by Jason Micheli
Hebrews 5.1-10 (click to see Scripture text)
My dad had a heart attack a decade ago.
He almost died; or rather, he was dead for several minutes. I flew up to Cleveland when I got the call. My dad and me: we have a history that started— really— as far back as I can remember.
Even today, after our kids, my cancer, his heart attack, our relationship is complicated and tense and…sticky- the way it always is in a family where addiction and infidelity and abuse are part of the story.
In Thesis 21 of his Heidelberg Disputation, published in 1518, the Protestant Reformer, Martin Luther, writes,
“A theologian of glory says that evil is good and good is evil. But a theologian of the cross says that a thing is what it actually is.”
What Luther means is that the cross sets us free to tell the truth about our lives.
After all, we’ve already killed God in the flesh and he’s come back and forgiven us for it so there’s no need to lie about our actual lives, pretend we’re someone our families know we’re not, or put pious pretenses.
The promise of the Gospel is that everything is going to be okay— in an ultimate sense. However, the promise of the Gospel does not require that we pretend everything is okay in this time between the times.
The cross frees us to tell the truth, and the truth is some hurts never go away, some wounds defy healing, and some scores never get settled.
The truth is you can attempt as much as seventy times seven forgiveness and you still find yourself back where you started.
A few days after his heart attack my dad went home.
We were sitting in his garden, just him and me and my stepmom. My dad’s face was black and his nose was broken from where he’d fallen on the street. His chest was sore and his breathing tight and painful from the several minutes of CPR compressions.
My dad and me, we don’t have the kind of relationship where we know how to just sit in the garden with each other— if you know what I mean. So we were sitting there and it wasn’t long before he started picking on me, picking at me.
Picking at old wounds. Picking old fights. Mocking me, mostly, for wasting my talent and potential by going into the ministry.
I hadn’t seen him in nearly two years. He’d nearly died. And he just wanted to go back at it. I thought: Really, you want to do this now? Right here?
But it didn’t take long for me to take the bait, and there I was arguing twenty year old resentments with my nearly-dead-dad.
We didn’t get very far though.
A couple of moments. A couple of raised voices. And then my stepmom stood up, gestured in the middle of us and scolded: “Whatever you think is between you. It’s gone. It’s not here anymore.” And then she pointed at me or, rather, the Bible that was in the stack of books next to me on the love seat, and said: “I expect you, at least, to understand that.”
The truth is I’m not sure I did understand.
Not then at least. Not in the moment.
The ancient church fathers believed the Book of Hebrews was originally one long sermon on Leviticus 16, which would make it longer even than one of my sermons so I don’t want to hear any more complaining.
Leviticus 16 details God’s instructions to Moses for the Jewish Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, which occurred just a couple of weeks ago.
Yom Kippur revolves around the high priest. The person who represents all of God’s people, the only person who can ever venture beyond the temple veil and into the Holy of Holies, where the ark and the presence of God reside, and ask God to remove his people’s sins. Remember, in the Hebrew Bible God is a consuming, refining fire.
The God whose glory blanches the face of Moses and whose name is too holy to be uttered aloud is not a God with whom you want a personal relationship. No Israelite ever dared invite the God of the Burning Bush into their heart. In the Hebrew Bible, no one can come near God’s presence. And live.
So when the high priest enters the Holy of Holies, he risks his life. And because of that, every detail of every ritual matters. The high priest must bath the right way. The high priest must dress the proper way. The high priest must make prescribed sacrifices for his sin and his family sin. When he’s done with the preparation, the high priest is brought two goats. Lots are cast so that God’s will would be done. One goat is sacrificed to cleanse the temple of sin. The second goat is brought to him alive. The high priest lays both his hands on the head of the goat and then confesses onto it all the iniquities of the people of Israel.
The priest removes all the people’s sins and places them on the goat. And after the priest’s work was finished, the goat would bear the people’s sin away in to the wilderness. The wilderness symbolized exile and forsakenness and death. The high priest transfers the sins of the people onto the goat and then the goat is sent away to where the wild things are.
You see, Yom Kippur is not about God wanting to punish you for your sin. Yom Kippur is about God wanting to remove your sin. The Day of Atonement is not about appeasing an angry, petty God. It’s about God removing that which separates us from God and from each other and sending it away so that it’s not here anymore.
