Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Sermon -- Lenten Vespers (February 28, 2018)

This sermon was preached in a Lenten rotation.  It was preached on February 21, 2018 at St. Paul's Evangelical Lutheran Church in Belleville, Michigan.  It was preached again on February 28, 2018 at St. Peter's Evangelical Lutheran Church in Plymouth, Michigan.

HEBREWS 4:14-16


In the name + of Jesus.

     One of the lies that the devil wants us to believe is that we are special.  He wants us to believe that our sins are unique—that no one else bears the guilt that we do and that no one else could appreciate the shame that we feel.  Because the devil wants us to think that we are so special with our sins, he also makes us suffer silently and alone over our sins.  But the devil is a liar.  You are not special.  Your sins are not unique.  Your temptations are common.  As St. Paul needed to remind the Corinthians, so he reminds you: “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man.” (1 Corinthians 10:13)  
     I do not want to suggest that your sins are no big deal.  They are.  They are offenses against God, and they harm your neighbor whom you sin against.  But the temptations you face and the guilt you suffer are common.  You are no different than apostles who debated among themselves which one of them was the greatest and most important.  You are no better than those disciples who boasted that they would never forsake Jesus, but you are no worse, either.  When there was a cost to being a disciple of Jesus, they all fled into the night.  When Peter was confronted about his allegiance to Jesus, he renounced Jesus.  Judas betrayed him.  Shame smeared them all.  All bore the guilt for their weaknesses and sins.  Judas, however, believed that his guilt and shame were special, even too great for God to deal with.  Judas sought relief from his guilt by suicide rather than by confession by which we find absolution.  Even though Judas was a common sinner, Judas died apart from mercy and forgiveness.  And tragically, relief eludes him forever. 
     You are not special; you are a sinner.  While you may be frustrated over yourself for that, you are neither despised nor rejected by Jesus Christ for that.  This is because Jesus loves you.  You are God's creation, and God loves what he has created—so much so that he came to redeem it.  But it is more than that.  Jesus Christ does not despise or reject you because Jesus also knows what it is to endure temptations.   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. (Hebrews 4:15)  
     Jesus is our compassionate high priest.  He understands that we are sinners.  He knows that we are weak against the devil and the temptations he hurls at us.  That is why he takes up our cause.  Jesus is not your coach or your cheerleader.  Jesus Christ is your compassionate high priest.  Just like Old Testament high priests, Jesus represents you before the heavenly Father.  Therefore, Jesus goes on your behalf to make a sin offering for you, even going into the very presence of God for you. 
     The Day of Atonement was the one day of the year on which the high priest was permitted to enter into the Holy of Holies, that is, into the very presence of God.  The high priest made the atoning sacrifice on that day—first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people.  At all other times, however, even Israel's high priest was forbidden from entering God's presence.  Although he held a prominent position in Israel and was allowed closer access to the Lord than anyone else, he was still a sinful being.  The curtain which hung before the Holy of Holies was a continual reminder to the high priest that he was ineligible to enter God's presence because, like the people he represented, he was a sinner.
     Jesus, however, is a great high priest who has no such restrictions put on him.  We have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God... (Hebrews 4:14)  He who is holy has made a holy sacrifice.  Jesus not only made the sin offering for you; Jesus is the sin offering for you.  All your sins were laid upon him, and he, in turn, laid down his life for you.  Jesus, who is eternal, has made a sacrifice which stands for all time.  God, who became man, made the sacrifice which extends to all mankind.  This sacrifice has been presented to God the Father on behalf of all mankind.  And Jesus now sits at the right of God the Father to forever intercede for you.  He dwells in the glory of God, the Holy One who prepares a place for the ones he has declared to be holy.  Jesus is the Lamb who was slain—was slain—and now lives in the presence of God as the continual, eternal source of salvation.  The body and blood of that Lamb are regularly taken from this altar as the continual, eternal source of salvation for you.
     Through the work of your Great High Priest, you are now beloved by the Father, redeemed by the Son, and set apart by the Holy Spirit.  You have been set apart from sin, death, and the devil.  They do not own you; you are Christ's.  You have been set apart for God's honor and glory and for loving and serving your fellow man.  You have been declared to be holy, and are called to live of good and godly works.
     But we are still weak.  We still struggle and stumble.  As much as we strive to do these good works, we fall short.  We give into temptation because our sins have become a habit.  We give up on doing what is good because we become weary and no longer have the energy to fight against our selfish nature.  And some of the people we are called to serve in our various vocations make it very hard to love and serve our neighbor.  We are either repulsed by how freely they defy God's word or we are worn down by how unappreciative they are of our kindness.  Our weakness in honoring God and in serving our neighbor are obvious.
     But that does not make you special.  It makes you a normal human being who still has a sinful nature clinging to you.  Even though you get frustrated because you know that you should do better, the Lord Jesus is not frustrated with you or angry or ready to cast you out.  No, 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 4:15-16)  Jesus is sympathetic to you and your condition.  Therefore, he summons you to pray to him.  For he who endured temptations is eager to help you with yours.  He who was scorned for his godly life will strengthen you to continue in yours.  He who was tormented by the devil will fend off the devil for you when you plead to him. 
     Jesus is our compassionate high priest.  Therefore, you get to call on him with confidence.  Yet get to acknowledge in very blunt and honest terms that you are struggling against a particular sin.  Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace....  (Hebrews 4:16)  When you do, Jesus will not be shocked or turn you away in disgust.  For Jesus is our compassionate high priest.  He looks upon you with mercy.  He deals with you lovingly.  And he will come to your aid eagerly.
     Jesus is our compassionate high priest.  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 4:16)  We do not have to pretend with him.  We don't have to convince God of anything.  We acknowledge what we are—sinners who are still weak, still struggle, and still fall.  But we are also sinners who are redeemed by Jesus Christ.  So we pray and confidently acknowledge who Jesus Christ is—the atoning sacrifice for our sins, the high priest who still lives and reigns in service to us, and the refuge to whom sinners run for salvation and hope. 
     Jesus is our compassionate high priest.  Jesus sympathizes with us in our weakness.  He supplies grace to help in time of need and in the day of trouble.  And he remains merciful to us.  There is nothing special about you being a sinner, but it is remarkably special that Jesus is your compassionate high priest who atoned for your wickedness in his death and lives to serve you for your eternal good.

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

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