Preached by Michael Cheuk, October 25, 2015
Taken from Hebrews 7:23-28
Halloween is coming this Saturday. On Friday, the neighborhood surrounding UBC will be haunted by thousands of tiny ghosts, goblins, princesses, Star Wars Jedis and Storm troopers, in the annual rite of trick or treating on the UVA lawn. So this Friday, we’ll also have our Fall Festival right in our front parking lot from 4 to 7 pm, to welcome all those children (and their parents) to come and jump in our bouncy house, to play games, do crafts, etc. This is our way to be more visible and engaged with the young families in our neighborhood and in our city.
Halloween is a visible reminder of hauntings. In a deeper sense, Halloween is also a reminder that many of us are haunted. Oh, I do not mean that we are repeatedly visited by literal ghosts or spirits. Instead, many of us are haunted in the sense that we are repeatedly visited by painful past experiences, guilt, regrets and failures. These hurtful memories seem to latch on to our consciousness. They remain with our spirits, and they will not let go.
Perhaps you are haunted by a past experience – a time you hurt someone, or a time you were hurt. A broken relationship, a traumatic event, a bitter argument. For some people, an occasional trigger can bring them back into that moment, with all the anger, guilt, shame, or regret that can crash down like post-traumatic stress syndrome. “If only I hadn’t done this . . . if only I hadn’t said that . . .” These unwelcomed thoughts slip through the closed door of our consciousness like ghosts, and we can’t seem to exorcise them. They remain with us, directing fear and anger either against others or against own selves, accusing us, condemning us, belittling us, shaming us.
Today, we have psychologists, psychiatrists, counselors, pastors and spiritual directors to help us address those things that still haunt us. Back in the day of Jesus, priests served a similar function, not just for individuals, but for the whole community. Indeed, around 1,500 years before Jesus, during the time of Moses, God instituted for the Hebrew people a system of sacrifice led by Moses’ brother Aaron, who served as the first high priest. In the Old Testament, in Leviticus 16, God gave instructions regarding how, one day a year, on the Day of Atonement, the high priest was to enter into the Most Holy Place of God and offer a sacrifice as a way to intercede or mediate between a holy God and a sinful and unholy people. The high priest was instructed to bring a bull and two goats as a special offering. The bull would be sacrificed to purge the sins of the priests and their households. The high priest would then draw lots to select one of the two goats to be sacrificed as a sin offering on behalf of the people. The high priest would then enter the most Holy Place to sprinkle the goat’s blood upon the lid of the Ark of the Covenant. Finally, the high priest would lay his hands on the head of the second goat while confessing all the sins of the people. The goat would then be driven out of the community and into the wilderness, carrying with it all the people’s sins away. That goat, that “scapegoat,” bore the blame for all that went wrong in the Israelite community the previous year.
I’m going to stop with the history lesson now, because I can tell that I’m already losing some of you. It is very hard for us to understand and relate to these practices because we are so far removed from the culture and religious practice of the ancient Hebrews. But in Jesus’ day, the Day of Atonement was the most holy day of the Jewish calendar, with a long-standing tradition of over 1,500 years! For generations, the people of God appeased the wrath of God when the high priest slaughtered the first goat. And for generations, the people of God were freed from the guilt, regrets, and failures of the previous year, when the second goat was physically and literally led out of the community and cast out into the wilderness. These worship rituals spoke powerfully to the Jewish people, and they communicated the forgiveness of God.
So imagine yourself in the congregation, listening to the Preacher of the book of Hebrews. It would be a congregation steeped in this tradition of the priesthood and the Day of Atonement. Imagine, then, hearing the Preacher say, “In the past, there have been many priests, but in these last days, we have a permanent priesthood in God’s Son, Jesus Christ.” In our old system, the Preacher continued, we had human priests, and they served their function well. But they were flawed. They weren’t able to meet everyone’s needs. They were imperfect. They were weak. They died. That’s why, in the old system, we had to keep on sacrificing year after year after year. We had to keep on scapegoating, over and over and over again. Yes, those rituals spoke to us, but we were still stuck in a cycle of always needing to sacrifice and to scapegoat, year in and year out, in order to appeal to the forgiveness of God.
But in these last days, the Preacher continues, God has spoken to us by his Son Jesus, and Jesus is now our high priest. While human priests die, Jesus always lives. While human priests deserve blame, Jesus is blameless. While human priests are impure, Jesus is pure. Jesus stooped down to be one of us; Jesus understands our weaknesses. Yet, Jesus did not sin. In that way, Jesus was set apart from the rest of humanity. Therefore, as the permanent, perfect high priest, Jesus does not need to offer sacrifices day after day. Indeed, Jesus, the pure and spotless lamb of God offered himself as the perfect sacrifice. Jesus is both the perfect high priest and the perfect sacrifice, once and for all. The cycle is now broken. There’s no need to slaughter another animal sacrifice, and there’s no need to scapegoat anymore. Jesus has interceded for us, and we are fully forgiven by God.
Jesus the high priest intercedes for us so completely, that the next chapter of Hebrews promises not only that God will forgive us – it also says that God will no longer even remember our sins (Hebrews 8:12). That’s about as far away as possible from the way that many of us are haunted by our past guilt or grudges or regrets. The good news of Christianity is that Jesus our perfect and permanent high priest has completely bridged this gap between sinful people and a perfect God once and for all.
Once and for all, Jesus has offered us forgiveness of our sin.
Once and for all, those who are baptized in Christ are beloved children of God.
Once and for all, there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
Once and for all, death has been defeated by Christ on the cross.
Once and for all, a new creation is dawning through the resurrection of Christ.
The big question for today is this, “If God in Christ is so willing to forgive us, can we take the next step and accept God’s forgiveness, and live into a new resurrected life? Instead of continuing to be haunted, can we look our regrets or anger or mistakes in the eye, learn from them, make amends if necessary, and then leave them in our past?” Let’s invite Jesus not only to intercede with the God of the universe, but also in the recesses of our hearts.
I now invite you to join me in a litany to explore how God’s forgiveness is at work in our lives. In the first part of the litany, we consider the hurts we’ve experienced at the hands of others. At the end of each phrase, let us appeal to Jesus Christ our high priest to intercede for us as we join together in saying, “God, help me to forgive them.”
For those who have let me down . . . God, help me to forgive them.
For those who have been indifferent to me . . .
For those who have doubted me . . .
For those who have spoken wrongly to me. . .
For those who have wrongly accused me . . .
For those who have hurt me . .
For those who have walked away from me . . .
Now we begin to turn our attention on ourselves. At the end of each phrase, let us appeal to Jesus Christ our high priest to intercede for us as we join together in saying, “God, help me to embrace your forgiveness.”
For the times when I have let others down . . . God, help me to embrace your forgiveness.
For the times when I have been indifferent to others . . .
For the times when I have doubted others . . .
For the times when I have spoken wrongly to others. . .
For the times when I have wrongly accused others . . .
For the times when I have hurt others . . .
For the times when I have walked away from others . . .
Now, hear these words of assurance adapted from the words of the Preacher of Hebrews:
There have been many priests (and pastors and ministers), but they are all temporary since they all die. But Jesus lives forever, and He is our high priest once and for all. Therefore Jesus is able to save completely those of us who come to God through Him, because Jesus always lives to intercede for us. Jesus truly meets our need—because He is holy, blameless, and pure. He offered Himself to be the ultimate sacrifice for our sins. On the cross, Jesus proclaimed: “It is finished,” once and for all. Therefore, let us go forth and live as a people who is forgiven and free.