Enter the Most Holy Place with Confidence!

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6th Midweek Lenten Service
Hebrews 10:19-25

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ! In the name of Jesus, dear friends in Christ, what makes you nervous? When you’re nervous about something you get a pit in your stomach, your hands get clammy, maybe you begin to shake, you can almost hear your heart beating in your chest, what is it that makes you nervous? Maybe it’s speaking in front of group of people, maybe it’s having a difficult conversation with someone you care about, maybe it’s doing something you don’t want to do, maybe it’s hearing a strange noise in the house at night. Being nervous can stem from a fear of being embarrassed or losing face or it can come from a fear of physical harm. Many of you know a couple of weeks ago I spun out while driving on the icy freeway and ended up in the ditch. If that’s happened to you, you know the feeling, I was very nervous driving on the icy roads for quite some time after that. What is it that makes you nervous?

I’m guessing that the high priest was pretty nervous when it came to serving in the tabernacle or the temple on the great day of Atonement. Why so? Because this is what God told Moses when He established the Great Day of Atonement, he said, “Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come whenever he chooses into the Most Holy Place behind the curtain in front of the atonement cover on the ark, or else he will die.” You see, if he or anyone dared to come into the Most Holy Place on their own whim, God said they would die. God was teaching something through that. It was the same teaching God gave to Adam and Eve after they sinned. Remember what happened? They had to leave the Garden of Eden, the place where they met with God, and God placed cherubim, angels, with flaming swords at the entrance so they could not go back there. Interestingly, God had cherubim sculpted on top of the ark of the covenant which symbolized God’s presence with the Israelites and there were cherubim also woven into the curtain that separated the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place. In all of these ways God was teaching the people: sin separates you from God. Sin makes us unworthy to enter God’s presence.

So, can you imagine the High Priest entering the Most Holy Place on the Great Day of Atonement? What if he messed up? What if he went in without a pure heart? What if he didn’t do everything the right way? Add to all of that- apparently they would tie a rope around the priest as they ministered in the Most Holy Place and the end of the rope extended outside the tabernacle. You might think, that’s odd. But there was a purpose. If the High Priest died while in there, they had a way to get his dead body out! Can you imagine? Do you think his heart was racing, his hands were clammy and he had a pit in his stomach?

Maybe we can imagine. I mean, the only one who knows more about you than you is God. He’s been there and he’s seen ever dark shameful sin you and I have ever committed. We may be able to hide them from everyone else in the world, but not God, He sees, He knows. We may be able to conceal shameful thoughts in our heads about other people, but we can’t conceal them from God. He knows. We may be able to even almost completely hide from our memory things that we’ve done, but God sees everything.

And to go into His presence? One day we’ll have to stand before this holy and perfect and righteous and just God? That’s terrifying. He could justly and rightly strike us down and be done with us forever. Everything else in all of life that might cause you to be nervous ought to pale in comparison to having to stand as a sinner before the holy and just God of all.

That’s what that curtain symbolized. But what happened to that curtain? What are we told here? “Since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us form a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.” Do you see it? When Jesus cried out on the cross, when Jesus said, “It is finished,” that temple curtain, some 60 feet high and 15 feet wide and as thick as a man’s hand, was torn in two. God reached down and tore the dividing wall in two. Why so? Because as Jesus died on the cross, those sins that had separated us from God, those sins that fill us with shame and guilt, those sins that wreak havoc in our lives, those sins- all of them – were placed on Jesus, He suffered the separation from God, He suffered the abandonment from God that our sins deserved.

All for what purpose? So that we can draw near, so that we can have confidence going into God’s presence, so that we can have full assurance, so that we can be cleansed and forgiven. In the OT only priests were allowed in the Most Holy Place, but now, Jesus has made you a priest, you get to go in. And boldly.

