Greater than the Sacrifices
The worship in the temple would hardly be recognizable as a worship service to people like you and I today. Or at the very least, if would not resemble anything we do in worship today. A series of rooms that went from the outer court to the inner court, each allowing fewer and fewer people in them. Animals squeaking and bleating as they are killed. An odor of meat burning over a fire and smoke. No air conditioning. Hot. No pews. Everyone standing. Crowds of people. Women not allowed into the center of worship. And then as you walked out of the formal part of the temple, teachers here there and everywhere, with people around them teaching about the Scriptures, holding court if you will. Places to give. People asking for prayers, alms, healing. Ram’s horn being blown. No public restrooms. Ritual cleansing stations like believer’s baptism baptismals outside of the sanctuary so to speak, where children are dedicated and where people purify themselves. All of this talk of sacrifices seems rather foreign really, I think.
Yet it is this worship and the sacrifices that are offered in these worship services that the preacher takes on when he begins to teach and preach in Hebrews 8 and 9. Throughout the teaching, the author of Hebrews says that God gave the Israelites all of these rituals and sacrifices in the Old Testament. All of these rituals and sacrifices, in fact, taught the Israelites important things about God’s holiness. But they were all incomplete. Sacrifices were imperfect, so that they had to be offered again and again. But they were pointing, from the beginning, toward something greater that was to come.
The prophets of Israel promised that at some point in the future that God would establish a new covenant with his people. The law would be written on people’s hearts, and would flow out of their faithful lives. They would receive forgiveness, and they would form a new community marked by love. Love of God and worship of God. Love of neighbor and service to neighbor.
This promise was ultimately fulfilled by Jesus Christ. When Jesus was nailed to the cross, as we discussed last week, he himself became THE sacrifice. THE sacrifice that paid the price for our sins. THE sacrifice that brought forgiveness for all who believe. THE sacrifice that paid our ransom from the bondage of sin and set us free. And thus, there is no more need to offer bulls or birds for sacrifices from now on. Because Jesus was the fulfillment of all that was promised.
You see, all the ritual and religion that the Hebrew people had, all of the traditions, they all had a purpose to help us to know and understand who God was, at least a little bit. And when Jesus comes, as God in a bod, as the ultimate Word from God and ultimate sacrifice for our sins. Jesus shows himself to be greater than the sacrifices. Greater than our sacrifice. And greater than what the sacrifices represent.
So then, the question becomes, now that we have discussed the esoteric nature of ritual sacrifice, what does this passage mean for us? And what does this truth of Jesus being greater than our sacrifices mean?
To understand this, we need to look at the context of the people that the book of Hebrews was written to. These were folks that were a part of a church that had people of Jewish background. And so, they were people who were familiar with these rituals. More than familiar, they were people who, at one time, had understood adherence to the law and these rituals as central to their faith. The sacrifices and the law were meant to point us to God. But, for many people, the ritual took the place of the relationship, the tradition became more important than trusting the Lord. So, for a while, placing their faith in Jesus changed this. But, because they had a propensity to replace relationship with religion, the author of Hebrews had to remind them of the fact that Jesus was greater than the sacrificial system. He had to combat the tendency religion slowly was beginning to take the place of a relationship with Jesus in their hearts and minds, so that they could return to their first love, and to true faith.
It happened to the Hebrew people. It happened to the Jewish Christians that Hebrews is written to. And, friends, the same thing can happen to us. The same thing does happen with us. We as well need to remember that Jesus is greater than our traditions, our rules, our ritual and religiosity. He transcends them and speaks prophetically to them. And Jesus calls us together as a church into a movement to transform the world through the grace and truth we find in him. He does not call us together to be a sanctified civic club or to perform some set of odd rituals in the hope of waking and pleasing the almighty.
The idea of religion at its core is not altogether bad. The word religion comes from the same root as ligament. It means to religament, reattach people to one another. But when the human systems of doing this reconnecting take the place of the person of Jesus, then it all falls apart. Jesus + nothing= everything. Everything without Jesus = nothing.
We as a church have many traditions. We pray the Lord’s Prayer every Sunday. We sing the doxology after the offering. We have a worship style in the morning where multiple Scriptures are read. We take the offering after the message. We sing songs that have words in the middle of these little lines and little dots, and most of the songs are written in this little book. And we have this record of when we have sang each song for the last 10 or 15 years so that we do not repeat the same songs too often. We pass an offering plate from person to person while we are seated. We pass the peace. We preach a message. We try to get out of here as close to an hour as possible.
