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Twenty-Third Sunday After Pentecost
I Kings 17:8-16; Psalm 146; Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44
The concept of sin is inescapable. Even the most materialist person recognizes that we humans are incapable of doing everything right, all the time. We fail at least as much as we succeed, and we are full of unexamined and unrecognized prejudices, resentments, and flaws. And so, all people see there is a need to deal with these failures, flaws, or in the older terminology, these sins. Maybe we do it through meditation, trying to root them out and become more enlightened; or through therapy, having someone probe into our behaviors and help us see them more clearly; or self-improvement, pure will-power.
We as a family just rewatched “The Good Place,” a very interesting and intelligent show that deals with questions of the afterlife, but which sees the fate of each human simply being a point system: if you do enough good to outweigh the bad, you’ll get in to “The Good Place.” The problem is that the very premise is wrong. Sin is so ingrained in us, so insidious, that even when we are doing good we are unable to do so perfectly, purely. In a point system, humans will always lose, because we are tainted from the start.
In the ancient world, the issue of sin was dealt with by sacrifice. God was recognized to be pure, holy, the source of all that is goodness, and thus, could not abide sin. The ancient Israelites were given a system by God where they could offer up animals, grains, and the like to God as signs of repentance, and thus have their sin dealt with. These sacrifices did not save people from their sin, but rather was a symbolic act where they showed that they saw they were sinful, and God was good and just, and offered up the best of what they had to recognize that their very lives were owed to their Creator. In other words, it was an act of obedient thankfulness, saying, “I give my best to God, because he has given me all that I have and am, and I have sinned and been unfaithful with these gifts.” Blood was shed in the animal sacrifices as an acknowledgement that death is true penalty for sin, but that the blood of animals would take the place of ours. The high priest took these gifts of the people and brought them to God, offering them and going into the sanctuary of the Temple alone to pray for God’s people.
Hebrews has been a demonstration that this system, this way of symbolically dealing with sin, is now defunct, not because it was not necessary before, but because it has been fulfilled in Jesus Christ. These things were copies, icons of the True High Priest Jesus Christ, who offered the True Sacrifice of himself in the True Sanctuary, which is the very spiritual Presence of God the Father. Whereas last week we focused on how we are able to persevere because Jesus is the permanent, perfect priest for us, now we see that he is the definitive sacrifice for sin. He is the solution to our human condition of continual failure, weakness, frailty. He died once for all, and is the answer to sin.
Jesus Christ appears in the presence of God the Father as the one sufficient sacrifice for humanity’s salvation. Unlike the ancient Israelite high priests, offering sacrifice after sacrifice, day after day and year after year, Jesus, God the Son incarnate, offered himself as a sacrifice, and is the definitive, final, and eternal answer to the problem of sin. Jesus, through his self-sacrificial offering, perfectly offered without any stain of sin, broke the power of sin and death. We humans only die once, so in the same way, death is only truly defeated once.
One of the things which makes our lives so hard is that when we sin we then start to see ourselves and our state as hopeless. Sin often leads to one of two places: either we grow hardened and rebellious, angry that we aren’t able to perfect ourselves, choosing to live in denial instead, saying “I don’t care.” Or, we begin to loathe ourselves, growing in depression, despair, and self-pity, spiraling into more sin that we then grapple with through other vices, addictions of all kinds that help us forget, briefly, our terrible state.
Really, we end up in some form or other like that of the ancient Greek myth of Sisyphus. Sisyphus was a mythological human, a trickster of the first order. Twice, Sisyphus cheats death through clever manipulation, and because of his presumption of thinking himself cleverer than the gods, is punished rather ingeniously. Sisyphus had to push a large rock up a hill, except that every time he got to the top, it would roll back down, and he had to start over again. And he was condemned to do this, forever. Sisyphus is every human person without Christ, and that rock is sin.
That is the human condition without Christ: a perpetual effort to resolve the effects of sin that ultimately means nothing. We may have the briefest feelings of victory, but in reality, they are hollow achievements, as destructible as we are.
Victory over the problem of human sin is only and ever the definitive, final work of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ appears in the presence of God the Father as the one sufficient sacrifice for humanity’s salvation. Without that, our struggle with sin is but rolling a rock up a hill. But we know better. We are those for whom sin is defeated in Christ for all time. We are able to carry on in the war against sin, because we know it has already been defeated. The victory is won; all we must do is follow the Lord who has done it.
When I proclaim “Christ our passover is sacrificed for us!” what I mean is that, on that day 2000+ years ago, Christ died for us, and here, now, transcending time and space, we receive the life he poured out, from his glorified body now at the Father’s side, by the Holy Spirit. And when he returns, it will not be to deal with sin, which he has already done, but to complete our salvation as we are fully perfected and ushered into the same sanctuary, the Presence of God the Father, that he dwells in now. We are able to push forward, brothers and sisters, because Christ died for us. Do not grow discouraged, or resentful, or sad, or angry at the reality that you sin, and struggle with sin. Because Christ died for you, and his work is sufficient for you, and the victory belongs not to sin and death, but holiness and life, which we attain through repentance and faith. Look to Christ, and continue onward. You will attain the top, not because you push the rock up the hill, but because Christ does, and shatters that burden for you. Onward.
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