Think of the thief on the cross, he deserved nothing but judgment and wrath, but by the work of the Holy Spirit he saw in Jesus His Savior and with the boldness of faith he said, “Remember, me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus said, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

I don’t know what makes you nervous today or what is troubling your heart. But know this, the temple curtain has been torn in two, there is no separation, Jesus has sprinkled with his blood and cleansed you. God is your dear Father. You can go to him- instead of worrying, you can go into the Most Holy Place and pray to the Father who hears you and answers you.

And one day The Day will arrive when Jesus returns and on that day you have no reason to be nervous because you know that because of Jesus He will bring you safely into the Most Holy Place, in his presence forever in heaven. Amen.

Jesus Serves at a Great Altar

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5th Midweek Service
Hebrews 13:10-16

Editor’s Note: The text below was the intended sermon from Pastor Nitz.  However, we ultimately had a guest pastor, Gene Lillienthal, from our sister ELS church in Lengby, Lengby Lutheran Parish.  So, the audio and text do not match because they are different sermons on the same passages.

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, in the name of Jesus, have you ever been part of a spelling bee? The congregation I serve in Bemidji operates a Kindergarten through 8th grade school and yesterday we had another Christian school in town come over to compete in a spelling bee. It brought back to me memories of spelling bees when I was in gradeschool. You spell your word and if you get it right, you have a sense of delight, but the moment you misspell a word, you’re done, it’s over, you’re out of the competition. Were you ever part of one of those? There’s this sense of rejection when you lose, isn’t there? None of us likes to be rejected, do we? That same sense of rejection is felt when you play sports and you get cut from the team or don’t perform well and the coach puts you on the bench. Or maybe that sense of rejection is felt when a boyfriend or girlfriend breaks up with you. We just don’t like to be rejected, do we?

Well, we’ve been looking at the book of Hebrews on these Wednesday evening services. The people to whom this letter seems to have been written were Jewish people who had become Christian. But, it seems, that they had plenty of friends who were still Jewish and were trying to get them to go back to Judaism. And some of their arguments were about various OT things that Christianity didn’t have. Like, where’s your High Priest? Where are your sacrifices? And today, their argument is: Where is your altar?

These Hebrew Christians were facing rejection from others because of their faith in Jesus. But the writer to the Hebrews again and again directs them and us to the absolute superiority of Jesus. If you were an OT Israelite and you went to the temple complex the first thing that would have captured your attention would have been the altar of burnt offering. It was about 7.5 feet square and about 4.5 feet high. Almost like a big grill that kept burning continuously and on which the parts of the sacrificial animals were burned up and devoted to the Lord. For over a thousand years this altar proclaimed a powerful message to the Israelites- as the animals were slaughtered, as they bled and died, the would have been reminded that the wages of sin is death, that there is no forgiveness without the shedding of blood. But those sacrifices had another message: God’s love spared the people and a substitute paid the price

But, these sacrifices weren’t all the same. Most of the time with these animal sacrifices the animal was slaughtered, part of the meat was offered to God by burning it on the altar and part of the meat was given to the priests to eat. But, on the great day of Atonement something different happened. The animal was slaughtered, blood was used for sprinkling on the Ark, but the priests were not allowed to eat any of it, instead the carcass was taken outside of the camp and burned. This represented the removal of the sins of the people. This is what the writer to the Hebrews is referring to: “We have an altar from which those who minister at the tabernacle have no right to eat. The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp.

So, what is it that this is pointing to? He is pointing us to the cross which is the ultimate fulfillment of the Day of Atonement. He says, “Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood.” You see, when Jesus was crucified he had to take his cross out of the city of Jerusalem and was crucified at Golgatha. Why so? What was God picturing for us? First, that’s the price of our sins, we deserved that shameful death outside of the city of God. But at the same time God is assuring us that our sins have been removed, as far as the east is from the west. The cross is our altar- the ultimate altar where the Lamb of God took our sins away once and for all.

But then he goes on here: “Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore.” The fact that Jesus was crucified and that outside the city shows how deeply he was rejected by most of the people. Crucifixion was reserved for the worst criminals and they despised and rejected him by having him put outside of the city. But what are we told? We are to go out to him, bearing the disgrace he bore. What does that mean? That means that we, too, must be ready to be rejected and despised for following Jesus.

