This sermon was delivered at Hickman Presbyterian Church in Hickman, NE on Sunday, November 1, 2015.
The scriptural references are:
A recording is available here.
Occasionally our scripture lends itself to a straightforward, no-frills discussion. Some passages are not meant to have stories attached as addenda, or jokes added for levity. There are times when the message is potent enough to stand on its own, and that’s just what we have to do with it. Because, in reality, the messages are not at all about us or how we receive them, but rather they are about God and God’s desire for us to have, hold, know and live into the Word given to us. Today’s passages are two examples such: there is no need to accessorize the news of the redeeming death of our Lord, or the importance of our relationship with that very same God.
“4Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. 5You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”
This is the first instruction Moses shares with the Israelites after passing along the Decalogue – the ten commandments – he’s received from God and becomes the bridge to later instructions given in statutes and ordinances for the life of Israel. These words are a summary of the law and commandments of God for God’s people. These are binding words.
The Shema, or The Great Commandment, is a confession, in that it’s an assertion of passion and commitment to God. These words, this prayer, this affirmation, are a claim of relationship. God’s covenant with Israel makes YHWH their God, and therefore, Our God. Reciting the Shema, binding it upon one’s heart, bring the words to life. The Shema is the plumb line by which Israel’s relationship with God was measured. These words are the benchmark for life and faith.
It is spoken often, but it must also be heard. Confessors must not only speak their confessions, but hear one another’s confessions as well. “We need to listen to our neighbors because faith does not originate in uncorrupted hearts and wills of our own. It comes from outside, raised by the God who assigns it and given freely among the depraved through the Spirit.” Hearing another’s confession and allowing yours to be heard in return creates a vulnerability that builds relationship. Affirming beliefs and confessing sin corporately, as we do in worship, create the foundation of faith formation where others see and come to know God through the Spirit at work in and through each person. The Great Commandment “is a guard against an internal attitude or feeling that tends to erupt into public and violent acts against one’s neighbor…As it moves into the sphere of attitudes and inner desires and their capacity to lead to harmful acts, the commandment opens up the realm of mind and heart as subjects for moral direction and ethical reflection…so, the disposition of the heart is a neighbor issue…”
Up to this point in Deuteronomy, or in the first five books of the Old Testament for that matter, Moses has served as the mediator between the people and God. They desired that he be the one to stand between them and God, he would receive the Word, and then he would teach it to the people. When Moses presents The Great Commandment to the people, he presents them according to what “YHWH your God” commanded to teach so “that …[they] might do them in the land …[they are going] over to possess.” Moses the teacher and intermediary, passes on to them what God passed on to him. “that you and your children and your children’s children may fear the Lord your God all the days of your life, and keep all his decrees and his commandments that I am commanding you, so that your days may be long.” He urges the people to “observe them diligently” that they might be guaranteed a long and prosperous life. After he hands down the commandment, Moses continues: “6Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. 7Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. 8Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, 9and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” In no uncertain terms, the mediator of God’s people Israel is saying that nothing is more important than God. The greatest commandment is a reiteration of the first two commandments of the Decalogue: God is it. None other; YHWH ‘EHAD, the Lord Alone.
In our Hebrews passage we see talk of mediation once again. Our verses today move us from the old covenant, where a high priest was needed to serve as mediator between the congregation and God, into the new covenant of Jesus Christ. This new covenant in Christ ushers in a new interpretation of mediation – we now have direct access to God through the Son, and no one will need to do the receiving, talking or teaching to us on God’s behalf. With Christ as the mediator of the new covenant, we receive promised eternal redemption, because his sacrificial death redeems any and all transgressions under the old covenant.
Under the old system, the priests “went daily into the temple; the high priest went annually into the inner sanctum, the holy of holies.” Priests served as the intercessor with God on behalf of the people. No one had access to God beside the priests, and even the high priests only had access on a yearly basis. Essentially, the people could “only come near …[God] if someone, like the high priest, …[went] ahead to present tokens of…purification, to certify that …[they] had been passed as fit to enter.” Christ, however, changed the game when he assumed the role as a high priest in the order of Melchizadek. Through Christ entering the holy place of his own blood, we now have direct access to God.
Blood sanctifies and God purifies, that is, makes one without blemish, through the shed and sacrifice of blood. Theologian David Cunningham explains: “Throughout the ancient world, both in Judaism and in many forms of Greco-Roman religious life, sacrifice played an important role within various ritual structures. This activity was more sophisticated than we sometimes imagine it to be; these were not simply superstitious people imagining that their anthropomorphic gods would not be placated until the correct smells wafted up from the alters. Rather, the ritual of sacrifice was a means of enshrining, within a highly structured practice, a broader theological concept with which we are all familiar: the idea that everything belongs to God. When we return to God some small portion of what we have (whether it be grain or animals or time or money), we are underscoring our belief that what we have is not actually ours. It already belongs to God, and we return a portion of it to God as a sign and reminder of that reality.”
