Sermon: “Of Which Your Conscience is Afraid” (October 4, 2015)

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Of Which Your Conscience is Afraid” (Hebrews 1:1-4)
October 4, 2015
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

I recently came across a hilarious list of church bulletin bloopers and thought I would share some with you. These are not made up, but appeared in actual church bulletins: Due to the Rector’s illness, Wednesday’s healing services will be discontinued until further notice. The eighth-graders will be presenting Shakespeare’s Hamlet in the church basement on Friday at 7PM—the congregation is invited to attend this tragedy. Low Self-Esteem Support Group will meet Thursday at 7 to 8:30PM—please use the back door. Weight Watchers will meet at 7PM—please use large double door at the side entrance. Join us for our potluck supper—prayer and medication to follow. And finally…the church will host an evening of fine dining, superb entertainment, and gracious hostility.

Today I am preaching from the Letter to the Hebrews, written to first century Jewish Christians who were experiencing hostility that was anything but gracious at the hands of the Romans persecuting them for their faith in Jesus Christ. Most likely written before 65 AD, it is unclear who wrote this letter. Some scholars attribute it to Apollos, others to Luke or Clement of Rome. The destination of this letter is also unclear. Some scholars think it was Jerusalem, others Alexandria or Samaria or Spain. But the Letter to the Hebrews is clearly an encouragement to persevere in faith even in the midst of hostility.

One of my favorite childhood memories occurred on a rainy Saturday afternoon in 1977, when my dad took me to see the classic film Star Wars. My friends had already seen it, and at school we used to draw epic battles between the X-wing Starfighters of the Rebel Alliance and the Tie Fighters of the Evil Empire. Now I was finally going to see these battles on the big screen, including the destruction of the Death Star. To this day I remember getting chills as the memorable score by John Williams opened and the following words appeared on the screen: “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” and then the famous opening crawl, the backstory text that moving away from the viewer and vanishing into space.

And in the same way the opening crawl of Star Wars gives the back story of the film, the Letter to the Hebrews opens with a succinct backstory about Jesus Christ:

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, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs (Hebrews 1:1-4).

Jesus is described here as “the heir of all things,” the One through Whom God “created the worlds, the One “who sustains all things by his powerful word.” Moreover, Jesus is described as “the exact imprint of God’s very being,” a phrase translated in other English versions as “the express image of his person” (KJV), “the exact representation of his being” (NIV), and “the exact imprint of (God’s) nature” (ESV). In other words, if you want to know what God the Father is like, exactly what God the Father is like, look at Jesus Christ.

And then the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews immediately moves to the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ: “When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.” The heir of all things, the creator of the world, the sustainer of all things, the One by Whom God the Father has spoken to us, became incarnate not to judge sinners but to atone for their sins, to make purification, for them. No one saw this coming.

In the summer of 1989 my wife Steph and I, then twenty-year old college students, spent ten weeks in Brazil on a mission trip. We took a handful of cassettes with us (yes, cassettes), one of which was Michael W. Smith’s 1988 album i 2 (EYE). My favorite song on that album, “Secret Ambition,” describes this:

Young man up on a hillside, teaching new ways
Each word winning them over, each heart a kindled flame
Old men watch from the outside guarding their prey
Threatened by the voice of a paragon
Leading their lambs away, leading them far away

Nobody knew his secret ambition
Nobody knew his claim to fame
He broke the old rules steeped in tradition
He tore the holy veil away
Questioning those in powerful positions
Running to those who called his name
But nobody knew his secret ambition was to give his life away

His rage shaking the temple, His word to the wise
His hand healing on the seventh day
His love wearing no disguise
Some say, “Death to the radical, He’s way out of line”
Some say, “Praised be the miracle
God sends a blessed sign, a blessed sign for troubled times”

Nobody knew his secret ambition
Nobody knew his claim to fame
He broke the old rules steeped in tradition
He tore the holy veil away
Questioning those in powerful positions
Running to those who called his name
But nobody knew his secret ambition
Was to give his life away

Jesus came to give his life away. The One who created angels in the first place became lower than the angels in order to give his life away for sinners. This is rooted in the unbounded grace of God—or as today’s passage from the Letter to the Hebrews puts it: “We see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” (Hebrews 2:9).