Many people in our world do not want to hear: “The wages of sin is death.” Many want a god who does not care about sin, who isn’t serious about God’s Word, who condones any and every lifestyle. The don’t want a God who passes judgment on sinners and condemns those who reject him. And many will look down on us, despise, reject us for taking God’s Word seriously, for calling sin a sin. But what are we told? Let us go out to him. Face rejection for Christ. But why would we do that? He says, “Here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.” The point? So what if clinging to Christ for salvation means rejection from the unbelieving world? This world is passing away! It won’t endure. But through Christ we have access to heaven, a city that endures forever. Jesus is preparing a place in heaven for all who cling to him in faith, despite the rejection and hatred of the world.

And where does that leave us? “Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise – the fruit of lips that openly profess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.” Praise his name, sing to him, do good to others.

Why so? Because Jesus went to the altar of the cross, he was rejected, he was despised, all for what purpose? So that we might be accepted. I don’t know what rejection you are facing in life right now, but know this, Because Jesus was rejected, because he was not only rejected by people, but even by God for our sins, because he died on the altar of the cross, you will never be rejected, God accepts you has His own Child and you will live with him in the City that has no end- heaven. Amen.

Jesus is our Self-Sacrificing High Priest

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4th Midweek Lent
Hebrews 10:5-12

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ! In the name of Jesus, dear friends in Christ, our lives are full of different transactions, aren’t they? I mean, every time we shop at the store there’s a transaction- you give the store a certain amount of money and you get to take home whatever it is that they are selling. There’s a transaction that takes place. Or, maybe you help a friend out in exchange for them helping you when you need it. There’s a transaction. If someone commits a crime, they owe a debt to society and in exchange for the damage they have done they either have to pay a fine or spend some time in jail. There’s a transaction. Our sense of justice and fairness insists that there is an equal contribution by both parties in every transaction.  Perhaps that is somewhat similar to what happened in the OT times. When you sinned a transaction had to take place. You offended against God and in payment a sacrifice had to be made, something had to be given, something had to be laid on the altar. The high priest was the one who performed such a sacrifice.

During our midweek services we’ve been looking at Jesus as our great High Priest, He’s our perfect High Priest, our Compassionate High Priest who can sympathize with our weaknesses. But…where’s the lamb? Where’s the offering? If Jesus is truly our great High Priest, he needed something to offer to God to make the transaction for our sin complete. What is it that Jesus offered to God as our High Priest?

Perhaps it’s somewhat surprising to read that God did not desire sacrifices and offerings and that God was not pleased with burnt and sin offerings. Didn’t God command them? Weren’t there many of them? Someone has calculated that there were about 1,200 public sacrifices in Israel every year! Every day two lambs were sacrificed, one in the morning and one in the evening, every Sabbath there were four, on the first day of the month there was a sacrifice of two bulls, a ram, seven male lambs, and a male goat, in addition there were special sacrifices for festival days, there was almost a river of blood coming down from the altar and mountains of animal carcasses in front of the temple.

But why? What was the point of these sacrifices? First, it was a regular reminder of the people’s sins, it was a constant silent sermon that the “wages of sin is death.” Sin earns death. But, it was also a reminder of God’s grace. The people didn’t die, a substitute died in their place. All these sacrifices meant to point ahead to the perfect substitute God would provide to atone for the sins of the world.

But over time, many in Israel lost the connection of the sacrifices to the coming Savior. They failed to see their sin and the need for a Savior. And they actually turned these sacrifices into things they could do to earn God’s favor. They thought that as they brought these animals that they were actually doing such a good work that God would be pleased with them for doing it. And so, their sacrifices became worthless in God’s sight, meaningless. That’s why God says, “sacrifice and offering you did not desire.”

