On Ash Wednesday, I suffered my monthly battery of labs and oncological consultation in advance of my day of maintenance chemo.
During the consult, after feeling me up for lumps and red flags, my doctor that day- a new one as my own doctor was on the DL for cancer of his own- flipped over a baby blue hued box of latex gloves and illustrated the standard deviation of years until relapse for my particular flavor of incurable cancer.
Cancer didn’t feel very funny staring at the bell curve of the time I’ve likely got left. Until.
Leaving my oncologist’s office, I drove to Fairfax Hospital to visit a parishioner here at Aldersgate named Jonathon.
Jonathon’s a bit younger than me with a boy a bit younger than my youngest. He got cancer a bit before I did. He’d thought he was in the clear. No.
The palliative care doctor was speaking with him when I stepped through the clear, sliding ICU door. After the doctor left, our first bits of conversation were interrupted by a social worker bringing with her dissonant grin a workbook, a fill-in-the-blank sort, that he could complete so that one day his boy will know who his dad was.
I sat next to the bed. I know from both from my training as a pastor and my experience as a patient, my job was neither to fix his feelings of forsakenness nor to protect God from them. My job, I knew, as both a Christian and a clergyman, wasn’t to do anything for him, but, simply, to be with him.
I listened. I touched and embraced him. I met his eyes and accepted the tears in my own. Mostly, I sat and kept the silence as though we both were prostrate before the cross. I was present to him.
We were interrupted again when the hospital chaplain knocked softly and entered. He was dressed like an old school undertaker and was, he said without explanation or invitation, offering ashes.
Because it was the easiest response, we both of us nodded our heads to receive the gritty, oily shadow of a cross.
With my own death drawn on a picture on the back of a box of latex gloves and his own death imminent, we leaned our foreheads into the chaplain’s bony thumb.
“Remember,” he whispered (as though we could forget), “to dust you came and to dust you shall return.”
As if every blip and beeping in the the ICU itself wasn’t already screaming the truth: none of us is getting out of life alive.
You’re not, FYI, getting out of life alive.
When you give up the ghost, your soul isn’t going to fly away to the great by-and-by.
Your body isn’t going to become just a shell while your spirit whisks away down a bright tunnel filled with warm light.
People will stand by your grave and weep, as they should, because you are not a thousand winds that blow. You are not the diamond glints on snow.
You are there. Planted in the ground. Earth to earth. Dust to dust.
Ashes awaiting God’s final resurrection.
None of us is getting out life alive.
Someday, maybe soon maybe later, your breath will become air.
And you will be as dead as Jesus is tonight, every bit as dead as Jesus is tomorrow and tomorrow night.
If Jesus doesn’t get to Easter without going through Good Friday then neither do we. We are baptized, after all, not into a club called church. We’re baptized into death, his death.
Death is not natural. It is the enemy of God, says scripture; however, death is as ubiquitous as it is inexorable.
None of us is getting out of life alive.
And we don’t like to talk about it much anymore in churches like ours with tax brackets like yours but, before the final resurrection, you will be called before the mercy seat of Almighty God, what the Book of Common Prayer calls “…the dreadful day of judgment when the secrets of all our hearts shall be disclosed.”
That line about “the dreadful day of judgment” comes from the wedding liturgy, right before the vows so that the bride and groom know the stakes before they promise not to destroy each others’ lives.
Because all of us, married or not- we are a people who actively every day do damage to the people in our lives and every day by our apathy do damage to people we never see except in the news.
And as we are, just the way we are, to stand before the Lord would be a terror not a joy. We forget- that’s why the Israelites charged Moses to go up Mt. Sinai to go before the Lord. They didn’t want to do so themselves.
That isn’t to say God is awful or angry; it’s to recognize that very often we are both, awful and angry, and if God is a refining fire then to stand before the Lord just as we are, the way we are, the sum of so many of our sins- to stand before God who is a refining fire means that there is much of us- much about us- that will get burned away by the holiness of God.
Speaking of fire, no doubt talk of judgment sounds brimstone harsh to you.
