Sermon

Hebrews 9:11-14

The Final Sacrifice

By Dr. Mickey Anders

Someone has suggested that God works with people like a jeweler works with gems. God finds them and brings them to the light by cutting, polishing, and placing them in a beautiful setting.

In the natural state, diamonds appear as hard, irregular lumps that shine only with a greasy luster and not at all with their finished brilliance. Their beauty is given them by the skill of the stonecutter, who grinds and polishes their surfaces so that they sparkle.

It is not the size of a diamond, but the light reflected that gives the stone its value. The Tiffany diamond, now valued at $2,000,000, was cut from 287.42 carats to 128.51 carats, with 90 facets. When displayed in the Fifth Avenue store window, it could be seen all the way across the avenue.

The only way the value of a diamond can be increased is by cutting. Experts in Paris studied the Tiffany diamond for one year before a single blow was struck in the cutting.

A diamond is said to be the hardest substance in existence, and all because it has been through the fire. The diamonds that reflect the most light have received the roughest treatment. Yet the greatest care is taken by the jeweler not to damage the stone in any way. Every flaw must be cut out, even a microscopic flaw. (1)

People can be compared to diamonds because something or someone must take care of our flaws before we can shine with the brightness God intended. Our passage from Hebrews tells of God’s method of taking care of our flaws.

Cathy Lessmann of the Lutheran School of Theology in St. Louis suggests a six point outline of this text that I want to borrow. (2)

Step One is the initial diagnosis which reveals our external problem of contaminated lives.

We think of the saints of God as living peaceful, harmonious lives and of being at-one with God. But the reality of our lives causes us to throw up our hands in despair. What we experience is exactly the opposite – misery. We experience a lack of at-one-ness with God. Evil comes from our hearts which causes us to feel guilt.

Pastor Robin Myers once saw a sign in front of a church that said, “If you’re done with sin, come on in.” But then he noticed written underneath that in smaller letters printed in lipstick these words, “But if you’re not quite through, call 272-3550!”

The truth is that none of us is done with sin quite yet. So we carry with us a load of guilt that plagues most of us all our days.

Step Two is the advanced diagnosis, which reveals our internal problem to be scapegoating.

It is no secret that we have guilty hearts which put all of us on a crusade to get rid of that guilt. We have two preferred ways to cleanse ourselves of our guilt.

The first way was introduced by Adam and Eve, and that is to blame our evil on someone else. We frantically search until we find a scapegoat onto which we can transfer our sin and guilt. We make the scapegoat take the blame for us.

There are many examples of this strategy. Many people say, “It’s my parents fault.” “It’s my spouse’s fault.” “It’s because of you I’m this way.” “It’s the system’s fault,” and on and on.

But there are problems with each of our human ways of dealing with our sin. The method of scapegoating requires an on-going process. It’s never a done-deal because sin and guilt keep oozing up out of us. We just can’t shovel it fast enough onto someone else! And sometimes we become someone else’s scapegoat, which piles our guilt even higher. Guilt seems to be what we do best.

The Israelites tried they same method. They just formalized it into their sacrificial system. In fact, their system gave us the term scapegoat. They literally laid their hands on a goat, symbolically transferring their sin to the goat. Then the goat was banished to die in the wilderness. This system didn’t really work very well for the Israelites either.

The second way we try to rid ourselves of sin is by offering up our own good works as a sacrifice for our sins. We hope against hope that our good works will outweigh our bad works in the long run. In fact some of us become addicted to this gamble. We may argue, “I am a good person!” But the writer of Hebrews identifies these works as “dead works” (6:1; 9:14). They are dead because they put their trust anywhere but in God.

This method also leaves us dangling in uncertainty. Can the sacrifice of “good works” really outweigh our “bad works”? Only the Final Judge can make that assessment, but already we have an inkling as to the answer.

Step Three is the final diagnosis, which is taking the heat. We do a lot of bluffing, but deep down we know that God will ultimately call our bluff and demand we pay up. “Paying up” involves giving our life-blood, being consumed by the fire of God’s justice. And we can’t cheat or finesse ourselves out of this!

Step Four involves the initial prognosis. Cathy Lessmann calls this the eternal solution, which is the “Beloved Scapegoat.”

To all of us who are gambling and looking for a scapegoat comes the astounding news that God has turned the table on us to our great advantage. We learn that God has become involved in ridding humans of our guilt once and for all. Jesus has taken on himself the role of priest-mediator and offered himself as the scapegoat. Jesus voluntarily became humanity’s scapegoat. He willingly accepted all our sin and guilt on himself and willingly suffered God’s retribution – death. His blood was the sacrifice made so that we humans can be purged of our sin and therefore be at one with God. His blood, not the blood of goats, secures eternal redemption for everyone. And this offering is so cosmic that it need never be repeated again.

