presence, God’s power, and God’s glory. And the author here says that that tent was not the real deal! God was present there, but it was only like a shadow or a copy of being in God’s utter presence in heaven. That’s where Jesus has gone. Not to the pale imitation but to the place where God is utterly God, unveiled by anything created or human.
And it’s from that place that grace and mercy then flow to us.
So it’s one natural consequence of this that we don’t need the pale imitation any more, because anything it might have pointed to or accomplished is fulfilled in Christ. But I don’t think the point is just to tell people they don’t need to go through the motions any more. Deeper than that, the point is to give people a clear vision of how everything they could ever possibly need from God is freely available to them now. Even the law, which governed all the sanctuary rituals (as well as so many other details of everyday life) wasn’t needed in the same way now that Christ had fulfilled the purposes for which it was given.
This is why, later in the letter, the author says that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” None of the people to whom he is writing have seen Jesus enthroned in heaven. But they live by the assurance that that event is real, and that the consequences of that event have meaning for their lives. In fact, that event is the source of eternal life for them!
“Consider Christ,” the author writes, “so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.” Remember who Christ is, and where Christ is, and on whose behalf Christ acts, as a way of resourcing yourself for life in a disheartened world.
The author of Hebrews has deliberately given his readers and hearers a mental picture of Christ in heaven, intended to deepen their resilience as they faced persecution and difficulty. It’s well worth us taking that same reality, with all of its consequences, on board for our own lives, in our own difficulties, moments of hopelessness and grief. There’s a great deal there to offer us strength.