21 August – The better word of Jesus

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Pentecost 11

Jeremiah 1.4-10
Hebrews 12.18-29

Sermon preached by Matt Julius

God, may my words be loving and true; and may those who listen discern what is unloving and untrue in my words. Amen.

The world ends every day.

It ends when a harried surgeon walks alone to a teary-eyed family telling them their mother didn’t make it.

It ends when a once hope-filled couple silently packs away the crib and nursery for a new life that never came home.

It ends when a phone call severs the last chance of reconciliation with an abusive father, who slipped away during the night.

It ends when abuse passes on to another child, and the trauma will have to wait one more generation to be cleared away.

The world ends every day.

Every day the world is shaken at its very core.

Over and over and over and over and over and over and over …

And our human fragility is left wandering the world as if in the wilderness. Is this the freedom from God?

Hebrews is a difficult text. I don’t really have the foggiest idea what’s going on. But part of what’s going on, clearly, is a contrast being made between the ancient story of Israel: the Jewish people freed from captivity in Egypt, and yet left wandering in the desert — and the story of Jesus Christ: who frees us from our captivity to the forces of sin and death, and yet here we find ourselves in worlds that end over, and over, and over again.

Part of what makes Hebrews such a difficult text is the seeming incompatibility between these two stories: the story of Israel, and the story of Christ.

Throughout Hebrews Jesus is spoken of as the great high priest of Heaven; and yet, if we follow the strictures of the Jewish Torah (the law) Jesus does not properly fit into the line of priests. After all, Jesus literally was not a priest, and was not from the line of priests, or even the priestly tribe.

Similarly, if we follow the story of the system of ritual sacrifice established by God in the wilderness of wandering, the sacrifice of Christ does not make sense. There is no call for human blood, nor a single sacrifice that disrupts the daily cycle of the cult in tabernacle or temple.

So it is, as is often the case, that we find ourselves at the centre of the encounter of two worlds. Today in our reading Hebrews welcomes us into the heavenly Jerusalem, into an angelical festal gathering. And yet, at the very same time, we are put on guard lest our refusal of this welcome home turn into the final shaking of the world, the final end that leads to consuming fire.

Hebrews leads us to sit in this tension. (I almost wonder if the baffling nature of this text is intentional: forcing us to really sit in the mood it evokes.)

We are in a world of sin and repeated death, which we must face up to. In this present world we remain enslaved to the constant cycle of world ending tragedy, death all around, our own failures and the failures of others … and so we are like the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, setting up altars wherever we rest for a while: constantly making amends, and beginning again, and trying in our fumbling, fragile ways to restore ourselves and our broken worlds. Over, and over, and over again.

And yet, and yet says Hebrews: “Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant … speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” (Heb. 12.24)

We must be on guard here against readings of this text that see us replacing the promises of God to the Jewish people: simply setting aside the old ways of Torah for something new. We cannot do this, because we hear the better word of Jesus precisely and because we too learn from journeys in the wilderness. We hear the better word of Jesus only because we come lately and join the journey of God’s promise and people.

And this is the better word …

The word that is better than the blood of Abel, the crying out of the tragic death of humanity
The word that is better than all the injustice that goes unanswered in the world
The word that is better than land stained with suffering, and robbed of life
The word that is better than shaken foundations, and worlds that end daily

This is the better word:

God has answered our echoing prayer, we have called out to God from the cycle of tragedy:

“Hosanna, Save us, we pray, you beyond all!”

And God has answered this call, entering into a world that is strange and ill-fitting of the divine. God has become the human one among us, feeling the loss of betrayal, suffering the persecutions of the powerful, beaten and bruised, murdered and pierced. The whole story of humanity is gathered in this human one, this Son of Man who comes on the clouds as if from Heaven itself: this one has come and gathered in all humanity and put God where the people die.

The cycle of our human frailty that separates us from God is broken by this one, by Jesus who speaks the word that is better than the blood of Abel crying from the land. This cycle is not broken because the world has no more tragedy; and we cannot accept the welcome into God’s presence without acknowledging that the foundations of worlds continue to shake. The promise of Christ’s presence breaks the cycle of our abandonment in the wilderness, because the living God has now entered fully into our journey.

The fullness of God has reached out and grasped
The fullness of God embraces us with love
The fullness of God has called us holy, and is making us holy

You are holy and loved by God
You are holy and loved by God

In the midst of all failure, all tragedy, all injustice:

You are holy and loved by God.

We have not come to a reconciled world that can be touched, we are not led by a pillar of blazing fire through our wilderness, and the tempest and the trumpet and the voice of God do not regularly sound aloud in our Assemblies …

And yet we are holy and loved by God, called to the deeper, invisible world which can no longer shake. Though the world ends over and repeatedly, we live for the world in which justice and mercy kiss.

The world in which the cry of the blood from the land — the cry of First Peoples — no longer has to call out, because justice is done.
The world in which all who were told their love made them unholy are told that they are holy and beloved.
The world in which the land sustains life, and the life of the land is sustained.
The world in which the pioneer and perfecter of peace causes all war to cease.

We live for the world beyond tragedy … the world through tragedy. The world without end. For this is the journey with God. Amen.