Tuesday, August 23, 2016

14th Sunday after Pentecost

In the Epistle this morning, we have the climax of the argument that the author of the epistle has been making throughout his letter. That argument is that the new covenant of Christ is greater than the old covenant of Moses. Throughout the epistle he illustrates this argument. He says that Jesus is superior to Moses, because Moses was just a servant of God while Jesus is a Son—the heir always has greater care for his father's house. The priesthood of Jesus is greater than the priesthood of Aaron, because unlike those Old Testament priests, he doesn't have to make a sacrifice for himself nor offer repeated sacrifices annually. Rather, he has made one complete sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. In chapter twelve from which we heard this morning our author compares Mount Sinai to Mount Zion. Mount Sinai was the location of the giving of the law and the Ten Commandments to Moses. The people were told that they could not touch the mountain nor their cattle or else they would die. At first the people heard directly the voice of God which they found terrifying. Afterward they requested that God speak just to Moses and then Moses could deliver the message. As Christians, the author argues, we have not come to Mount Sinai where we hear the law, a law that convicts us as lawbreakers. Rather, we belong to the heavenly City and have come to its mount, Mount Zion, where we don't hear the law that condemns but the good news that forgives, that our Lord Jesus has made one sacrifice for our sins and the sins of the whole world.

In the middle of our passage, there is a curious statement that we have come to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. It's an unusual image because we don't usually think of blood as speaking. As readers though we're invited to compare and contrast the murder of Abel with the execution of Jesus, to figure out why the blood of Jesus is a better word than the blood of Abel. Abel and our Lord are both similar in that they are innocent sufferers; they are both killed by brothers—in Abel's case by his brother of nature, in our Lord's case by his brothers of nation and ethnicity. They are also killed for reasons of religious envy: Cain is jealous of the acceptance of Abel's sacrifice; the Pharisees are jealous of our Lord's authority and his claim to have God as his Father. The fruit of envy is a consuming hatred that is evident in both accounts. 

Now, given these similarities, why is it that our author says that the blood of Jesus speaks a better word than the blood of Abel? A better initial question would be what word does the blood of Abel speak? This past week at VBS we talked about the key stories in Genesis 1-11. This section contains the primaeval narratives that lead up to the story of the patriarchs, Abraham and his descendants. One of the main purposes of these opening chapters is to explain why the world is the way it is. Why are there multiple languages in the world? The story of the tower of Babel provides an answer to that question. Why is man out of communion with God? The story of the Garden of Eden and the Fall answers that question. Another question is why is there is war? Why do brothers and sisters feel malice and hatred for their own kin? Why is a marriage that survives so rare and one which would be described as happy even more rare? Why is friendship so difficult to find and then to maintain? The story of Cain and Abel is an answer to this question, or at least an assertion that the world of Cain and Abel is the same world in which we live, a world where man is at enmity with man. Abel's blood does speak a word, but one that is painful to hear. Despite our desire for poetic justice, the innocent often suffer. Children are the object of abuse and violence. The powerful lord over the powerless, and human beings are treated as expendable for the benefit of political expediency or economic growth. Economies are constructed in such a way to promote oligarchy rather than common wealth. In short, the word of Abel's blood testifies that sin divides and destroys families and communities and nations. Sin has separated us not only from God but from one another. At the heart of all this division between man and man is the assertion I am not my brother's keeper. The word of Abel's blood is a true one—it reflects accurately the disorder and suffering between man and man, brother and brother in the world, but it is a word that offers no hope. It leaves us with the fact of innocent suffering with no remedy for the malice and hatred that engendered this suffering. 

But the blood of Jesus, my friends, speaks a better word. His blood is that of an innocent suffer, but it is a blood that cleanses and makes new. Our Lord does not live in the paradigm of Adam or of Cain. Unlike Adam he consecrates all of his life to God his father, and lives in total obedience and surrender. Unlike Cain, he lives in total love for his brothers and sisters, his fellow man, even when they do not deserve it. All of the injury and violence that has been inflicted in the world calls for justice; this blood cries out from the ground. Our sins are the same way. They call out for justice and satisfaction to God. The blood of Jesus is shed that the unjust might be made righteous and just. He doesn't promise that if you'll be good and just try harder, you'll be considered just before man and God. He doesn't offer an elaborate self-help program. What he offers is forgiveness if we'll turn to him in faith and trust; forgiveness is the only real hope for a world as broken by injustice and sufferings. There will never be marital reconciliation without forgiveness and a surrender of your sense of right and wrong. There will never be reconciliation between family members without forgiveness of past grievances. Society will never be at peace unless forgiveness is extended as a sign of goodwill to all people. You might ask, how can I forgive this person or that group for what they've done? And the answer is in the word of Jesus' blood. The one absolutely innocent person suffered unjustly and yet extends forgiveness: forgive them for they know what they do, he says from the cross. In the cross is found the way that Cain can be reconciled to Abel, and this is why it is the greatest hope for our world. This is a word that we should never tire of hearing and proclaiming, as we live into the call to be ambassadors to the world of this shed blood that indeed speaks a better word. 

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