While the high priest prayed over the goat, the king of the Jews would undergo a ritual humiliation to repent of his people’s sins: he’d be struck, his clothes would be torn, the king would ask God to forgive his people for they know not what they do.
When the high priest’s work is done, the goat’s loaded with all the sins of the people. Chances are, you wouldn’t want to volunteer to lead that goat out into the wilderness. So the man appointed for the task would be a Gentile. Someone with no connection to the people of Israel. Someone who might not even realize that what they’re doing is a dirty job. That Gentile would lead the goat away with a red cord wrapped around its head— red that symbolized sin.
The name for the goat is ahzahzel. It’s where we get the word scapegoat. Ahzahzel means “taking away.” The Gentile would lead the scapegoat into exile while the people shouted “ahzahzel.” Take it away. Take our sin away. So that it’s not here anymore.
Now, the Gospels all agree that Jesus of Nazareth is crucified under Pontius Pilate during the Passover Feast not Yom Kippur.
But I’m not sure it’s as simple as that.
While the Gospels tell you the calendar says Passover, what the Gospels show you looks an awful lot like the Day of Atonement.
The Gospels show you Jesus being arrested and brought to whom?
The high priest.
The Gospels show you the high priest accusing Jesus of blasphemy, placing what they say is guilt and sin upon him when, in reality, all they’re doing is transferring their own guilt onto him.
After all, it’s the high priest Caiaphas who declares in the Passion story, “We have no king but Caesar.” They’re the ones guilty of blasphemy. By indicting Jesus, they simply project their own sin on him.
The Gospels, meanwhile, show you Pilate’s men ritually humiliating this “King of the Jews.” Mocking him. Casting lots before him. Tearing his clothes from him. And finally wrapping a branch of thorns around his head until a cord of red blood circles it.
The Gospels tell you that the calendar says Passover, but what they show you is Pilate holding Jesus out to the crowd and Pilate asks the crowd what to do with Jesus.
And what do the crowds shout?
Not “Crucify him!”
Not at first.
Go back and read it.
First, the crowds shout “Take him away!” Then they shout “Crucify him!”
The Gospels tell you that the calendar says Passover, but what they show then is Jesus being led away, like an animal, with a red ring around his head, with shouts of “ahzahzel” ringing in the air— led away from the city by Gentiles to Golgotha.
A garbage dump. A barren place where some of his last words will be “My God why have you forsaken me?” The Gospels tell you its Passover, but what they show you isn’t a Passover Lamb but a Scapegoat.
This is what the Gospels show you when Jesus breathes his last and the veil of the temple— the entrance to the Holy of Holies—- is torn in two, from top to bottom. This is what the Gospels show you when they quote the prophet Isaiah, and pay attention to the verbs:
“He has born our grief.”
“He has carried our sorrow.”
“Laid on him is the iniquity of us all.”
Those are all references to Leviticus.
This is what the Gospel shows you at the very beginning right after the Christmas story when John the Baptist points to Jesus and says he’s the one who “ahzahzels the sins of the world.” This is what St Paul alludes to when he says that because of Jesus Christ “nothing can now separate us from God.” The Gospels tell you the calendar says Passover, but what they show you is a Day of Atonement. Unlike any other.
Every year after the ahzahzel goat was led into the wilderness, the red cord, which had been tied around the goat, was taken off and hung on the altar in the temple. Over the next year, according to Jewish tradition, the cord would turn from red to white, signifying God’s forgiveness of the people’s sin. However, according to the Talmud, approximately forty years before the destruction of the temple in 70 AD that red cord stopped turning from red to white.
The Talmud, I should add, was written by Jews who rejected Jesus as the Messiah.
According to the Talmud, approximately forty years before the temple was destroyed, the lot cast between the two goats on Yom Kippur no longer was able to discern a scapegoat. The doors into the sanctuary stopped opening at the high priest’s oblation on Yom Kippur. Forty years before the temple was destroyed in 70 AD— the whole process of atonement stopped working. It was no longer effective, says the Talmud.
Do the math: 70 AD – 40 AD = 30 AD.
In other words, around the time Jesus was led away to Golgotha while crowds shouted “ahzahzel,” the atonement that had been repeated year after year since Moses met God on Mt Sinai stopped working.
It stopped working, says the Talmud.
Or maybe you could say it stopped working because it had already worked perfectly. Maybe you could say it had worked once and for all. Maybe you could say a perfect high priest had finally come along whose obedience to the law and whose sacrifice under the law ‘became the source of eternal salvation for all who trust him.”