We, too, need to be reminded of that. No sacrifice or offering that we could make can buy God’s forgiveness or bring peace to a troubled heart. We see that in Judas. Remember that after he betrayed Jesus he was seized with remorse. He felt bad and his conscience tormented him. So what did he do? He may have wept bitter tears, but that didn’t give him peace. He rushed into the temple and threw the bag of coins back, but that brought him no peace. He couldn’t do anything in order to get peace. The same is true for us. The only way we could ever pay for our sins is by spending eternity in hell, that’s the only transaction we could make with the holy God for our sins.

You see, it’s for that reason that it says, “A body you prepared for me.” Jesus, God’s Son, took on our human flesh and blood. Why so? So that he might have blood to shed for us on a shameful cross, blood that can do what the blood of animals and good works and gold and silver never could do, blood that can purify us and every sinner from every sin because it’s the holy precious blood of God’s one and only Son. Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me – a body that our Great High Priest would offer as the one great sacrifice for sin.

But was it an accepted sacrifice? Was the sacrifice of Jesus’ body acceptable to make the transaction complete, to pay for the sins of the whole world? Notice what we’re told: “We have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” Christ came to do his Father’s will and completed that work. He said on the cross, “It is finished.” And God declared that His sacrifice was accepted by raising Jesus from the dead.

The writer to the Hebrews puts this in an interesting way, “Day after day every priest stand and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices…but when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God.” The OT priests were never finished, they offered sacrifices continually but were never done, why not? Because the blood of animals could not cleanse one guilty soul. But, when Jesus came and offered himself, he sat down at the right hand of God. When he was finished he could look from the beginning of the world to its end and see not one sinner left to be saved, not one sin left to be paid for. By his resurrection and exaltation to the right hand of the Father, God has assured all people that Jesus’ work is completely finished and his self-sacrifice was accepted as the full payment for all sins.

It is good to keep the fact of our Lord’s accepted sacrifice before our eyes. Judas was not the last sinner to find that sin often sleeps but then wakes up to terrify and torment. His sin seemed small—a little greed, a little helping himself to a few coins from the treasury. Sin slept. Even when he conspired with Jesus’ enemies for a few more coins, sin slept. But when he saw Jesus condemned to death, his sin awoke with a vengeance. The chief priests had no consolation to offer—”That’s your responsibility,” they said. But our Great High Priest did have consolation to offer—even to Judas. Judas himself confessed Jesus to be an acceptable sacrifice—”I have betrayed innocent blood” (Mt 27:4), he said. Tragically, he refused to believe that Jesus’ sacrifice was the sacrifice accepted by God to pay for sin and cleanse the conscience from guilt. May God keep us from the “little sins,”—the little greed, the little theft, the little lust, the little hatred. But should we fall into those sins and they wake up to haunt and torment us, may God open our eyes to see and believe what Judas rejected: Jesus our Great High Priest offered himself for the sins of the world, and his sacrifice was accepted by God! He sat down at the right hand of God—no further price is demanded, no more sacrifice required. Forgiveness is purchased and salvation is free. Believe. Rejoice. Live at peace here through Jesus until you live with him in his perfect peace forever.

Yes, Jesus is our Great High Priest who offers the greatest sacrifice—himself. He is himself the victim and our priest. May we by faith lay our hands on the head of God’s faultless Lamb and believe Christ has paid for our sins with his precious blood forever. Amen.

Jesus, Our Compassionate High Priest

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3rd Wednesday of Lent
Hebrews 4:14-16

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ! In the name of Jesus, dear friends in Christ, I have a silly question for you, if you would like to know what it’s like to give birth to a baby, would you ask me, OR would you ask my wife who’s given birth to six babies? Obviously, you’d ask my wife. Why so? Because she’s been there, she’s done that. If you wanted to know what it’s like to live in Canada, would you ask me who’s never lived outside of the U.S., or my wife who lived there for about a decade? Obviously, you’d ask my wife. Why? Because she’s been there, she’s done that. The principle is: If you want to know what it’s like to do something, you ask someone who’s been through it.