Of course it does. You have been conditioned by a culture that has made that word ‘judgment’ the worst of pejoratives: judgmental. And if its the worst that can be said of us, it’s the last that should be said of God.
God, our culture has conditioned us to think, is like Billy Joel.
God accepts you just the way you are, which is ironic because it turns out Billy Joel didn’t love Christie Brinkley just the way she was. He went searching for something else from someone else, which maybe makes him someone who shouldn’t be accepted just the way he is either.
I don’t mean to pile on Billy Joel; I know some of you love him more than Jesus. I don’t mean to pile on Billy Joel or you. Lord knows- or least my wife knows, I’m no better than most of you.
I don’t mean to smote you with fire and brimstone. Since it’s Good Friday, I mean only to point out the basic presupposition of Jesus’ Bible.
You aren’t acceptable before the Lord just the way you are.
The gap between our sinfulness and the holiness of God is too great. We aren’t acceptable before the Lord just the way we are. We have to be rendered acceptable. We have to be made acceptable, again and again.
That’s the thread that stiches together the Bible by which Jesus understood himself and understood his death.
Thus does the Book of Leviticus begin with God’s instructions for a sin-guilt offering: “The petitioner is to make his offering at the door of the tent of meeting so that he may be accepted before the Lord.”
The worshipper, instructs God to Moses, should offer a male from the herd, a male without blemish; he shall offer it at the door of the tent of meeting, what becomes the veil to the holy of holies when the temple in Jerusalem is built.
God instructs Moses that the sinner is to lay his hand upon the head of the offered animal and “it shall be accepted as an atonement for him.”
For him. On his behalf. In his place.
The offered animal, as a gift from God given back to God, is a vicarious representative of the sinner. The offered animal becomes a substitute for the person seeking forgiveness. The blood of the animal conveys the cost, both what your sin costs others and what your atonement costs God.
God intended the entire system of sacrifice in the Old Testament to prevent his People from thinking that unwitting sin doesn’t count, that it can just be forgiven and set aside as though nothing happened, as though no damage was done.
Those sacrifices, done again and again on a regular basis to atone for sin, were offered at the door of the tent of meeting. Outside.
But once a year a representative of all the People, the high priest, would venture beyond the door, into the holy of holies, to draw near to the presence of God and ask God to remove his people’s sins, their collective sin, so that they might be made acceptable before the Lord.
Acceptable for their relationship with the Lord.
After following every detail of every preparatory ritual, before God, the high priest lays both his hands on the head of a goat and confesses onto it, transfers onto it, the iniquity of God’s People.
And after the high priest’s work was finished, the goat would bear the people’s sin away in to the godforsaken wilderness; so that, now, until next Yom Kippur, nothing can separate them from the love of God.
It’s easy for us with our un-Jewish eyes to see this Old Testament God behind the veil as alien from the New Testament God we think we know.
It’s easy for us to dismiss this God behind the tent door as aloof and unapproachable.
It’s easy for us to miss that it’s God who gives his People the instructions for all these sacrifices; that is, God himself gives his People the means for the ongoing restoration of their relationship with him.
In Jesus’ Bible it’s true we’re not acceptable before God just the way we are but it’s God himself who gives us the means not to remain just the way we are.
God gives his perpetually wayward People the means to stand before him unburdened and unafraid. So these sacrifices in the Old Testament are not the opposite of the grace we find in the New. They are grace.
As Christians we’re not to see them as alien rituals or inadequate even. We’re meant to see them as preparation. We’re meant to see them as God’s way of preparing his People for a single, perfect sacrifice (Hebrews 7).
Preachers and theologians like to point out how the Church never settled upon a single answer to the question “How does the death of Christ save us?”
The Gospels, after all, exposit Jesus’ crucifixion but they never explain it.
The creeds require us to profess that Jesus Christ suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried, but the creeds do not ask us to agree on what that death accomplished or how.
Through the centuries the Church has offered possible answers.