The cross, Luther says, frees us to call a thing a thing. The cross sets us free to tell the truth.
And the truth is—
I’ve been a pastor long enough to know that in at least one important way, you all are the same.
All of you could tell a story like the one I told you about my dad and me in the garden. All of you have someone in your life who might say, “I forgive you, let’s move on.” But the next time a fight erupts, you know, it’s all over again. All the archived animosities will come out. For some of you that someone in your life is the someone that sleeps next to you. In one important way, you’re all the same. All of you have someone in your life with whom it’s never done. It’s never finished. It’s never put to rest. Someone with whom you can try to put it behind you, but next time it’s right there between you again. Like it never left. All of you have someone in your life for whom what you’ve done is never done with. Someone for whom the past is only in the past until it comes back tomorrow or next year. It’s never gone once and for all. And for some of you, that someone in your life is you. You’re the one who can’t put it away, can’t send it away, who always brings it back to where or how it started. And for still others of you, it might not ever occur to you what that has to do with that (the cross).
On the Jewish calendar, this year Yom Kippur was on September 15. And next year, Yom Kippur will begin on October 4. And the year after that it will be on September 24. And the year after that the Day of Atonement’s scheduled for October 11. It’s already on the books. On Saturday, September 29, 2029, they’ll do it all over again, attempting to atone for all the ways that year they’d trespassed against others, for all the things they’d done and left undone.
And the last time I preached on the Book of Hebrews I tried to use a live goat so, trust me when I tell you, Yom Kippur’s a lot of work. But not only is our High Priest perfect, our Great High Priest, the Book of Hebrews goes on to say, has sat down.
He sat down. And he’s not getting back up again. Not next year. Not the year after that. Not in twenty years.
And the only “work” that remains for this Great High Priest is to call not-so-great, lesser priests like me to deliver the promise to you.
The only work that remains for our High Priest is to speak— in the here and now— through imperfect priests like me so that you will know his sacrifice, his gift of himself, is for you.
Without question or condition.
As Luther lectured on today’s text, “It is not enough for a Christian to believe that Christ was appointed High Priest to act on behalf of humanity generally. The Christian must believe too that he or she is one of those for whom Christ has acted as High Priest. Both the demons and the godless know that Christ is a priest for others, but they do not believe Christ is a priest for them.”
In other words, it’s not a sermon, it’s not the Word of God, it’s not the Gospel if it’s just a description of Christ’s work in the past for everyone.
It’s not a sermon.
It’s not the Word of God.
It’s not the Gospel until it’s a present-tense, here and now, promise from Jesus Christ to you.
It’s not a sermon, it’s not the Word of God, it’s not the Gospel if I just speak to you about God.
It’s only a sermon if I speak for God to you.
So on behalf of Jesus Christ and on his authority alone, hear the Good News:
The reason the altar guild doesn’t have to worry about goats messing up the sanctuary is because his work is finished.
There’s nothing more that needs to be done.
No more waiting to see if God forgives you this time.
No more wondering if you deserve someone’s forgiveness.
No more pretending that you can’t forgive.
It’s all done. It’s over. It’s finished.
Because our High Priest has sat down at the right hand of the Father.
And all that’s left, Hebrews says, is for you to trust this.
There’s no work you have to do. There’s no sacrifices you have to make. There’s no scapegoats you have to find.
He’s sat down because all that’s left of the work that started in Mary’s womb is for you to trust this. Trust that our Great High Priest takes flesh on Christmas Eve so that in his body he can make himself the ultimate scapegoat, taking our Sin on himself and removing it as far into exile as it could go.
And if you do, Hebrews says, if you trust that: it’s as good as being born all over again. It’s like you’re remade. You aren’t who you were. You’re a new creation. The old has died. The new has come. And you may still stumble and you may still sin but nothing now and nothing ever will be able to come between you and the love of God in Jesus Christ. Because you’re sin yesterday and your sin today and your sin tomorrow has been taken away.
It’s not here anymore.
The cross frees us to call a thing what it is, and the truth is— let’s be honest— the Good News is so good it’s difficult to believe.
But don’t worry if you have trouble believing it.
Christ our Great High Priest will be here again next Sunday, in word and water and wine and bread, to give to you his promise of absolution without end.
“Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him,‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you’ In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who trust him, having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.”
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