We’ve been looking at the fact that Jesus is our High Priest as is shown in the Book of Hebrews. The author to the Hebrews seems to be writing to Jewish Christians who were being tempted to fall back into the old forms of Judaism. They were being persecuted for their faith. It was tempting for them to go back to Judaism. Judaism was a recognized religion in the Roman empire and so it was permitted. Being a Christian was considered a “new” religion, even though, of course, it is the only true religion and fulfills the true Judaism of the Old Testament.

Perhaps it was tempting for them to go back to following a visible high priest who served in the temple in Jerusalem. He was a human, you could see him, he was your intermediary between you and God. But, as God reminds us here in Hebrews, Jesus is far superior, Jesus is the Great High Priest!

First of all, we’re told that Jesus has “ascended into heaven.” He’s not just like the earthly high priest who worked in the temple and only once/year could go behind the curtain into the Most Holy Place. Jesus, has gone to THE Holy Place. Jesus is always at God’s right hand and is constantly interceding on our behalf.

So, “let us hold firmly to the faith we profess.” Hold firmly to the faith we profess. One of the classic examples of not holding firmly to Christ was Peter whom we read about in the passion reading this evening. In the face of the questions of the servants, Peter denied even knowing the Savior, with oaths and curses he said that he didn’t know “this man,” didn’t even acknowledge his name! He caved under the pressure of temptation, he gave in to weakness, didn’t look to Jesus for strength.

Has that happened to you? Have you been tempted to turn away? To not hold firmly to the faith we profess? Perhaps we’re tempted to turn away from our calling in life to be a faithful spouse or a faithful parent, just like Satan tempted Jesus in the wilderness to turn away from his calling as the Savior. Or maybe we’re tempted to turn away in the midst of suffering just like Jesus when he was weak and hungry when Satan tempted him. Or maybe we’re tempted by friends to take the easy way out instead of standing up for our faith, like Peter tempted Jesus not to go to the cross as we heard on Sunday. So often we fail, we given to the pressure of temptation. But Jesus never did.

And isn’t that the good news? “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet he did not sin.” Jesus knows the full brunt of Satan’s temptations because he faced every one of them. And since he knows our weaknesses, since he knows what temptation feels like, he’s able to deal gently with us. Remember Peter? As Peter is denying Jesus, Jesus looked straight at him. Jesus’ look preached a silent sermon. Jesus knew, Jesus knows all things, we can’t hide our sins from him, his look called Peter and it calls us to repentance, our sin is not ok. Jesus doesn’t ignore our sins. But Jesus’ look was also a look of love. “Turn to me Peter, see what I’m doing here? I’m taking the burden of your sins- all of them- I’m taking them to the cross to pay for them in full. Come to me, turn to me, trust in me.”

Jesus invites us to come to him. He knows our weakness, He knows our sins. Confess them, lay them before Him.

And what does He do? Not only does He know what temptation feels like, but he can do something about it. If I visit someone who is sick, I can empathize with them- I know what it’s like to feel lousy and be sick, I can give some comforting words, but that’s all I can do. Jesus not only can empathize with our weaknesses, but as the all-powerful Lord, He can do something about it.

Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” Jesus invites us to come to Him for strength, for help in our time of need. How do we do that? Remember what Jesus had told the disciples? “Watch and pray so that you do not fall into temptation.” God invites us to pray to him, to cast all our anxieties on him because he cares for us, to call upon him in the day of trouble, he will deliver us and we will honor him, even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.

God invites us to pray to him for strength. And how does God give that strength? Through His Word and sacraments. Remember, God’s word is living and active sharper than any two edged sword. The gospel is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes. In your baptism you were buried with Christ and given a new life. In the Lord’s Supper God gives you Jesus for forgiveness and the strength to live a new life.

You see, Jesus is our compassionate High Priest. He’s able to empathize with us in our weakness, but he’s also able to strengthen us in our weaknesses, so let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. Amen.