On the Cross, God in Christ defeats the Power of Sin and Death. On the Cross, God in Christ transforms our hearts by demonstrating the love in his own. On the Cross, Jesus suffers the punishment owed to us, setting us free from our debt of sin by paying it in our place.
And so on.
Preachers and theologians like to point out how the Church never settled upon a single explanation for Christ’s death.
Except, that’s not exactly true.
The Church did decide to include in the New Testament canon the Book of Hebrews. Not only is it one of the longest books in the New Testament, it is the only book in the New Testament devoted entirely to describing the meaning of Jesus’ death.
And it does so exclusively by framing Jesus’ death in continuity with the sacrificial system of Jesus’ Bible.
But get this- all the sacrifices of the Old Testament they were to atone for unintended sin. There is no sacrifice, no mechanism, in the Old Testament to atone for the sin you committed on purpose. Deliberately. Not one.
By contrast, the Book of Hebrews describes Jesus’ death as the sacrifice for sin. All.
One sacrifice. Offered once.
For unwitting sin and for willful sin.
A sacrifice not just for God’s People but for all people.
Jesus, says the Book of Hebrews, isn’t a victim of our wrath. He isn’t a ransom paid to the Devil. He isn’t the punished in your place or the debt that ameliorates God’s offended honor.
Jesus, says the Book of Hebrews, is our Great High Priest.
He’s our Great High Priest not through lineage like those other high priests but “through the power of his indestructible life.”
Jesus, says the Book of Hebrews, bears the stamp of God’s own nature. He’s the heir of all things and through him all things were made.
But he was made like us in every respect. This priest was made like his people in every way.
Just as we are tempted and weak, he was tempted and weak. Just was we hunger and thirst and fear and feel forsaken, so too did he hunger and thirst, fear and feel forsaken. He suffered just as we suffer. And, he died just as we die.
Just as none of us is getting out of life alive, neither did he.
His death, in other words, isn’t the death we had coming to us.
His death was a death that comes to us all.
His death isn’t a penal punishment but the product of his having been made like us in every respect.
He died the way he did because of the way he lived, but he died because he lived, because he was made like us in every respect.
And because he has been made like us in every respect, not only do we have a Great High Priest who sympathizes with us in our weakness we have a priest who when he enters the presence of God he does not go alone.
Aaron all the other high priests from the tribe of Levi they went beyond the veil alone and they came back alone.
But this Great High Priest in his flesh, his flesh of our flesh, he carries all of us- all of humanity- to the mercy seat of God, says the Book of Hebrews.
He draws near to the Holy Father and, in him, all of us draw near too.
And there this Great High Priest offers not a ransom or a debt.
This Great High Priest offers a gift.
Not a calf or a goat or grain but a gift so precious, so superabundant, as to be perfect.
A gift that can’t be reciprocated it can only redound to others.
His own life. His own unblemished life.
We choose to put him on a cross, but this Great High Priest chooses on it to gift himself as sacrifice, to sprinkle his own blood on the mercy seat of the cross, to make atonement.
A gift exceeding all cost such that no sacrifice ever need be offered again.
Jonathon died this evening.
None of us is getting out of life alive.
But none of us need fear. None of us need to fear death, fear that day when the secrets of our hearts will be disclosed.
We need not fear because, after he gifts himself as a perfect once for all sacrifice, this Great High Priest never leaves the Father, because he draws near and stays near, because he sits down at the right hand of the Father permanently, says the Book of Hebrews, he intercedes for us.
He intercedes for us. Perpetually. He prays for us. Without ceasing.
He confesses for us.
Although we know we are not acceptable before the Lord just as we are, we need not fear.
We need not fear that God will make us more than we are.
We need not fear that the secrets of all our hearts one day will be disclosed and God will render us into something other than what we are now.
Thanks to our Great High Priest we can trust.
We can trust that when we die and our breath becomes air and the dust of our bones returns to the dust we will experience the refining fire of God’s holiness.
But we will not experience it as the wrathful heat of hell.
We will experience it as the warm light of God’s love.
Thanks to our Great High Priest we will all become as the Burning Bush, ablaze with God’s refining fire.
But not consumed by it.