Dear Disciples of Zion,
On the morning of Christmas Eve, the Second Lesson assigned for the Fourth Sunday of Advent didn’t seem to fit the Christmas season at all! Here is a slightly shortened version of that passage from Hebrews 10:5-10:
Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure.” …then he added, “See, I have come to do your will.” He abolishes the first in order to establish the second. And it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
Wow! This is a difficult passage! And, again, what does it have to do with Christmas? It begins, “When Christ came into the world.” I suppose that this could be seen as a vague reference to Christ coming into the world at Christmas. But when did he say such things about sacrifice? And what about that part which says, “He abolishes the first in order to establish the second.” Abolish what? Establish what?
Yes, this is a difficult reading to have pondered on Christmas Eve morning. So I wanted to spend a moment reflecting on it here because I do believe that it has something important to say to us that is very much about Christ coming into the world at Christmas. I offer you a brief Bible Study on Hebrews 10.
First, when did Jesus say something about sacrifice? In both Matthew 9:13 and 12:7, Jesus says, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.'” He is quoting Hosea 6:6, which says, “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” Have you ever noticed that virtually all the prophets made this same point, in some fashion or another? The prophet Micah’s version is perhaps the most famous (6:6-8):
“With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
So the letter to the Hebrews is telling us that Jesus came into this world at Christmas to, at least in part, continue the same message of the prophets.
But Jesus came to do even more. Hebrews makes this clear from the very start. Here, in fact are the opening words (Hebrews 1:1-3):
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high…
What did the Son do differently? He not only spoke the same message about God desiring mercy over sacrifice, but he came to be the sacrifice to end our need for sacrifices. As we normally sing before receiving Holy Communion, “Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.” This sums up the essence of our faith with the same message as Hebrews 10. Christ comes into this world to show us God’s will, namely, mercy. He takes away our sin by becoming the Lamb of God.
What is our sin that he takes away? Based on these kinds of passages, I would describe Christ’s taking away our sin something like this: ‘He sacrifices himself to our sacrifices which we keep doing instead of mercy.’ Since we no longer relate well to what “sacrifice” was all about, let me suggest how we might interpret it. Sacrifice was at the heart of their practice of religion, not just in Israel but over most of the world. (And sacrificial rituals continue even today in some corners of the world!) So let’s think about this message concerning sacrifice as a message about our practice of religion.
Now, think again about those vague words in Hebrews 10, “He abolishes the first in order to establish the second.” Abolish what? Establish what? Jesus comes to abolish our practice of religion to the extent that it does not lead to the second, the establishing of God’s will. Jesus tells us that God’s will is mercy: “Learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy not sacrifice.'” God desires for us to follow his Son in showing mercy to others. If our practice of religion isn’t about showing mercy, then Jesus came to abolish it and to establish something else in its place.
Let’s conclude, then, by asking ourselves about our practice of religion. Does it revolve around showing mercy? Or, as Micah put it, “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Last month, for example, I shared a perspective on ministry, on our practice of religion, that has become meaningful to me. Are we about keeping members or making disciples? I believe that being fixed on keeping members most often is more like being in a club: it fixes on who’s in and who’s out. The Pharisees, for instance, often accused Jesus of not observing such boundaries between who’s in and who’s out. It was to the likes of their accusations that he responded, “Learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy not sacrifice.'” But we can better avoid such pitfalls ourselves, I think, if we instead focus on being disciples of Jesus, who came to show us what mercy means. ‘Learn what this means, make disciples not members.’
One more specific example. At the center of our practice of religion is worship. Is mercy our main objective in the way we practice worship? Often, it seems to me that our criteria for worship is something more like, “Because that’s the way we’ve always done it.” Ask yourself: Does that sound like a merciful response? To me, a worship service that is about mercy would be sensitive to all who potentially walk into our doors who desparately need to meet the God of mercy who came to us at Christmas through Jesus. Many of those potential worshipers — more and more these days, as the numbers of unchurched grows dramatically — will know nothing of our traditions. In fact, they might be quite bewildered by them, finding our traditions to be a barrier to their coming to meet the God of mercy in Jesus Christ.
It is in this spirit that our ELCA Cluster is beginning to offer a new worship experience on Sunday evenings, which we are calling “Sanctuary.” It is being designed with the younger generation of unchurched in mind. So, instead of simply doing it the same way as always, it will use music and media that are more familiar to the average person in our culture. When it comes to worship as our central practice of religion, our “sacrifice,” we hope that it will exemplify what it means to show mercy to all those who yearn for God’s mercy, both churched and unchurched.
Have a blessed and wonderful New Year!