None of those traditions in our worship are bad things. For some of us, some of these traditions are really meaningful. But if we are not careful, we can mistake our traditions for the gospel. We can mistake our religious practices for Jesus himself. So then, as we practice our faith we need to ask ourselves, are these traditions meaningful, do they do the work of transforming our lives and hearts, and allowing us to grow in Christlikeness. Are our traditions helping us fulfill our mission as a church that has been given to us by God? And if it is not, then why are we doing it?
We could have the best preacher in the world. We could have the most remarkable choir. Our building could combine the best of every worship space. But if the presence of the Spirit is not bringing us into the presence of Christ when we gather, then it is all hollow and empty. It is knowing and being known by Christ that matters. Not our traditions.
Jesus is greater than our traditions.
Also Jesus is greater than our rules.
In the time of the Hebrews, the rituals of the temple were prescribed by the Old Testament law, and by other laws that the leaders and scholars added to the rules in order to help people from ever breaking the rules in the Bible.
We can mistake the rules for the faith itself.
Sometimes we do that through being legalistic about the faith.
I remember my first Sunday in Colorado Springs. It was my tradition to bring pick up a fancy coffee one day a week, Sunday, and drink it throughout worship and Sunday School. Actually, it was not just my tradition. In the church I served in Montana everyone, especially in the early service, came in with coffee in their hands, trying to warm up as the heater kicked in early in the morning. But in Colorado Springs, when I walked in with my coffee on Sunday morning I was cornered by a member of the Properties Team there. What are you doing? Who do you think you are? Do you know what problems you are causing? You would of thought I went and passed gas in the pulpit while reading the Scriptures (also not forbidden by Christ or Scripture). There rule about coffee kept them from being hospitable, loving and accepting. Instead they decided to shame the newcomer at their church.
We add in all these rules that are not in the Bible, or that are a part of the OT law, and we try and place all these rules on people. Don’t dress like this, dress like that instead. Don’t have your hair like this, have your hair like that instead. Children are to be seen and not heard. Work seven days a week. Don’t say Hallejah during Lent. Don’t drink and smoke and chew, and don’t run with those who do. Man made rules.
Jesus is greater than our rules.
Or we start thinking that our life together is about making bylaws and policies. And then policies about the policies. And we can think that by doing so, we are living out our faith, when in fact we are mistaking religious activity for a relationship with Jesus Christ.
We have books of rules that we organize ourselves by.
Not all of this is bad. It helps to have some structure so that somebody will know what in the heck is going on. But the book of rules, the organizational structure, this is not nearly as important as growing in our faith and inviting others on a journey of following Jesus.
More and more people are leaving the church every day because the beauracracy of church has taken the place of being church with one another. Because, when they are not careful, Christians worship the institution instead of the incarnate Christ. They see their traditions as gospel. They see their rules as substitutes for relationship. And the Way of Jesus becomes unrecognizable in a community that bears his name.
Jesus is greater than our rules.
Jesus is also greater than our church activities.
We need some of you to serve on church committees. But, Jesus did not live, die, and go to a cross so that we could serve on a committee at church. Serving on a church team is not a sign of spiritual maturity.
Meetings may be necessary, but they are not a replacement for discipleship. We have to make plans to get things done, but they are no substitute for a relationship with Jesus.
Jesus is greater than our building.
We are blessed with a beautiful building as a church. But our faith is not tied to a church building. The beauty of this building may add to your worship experience and bring you great comfort. But if this building is more important to you than knowing Jesus and living Jesus than it is an idol.
The mission of church always trumps the methods of doing church.
Jesus is greater than any of our institutional structures.
And so knowing Jesus and making him known should permeate everything we do. It should be the standard that everything else, every tradition and rule, every ritual and activity, should return to.
The church is a movement of people called about by God to be Christ’s representatives in the world. Bringing light to darkness. Bringing hope to people in despair. Bringing forgiveness to lost causes, and grace to people who thing they have gone too far from God and are forgotten.
We are called to enjoy God forever. To worship him in Spirit and in truth. And if our traditions get in the way of that for us, or get in the way of that for others, then they simply are not that important.
What is important is knowing that Jesus came to earth, led a sinless life, died and rose again in victory, ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God. And he did this so that we can find new life and new hope in him.
Whatever leads us to Jesus as the cross is essential. Whatever leads us away from that is expendable. It is as simple as that.