Sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, pastor of Pulaski Heights Baptist Church in Little Rock, A.R., on November 8 2009.
Psalm 127:1-5; Hebrews 9:24-28
I’ve gotten into a habit that is just about driving me crazy. But I can’t do anything to stop it, as hard as I try. I’ve confessed this to Janet, and we’ve laughed about it from time to time. I think I’ve even got her doing it occasionally, but truth be told I’m a bit embarrassed about it.
Here it is… You know those renewal stickers we’re required to put on our automobile tags, the ones that designate the month and year? Well, I can’t help but look to see who is current with their registration and who is behind. I can’t drive anywhere in town without checking out the license plates of cars that are adjacent to me, or as is usually the case in our town, those that are zipping on by me. If I’m walking by a parked car, it gets inspected to be sure.
I know it’s a silly – and even a stupid – habit, and I wish I could stop. But I can’t.
It has come in handy a couple of times. Once I noticed that one of our elderly church members, who has since gone to be with the Lord, had allowed her registration to lapse. I brought it to the attention of one of our deacons, and with his help we got it all straightened out. Another time I commented to someone in our church that her tag was outdated. She had simply forgotten to put it on, so she took it out of her glove compartment and attached it immediately.
By the way, this year the tags are blue. But most of the cars you will see in town now have red tags because they have been renewed for 2010. The only ones that are supposed to have blue tags are those that renew in November or December. Anything below an eleven, if the tag on the right is still blue, is behind. That means, if the driver gets a ticket or is involved in an accident, he or she will have to pay a penalty for being delinquent on the registration. And, they will have to pay a penalty when they do renew.
I’ve seen some cars that were as much as two years in arrears. And you would be surprised to know, perhaps, that it’s not limited to those cars that you would think are being driven by people who don’t renew because they can’t afford it. There are not a few luxury cars rolling around this town with delinquent registration, let me tell you. I saw a late-model Mercedes just the other day that was several months behind. Some of the cars that have not been renewed on time even have those little fish decals on them, designating the driver as a Christian. It’s also interesting that some of the worst drivers in our city are those who haven’t kept up with their current registration. It’s almost as if they’re just begging to be caught.
And you would be surprised at how many people are confused as to where the stickers are supposed to go. The sticker designating the month goes on the left and that one never changes. The sticker representing the year goes on the right, and you receive one of those when you renew annually.
The stickers on Janet’s van and my car are blue because we both renew in December. That means, of course, that in the next three or four weeks, I’ll be ordering our new red stickers. When the new year rolls around you will start to see yellow stickers on the January cars that have been renewed for 2011. Those are the colors the state of
Arkansas uses for automobile tags: red, blue, and yellow.
My guess is that this is far more than you ever wanted to know about license plate registration in
Arkansas. But maybe now that I’ve brought up the subject some of you will start noticing as well and I’ll have some company when it comes to this annoying habit. Sorry about that.
The people of
Israel in the first century obviously didn’t have to renew their automobile tags each year, but there was an annual renewal that all Jews were supposed to follow. Year after year the people were required to go to the temple and offer their levitical blood sacrifice as an atonement to God for their sins. Year after year after year they had to do this. It was like whitewashing a barn; it had to be done over and over again.1 The sacrifice was good for a year, but when that year was over, you had to make another blood sacrifice and get a new sticker, good for the next twelve months.
In one of the Bible commentaries I consulted in preparation for this sermon, the writer admitted that the preacher might have some difficulty in preaching on this text. Why? If for no other reason than we are not accustomed to the kind of rituals that were so well-known to the ancient Jews. Oh, we have our traditions like baptism and the Lord’s Supper. But our Christian tradition is based on relationship, not ritual. The Hebrews had developed a religious system that had little to do with relationship and more to do with satisfying what they thought were the cultic demands of a somewhat distant God.
Think about it: meaningful relationships are never easy, whether they are with family or friends… or God. It is much easier, if not messier, just to go to the temple and offer a sacrifice. Follow the rules, get it over with as painlessly as possible, and you don’t have to worry about it for another year. Then, you and God can go on your merry respective ways. God’s demands are satisfied, you’re covered, and you don’t need to re-up for another year.
I wonder if leaving the temple each year on the Day of Atonement was something like the feeling we get every April when our taxes are finally paid. Imagine the sense of relief, but a relief that is tempered by the dreadful reality that you’ve got to do it all over again in another twelve months.
The priest would enter the
Holy Place, and since he himself was a sinner he had to provide sacrifices with blood that was, in the words of the writer of Hebrews, “not his own.” Think of all the transgressions that had been committed in the preceding twelve months, think of the blood that had to be offered. More sins, more blood, “a never-ending cycle for purging away the latest rounds of sins.”2 The Jewish practice of animal sacrifice obviously made for a very messy religion.
