Faux Humans; Artisanal Goats
Do you ever get the feeling, when we read a scripture in worship, that you are stepping into the middle of someone else's conversation? It's like "I hear the words we are reading. And I see the words you're reading. And on it's own, I know what each word means. But when you put them together like that, I have no idea what's going on." You know this feeling right? When I get read the book of Hebrews I get this feeling a lot. One of the main features of the book of Hebrews is the way it spends all kinds of time trying to draw connections and see links between the ancient history of the Hebrews, and the new revelation that entered the world in Jesus. Which means, that the book of Hebrews assumes that Jesus himself was born into the middle of a long conversation between God and the people of Israel. And to compound that, we don't get the luxury of reading the entire book today before we say anything about it. Instead, we jump right in with that word - "So." So. As in, there are so many words that have come before these words. As in, there is so much history here, it could take a lifetime to understand what a single word means. One day, you're waiting in line to buy your groceries, and you strike up a conversation with Hank, the guy waiting behind you. You discover that you and Hank have a mutual friend, Tom. You buy your groceries, part your ways, and the next day you run into Tom and tom says "So. You met hank." And you think "I'm suddenly a part of something much bigger than I guessed." So. where do we start? Supposedly, the very beginning is a very good place to start, but let's start 10 days after that. Let's start with the holiest day of the Jewish year, the Day of Atonement - Yom Kippur - which falls 10 days after the Jewish new year. If you're not familiar with the Day of Atonement, you can catch on to it's purpose pretty quick - it's right there in the name - At-one-ment - Yom Kippur is the day set aside for the people of God to atone for their sins and become at-one with God again. To this day, Jewish people observe the day of atonement, although observance now looks very different than it did in most of the first century, when the Temple still stood in Jerusalem. So long as the Temple stood, the day of atonement was the day when Israel offered their very best to God. For one thing, the Temple itself was the very best that Israel had to offer. It was far and away the grandest building in the nation, and it was filled with their most beautiful and precious works of art and craftsmanship. Plates and tables and lamps and altars made of the richest wood and precious metals. And the inner most chamber of the Temple was the holiest place in all of Israel, the holy of holies. The Jewish rabbis taught that this was God's throne room on earth, it was the place where heaven and earth overlapped, where they became literally - at one.And so, once a year, the Jewish people would offer their best to God so that they and God might become one. They would send their best representative - the high priest who had purified himself for this day and had washed and dressed himself for just this purpose. And the priest would offer three sacrifices - he would slaughter a bull for himself, and a goat for all the people of Israel, but he would take a third goat and leave it alive. This bull and this goat were like any animal sacrificed in the Temple, they were the best. They were flawless and healthy, they had been selected at birth and been specially raised to be a perfect offering to God. They represented the best care of the cattle and goat herders. If the animals had ever been injured or blemished, they weren't good enough for the sacrifice. And on this day of atonement priest would take the blood of the bull he slaughtered, and the blood of the first goat, and on this day -the only day of the whole year - he would enter the holy of holies, he would step into the throne room of God. he would mark the place with the blood of the sacrifices, and he would offer to God the very best that Israel had to offer. Then he would come to the second goat and place his hands on it and pray that this goat would bear the sins of all Israel. Finally, the high priest would give the goat to someone who would lead it out of the city gates and set it free to wander off, taking the sins of the people with it. And at that moment, the the priest and the people and the temple and the city itself all stood at their very best - a beautiful offering to God. And it went on like this, year after year, until the day we learned that God doesn't want our best. God wants us. Maybe you've heard about the celebrity wife who was seen sporing a $50k diamond after her husband was caught cheating. Maybe you're the parent who had absolutely promised to be home for bedtime, and you find yourself saying "just tell me. is there anything i can do to make it up to you." Maybe you're the friend who hasn't called in too long, and now you're trying to figure out how to send the best apology ever, and so maybe you've bought 3 copies of the same Hallmark card because you keep getting the message wrong that you want to write inside, and when you finally get it right, you want to write it flawlessly. Maybe you haven't just sat and listened to God in so long that now you are trying to find the right moment, trying to figure out what grand gesture you can make so that God will know that you really mean it this time when you say "You are Lord. I love you, and I will do your will." Maybe you know what it is like pour vast amounts of energy and guilt into finding a free-range, organic, artisanal goat that you can offer as a sign that your relationship is back on track and you're gonna get it right this time. Here's the thing, even the most authetic gesture is still a gesture. And even a handmade, artisanal goat is still a goat. And a goat is pretty poor knockoff version of you.
"Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf... not as the high priest offers year after year with blood that is not his own." (Heb 9:24-25)
This is a pretty stunning claim that the author of Hebrews makes about the temple - that it is a mere copy of the true sanctuary. It's as if he's saying that the very best, holiest thing that Israel has ever offered God was no big deal. Of course, one of the most stunning claims that Jesus made - in fact, all four gospels insist this was one of claims that got him killed - was his insistence that the Temple wasn't necessary now that he had come into the world. When Jesus came, Jesus wasn't content to offer a representative, a substitute, or a knockoff version of himself. Jesus offered himself, all of himself, on his behalf and ours. He entered the throne room of God by his own blood, not by a substitute version.
The book of Hebrews is a book about how to die. It uses various metaphors for this - "drawing near to the throne," "passing through the curtain," "entering into God's rest," - but the message is consistent throughout, and it's all a reflection on the main theme stated in the very first chapter: "Christ set free those who were held in slavery their entire lives by their fear of death." This letter was written to people who could expect to suffer for their faith, to die, and it was written to some who had hoped that Christ would return before they had to die.
And the word of encouragment is always the same: heads up, be confident. keep going because you know where you are going, and you know because Christ is already there. Before Christ we offered our best, because we were afraid to offer ourselves, but now we know that everything holy and real about ourselves can never be lost - unless we keep it from God.
So. What would it look like if you stopped offering God your best? - It might mean you stop giving God your best intentions. It might mean giving up on the fiction that tomorrow you will do better. God doesn't need our elaborate plans for our self-improvement. God doesn't want a better version of you. God wants you. Right now. Offering God yourself might be as simple as praying "God, I'll do what you tell me today. Right now. I might not do it well, I might not know what I'm getting into, but i'll trust that tomorrow you'll show me the next step." -it might mean you stop giving God your past. It might mean you stop trying to recreate the best moments of your relationship with God, and instead you offer to God what you never could have done before you reached this moment, this age, this situation. -and if you stop offering God your best, it might mean you start offering a few more failures. It might mean you die a little inside by finding someone to whom you can confess that you've messed up. It might mean that you die a little by discovering that you best isn't good enough. I've shared before that one of my heroes in ministry is a man named Wilson Brent, a retired pastor who became my friend at my first church. Every week Wilson would come to our prayer meeting, and every week I'd ask him how he was. And he would reply, slowly, "Well, I've never been this age before." Wilson was a kind, gentle man. A poet in his spare time. You'd never guess he was also the sort of man who, forty years before, found himself staring down the wrong end of a shotgun after he had dared to say as a matter of fact that his black neighbors were as welcome in the church as his white members. Knowing Wilson, I dare say that one of his greatest regrets was that he couldn't ever change the minds of the racists he loved and pastored. I imagine that Paul never got over the fact that he didn't convert the Athenians either. But we aren't called to offer the best results. We are not the defense, the prosecution or the judge. We are witnesses. All we have to offer is what we know. But we offer it anyway. Clarence Jordan once said that faith is not that we believe in spite of the evidence but in scorn of the consequence.
God doesn't nned your best. God wants you. Your gifts, your sin, your best your worst, your mediocre muddling through. God wants it all. And if that is what you will offer, God can make of it something better than you ever imagined. Just a few verses after what we read today, in chapter 10, the writer says that those whom God is perfecting are drawing near with genuine hearts. genuine hearts. No more scapegoats, no more imitating the best version of yourself or someone else. God wants you because God wants you to be genuinely, fully, human. And it turns out that your best is a pale shadow of who God made you to be.