Blood sacrifices were offerings. It was through the shedding of animal blood and the burning of bodies on the altar in the temple that God received offerings, offered redemption, and accepted praises from his people. Because the high priest offered himself as a sacrifice, we receive life without blemish in the eyes of God. Jesus’ offering of his own life instead, laying life down for life in our place, stands as the offering for the whole of humanity. “It is a sacrifice on behalf of all people and for all time; and thus, it is not limited to one small corner of the created world, but has cosmic significance.” Only the Lord can permanently redeem our transgressions without requiring additional sacrifice. Only the Lord Alone.
What if we offered an affirmation of faith aloud, in the presence of others, on a daily basis? What would our life become, how would our lives look, if we heeded the commandments of God through Moses and we “observed diligently” the great commandment or lived boldly into our eternal redemption? What if we lived a life that told everyone that the Lord alone is what’s important in our lives? What if we allowed the great commandment to structure our relationship with our neighbors? What if we invited redemption to infiltrate our very beings? How do you think the world would see us, or hear us, if we spent every day wearing, speaking, hearing, believing, and sharing the words: 4Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone!
Would we walk around with our head held a little higher, knowing that we are precious to God? Do you think we’d speak more kindly to the attendants at the cash register, or on the other end of a frustrating customer service call? Might we open our wallets to buy a meal, or even a hotel room for an evening, for the people we pass on the street corner on our way to and from our office during our lunch hour? What about our vacation time: could we take a week of vacation to spend the time in service to another instead of service to ourselves? Might we dare to spend a few additional moments each day with our noses in the Scriptures instead of on our smart phones? And what about a tattoo – aren’t we supposed to “bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead”??
I had the pleasure of attending a concert recently where the gospel was shared so very authentically through stories of redemption and transformation that could only come through the work of the Spirit. The lead singer of the band watched his abusive father make a transformation over time into a man passionate about God, and the singer penned a song after his eventual passing. I Can Only Imagine is a song about meeting Christ in the kingdom-come, but I feel that the song speaks even more to us in the kingdom-now as we live into the Shema. Living into God is life-changing. Hear the words and imagine with me what life would be like, and can be like, if we live as passionately for God as Christ did for us.
I can only imagine what it will be like
When I walk by your side
I can only imagine what my eyes will see
When your face is before me
Surrounded by your glory
What will my heart feel
Will I dance for your Jesus
Or in awe of you be still
Will I stand in your presence
Or to my knees will I fall
Will I sing hallelujah
Will I be able to speak at all
I can only imagine when that day comes
And I find myself standing in the Son
I can only imagine when all I will do
Is forever, forever worship you
Today is All Saints Day where we take time to remember the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us. We reminisce the impacts they had on our lives. We recall the stories of times shared, memories created, moments endured. We celebrate their lives and ask God to ease our grief over their departures. We pause to imagine the life they live now as we anticipate what is to come for us through Christ’s life, death and resurrection. As we celebrate the Saints, we would be negligent if we fail to mention and observe the one who has gone before that gives us the assurance of life eternal beyond our time on earth.
To close our worship service today we will sing a traditionally a Christmas hymn. (Yes, I know we are only thisfar passed Halloween…) I chose this hymn because of its ties to our scriptures today: Christ was born to save. Even the ox and ass are before him bowing at his manger. Christ was born to open heaven’s door and we experience endless bliss. Christ was born for this, friends. Jesus Christ was born to die. He was born to sacrifice himself for the world. He was born for offering of salvation, redemption, and sanctification. The Lord alone was born to die and yet still live. And we, too, live. Not us, but God for us.
As we pause to offer our thoughts for those we have lost, let us also pause to offer our thoughts for the life that was lost on our behalf. Only the Lord can offer eternal life. And yet, every one of us can offer eternal praise. Hear, O People: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone! Hear, O People, Christ’s death has occurred that redeems us from our transgressions! This is the good news that transforms lives. Remembering those we’ve lost, let us look to the life we still have and allow the news of salvation through Christ to change how we go about our days from this point forward. Today we honor the saints, understanding that none of us exists their existence, and responding to the love of God that elicits our love of others. This is where faith begins: with God…through God…for God…and in relationship with God…in another. Life, and relationship, and death are about God. Not in any way us, only the Lord. The Lord Alone. Amen.
 Work, Telford. Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Deuteronomy. (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2009), 95.
 Miller, Patrick D. Interpretation: Deuteronomy. (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), 98.
 Wright, Tom. Hebrews for Everyone. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 95.
 Cunningham, David. Theological Perspective on Hebrews 9:11-15 from Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 4. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 256.
 Young, Frances. Can These Dry Bones Live? (New York: Pilgrim Press, 1993).
 Lyrics to I Can Only Imagine. Performed by MercyMe, written by Pete Kipley. Copyright: Songs From The Indigo Room, Wordspring Music LLC .