Step Five is the advanced prognosis. Cathy Lessmann calls this the internal solution, which means that we are purified. All of us who are scapegoating gamblers have to make an about face through repentance. The word literally means “turn around.” We can make that change joyfully because it is such a relief to leave our scapegoating and gambling ways, and find a real solution to our sin and guilt.

Rodrick Durst one said, “Repentance means to rethink or think after. It suggests a change in thinking and implies a resulting change in the life. Repentance involves a new world view and new values. Conversion means to change back and retool for a new life and task. Used together, they imply a renouncing of the sin-directed life and a commitment to the Christ-directed life.” (3)

The most effective way to deal with people who have fallen in sin is not to remind them of it, and how displeasing it is to God, but rather to remind them how much more pleasing their good graces would be. I’ll never forget hearing about a minister who worked to try to get prostitutes to escape that world, and stop turning tricks. His word to them wasn’t, “How dare you!” but “Don’t you think you were made for more than this?”

It is easy to say how disappointed we are with someone who fails us, or even how mad we think God is, as if we knew what God was thinking. But it may be that the most powerful thing we can do is help the person to stop sinning against themselves. The world’s greatest crimes are committed by those who think that, deep down, they are nobody. On the other hand, the most beautiful things in the world are done by those people who figure out, with a lot of love and encouragement along the way, that they are Somebody. Somebody who is made by more than this, for more than this. (Robin Myers)

Step Six is the final prognosis. The end result of the Great Cosmic Deal is that contaminated human lives are purified and made “holy.” We are “holy” not only in the sense of being free of our guilt, but also “holy” in the sense of being set apart. Cathy Lessmann says we are set apart especially to be “involved in God’s misery-abatement projects.”

Paul Tillich once described sin this way, “Sin is the turning towards ourselves, and making ourselves the center of our world.” One of God’s remedies for such selfishness is for us to become other-centered through ministry.

We are set apart to witness to the marvelous Beloved Scapegoat whose Calvary sacrifice was the once-and-for-all Day of Atonement.

In conclusion, I want to tell you a story that demonstrates this whole process. It’s a story told by Mennonite pastor Tom Weaver:

About three years ago, shortly after our household began using the internet, we had a computer crash. I don’t know what happened or why, but we got it up running again, re-worked our internet supplier information and continued onward. Five weeks later we received our telephone bill – for $651.00!!! I was aghast and immediately began asking my spouse who she had been calling. However, as we looked closer at the bill, we realized that all the calls were to the same number. Soon after we realized that the number was a connection number to our internet provider. Somehow in the crash of our computer, when we re-entered our information, we chose a long distance number instead of our local number and for five weeks we had been using the net as always. We were totally bummed out. Finances were tough. How would we pay this? The next morning, my spouse called the internet company, and very politely they reminded us that connection numbers are our responsibility. The only thing you can do they told us is call the telephone company and ask them for a payment plan.

I received a phone call at the church office from my wife. In a quiet, stunned voice she said to me, ‘you are not going to believe this. I called the telephone company and told them my dilemma, that our computer had crashed and somehow we had entered a long distance number by accident. We can’t pay it all this month, can we set up a payment plan.’

The telephone operator responded, ‘Oh, that happened to me once too. I see from your records that you were dialing the other number before. Here’s what we’ll do. We’ll forgive your debt!!!! And I see on your record that there is another two weeks of calls to that number totally $150.00. We forgive that also next month when your statement comes.’

I was totally in the wrong, even though it was an accident. It was my fault. I had no recourse but to pay the debt, yet for whatever reason, it was cancelled. That’s grace. However, I immediately changed the number which we dialed for our internet connection. I would not have thought of saying ‘thank you’ to the telephone person and continue to use the same long distance dial up number. I needed to change my ways. Grace was free, and my grateful response was to change my pattern. My behavior changed as a response to the grace I experienced. (4)

Endnotes:

1) Lois Hoadley Dick, Amy Carmichael, Let the Little Children Come (Chicago: Moody Press, 1984), 149.

2) “The Great Atonement” by Cathy Lessmann, Lutheran School of Theology, St. Louis,

http://www.crossings.org/theology/theolo414.htm. Retrieved 10/31/03.

3) Rodrick K. Durst, quoted in the Ministers Manual for 2000, p. 110.

4) Tim Weaver, Deep Run East Mennonite church, Perkasie, PA, weavers4@fast.net, PRCL 1/20/2000.

Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.

Copyright 2003 Mickey Anders. Used by permission.