Changed into Saints by Sacrifice
A Sermon based on Hebrews 10:11-18
Sunday, November 15, 2015 – Saints Triumphant B
Perhaps you've heard this joke before: "How many WELS Lutherans does it take to change a light bulb?" "Change?! What are you've talking about?! We've always had that lightbulb!" The truth is, change can sometimes be scary. We're used to doing things the way they've always been done. That's what we know. It's what we're comfortable with.
In the 100's AD the Jews wrestled with some pretty big issues of change. They were comfortable with the temple worship and the sacrifices that they'd always done. After all, it was the way God told them to do it. And it was the way their people had been doing it for thousands of years. But now, with Christ's mission complete, everything changed.
And while they struggled with giving up the old way of keeping the ceremonial law with its animal sacrifices, the author to the Hebrews gave them encouragement. In his letter he pointed out how the old way, was really only pointing to Jesus. The new way—worshiping Jesus himself, instead of the shadows that pointed to him—was a much better way. And he reminded them that they could embrace such change because they themselves had been changed.
And friends, you and I, like those early Christians have also been changed. We have been changed into saints by sacrifice. But not by our sacrifice, because there's no way that we could ever sacrifice enough. Instead, we're changed by Jesus' sacrifice which is so perfect and complete, there is no need for Him to ever sacrifice again, and there is no need for us to ever sacrifice again. Listen to these comforting verses from Hebrews 10:11-18…
11Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. 12But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God. 13Since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool, 14because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.
15The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this. First he says: 16"This is the covenant I will make with them after that time, says the Lord. I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds." 17Then he adds: "Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more." 18And where these have been forgiven, there is no longer any sacrifice for sin.
I. There's No Way We Can Sacrifice Enough
Do you ever feel like you're in a rut? After all, day after day we do the same things: the same laundry and the same dishes, the same tasks and reports at work again and again. We prepare for one meeting only to have another the next day. It seems that once we are finished with a task, the same tasks need to be done all over again. We never seem to accomplish anything.
Well, imagine how the Old Testament priests must have felt. Every labor-intensive day, always standing, never getting a chance to sit down (literally), they would drag stubborn animals near the altar, go through the smelly, sticky mess of slaughtering these animals, drag their carcasses up the mound to the altar and offer them to God. And after a long, grueling day's work, what did they have to look forward to? Another day of the same things tomorrow, repeating it all over again and again.
"Day after day… again and again… the same sacrifices." And what did all this work accomplish? Well, not too much, it seems. Because all these sacrifices, all these religious duties, could "never take away sins." How tiring it might have seemed to those priests to know that no matter how hard they worked, their inbox would always be full. How frustrating it might have seemed to know that no matter how many sacrifices they offered, it would never have any lasting effect. Like that bottomless cup of coffee in the diner their "to-do" list was always refilled before they even came close to seeing the bottom.
I'm sure you can relate, right? Does it sometimes seem to you that your work load is "bottomless"? That no matter how hard you work, there's always more to do? Does it sometimes seem to you that your efforts are futile, never really accomplishing anything final?
Well, what can be frustrating at your job, is even more frustrating in the work we would need to do to get right with God. You see, no matter how much work we do for him, it is never enough. There is always more to do. No matter how many sermons I write, there's always another to be written next week. No matter how many times you share your faith with a friend, there's always another friend to help or one more witness to be made. No matter how much you give in the offering plate, there's always more needed next week and next month. And so day after day, again and again we make sacrifices little and big. And sometimes it seems as if the sermons, the witnesses, the offerings, all these sacrifices have little to no lasting effect.
And what's more, all of these works, as good as they are, are like the sacrifices made by the Old Testament priests—they can never forgive sins. No matter how many good deeds you do, they can never pay for that one mistake you made last week (as if were only one mistake anyway, right?). Like the sacrifices made on the altar in the temple, they could be done again and again, day after day, but never be completely effective. They could never cancel the debt we owe for the least of our sins, let alone the heap we pile up each day. They could never undo the evil that we've thought, said or done—our sins of apathy toward our spiritual immaturity, sins of neglecting our Bibles, of failing to be faithful in our witness or in our offerings. The good I do tomorrow cannot undo the evil I did yesterday. And I can't go back in time. And so, like the priestly sacrifices, our works and the sacrifices we make, no matter how great or numerous, can never be enough to save us.
But if the sacrifices of the priest could never take away sins, if it could never accomplish what they really needed—forgiveness—then why even bother? Well, they had to do these ritual sacrifices, as worthless as they may have seemed, because God commanded it. And he commanded it for their sake. You see all of that labor and work, and all of those sacrifices day after day, and all of that bloody, sticky mess, were pointing the people to Jesus and to his perfect sacrifice…
II. There's No Need for Him to Sacrifice Again
The author to the Hebrews contrasts, the ongoing, never-ending, ineffectual work of the priests and their sacrifices with the perfect priest that they foreshadowed. He says of Jesus, "But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God." Unlike the priests' sacrifices, Jesus only needed one. What hundreds of thousands of slaughtered animals could never accomplish, Jesus did. And his never needs repeating. His was perfect.