Jesus our Perfect High Priest

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2nd Wednesday of Lent
Hebrews 5:7-9

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ! In the name of Jesus, dear friends in Christ, perhaps you saw this news story, but two years ago there was a news story in the Twin Cities about a girls high school level basketball team that was kicked out of the Northwest Suburban Basketball league. The other teams refused to play against or forfeit all their games against this team from the Rogers area youth basketball association and why? Because they were too good, they were too talented that no one wanted to play against them. Well, what about Jesus? The question we’re asking tonight is, “Is Jesus too great?” Is Jesus too great to be the High Priest that we need? The High Priest was supposed to be someone who could relate to the people. The first verse of Hebrews 5 says, “Every high priest is selected from among the people…he is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray, since he himself is subject to weakness.” So is Jesus too great? Last week we heard just how great Jesus is: he is the Son of God, Creator, preserver, heir of all things, radiance of God’s glory, exact representation of his being. So, if Jesus is so great, how could he possibly relate to and sympathize with people, with human beings? What we want to focus on this evening is how Jesus is our perfect High Priest in the way that prayed and in the way that he obeyed.

First, in the way that he prayed. We’re told in our text, “During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.” The “days of Jesus’ life on earth” is referring to Jesus life on earth as a true human being. When he offered prayers with cries and tears, our minds take us immediately to the Garden of Gethsemane, don’t they? Jesus told his disciples, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.” And we’re told about his cries, his tears, his sweat like drops of blood.

Why was he so troubled? Why did he cringe at the thought of what was coming? Because He knew. He knew that His hour had come, the hour of taking upon himself the burden, the punishment, the guilt, the shame of this world’s sin. We feel a tinge of that when we commit a sin and it burdens us, the guilt can eat us away- just over one sin. I saw a brief video of Nicholas Cruz, the shooter in Florida who killed 17 people, and he was sitting in court with his head down, didn’t say a word and is on suicide watch, perhaps the reality of his sin is crushing him. But, think of Jesus, he’s facing horrible prospect of feeling every ounce of God’s hatred, wrath, and punishment for every sin on the cross! His human flesh and blood cringe at this.

Jesus is the holy one, Jesus is the perfect one, Jesus is the one who committed no sin, perfect in every way. So, how is it that Jesus could plead with fervent cries and tears that if there is any other way, that this cup of suffering might be taken from him, how is it that Jesus couldn’t see that the cross was an absolute necessity to redeem this world of lost sinners? It’s because Jesus humbled himself. From his conception to his burial in the tomb Jesus gave up the full and constant use of His divine glory and power. Jesus humbled himself so far that He who created the angels is strengthened by them to bear this struggle.

He cringed at the thought of drinking this cup, but he never rebelled. In reverent submission he obeyed his Heavenly Father. No resistance, not a whisper of complaint. Just, “Not my will, but yours be done.”

Is that our prayer? Is “reverent submission” to God a description of our lives? Or do we use our time, our money, our energy in our own self-serving and selfish ways? If things go wrong in life – if there is pain or loss, sickness or cross – do we easily give in to grumbling or complaining? Is it “my will, my way, my body, my life” to do with the way that I want? Do we pray, “Not mine, but your will be done?” For all the times we haven’t, Jesus did. Jesus was our perfect High Priest he showed it in the way that he prayed.

But he also showed it in the way that he obeyed. “He learned obedience from what he suffered.” Not only did Jesus say “Your will be done” but He did it. He followed through, even when it meant the ridicule, beating, spikes in his hands and feet on a cross. He said it AND did it.

It’s easy to say something, perhaps harder to carry it through with our actions. It’s pretty easy on your confirmation day to vow to remain faithful to God, faithful to God’s Word, forsaking everything in life- even my very life, rather than deny God, but then when temptations come alluring, when sin looks so sweet, to give in. It’s easy for a bride and groom to say, “I will” “I will remain faithful to you, I will help and support you in sickness and in health till death separates us.” But then in action when I need to actually sacrifice, actually lay aside my wants or desires for my spouse, ooh, that’s difficult. It’s difficult to obey.

