Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Sermon on Hebrews 13:9-16, for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost, "Leaving the city, Going to the City"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Our sermon text is a portion of Hebrews 13:9-16,

“Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings, for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods, which have not benefited those devoted to them. We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat. For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy places by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.”

The reading today calls us to leave the city, to seek another city. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

It’s astonishing how rapidly the world is becoming urbanized. In 1800 only 3 percent of the world’s population lived in cities or urban areas. But in 2008, the world population apparently passed a historic milestone. Now more than 50% of the world’s population lives in cities. In other words, the last 200 years have seen an overwhelming migration of people to the cities, away from the country. Earthly cities promise opportunity and jobs and success. But our reading today speaks of another migration—a migration out of the earthly cities and onto a journey toward the heavenly city. We’re called to leave behind our earthly cities because they’re inferior and impermanent. Those buildings will decay, those streets will not last, and those opportunities will fade away. So we’re called to secure our citizenship in a better place. To secure our citizenship in our heavenly home. Still a city, but the heavenly city of Jerusalem.

How does one do this? How do we secure that heavenly citizenship? Well, first we should understand that our citizenship in heaven isn’t a right we deserve or have earned by our dedication to some rules or code of life, but rather our citizenship in heaven is a privilege or gift given to us by Jesus Christ. He opened up the access to God the Father for us, so that we would no longer be strangers and aliens, but rather fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God (Eph. 2:18-19). Our reading from Hebrews goes into greater detail about how Jesus opened up that access for us, how we participate in it, and what the results are.

First, we must know that we were unfit to enter God’s presence because of our sin. We must be holy and clean to see God. So there had to be a payment or a reckoning for our sin. Animal sacrifices were offered as an imperfect substitute for sins in the OT. This taught them that the innocent animal substituted for the guilty person, in taking their punishment for sin. But, no matter how many sacrifices were offered, sin was never erased, which is why they had to be repeated over and over (Hebrews 9:25-28). Generations of priests lived and died performing incomplete and imperfect sacrifices in the tent of worship or tabernacle. They lived off the portions of meat set aside for them to eat, from what was sacrificed on the altar.

A high priest had one responsibility that was so solemn and holy that it could be performed only once a year on the Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur. On that most holy day and only on that day, only the most holy person in Israel—the high priest—could enter the Most Holy Place, where the Ark of the Covenant was kept. With the holy blood of the pure animals offered, he made atonement for sins, so that the sinful Israelites could have safe access to their Most Holy God. And as our reading in Hebrews tells, the body of the sacrificed animals had to be burned outside the camp (Lev. 16, 6:30). The meat of the holiest sacrifices on the day of Atonement couldn’t be eaten by the priests or anyone. They had no right to eat it.

But all of the sacrificing and the work of the priests wasn’t totally in vain, because it was a foreshadowing, it was a living picture or illustration of what God was going to do in Jesus Christ. Where animals could never truly substitute for the guilt of mankind, Jesus became the perfect innocent sacrifice. He alone, as a human born of the offspring of Adam, could substitute for and take the guilt of the rest of the children of Adam. But only because He was also truly God, could this substitution cover all humanity, not just Himself or a few. Jesus was the final reality that the Old Testament sacrifices pictured—He was the innocent Lamb of God who was sacrificed to take away the sins of the world (John 1:29). He was at the same time the Great High Priest, who took the place of all the priests that served the tent of worship in ages past. Their imperfect and partial ministry was replaced and fulfilled in His perfect and complete ministry.

But Jesus didn’t enter an imitation of the heavenly places like the High Priests did, and He didn’t enter by the blood of animals, rather Jesus entered the very heavenly presence of God by His own blood. He was the real deal. The High Priests only enacted an imitation of Jesus’ perfect and complete ministry—and He only did it once, when He died on the cross. Because His death on the cross was the death of the perfect and innocent Son of God, it never had to be repeated. Christians observe no day of atonement, they need no continual sacrifices. Nor do we have to approach God through a human priest, but now Christ has opened up the approach and access to God by faith in Jesus. This is how Jesus has opened up the way of citizenship for us.

So the next question is how do we receive this heavenly citizenship? Our reading says that we must go to Him outside of the camp and bear the reproach of Christ. Like I mentioned in a sermon a couple of weeks ago, we are to count the reproach of Christ as the greatest treasure we could receive. Why must we “go outside of the camp” to Christ? Why must we leave behind the earthly city? Because Christ was made an outcast and dishonored like a criminal when He was crucified outside the city in an unclean place of dishonor. He was treated like the bodies of the animal sacrifices that would be brought on the day of atonement, their blood sprinkled in the Most Holy Place, but then their bodies burned outside the camp at the ash heap. Christ was cast out of the earthly city, and so also we must disown the earthly city. But to do so comes with a price. It will earn us the reproach and disgrace of the world. We may be isolated from the material gain that we long for. We must leave the earthly city because to go outside the city to bear the reproach of Christ is to identify ourselves with our Redeemer, Our Savior.

