Leviticus 4-5:13: Once, long ago in an ancient place, the priests were getting tired. Their duties were never ending. They came back to the place of worship, again, and again, to clean house. Each time, they hoped it would be the last, that the sanctuary would remain pure and holy. But every time, humans got in the way. These people kept tracking in their jealousy, their pettiness, their disrespect. They brought in their murderous impulses, their desire for other gods. Soon, the sin would be piled so high there wasn’t room for God to enter into God’s own house, into the holy place. A sacrifice had to be made to make it right again. So the priests returned, again and again, weary of the relentlessness of sin. Year after year they came ready to sacrifice.
John 2:13-22: Fast forward a few thousand years. The squawking of birds and bleating of sheep filled the space. Coins clinked against one another. Greed had filled the temple. There wasn’t room for God to enter into God’s own house. Then, the silhouette of a man darkened the doorway. Jesus entered the temple, full of righteous fury. “Take these things out of here,” he shouted. Tables were turned; a cleansing was taking place. The holy place was being restored and opened, once again.
Matthew 27:51 A little while later, it was the worst of days. The holy places were suffocated by darkness. On a cross, Jesus cried with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And in that moment, the need to go back again and again was ended. The relentlessness of work was over. Christ died, once and for all at the end of the age. The Holy Place was opened for us.
This story is now continuing with us today.
Sometimes church makes you a little twitchy. If you’re an anxious person like me, that might be more often than not. Maybe you felt a little antsy when we were saying together some of the words of the Heidelberg Catechism, thinking to yourself, “I don’t know if I believe that! Maybe the people who agree with the Heidelberg Catechism and are cool with renouncing the devil belong here and I don’t.”
If nothing else, it feels a little weird to be talking about the devil in our mainline, Protestant church. There was also that question we sang this morning, “Lord, who may dwell within your house or on your holy hill?” When we answered our own question with the words, “those whose lives are blameless still,” you might have had the same thought as me. Well shoot. I’d better leave now, because my life certainly isn’t blameless. Better get my sorry self out of this holy place.
It’s easy to feel like we are not worthy to be here, that we do not belong.
We’ve know this for a few decades as impostor syndrome. Those of you with a psychology background might be familiar. It’s when people do not believe that they really deserve their accomplishments, even when presented with evidence to the contrary. It’s especially common among women. These are the people who don’t want to be found out. It’s the thought that if people really knew, they wouldn’t let me in here. I do not belong. I am not worthy.
The church is full of people with impostor syndrome. If they knew what I was doing last night, they wouldn’t let me into this place. There’s a pastor equivalent of this where you think, “They really want me to preach?” or in my case, “Don’t they know I’m 25 and have no idea what I’m doing?” We are always looking for what are we to do to prove that we are worthy. We are filled with what Psalm 127 calls anxious toil. We keep going back again and again, trying to make things right. Frederick Buechner said, “If we are not doing something, we feel guilty, and we keep on doing, doing, as a way to avoid thinking.” Yet we will never be people who do no wrong. I hate to break it to you, we aren’t perfect people as much as we like to put on a show saying we are.
We as the church don’t often do much to help, keeping our appearance as clean and neat as possible, not wanting our cracks and edges to show. Yet of course, even in the church, we’re not put together. I often think of how many family fights, ripped nylons, faulty alarm clocks, and generally un-Christian attitudes it takes to get us all to church on Sundays. But once we get here, we smile and act polite. This doesn’t do much to quiet that inner voice that tells us we don’t belong here.
This isn’t to mention all the horrible things the church at large has done to exclude people. There are many people who feel like they don’t belong at church because they have been systematically told that they don’t belong here in public and painful ways. Christianity has a nasty history of loudly telling people that they don’t belong. Even if we try to be a fully welcoming and inclusive congregation, we’re still picking up the pieces of centuries of exclusion.
Thank God for Jesus taking care of things when we can’t ourselves. Christ’s sacrifice has opened up the doors once and for all. It must be gospel good news that our message of belonging and welcome does not just come from us. Because let’s face it, we’re not ever going to be perfect at welcoming all people. Even at our best, we intentionally or not exclude and let our hospitality slip. We don’t get to be gatekeepers about who is in and who is out because Jesus pretty much broke that whole thing open. And Christ didn’t wait for us to clean things up on our own, but sacrificed for us while we were still sinners. God claimed us even when we were pretty rough around the edges. It is this extravagant love that drove Christ’s sacrificial act.