In his 1547 sermon entitled “Of the Salvation of Mankind by Only Christ Our Savior from Sin and Death Everlasting” Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556), the leading figure of the English Reformation, put it this way:

(God’s) great mercy he shewed unto us in delivering us from our former captivity without requiring of any ransom to be paid or amends to be made upon our parts; which thing by us had been impossible to be done. And, whereas it lay not in us to do, he provided a ransom for us, that was, the most precious body and blood of his own most dear and best beloved Son Jesus Christ; who, besides his ransom, fulfilled the law for us perfectly. And so the justice of God and his mercy did embrace together, and fulfilled the mystery of our redemption (The Books of Homilies 25).

Do you ever zone out when we pray the collect for the day and not even notice what you are praying? I hope that was not the case today, because the collect for today is one of the most powerful and beautiful in The Book of Common Prayer, and it connects the atoning death of Jesus Christ directly to our lives—“Almighty and everlasting God, you are always more ready to hear than we to pray, and to give more than we either desire or deserve: Pour upon us the abundance of your mercy, forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things for which we are not worthy to ask, except through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ our Savior” (BCP 234).

Episcopal priest and scholar Paul Zahl writes that in this collect:

We ask (God) to give us what we cannot even imagine asking Him to give us. Again this Collect presents the overwhelming idea that God is able and desires to give us things that we cannot fathom even suggesting: such as change in an unchanging character fault, love when we have long given up hope of it, opportunity which we have stopped even seeking, and open doors when every door has slammed shut (The Collects of Thomas Cranmer 93).

Think about your life for a moment. Where do you need the abundance of God’s mercy? What are the things of which your conscience is afraid? Do you think the mercy of God is not enough for you? Do you think the blood Jesus shed for you is unable to make purification for your sins?

One more illustration…a few weeks ago a friend texted me a link to a story CBS News did about an autistic student named Jason McElwain from Greece Athena High School in Rochester, New York. For years Jason served as the basketball team manager, as Jason himself put it, “I just get them motivated and hand out water and just be enthusiastic.” Reporter Steve Hartman then tells the following too-good-to-be-true and yet very true story:

Because he has been so devoted to the team for the last game of the season Coach Jim Johnson decided to let Jason actually suit up, not to play necessarily, just to let him feel what it’s like to wear a jersey…at least that was the plan. But with four minutes to go coach in last week’s game Coach Johnson stood up and pointed at number 52, Jason McElwain. After years of fetching water and toweling off other people’s sweat Jason was actually in a game.

In the footage you can see the student section jumping up and down cheering crazily for Jason as he enters the game. He air-balled his first shot and then barely missed his second shot, but he hit his third shot, a three-pointer from the right side, and the entire stands erupt with cheers. And that was just the beginning, as Coach Johnson said after the game, “If I wasn’t there to witness it, I wouldn’t have believed it.” Jason put it this way, “I just caught fire. I was hot as a pistol.” Jason ended up shooting six three-pointers in a row, six—“one right after the other.”

Steve Hartman concludes:

He had twenty points total, and each time a shot went in his teammates and the crowd went a little crazier. His last basket right at the buzzer created total mayhem. Because he is autistic, Jason says he’s used to feeling different…but never this different, never this wonderful.

The different and wonderful truth is that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Creator and Sustainer of all things, became lower than the angels, became manager for a worldwide team of sinners in order to make purification for your sins. It sounds too good to be true and yet it is very true.

On the cross Jesus endured great hostility from sinners and fulfilled his secret ambition to give his life away. He poured out the abundance of his mercy on you to forgive you every sin of which your conscience is afraid—one right after the other—and tasted death for you, drinking it to the dregs. In doing all this Jesus destroyed the Death Star and sent your sins vanishing into space.

And the love of Jesus Christ for you still wears no disguise.

Amen.