Jesus offered "one sacrifice…" His sacrifice was "for all time…" It lasts forever. More than the blood of a sheep or a goat or a bull, Jesus offered his own blood—the very blood of God. As the apostle Paul left the city of Ephesus for the last time he encouraged the elders, "Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood." (Acts 20:28) That blood, unlike the blood of a goat, can adequately cover all sins of all people for all time. And there's no need for a repeat act. The debt has been pain in full. As Jesus said, "It is finished."
The Roman Catholic church teaches that at every Mass (at every Lord's Supper) Jesus is sacrificed again to pay for our sins. But that can't be! He was already sacrificed. And with that one sacrifice Jesus completed his work. That's why he could sit down. "But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God."
When could a priest sit down, kick back, and put up his feet? Not until all the work was done or until someone came to take over for him. No one took over for Jesus. He rested because all the work was done. He rested because there was (there is) nothing left to do to accomplish man's salvation. He sat at God's right hand. Of course, that's not a literal location, but an expression of his position. We might say, "He became God's right-hand man." Though it's hidden for now and not fully revealed until the Last Day, he began his rule over the universe, with the work of sacrifice complete, never to be done again.
What a drastic change that must have been for those early Christian Jews! Their whole way of worship and of life would be altered. No more sacrifice was needed because Jesus fulfilled it all? Worship wasn't just restricted to the temple anymore because they had the real deal, not just a type? How could they deal with such drastic changes? They could because not only was worship changed, but so were they…
III. There's No Need for Us to Sacrifice Again
The author to the Hebrews continued, "…by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy. The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this. First he says: "This is the covenant I will make with them after that time, says the Lord. I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds." Then he adds: "Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more." And where these have been forgiven, there is no longer any sacrifice for sin."
The reason the sacrifices were no longer needed was because the result of the one sacrifice was complete. Jesus made the Jewish Christians perfect. And note the tense of the verb: "he has made perfect…" It's past tense; a done deal. Their sins and their lawless acts were completely forgotten by God.
Does that seem odd? That God could be forgetful? I forget things all the time. Names, faces, birthdays, appointments… my mom always used to say, "Rob would forget his head if it weren't attached." And she's probably right. But God forgetful? Yes! He is! You see, these Christians could say, "Hey God, remember that time I did that horrible thing to my friend? Remember what wicked words I said to my spouse? Remember the way I treated you in my sin?" And God would respond. "Hmmm… Nope. I have no recollection of you ever doing any of that. I remember Jesus doing all that. But I already punished him."
By his one sacrifice Jesus made them perfect. That's why there was no need for any sacrifice on their part. "Where [sins and lawless acts] have been forgiven, there is no longer any sacrifice for sin."
And friends, if that one sacrifice was "for all time" and "forever" there's no need for any sacrifice on our part anymore either…
While the concept of slaughtering an animal on an altar at a temple is foreign to us, we still cling to the idea that we can add something to Jesus sacrifice. We think that if we only do enough works, give enough money, or offer enough time to God, then we will be partially responsible for our salvation. If we decide to live for Jesus and commit our lives to him, then, because of what we've done, we will be saved.
But there's nothing we can add to what's complete. You can't put more pieces into a puzzle that's finished. And while there's nothing we can add, rejoice that there's nothing we have to add! There's nothing left for us to do, so there's nothing for us to goof up!
Even the faith and trust we place in Jesus once-for-all sacrifice is something given to us by God. It's a gift. And you can't earn a gift. Listen again to what the author to the Hebrews says… The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this… . he says… "I will put my laws [or decrees] in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds." The Holy Spirit is active in creating faith. He puts the gospel in our hearts and in our minds. It's all about what God does for us, not what we do for him.
Our salvation is complete. It's past tense. God has made us perfect. Rejoice in what he's done! And don't lose out on it because you insist on paying back the debt you can't ever pay back because no sacrifice on your part could ever be enough. But rejoice, because "Where [sins and lawless acts] have been forgiven, there is no longer any sacrifice for sin."
Finally friends, the fact that our salvation is secure and complete doesn't mean we tread on that grace…
IV. So Sacrifice All You Can
When we realize how God has done everything to secure our salvation and that there's nothing left for us to do, we can't help but feel gratitude and thanks toward God. As Paul put it in Romans 12:1, "In view of God's mercy… offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God…" not because you must, but because you want to as "…your spiritual act of worship."
That's what the author to the Hebrews means in that seeming contradiction in verse 14, "…by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy." How can we be made holy if we're already perfect? Well, though we've been declared to be perfect and are perfect in God's sight, we're not actually perfect yet and won't be this side of heaven. But we continually strive to express our gratitude by setting our lives apart and offering our bodies to God. We are perfect saints who strive to be saintly in thanks to him.
Rejoice, dear friends! There is no need for any doubt in your mind that you are going to heaven. You are a saint—holy in God's sight. Not by your sacrifice, but by Jesus' sacrifice—that sacrifice so perfect and complete that it leaves nothing left for you to do for your salvation. With the pressure lifted, with that grace given, you're now free to sacrifice yourself and serve him in all you do. You're free to strive to become more and more holy, free to worship him, free to sacrifice your time and your energy, your gifts and abilities, your talents and treasures to give thanks to Jesus for his one perfect, complete, sacrifice. Because no matter what else changes in your life. That will never change. In Jesus' name, dear friends, amen.