The Provocation of God
1 Samuel 1:4-20
There’s an author of fantasy novels I like named Glen Cook—he wrote the Chronicles of the Black Company series, which one reviewer described as ‘Vietnam War fiction on peyote.’ Glen Cook wrote these novels while he worked on the factory floor of a GM plant. By union rules, he was only allowed to do a certain amount of work during his shifts, and so once he’d met those limits, he had to find something else to do. For whatever reason, he chose to write novels. Interestingly enough, this year is the first time in eighteen years that Cook has published a Black Company novel—it seems that after he retired from factory work, he suddenly didn’t have the motivation or the opportunity to spend large chunks of his time writing novels. The monotony of working in a factory, for him, was only alleviated, only lessened, by these writing projects. But once he wasn’t doing repetitive tasks for hours on end, the conditions for his writing inspiration went away.
We can probably all relate to having some really monotonous, repetitive task or job we’ve got to do, but which never seems to end. The Book of Hebrews describes the job of the priest in the Temple in Jerusalem in just such a way. ‘They stand in front of the altar and do their religious ceremonies again and again, day after day—and these sacrifices can’t ever really take away sin.’ Hence why they have to be repeated over and over again. Here in chapter 10, the author of the Book of Hebrews continues his comparison between the priests in the Temple at Jerusalem, on the one hand, and Jesus, the high priest of the order of Melchizedek, on the other. ‘This priest,’ the author says—this Jesus—‘made one offering for sin and then sat down at the right hand of God.’ We proclaim it in the Creeds: Jesus “ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty,” in the Apostles’, and he “ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father,” in the Nicene.
What the ordinary priests in Jerusalem could not do, Jesus did. In a way, Jesus put them out of a job. On a couple of levels, actually, because their whole purpose was to point toward the future Messiah’s role: as we read last week in our Epistle Lesson, the priests of the Temple performed sacrifices for sin in a sanctuary, a Temple, “built by human hands, a copy of the true one in heaven.” But the Messiah has come! And he offers himself as the true sacrifice which all of those sacrifices the priests at the Temple did pointed toward.
Jesus made that sacrifice, and now he sits at God the Father’s side. He’s playing a waiting game now—waiting until “every enemy is made a footstool for his feet.” Jesus did his job, the task set out for him from the beginning of time. Now, he waits for the ripple effects of what he did on the cross to reach every corner of existence. He’s done his job: as the Psalmist says—one of our Calls to Worship for Easter Sunday—“The right hand of the Lord does valiantly; the right hand of the Lord is exalted; the right hand of the Lord does valiantly. I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the Lord.”
Jesus made one single offering, of himself, and in that offering he “has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.” Now, we often seem to get hung up on the word ‘perfect,’ but again, in the Bible, it doesn’t mean “flawless.” It means ‘complete, tested out, mature, blameless.’ Jesus has perfected—on the cross, but the effects are still felt today—“all those who are sanctified,” who God has set apart as holy, as his people. That new life is what Hebrews says the Holy Spirit testifies to as well. “In the last days”—we’ve been ‘in the last days’ for two thousand years now, ever since Jesus’ ministry here on earth—“I’ll put my laws in their hearts and write them in their minds,” the Spirit says. ‘I’ll teach them how to live, and it’ll stick in their inner-most being.’ And the Holy Spirit says too, “I will remember their sins and lawless deeds no more.”
Forgiveness before Jesus was a provisional thing—kind of like how we’ve probably heard more than we ever wanted to about provisional ballots during the elections across the country a couple of weeks ago. They were provisional, in the sense that it assumed that a future act would verify what had been done. Just like with the priests in Jerusalem. God offers forgiveness to those who make animal sacrifices at the Temple with an eye toward the future, toward what Jesus would do. But “where sin is forgiven, there’s no longer any offering for sin”—we don’t need to keep repeating those same acts of animal sacrifice over and over again, because Jesus has made the one offering that mattered, that counted.
And it’s for that reason—because Jesus did his job on the cross, with ripple effects still touching lives today—that we can take a new attitude toward God. We don’t need to worry that God won’t answer our prayers. We don’t need to worry that God won’t save us. We have “a great high priest,” we have special access to the house of God. We have the ear of Someone who has God’s ear.
Jesus cleared the way. In the Temple, there was a curtain that separated the innermost part, the Holy of Holies, from the rest of the sanctuary. The Holy of Holies is where God let his presence be most felt, where God was said to dwell. That curtain, then, became an obstacle that separated us from God—a necessary one, because men and women weren’t right with God, and would die if they got too close to Something—Someone—so pure. But remember your Bible! The curtain in the Temple was torn in two, from top to bottom, when Jesus cried out on the cross, ‘It is finished!’ and died. And here again in Hebrews, “we can be confident about entering the holy place of God because of Jesus’ blood, by the new and living way he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his taking on a human body).”
Jesus became a bridge for us. The curtain in the Temple was an obstacle, just like our humanity was an obstacle. In the Gospels, we read that Jesus’ death caused the curtain to be torn in two; it removed the obstacle. But here, in Hebrews, it’s more than that. Jesus didn’t just remove the obstacle—he transformed it. We couldn’t reach out to God, so God reached out to us. As the Early Church Fathers and Mothers put it, “God became man, so men could become like God.” Jesus became a bridge for us by taking on human nature. Our humanity is no longer an obstacle, something that keeps us apart from God, because Jesus became a man born of a woman; what was an obstacle, is now a bridge!
Jesus became a bridge for us—so what keeps us apart from God? “Let’s approach God with a true heart in full assurance of faith,” Hebrews says. Jesus became a bridge for us, so what’s stopping us from crossing? Let’s trust in him, and draw nearer to God through him. Let’s draw nearer to God through him, because we’ve been baptized, marked as his own with ‘hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience’ as well as ‘bodies washed with pure water.’ What baptism did physically, washing our bodies with water, has also done something spiritually, cleansing us from our sins, cleansing us ‘from an evil conscience.’
Jesus became a bridge for us—so let’s cling to him. Let’s ‘hold fast’ what we believe, our ‘confession of our hope’ without any hesitation, any wavering, any turning back to old habits and old unbelief—because Jesus is faithful, because the one who promised ‘I am with you always, even to the end of the age,’ didn’t lie and won’t lie to us.
Jesus became a bridge for us—so let’s look for how to bring others onto that bridge too. Let’s do what we can to egg each other on. You probably remember the Christmas Story, and how little Ralphie saw Flick out by the flagpole, and how Schwarz ‘triple dog dares’ him to stick his tongue onto the frozen metal—only for Flick to get his tongue stuck fast to the pole. That’s probably something like what you think of when you hear the phrase ‘egg on.’ But look at the word “provoke” here too. “Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.” Usually, you provoke negative reactions, like provoking an argument or a fight; you push for a reaction. But Hebrews says it doesn’t have to be a negative thing: provoke one another to love and good deeds—‘egg each other on’ to see God at work. Push for a reaction of love and good deeds.
And part of that too, is pushing each other to meet together here, at the Lord’s Table in the Lord’s house, hearing the word of the Lord. We need all the encouragement we can get when it comes to living Christian lives in this world; we can’t do it alone. “Don’t put off meeting together with other Christians, especially because the Day draws nearer and nearer.” No one knows the day or the hour—but whatever the T-minus is, each day ticks us one closer.
Jesus became a bridge for us—let’s push one another forward toward God, because none of us knows when the Day of Judgment will come, when the curtain on the stage of life will be drawn, when the Author of the play of life will come on-stage.
Jesus became a bridge for us, so that the humanity that was an obstacle between us and God, is now the very place we meet God.