Such preparations having been made, the priests go continually into the first tent to carry out their ritual duties; but only the high priest goes into the second, and he but once a year, and not without taking the blood that he offers for himself and for the sins committed unintentionally by the people. By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the sanctuary has not yet been disclosed as long as the first tent is still standing. This is a symbol of the present time, during which gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, but deal only with food and drink and various baptisms, regulations for the body imposed until the time comes to set things right.
But when Christ came as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation), he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God! --Hebrews 9:1-14 (NRSV)
Grace and peace to you from God, our Creator, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
If you were one of the newly-freed people of Israel, going to worship at the tabernacle in the wilderness, this is as far in as you could go. In that first place of worship for Israel, there were three parts. The first - the outer courtyard - was where the altar of sacrifice was placed. It was here that, if you were seeking to honor God, to ask for God’s blessing, or make amends for something you had done wrong - it was here that you would come. With grain. With an animal, such as a bull or ram or dove or pigeon. Even with the fat and inner organs from certain animals. You would come to this place with your offering and it was here, in this outer courtyard, where the priests would, if required, slaughter your offering and then place it on the altar of sacrifice.
If you were of the priestly class in Israel, from the line of Levi, you could go into the next place - the inner courtyard. The Holy place. It was here that you would go about your daily ritual duties. Offering incense morning and evening as you came in to dress and trim the lamps - lamps that were situated beside a table, called the Table of the Presence. Each Sabbath, you would eat the Bread of the Presence - loaves of bread that had been set in place the previous Sabbath as a continual offering to God. These loaves were a visible token for Israel of the communion between God and God’s people. As priests, after eating the bread, you would replace the loaves with freshly baked bread, to be eaten and replaced the following Sabbath.
If, however, you were the high priest, you were the only person who could enter the next place - the inner sanctuary. The Holy of Holies. This inner sanctum was separated from the courtyard by a curtain. It contained the Ark of the Covenant, which was the most sacred object in all of Israel. It was here, in a box-like container where three sacred religious objects were located. A golden bowl containing manna - the bread that God had provided to sustain Israel in the wilderness. It contained Aaron’s rod, which God had caused to bud and flower when the people disputed his priestly role. Then, finally, it contained the two tablets of stone upon which was written the Ten Commandments. Which represented the covenant that God had made with Israel at Mount Sinai. On top of the Ark was the Mercy Seat. On either end were two gold cherubim. It was between these cherubim where God was present. Hovering over the Mercy Seat in the form of a cloud.
As high priest, you would enter this space- the Holy of Holies - on Yom Kippur and offer up a sacrifice for all Israel. A sacrifice for all sins committed unintentionally by the people. Part of this sacrifice included two male goats, one of which would be offered up. The high priest would then take the second goat, place his hands on the head of the animal, and confess over it all of Israel’s offenses, their rebellious sins and all other sins. He would then send this goat - this scape-goat - away. Out into the wilderness. Carrying the sins of Israel away.
This is the tabernacle and the connected ritual around it that the writer of Hebrews is talking about in our text today. This earthly place - this worldly sanctuary - connected to that first covenant made between God and the people at Sinai.
But, do you notice something about this place? Do you notice how far God is in this ritual from God’s people? How there is no direct contact - no direct relationship - between God and God’s people. But that, in order to get to God, you have to go through priests and, ultimately, through the high priest. To get to God. To be in God’s presence.
But, ultimately, God is a God of relationships. I’ve spoken before about the perichoretic nature of God - that God, as the Triune God, is in relationship with Godself, with God’s three persons: Creator, Son, and Holy Spirit. That our relational God has created us to be in relationship with God. And also with each other. That we aren’t intended to go it alone. But that God intends we are together. This is the wholeness God desires. This is the shalom God wants.
And so, as God looked at this earthly sanctuary, God could see its weaknesses and its limitations. How it separated God from God’s people. How there was no “way” into the inner sanctuary. No direct “way” into God’s presence for all of humanity.
And so, God determined, as our text says today, to “make things right.” To do something new. To send Christ as our own high priest. Our own mediator. To tear down that curtain that separates us from the presence of God. To break down once and for all the things that keep us from God. To open the “way” for all people into the presence of God. God has flung the door open wide open for us and for all people.
Why? Because God is a God of relationships. God wants to be in relationship with us. And God wants us to be in relationship with others. And with all of creation. This is the new thing that God is doing. The “new covenant” that our text speaks of. A covenant of wholeness of relationship. With God and with each other.
This is what our text is talking about this morning. About how God has opened the door in a surprising way. And about how God has acted and continues to act to restore relationships. Relationships that our own human sins have closed off.
In 1619, 400 years ago this month, twenty people from Africa were brought to the shores of this country. To Jamestown, Virginia. And they were sold into slavery. This was the beginning of 250 years of the intentional enslavement of a people in our country. The beginning of a transatlantic slave trade that ripped African peoples away from their rich traditions, their history, and their assets. It led to the systematic oppression of people of African descent in the US and throughout the world. To colonial and post-colonial policies. To racist beliefs, policies and practices. To imbalances of privilege, power, and wealth. And to the continuing demand for low or no-wage labor that are the manifestations of this legacy of slavery.
And if you think the church has been immune to this. That the church has not been a party to this legacy. Think again. For centuries, scripture was used to justify slavery. And, while there were some Lutherans in the south who questioned its morality, along with a few in the north, “on the whole,” R.M. Chapman writes in his book about Lutherans and the legacy of slavery. “On the whole, Lutherans did not become strong anti-slavery advocates, nor did they champion the cause of free blacks in the North or the South.” Lutherans were complicit in slavery as they largely stood by. Passively. Accepting the practice as the law of the land. And, even though much of our own Lutheran church history emphasizes being an immigrant church, during the Jim Crow era and much of the civil rights era and later years, Lutherans as a whole remained on the sidelines. Silent. With only a few small pockets of advocacy and action.
Too often we hear in ourselves that we are not racist. That we are not privileged. We may have grown up poor ourselves and with few resources. We have worked hard for what we have. And that is true. Yet, what we fail to see is that we have a system of privilege that has made our lives easier. We fail to look at the log in our eye. To see the rights and privileges that we have had. That our ancestors have had. Privileges that have allowed us to access good education. To choose where we might live. To get loans and purchase property and assets. To build wealth. All while many others have not had those same privileges. This unearned privilege runs deep within us. And we cannot escape it.
Yet, God continues to do new things. To rekindle our faith. And to challenge our imagination. Through Christ, God continues to draw us back into relationship. With God and with one another. More deeply. So that we might begin to understand the harm our sin has caused in our relationships. That we might repent of that sin. And that we might begin to work alongside the Spirit to change the world in which we live. To tear down the systemic walls that divide us. So that our world might be the heavenly sanctuary God desires. The place of wholeness God wants. The shalom that God seeks for us, for all people, and for all of creation.
For these - for these new things that God is doing - may our response be, “Thanks be to God!” Amen.