Sunday, October 16, 2011

"Ransomed and Set Free" - Hebrews 9:14-15 - October 16, 2011

If you wandered into my den and found our family watching television you would most likely find us watching the Food Network, History Channel, Discovery Channel, or ESPN. But there is one show on one of the traditional big three networks that has captured my interest. On Sunday nights CBS airs a show called, “Under Cover Boss.” It shows what happens when the leader of a major corporation or organization leaves their desk and goes undercover to see what working on the front lines of their organization or company is like. Last week’s episode focused on the University of California at Riverside’s Chancellor, Tim White. Like most episodes, you see him stumbling as he tries to do the work of others. But, the high point of the show is when he follws the show's pattern and reveals his real identity and does something good for each person he worked beside. But, in this particular episode you meet a student who, like the Chancellor, had a tragic accident that took her father away from the family. Maybe because Chancellor connected with her story, or maybe it was because the depth of pain and the tremendous joy she managed to show in spite of her situation, the Chancellor arranges to have the student’s college debt forgiven, secured funds for a scholarship that would pay for her to finish school, and provided additional funds to help secure a new apartment for her and her mother located nearer to the university. All on camera, and most in my home, had tears streaming down their faces. Over and over again she said that she could not believe that her debt was forgiven, that a weight had been lifted off her shoulders.

Earlier this week the Seattle Times reported that; “British and U.S. forces freed an Italian cargo ship hijacked by Somali pirates in a dramatic rescue Tuesday after retrieving a message in a bottle tossed by hostages from a porthole alerting ships the crew was safely sealed inside an armored area. The crew of 23 on the Montecristo were brought to safety, the Italian Foreign Ministry said. The 11 pirates were taken into custody.” Stories of Somali pirates seizing ships and holding hostages for ransom have become commonplace. Each year millions of dollars of ransom is paid for the release of hostages who tell difficult stories of emotional and physical abuse. They had to wait for someone else to do something for them that they could not do for themselves. With tears and shoots of joy, each celebrates the companies that paid the ransom that let them be set free.

It seems each week as I move toward entering the focal passage for the morning, I echo again that the writer of Hebrews addressed a congregation rising out of the Jewish religious tradition. Our passage this morning carries the hearers back to the temple and the picture of the animal sacrifices that had defined their understanding being reconciled with God. Songs like Psalm 49 would have sung out in their memory. The Psalm sings out: 5 Why should I fear when evil days come, when wicked deceivers surround me— 6 those who trust in their wealth and boast of their great riches? 7 No one can redeem the life of another or give to God a ransom for them— 8 the ransom for a life is costly, no payment is ever enough— 9 so that they should live on forever and not see decay.

But Hebrews tells them – and us – that while no one could pay the ransom or redeem the life of another, that God had made the way. Earlier we listened as Steven Brooks read Hebrews 9:11-15. The first three verses replace the High Priest with Jesus, entering in the Holy of Holies, the Most Holy Place, in a perfect tabernacle. Their minds eye would carry to the picture of the Temple on the Temple Mount, but they hear that Jesus moves in a place more wonderful, more perfect than anything they had experienced before. This tabernacle is not crafted with human hands, but is the home of God fashioned by the hand of God. In our time we might say that while this church is a beautiful place of worship, the place he envisions is much more beautiful than these stained glass windows could begin to contain. There, in this perfect tabernacle, the sacrifice of blood is not from sheep, or bulls, or heifer cows, in the symbolic acts of redemption like they had seen before. No, the blood that provides the way to real and eternal redemption – the once and for all redemption - is the blood shed by Jesus Christ. Verse 14 proclaims, How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God! Jesus became the means to bridge the wide gulf between God’s holiness and our sinfulness. No one can redeem the life of another or give God a ransom for them because the ransom for a life is costly, no payment is ever enough. They could not – and we cannot – buy our way out. It took an act of God to change our story and pay the price for our eternal lives.

My conversation with “Jack” began simply enough. He noticed my church name tag while rode an elevator down to the lobby of a local hospital. “So, what do you do at the church,” he asked? I told him that I was the pastor. He told me that he had been here once, but it had been a long time since he was in church. When I invited him to come and worship with us again, he told me, “You do not know all the things that I have done. You would not want me in your church. In fact, I do not think God would even want to deal with me again.” It seemed that his life story and the choices he had made weighed on him like an unpayable debt. It seemed “Jack” and many like him feel like they are held captive by the consequences of their actions. They do not realize that their debt has been forgiven and their ransom has been paid.

Over the past two months we have hosted a SALT series called, “Our Neighbor’s Faith.” We have heard and responded to voices from Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. This past Thursday I wrapped up the series and invited questions at the end. The question that stilled the room was, “so in the end, do it matter what you believe.” This question gave me an opportunity to share a part of my own testimony of faith and to answer the question with a resounding “yes, it matters!” I think some time we have a tendency to think that everyone that comes to SALT is already a Christian. That perception is wrong. At the close of SALT I had an opportunity to begin a conversation about Christ with one of the participants. He is one of many who now join us who are seeking something real and meaningful. In hearing the presentation on the other faith traditions it was clear that each is either driven by a blind obedience to commandments or a quest for redemption where each person must find the way for their own salvation. While we can respond to those from other faith traditions with respect, the reality is that we can never be good enough and faithful enough to obey every commandment and if we are responsible for our own salvation we will always fail. We listened as the Jewish Rabbi taught that modern Judaism teaches complete obedience to the law. She said that any sense of emotional or spiritual connection with God was a bonus. The task was obedience. I believe we were created for much more. We were created for a real, personal, authentic relationship with God. God made the way through Christ for our reconciliation. The claim of our faith that God acts on our behalf is unique. The fact that we live out of the promise that our debt for our sin has been paid by Christ changes everything!

Verse 15 proclaims, For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant. We hear that theme echoed in Mark 10: 45 "For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” The old Psalm sings, No one can redeem the life of another or give to God a ransom for them— 8 the ransom for a life is costly, no payment is ever enough— No, no payment we could ever pay is enough. But through Christ we have been set free. “Jack,” God knows all you have done and has paid the price for your freedom. God has not given up on you. God has made the way for you the weight to be lifted from your shoulders – for your heart and soul to be renewed. God has made the way for you to be forgiven; God has made the way to set you free.

This morning’s message is the heart of the Christian story. It is the Gospel story. It is the Jesus story. You cannot inherent your parents faith. You cannot earn God’s love. You cannot be good enough and you cannot make the way for your own salvation. All you can do is to accept this great gift from God – the spiritual debt of the bad choices you have made has been cancelled; the ransom for your soul has been paid. Redemption awaits you at the feet of God. It is an old story. It is the Gospel story. This morning I invite you to make it your story.

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