Thursday, February 14, 2013

Sermon -- Lenten Vespers (February 13, 2013)

EXODUS 39:24-26 / HEBREWS 4:14-16
Our Great High Priest Stands in God’s Presence.

In the name + of Jesus.

     The Lord had chosen Israel to be the nation through whom the Lord would bring the Savior of all the nations.  For this reason, the Lord also chose to dwell among the people of Israel.  The place the Lord chose to dwell was in Israel’s tabernacle, in the Holy of Holies.  The Lord dwelt in a cloud that hovered over the cherubim on the Ark of the Covenant.  Not in the flesh but in a cloud, he was Immanuel: God with us.
     The Lord had made his dwelling in the midst of the Israelites, but they did not have unlimited access to him.  Israel may have been chosen, but they were still sinners.  And sinners cannot dwell in the presence of the Lord God.  Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD?  And who shall stand in his holy place?  He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false or does not swear deceitfully. (Psalm 24:3,4) 
     The Lord revealed this separation between himself and Israel by a curtain that hung in the tabernacle.  The Lord had forbidden people from stepping behind that thick curtain and entering the Holy of Holies.  Not even the Lord’s ordained priests could stand in his presence.  They may have been set apart for holy service, but they themselves were not holy.  Iniquity still separated them from God.
     The Lord did allow one person to set foot behind that curtain and into the Holy of Holies, the high priest.  The high priest stood in the presence of God, sprinkling blood on the Ark of the Covenant, to make atonement for the sins of the people.  But in order that he would not be struck down, the high priest had to follow God’s directives to stand in the presence of God.  The Lord restricted the high priest’s visit to one day a year, the Day of Atonement.  The Lord even prescribed the vestments which the high priest had to wear in his presence.
     Regarding his robe, the Lord had given these instructions: On its hem you shall make pomegranates of blue and purple and scarlet yarns, around its hem, with bells of gold between them, a golden bell and a pomegranate, a golden bell and a pomegranate, around the hem of the robe.  And it shall be on Aaron when he ministers, and its sound shall be heard when he goes into the Holy Place before the LORD, and when he comes out, so that he does not die. (Exodus 28:33-35)  Only in this way could the high priest stand in God’s presence.
     The bells around the high priest’s robe broadcasted his movement in the Holy of Holies.  What right did he have to stand in the presence of almighty God?  Why shouldn’t he be cut down and killed?  Why should the Lord accept atonement from his hands?  Whatever fears or doubts the Israelites outside the tabernacle had were answered by the bells on the robe of the high priest.  The ching-a-ling of the bells broadcasted that God had not slain the high priest.  He had followed the rules.  He had faithfully executed the rites and ceremonies of the sacrifice.  Atonement was made.  Sins were pardoned.  Man had stood in God’s presence for a moment and, therefore, man could hope to dwell in God’s presence eternally.
     High priest after high priest donned the sacred robe in God’s presence.  Annually, the bells were heard in the Holy of Holies.  Faithfully, the Lord decreed atonement.  But no man had undone the curse of sin.  The sacrifices had to be repeated, and the high priests all went to their graves.  Aaron died in the wilderness.  Eleazar entered the Promised Land, but there he was buried.  Phinehas, too.  Dust they were, and to dust they returned.  The curtain still separated man from God. 
     Sin is ugly, and its ugliness is seen in you.  We all try to hide it.  You hid your faults and flaws when you began dating your wife.  You dress up your behavior so that you can impress your boss.  It is important to you that your friends and neighbors think you are a good person.  But it is all a façade.  Trying to dress up your behavior is like putting lipstick and a dress on a pig.  It does not change the nature of the pig.  You can’t pretty it up; you are still a sinner.  Even your righteousness is filthy rags.  Try as hard as you want, you are still weak and warped and wicked.  Sin is not pretty.  Anyone who tries to make it pretty is lying.  You do not have clean hands or a pure heart.  God could be just to strike you down.  Repent; for you are only filthy rags.
     You need a high priest who enters God’s presence and who provides a lasting atonement.  You need a high priest whose sacrifice removes the curse of sin once and for all.  Jesus is your great high priest.  He robed himself in flesh and became one with all of us.  He is Immanuel, God who dwells with us—not merely in our midst, but one with us.  Jesus did not pretend that life was pretty.  He witnessed sin in all its ugliness.  He submitted himself to weakness and temptation.  He dwelt and dealt with people in all of their deceit and hypocrisy and phoniness and cruelty.  Yet he did not recoil from sinners or regret his coming.  He assumed our flesh and carried our cause into the very presence of God.
     When the Old Testament high priest ministered before the Lord, he was vested in brilliant garments.  The bells on the hem of his robe jingled and testified that God had not slain him as he made atonement.  Jesus, our great high priest, was stripped of his garments.  Veiled only in flesh, Jesus, our great high priest, made atonement.  There was no jingling of bells.  In silence, he was slain.  His clean hands were pierced to the cross.  From his pure heart, blood and water poured forth to purify you from all unrighteousness.  Jesus, our great high priest, atoned for all your sins.  The Father was pleased with his sacrifice.  Sin has been taken away.  The curse has been removed.  Therefore, the curtain was ripped in half.  Atonement was made. 
     Having completed atonement for sin, Jesus rose from the grave forever victorious over death.  Man is no longer marked for an endless ugliness of death and decay.  Through baptism, Jesus has cloaked you in garments of salvation.  Like Jesus, you shall be arrayed in an incorruptible, imperishable, risen flesh.  Jesus ascended into heaven, the presence of God, the Holy of Holies.  There, he forever serves you as your eternal high priest.  To this day, the man Jesus Christ stands in God’s presence and, therefore, man now can dwell in God’s presence eternally.
     Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession.  For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.  Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:14-16)
     Dear Christians, draw near the altar.  The Holy of Holies is open to you.  For a moment, you get to stand in the presence of God and partake of the most holy things.  Your great high priest, Jesus, pours out the blood which atones for you.  This is the grace that sustains you at all times and in every need.  Therefore, you will ascend the hill of the Lord.  You will forever stand in God’s holy place.

In the name of the Father and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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