In the place of dishonor and disgrace, at the cross of Jesus Christ where the world laughs at a man who died like a criminal, there we find redemption and heavenly citizenship. In joining Christ outside the earthly city, we set course for our journey with the Risen Jesus for the heavenly city. For He who died in suffering to make us holy by His blood, has been raised to power and glory. And Christ’s death on the cross becomes an altar of sacrifice for us, the writer to the Hebrews says. It becomes an altar from which we are permitted to eat. Unlike the time when only the priests could eat, unlike the sacrifice on the Day of Atonement that no one could eat—here Jesus Christ offers Himself at that altar for us to eat and share in the holiness of His sacrifice. But only those who cling to Him by faith and have left the earthly city are able to eat.

How do we eat of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross? We do so spiritually when we receive Him by faith, but also in a physical and spiritual way when we eat His body and drink His blood as He bids us do in the Lord’s Supper. There He offers His sacrificed flesh for the “life of the world.” In a divine mystery that goes beyond our human understanding, but is as true as Jesus own words, when we take the bread in our hands and mouth, they are Jesus’ words: “This is my body which is given for you.” When we drink of the cup, it is again Jesus’ words: “This is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

The body and blood of Jesus given for our forgiveness, given to make us holy, so that we also can one day stand in God’s presence, is an incredibly high honor and privilege, given not even to the high priests of Israel. But what other lesser privileges and consequences do we find in leaving behind the earthly city and seeking the heavenly one? We who are baptized into Christ have the privilege of becoming priests in the service of God’s kingdom. You...? Me…? Priests?! Yes, we become priests but in a different way. We don’t participate in the priesthood of the old system, which has no right to eat of the altar that we do, and we don’t offer sacrifices of animals like they did. That’s all done and gone, replaced by the once and for all perfect sacrifice of Jesus. But we still offer sacrifices, but what kind of sacrifices?

Our reading says that because we are now heavenly citizens, we should continually offer up sacrifices of praise to our God—how? Through Him—through Jesus the one who made this all possible in the first place! So our songs and praises to Christ Jesus and to God, our lips confessing and acknowledging Him for all that He has done, this becomes our new sacrifice to God. A sacrifice of thanksgiving. Part of our priestly service, as the royal priesthood of God, is to worship God. Our gathering together today in worship around the altar of our Lamb of God, is to make sacrifices of praise to God—rejoicing and giving thanks for what He has done. Isaiah 63:7 describes the praises of the Lord as recounting all the great things that He has done—His steadfast love and mercy. Psalm 9:1 says that we give thanks to God by recounting all His great deeds. Truly by singing of God’s salvation and His great deeds, we offer a sacrifice of praise to Him.

A second kind of sacrifice is produced by royal priesthood of believers that call on Jesus’ name. That is the sacrifice of doing good and sharing what we have with others—for these are pleasing sacrifices to God. Again we remember that the only way that we became such priests, and the only way that we have become acceptable to God is through Jesus—but because He has cleansed all our sins away, even our imperfect acts of doing good. So there’s good work to be done here on earth yet. Leaving behind our earthly city to share in the blessings of the reproach of Christ doesn’t mean that we don’t still have duties toward our fellow man. Rather the love of Jesus moves us to share our possessions, to give generously to those in need, and exercise mercy and charity to those who need our care. These are the sacrifices that please God and that He desires from heavenly citizens who still journey on earth. So don’t stop doing good!

We’ve seen how God calls us to participate in a great migration, out of the earthly cities of man, out to the place of reproach and isolation where Jesus was crucified. We’ve seen how Jesus’ death on the cross and His entrance to the heavenly places by His blood has granted us the secure and certain privilege of citizenship in the lasting city of heaven. He grants us the privilege of eating His sacrificed body and blood through the altar of the cross, and He gives us the priestly work of singing praises in worship and doing good toward others. So let us march on toward our heavenly goal and upward calling, rejoicing and giving thanks for the Lamb of God and the Great High Priest Jesus Christ who opened up the way for us. In His name, Amen.
Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points:
Read past sermons at:
Listen to audio at:

1. In what way are Christians called to leave behind their “earthly city?” See Hebrews 13:12-14; Eph. 2:18-19; John 17:14-16; Phil. 3:20

2. How were the sacrifices of the Old Testament and the work of the priests, imperfect and incomplete? What couldn’t they accomplish? Hebrews 9:11-28; Col. 2:16-17; What special duty did the High Priest perform once a year on the Day of Atonement? Leviticus 16. Why couldn’t the meat of the sacrifice be eaten on that day? Leviticus 6:30.

3. How was Jesus in death, like both the High Priest on the Day of Atonement, and also like the sacrifices burned outside the camp? How was He greater? John 1:29; Heb. 10:12. The entire book of Hebrews.

4. Why must we “go outside the camp” or leave our earthly city behind, to share in the reproach of Christ? What is there to be lost? To be gained?

5. How do we eat at the altar of Jesus? What do we receive there? Matt. 26:26-29; 1 Cor. 11:17-34; John 6:41-59

6. In what way are baptized believers called to be priests? 1 Peter 2:5; Rev. 1:6; 5:9-10. What are our acts of priestly service? Heb. 13:15-17; Rom. 12:1. What is a sacrifice of praise or thanksgiving about? Isaiah 63:7; Ps. 9:1, 11, 14.

7. Knowing that Jesus has secured our heavenly citizenship for us and blessed us with all the privileges of citizens of the kingdom, how should we live? Phil. 3:14; Heb. 3:1

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