October 17, 2021. Hebrews 11:17-19; 13:1-5; 13:12-16; John 13:31-34
Faith and sacrifices
It has been said that in order to make a relationship work, you have to make a lot of sacrifices…to which someone replied…that is why I keep a large number of goats in my garden…
The new chef is a deeply religious cook…Everything he makes is either a burnt offering or a sacrifice.
In all seriousness, sacrifice plays an important role in the book of Hebrews. For Christians from a Jewish background this was of course a topic that they were very familiar with. The author of Hebrews however, makes it very clear that there is one sacrificed that sufficed. Jesus Christ sacrificed himself once and for all. His offer was sufficient, final, and unique (10:12): “Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins”. Time and again he uses words to show that Jesus gave himself, once, once for all. For example Hebrews 7:24: “… Jesus is able for all time to save those who approach God through him…” and in verse 26 -27: “it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners…. unlike the other high priests he has no need to offer sacrifices for his own sins, and then for those of the people, this he did once for all when he sacrificed himself..” The author is thus confident that Christ’s sacrifice paid for all of our sins completely. He is certain that we, by Christ’s sacrifice are reconciled with God, we have free access to God’s throne, we are saved, we are made whole. There is a finality about the unique sacrifice of Christ that no-one can undo. There is certainty and firmness in Christ’s sacrifice for us. There is no need for us to doubt the finality of Christ’s reconciliatory work on our behalf. We can simply accept this truth, rejoice in it, and be grateful for it.
In theological terms we call this high-priestly-Christology. In other words, Jesus as the eternal and unique high priest who intercedes for us. Christ the High Priest offered himself once for all, in our stead. The author presents this theological truth as the foundation of our eternal comfort. Never ever do we have to question this truth, or feel uncertain whether I am included. The message is clear, people of God, you can let this truth wash over you again: you are forgiven, accepted by God, reconciled to God, included in God’s great work of salvation. There is no need to think that we have to add something, or do something to earn what we have already received. Never ever should you think that your sins, your poor decisions in the past, your actions, your flaws, or whatever life has thrown at you, will disqualify you from God’s grace! Never ever! This is why it is called the Gospel – for it is indeed good news!
This truth is the deepest foundation for our inner peace, comfort, assurance and joy! Let me say this in the words of the book of Hebrews: “…we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all”!
The author continues, and what he is presenting does absolutely not diminish the truth of his main point. On the contrary, he is saying that because Christ has offered himself once for all, it is possible for us to offer sacrifices that are pleasing to God (13:16). These sacrifices are ones of gratitude, love of and glory to God, and a willingness to serve. And these sacrifices are exactly because we belong to Him who saved us!
In Hebrews 13:15-16 he mentions these sacrifices. And we offer these sacrifices in two ways: 1. Sacrifices to God through Jesus Christ, and 2. Sacrifices to God through other people.
- Sacrifices to God through Jesus.
Hebrews 13:15 states: “through Jesus then let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is the fruit of our lips that confess his name”. The meaning is that the sacrifice that we offer to God is to confess his name – that is to express our faith in Him. The Message translation says: “Let’s take our place outside with Jesus, no longer pouring out the sacrificial blood of animals but pouring out sacrificial praises from our lips to God in Jesus’ name”.
But how do we do this? There are various ways. One is to talk to people about the joy we find in God’s love and goodness.
But there is more: We do this when we talk to God in prayer, personally and collectively as a congregation. We also do this through singing hymns of praise. In song we are able to express our love and awe of God. Psalm 105:2 says: “Sing praises to God, tell of God’s wonderful works”.
The word confess originally had its place in the congregation, not in the individual confession. This is important. Why? For there are more and more people who say they are spiritual but they don’t belong to the church. They consider “organized religion” and public worship services to be inferior. Confess in its original place within the congregation implies that our worship services are focused not on us, as an individual, but on God the Holy One! And when someone then says: “I have no need to worship with my church family”, it indirectly is implying that I don’t have a need to “offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is the fruit of our lips that confess his name.” Our worship services should always be a rich opportunity to sing God’s praises, to offer prayers, to focus on God’s Holiness. An opportunity to offer our sacrifice of praise to God.
- The second way to offer our sacrifices to God is more indirect. These are sacrifices via other people, my neighbors.
Hebrews 13:16 states: “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God”. The Message translation again says it slightly different: “Make sure you don’t take things for granted and go slack in working for the common good; share what you have with others. God takes particular pleasure in acts of worship – a different kind of ‘sacrifice”-that take place in kitchen and workplace and on the streets”. God takes particular pleasure…when we are generous, when we share, when we show compassion in our support of others, and when we love our neighbors. When one does these things, you sing God’s praises, you offer sacrifices to God!
Chapter 13:1-5 show us what the offers of sacrifice look like: “Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers. Remember those who are in prison as though you were in prison with them, those who are being tortured as though you yourself were being tortured. Hold marriage in honor. Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have”.
The author is urging us to have empathy and sympathy with others. That is to “place ourselves in their situation”, especially when they are suffering, being persecuted, mistreated, and in prison. Do not forget them. Even if they are in prison and deserve their punishment, try to understand, have empathy. Do this even to those you don’t like.
Nelson Mandela once said: “It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”
The book of Hebrews is saying that offering sacrifices to God has to do with remembering the outcasts and criminals as if we were in prison with them.
“Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have”. It is not a stretch to see that love of money usurps the love we should have for our neighbors. Being content with what you have enables you to live with an inner peace in spite of the pressures of our materialistic society. Too often we are pulled along in this maelstrom of materialism of more and more, never enough! Could this be one area where we as people of faith can provide an alternative to people caught up in the rat-race of accumulating?
So, you see, these examples of offering sacrifices to God are very practical. I’ve referred to this before. When I started my ministry back in the day, people would ask me: “Why do you in your preaching focus so much on social justice, on the importance of treating others with respect and dignity? The Gospel is about our spiritual well-being and not about political issues like social justice and racism”. They in essence wanted to separate their faith with the way they interacted with other human beings. And, for them, in the church we should talk about God!
The book of Hebrews, and the rest of the Bible, have a different view! These topics should be addressed in the church! Why? Because when we talk about our neighbors we talk about God. When we talk about our love of neighbor (or lack thereof) we talk about our love of God. When we talk about how we interact with others, we talk about how we interact with God. Therefore, it belongs at church!
James, the book that comes after Hebrews, for example says this in 1:27: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress…”
Yes, faith calls for sacrifices. But we could also say: Sacrifices call for faith. To sacrifice one has to have faith. One has to believe in the purpose of your sacrifice, believe that it is worth sacrificing for that purpose. Believe that the sacrifice is pleasing to God.
Abraham, the author says in chapter 11:17-19, “by faith, when put to test offered up Isaac…..”
You are willing to sacrifice when you believe, when you have faith. If you don’t, then why would you sacrifice? It is never easy to sacrifice. The one who sacrifice has to give up something, or someone. However, if we believe in the meaning and purpose of worshiping God, if our song and life witness to the love of God’s sacrifice in Jesus, if we believe that our prayers to God are heard, and when we believe that these sacrifices are pleasing to God, then we will also offer our sacrifices via our neighbors to God. Then we will also believe that our offering sacrifices in the form of loving our neighbors, showing hospitality to strangers, remembering those in prisons, those who suffer, holing our marriages in honor, keeping our lives free from the love of money, and be content with what we have, that these are pleasing to God! Amen.