What do you think that did to their worship? Worship? It was more like a slaughterhouse! And in the process it became “the fearful act of guilty people, constantly on trial… plea-bargaining with God.”3
And then came Jesus, says the author of Hebrews, who was offered as a sacrifice once for all. He did not come “to offer himself again and again… he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself” (vs. 26).
The irony is that this same Jesus was accused of being a sinner because of the company he kept. He didn’t hang out with the priests or other religious holy people. He kept time with tax collectors and even on occasion found himself in the company of prostitutes and others caught in the act of adultery. Even crippled people were considered sinners because they were… well, crippled. And in those days a crippled person didn’t get that way by means of sheer bad luck or an accident or an anomaly at birth. It was because that person was a sinner. Jesus was always being caught in the act of forgiving sinners.
So that meant he condoned sin, right, letting people off easily? Say a few words or perform a miracle, perhaps, and that was it. When it came to sin, Jesus was a pushover. Not only did Jesus not require a sacrifice but he didn’t even demand a confession. No need to promise better behavior in the future, cross yourself three times, say the right words, or anything like that. Just walk away grateful for having run into him and his forgiveness. He did tell the woman taken in adultery to go and sin no more, but he didn’t demand a response from her, did he? No, he just let her go.
And take the parable of the prodigal son, for another example. According to Jesus, all the boy had to do, to receive the forgiveness of his father, was to come home. Just get on the train and come home.
Somehow, that just doesn’t seem to be enough, does it? After all, each of us stands in need of forgiveness, right? And when forgiveness is offered we sense this need to return some kind of penance, a willingness to pay for the wrong we have done. And then along comes this story of the prodigal son, where this sinful young man who has come home receives instant forgiveness with no strings attached. How? Why? Isn’t there more to repentance than just coming home?
Well, years later the person who wrote what we call the Book of Hebrews explains it for us. Granted, he does so in language that is rather hard to decipher, so we have to wade into it a little bit. After all, he didn’t know he was writing to us. His congregation was a group of Hebrews who had chosen to follow Jesus the Nazarene. They’re trying to make sense of what it means to be Christ followers, and the writer of this letter is using language they can understand and to which they can relate, as foreign as it may seem to us.
He says that a human priest, who serves as an intermediary between God and his human creation, and in the process demands an annual blood sacrifice, enters into a sanctuary that has been made by human hands. Not Jesus. Christ, who is now our intermediary, appears before the very presence of God… and “on our behalf.” Not only that, but he himself is the sacrifice on the cross for our sin, and now there is no requirement for us to seek atonement year after year in an annual renewal.
If that were not true, according to the writer of Hebrews, Christ would have to sacrifice himself and suffer again and again and again. Once is enough, we are told, to remove our sin. Once is enough. That sticker you have on your heart, the one that shows you have given your life to Christ… it’s for all eternity. You do not have to renew it. There are no revenue offices in the kingdom, no need to take a number, sit down, and wait your turn.
But that is no guarantee that how you live out your relationship to God in Christ doesn’t settle into a mindless routine of specific activities. If your religious activity is limited to ritual, you finally get weary and lose hope. If the sum total of your experience with God is simply coming to church, writing a check and putting it into an envelope, eating down in Hicks Hall (and if you come here on even an occasional basis you can’t avoid eating in Hicks Hall)… in other words, generally doing that which is considered to be the business of being religious, something eventually gets lost.
Not that there is anything wrong with any of those activities, mind you. I do it all myself… regularly… relentlessly even. But if we’re not careful the ritual can become a substitute for a personal relationship with God in Christ.
There is a sense in which believing in and following the One who gave himself sacrificially for us requires a real diligence on our part, a desire each day – not just once a year – to give ourselves more fully to him than we did the day before. In no way am I suggesting that this is an easy or automatic thing to do.
A number of years ago, Samuel Shoemaker was a pastor in
New York City. His health was failing and his sense of the city’s needs was overwhelming and discouraging. A friend asked him, “Why don’t you just run away from it all before you are broken by this inhuman burden you have placed on yourself?” Shoemaker replied, “… a strange man on the cross won’t let me.”
That same “strange man” placed himself on that cross for each of us. There is no need for him to do it again, just as there is no reason for us to make an annual renewal of our devotion to him. Instead, the commitment to which we are called is for every single day and every waking moment. And if we’re going to give ourselves to that man, there is no better time than now and no better place than here. No sacrifice needed. In fact, all you have to do is come home.
Christ has done for us, O Lord, all that needs to be done. It now comes to us to accept him and devote every day to following him. Help us, by the power and presence of your Spirit, to do just that. We pray this in Jesus’ name, Amen.