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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

October 28, 2012

Once for All

Jeremiah 31:7-9

Hebrews 7:23-28

             It seems to me that to be human is to have moments and even whole periods in life where we are wracked with real doubts, and times and seasons when we wonder if we are able to bear what we are facing.  A loved one dies suddenly, and without warning.  A spouse sits in shock, and almost without thinking says, “I just don’t know if I can go on.  I don’t know how I am going to make it.”  Or someone loses his or her job, seemingly without warning.  You feel vulnerable, hurt, betrayed, and you find yourself thinking, “I don’t know how I am going to get through this.  I am scared.”  Young people look at the immense challenges of life ahead of them, and it is hard not to feel some real fear.  “Am I up to this?  Can I succeed at this game I’m being forced to play?”

             Life is not easy for any of us, and it is hard not to wonder sometimes if we are adequate to the task in this increasingly complex and ever-changing world.  And a part of the experience of being human is to know that we each are imperfect, that we each possess weaknesses and flaws, and this can leave us feeling vulnerable, even deeply insecure.  Life puts all of us in tough spots, and when we find ourselves there, we wonder if we are able to handle them.

             I have read this past summer Noah Feldman’s book, Scorpions.  It tells the story of the four Supreme Court justices, Felix Frankfurter, William O. Douglas, Hugo Black and Robert Jackson appointed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the Great Depression, four men who changed American jurisprudence in the twentieth century.  Hugo Black was the one southerner in the group, from Alabama, from a small town in Clay County called Ashland.  Black went to the University of Alabama School of Law and after establishing a successful law practice ran for the United States Senate in 1927.  To gain the support he thought he needed to win, he joined the Ku Klux Klan.  Ten years later when he was named to the Court by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, his one-time ties to the KKK became a huge revelation.

             This embarrassment affected Black the rest of his life.  He grew up a poor southerner, and he did not go to the prestigious schools most other Justices had on their resumes.  And as brilliant a jurist as Black was, he was haunted all his life by his own doubts and insecurities.  Was he able to be a Justice worthy of the Court?  Interestingly, his last act as a Justice was to agree with the Court on Brown verses the Board of Education.  The point is, no matter how high we may climb, we all have these doubts about ourselves.  None of us are immune.  We all come to places where we wonder if we are able.  Can I do this thing called life?

            Apparently, a whole group of Hebrew Christians were wondering if they were able to continue, able to go on in the face of what was threatening them.  They were a church that was deeply discouraged, probably persecuted, and wondering if they could go on.  The Letter to the Hebrews is really not a letter at all, but rather a sermon that was so powerful, that it was circulated among all the churches in the first centuries of the Christian enterprise.  Frances Taylor Gench says it has two large themes: Priesthood and Pilgrimage.  These were the two themes the author of Hebrews offers to encourage a group of Hebrew Christians who are wondering if they are able to make it in this world that is threatening them.

             Today’s passage is all about Priesthood.  First century Jews knew all about the institution of the priesthood, that Levitical caste who interceded on behalf of the people of Israel before God.  You know from the life of this congregation that priests come and go.  They served and they did their important work of entering the holy of holies on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, in order to pray for the people of Israel.  They provided access to God for the prayers of the people, none more ardent or important than that God would forgive their sins.

             Hebrews argues that in Jesus Christ the Church, the newly formed people of God, have been given what he calls “a Great High Priest.”  And the author of Hebrews wants to reassure a struggling people that this Great High Priest is able to do for them what they cannot do for themselves, and what no priest who has ever gone before them has ever done for them.

             There is a moment in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings when Frodo Baggins encounters a total stranger, a curious weather-beaten man sitting in the shadows.  He is smoking a long-stemmed pipe and his head is covered by a hood he is wearing that tops his travel coat.  His leather boots are caked with mud.  Frodo learns that the stranger’s name is Strider and that he is a Ranger, a group who travel throughout Middle Earth all the time.  Frodo has never met Strider, nor has he ever heard Gandalf utter his name, but by morning Frodo will have to decide if he can trust this strange looking man to guide him on his life and death journey to the elven city of Rivendell.

             All our lives we must make decisions like Frodo was forced to make.  Who can I trust?  Upon whom can I depend?  This question is even more crucial when it is the God question that we inevitably ask.

             The author of Hebrews commends Jesus as our Great High Priest as a guide for life that you can utterly trust.  This Great High Priest, this Jesus, “is able,” the author asserts.  Against all of your own struggles and doubts, against all of your own weaknesses and flaws, against your own fear, Jesus is able to save you.  This is the argument the author of Hebrews makes.  This is the truth upon which he stands.

             Jesus holds this office permanently, because He lives eternally.  All other priests die.  We die as well.  “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of the Lord our God endures forever,” said the Psalmist.  Jesus is that Living Word.  And Hebrews asserts, “He is able for all time to save those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them.”

             This is an encouraging word to a people who find themselves discouraged.  Jesus lives to make intercession for us.  Jesus lives to plead your case before God.  I have a dear friend who right now finds himself in a very hard place.  At the age of fifty-seven he was fired from his job, not because he was not doing an excellent job, but largely because he did not get along well with his boss.  My friend is struggling to find work, and he is deeply discouraged.  He writes me pretty much every week, and we talk about positions and possibilities and, of course, these are not easy days in which to be out of a job.  He has asked me to make a few key phone calls for him, and I have been happy to do so.  I do it all the time for people, trying to help them.  But to know that someone like me is in your corner, or willing to offer a good word on your behalf, is not quite the same thing as what Hebrews is saying.

             Hebrews is telling us that “Jesus is able for all time to save those who draw near to God, since He always lives to make intercession for them.”  Jesus lives to pray for you!  Jesus lives to say a good word for you before the throne of God Almighty.

             And this Jesus not only lives forever, He is “holy, blameless, unstained, separated from sinners, exalted above the heavens.”  Jesus does not need, like all other priests, to make intercession first for His own sins.  Hebrews says that Jesus was like us in every way, except without sin.  Jesus was tempted in all ways as we are, and He chose unqualified obedience.  The Levitical law called for a spotless lamb, an unblemished lamb to be offered, and Hebrews is telling us that Jesus is this “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”

             You see, Jesus is not just the Great High Priest forever who always lives to pray for you.  Jesus is the priest who offered Himself as the sacrifice for your sins, and for the sin of the world.  And Hebrews says that Jesus did this “once and for all.”  It was the once and for all time sacrifice of Jesus that makes the cross the Christian symbol.  It is a symbol of love, even as it is a symbol of death.

             And Jesus made this once for all offering of Himself for all people.  This is the power of the Gospel.  It proclaims the news that God loved the world, and that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself.”  Jesus loves and prays for all people, and I trust you know that means you.

             Carl Sagan blessed the world with his love for the universe, and his commitment to the science of astronomy.  He never could be anything other than hostile to religion, to the idea of God.  When he died, his wife said, “We were wonderfully happy for over twenty years together, but for Carl, there was no doubt that when we said goodbye it was for all eternity.”

             Hebrews makes a much different claim, and I find it far more satisfying than the faith of Carl Sagan.  “He is able for all time to save those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them.”  Trust in this Good News, dear friends.  Jesus will not let you down.  “He is able.”

                                                                                     Amen.

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