I want to give you a little background on sacrifice, mostly because this is not something we’re used to these days. Sacrifice feels rather gruesome, if not entirely unethical. If you dig back into Leviticus, you can find some of what was going on. The sacrifice discussed there is that of the Israelites, our spiritual ancestors. This is different from Judaism, a much later development. Think of the Israelite religion and Judaism as two parts of a Venn diagram. There is overlap, but they are certainly not exactly the same. The Israelites had many different laws surrounding worship and sacrifice. Leviticus 16 talks about the Day of Atonement, what Judaism now observes as Yom Kippur. What’s important for us to know about how the Israelites observed the Day of Atonement is that it was not so much about wiping clean the sins of individual people, but had to do with purifying a place and an entire people. The priest was to atone for the sanctuary just in the same way the priest was to atone for the community. The place had to be made holy.
Very crudely then, the day of atonement and this sacrifice to get rid of sin was about house cleaning. It was about opening up the windows and airing things out a bit. Maybe our fall work day is a small reflection of this. The impurities of the sanctuary are swept away. And then, the community is welcomed back into worship in the holy place.
We often say the book of Hebrews is about sacrifice. And it’s true, that word is everywhere in Hebrews. But, if you haven’t figured this out already, I would say that the book of Hebrews is about belonging. It’s God’s amazing hospitality of cleaning house and then welcoming everyone in.
Have you ever felt really welcomed into a place? I’m talking walk into a place, take your shoes off, let your hair down kind of comfort. The people who cultivate that kind of feeling are true gems. I’m sure you know some of them, the people who open homes with such genuine warmth that you can’t help but feel at home.
So take that feeling and multiply it. That’s what Christ is offering us.
Because we are not just welcomed into one home, but into the most holy of places. We are welcomed into sacred space, because Jesus has gone ahead of us and prepared a place. Jesus cleans house and then welcomes us in. And there’s something unique about Christ’s sacrifice that make it so we don’t have to keep anxiously returning again and again, but that Christ cleared the way once and for all.
What’s amazing about the sacrifice of Christ is that it somehow goes way beyond what we can imagine. Hebrews says that Jesus didn’t enter a sanctuary made of human hands–that would be just a fraction of where God’s welcome extends to. Instead, Jesus cleared the way in heaven. I’m going to be honest, I don’t really know what that means. But I know there’s something about the temple curtain tearing in two, about Jesus acting in unexpected ways that tells us how God’s love for us defies boundaries. It’s as if we were thinking on this small scale, just wanting to belong in this one place and God told us, “I’m going to blow your mind.”
You belong. I like to think that you belong here at Forest Hill, yes. But that’s too small. That’s not the message of Christ. You are a beloved child of God, and your unworthiness has been taken away by Christ. This means you belong in the holiest of places. You can take courage and boldly approach God.
The trouble with this kind of extravagant sacrifice is that it leaves us awkwardly thinking of how to respond. God has invited me to belong. Cool. Because sacrifice means someone has done all the hard work for us.
So for those of you who like to be busy, who like to work hard to prove you are worthy, this is going to be tough. Because all that is left is to sit on your hands and receive this gift. This feels like the wrong thing to say when I want you all to leave this service and go to the Mission Fair and sign up for all sorts of volunteer activities.
And I do. But I don’t want you to go volunteer because you have something to prove. Don’t come to church to let people know what a good church person you are. Don’t volunteer to try and make yourself worthy of love. Don’t try to earn your salvation with good works. Don’t think more about the outward appearance than what is really going on in your life.
But do go find ways to respond to this beautiful sacrifice with thanksgiving and love. We can always serve out of gratitude, settling in to the place where we belong. We can feel confident and bold because we are welcomed into holy places. We can eagerly welcome God into our lives because we know it is not judgment or punishment for sins that is coming, but hospitality for our whole selves.
Once and for all, Jesus has welcomed us into the presence of God. Rest there, knowing you belong.