But Jesus did. He said “I will” and he did. He went to the cross and paid for all of our broken promises. “And, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.” “And, once made perfect,” a better translation would be “After he had finished his work.” “finished” does that ring a bell? That’s what Jesus said on the cross: “It is finished.” Jesus finished the work, completed the rescue mission, won eternal salvation, our perfect high priest perfectly became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him or believe in him.

Jesus is our perfect High priest. He showed it in the way that he prayed and in the way that he obeyed. He obeyed his Father, finished the work that the Father gave him to do, even to the point of death on the cross. You have a perfect High Priest, pray to him, pray this his will be done, not yours, reverently submit to him, obey Him, for His will for you and your life is perfect because He is the perfect High Priest. Amen.

Jesus, Our Great High Priest!

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Ash Wednesday
Hebrews 1:1-3

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ! In the name of Jesus, dear friends in Christ, access is a big part of our lives, isn’t it? We lock the doors of our home so that only those with entrust with a key can have access, we don’t want just anyone entering our homes. We put passwords on our online accounts so that only we who have the password can have access to our accounts, we don’t want just anyone looking at our information. We put locks on our safes or our gun cabinets so that only we have access to those things so that children can’t get in and be harmed. Access is a big part of our lives, isn’t it? Well, “access” was kind of the function of the Old Testament High Priest.

Over and over again in the OT God taught His people that their sins separated them from Him. The key individual who had access with God to intervene on your behalf was the High Priest.  In the Old Testament house of worship there were two rooms, the holy place and the most holy place. Only priests were allowed in the holy place and no one was allowed in the Most Holy Place behind a massive curtain except the High Priest one day a year – on the great day of Atonement. We’ve tried to illustrate this here at St. Mark’s by placing a curtain over our back window. It’s a visible illustration that our sins separate us from God, our sins block our access with God. So, in the Old Testament, if you sinned or did something wrong, you couldn’t just go to God to ask for forgiveness. You went to the High Priest. The High Priest would offer a sacrifice on your behalf to restore you with God again. The High Priest had a limited access to God, he was the go-between, the intermediary, between the people and God.

But the office of High Priest in the Old Testament was only meant to be a picture of the ultimate Great High Priest. All the old Testament priests were themselves sinners, they had to offer sacrifices for their own sins, their work was never complete, they had to offer sacrifices for sins again and again and again, and they kept dying and so another high priest had to take over. But they were to be a foreshadow of the ultimate Great High Priest who is Jesus. The truth we’re going to focus on this Lenten season in our midweek services is that we HAVE, right now, a Great High Priest. Tonight we’ll focus on Jesus is our Great High Priest because He is qualified, through Him we are purified, and with Him we’ll be glorified. Qualified, purified, and glorified.

First, qualified. The OT high priests had special qualifications to serve in that capacity. He had to be from the tribe of Levi, the family of Aaron, had to be without physical deformity or defect, had to marry the right kind of woman, he could not attend funerals, had to wear certain garments. But what about our Great High Priest? We’re told, “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.” Throughout the OT God spoke to great men – Moses, David, Isaiah – great men, but just great men. They were given bits and pieces, each providing a piece of the puzzle, but when all those pieces were put together the picture was of Jesus. If people listened to those prophets, how much more so shouldn’t we listen to Jesus! He is God’s own eternal Son! “Whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.” Wow! Consider Jesus! Heir of all things, Maker of the universe, radiance of God’s glory, exact representation of His being, sustainer of all things! The point is, don’t turn a deaf ear to him. Jesus is fully qualified to be our Great High Priest to tell us of heavenly things- listen to him!

Second, purified. One of the most important things that the High Priest did in the OT was provide purification for the sins of the people. On the Great Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16 God tells us that the result of all the elaborate rituals that were involved with the Day of Atonement were this: “On this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you. Then, before the LORD, you will be clean from all your sins.” But here, what are we told about Jesus? “After he provided purification for sins.” Interestingly, the OT priest, who normally wore fancy clothes, on the day of Atonement would actually put on different clothes, simple clothes, probably was covered in blood and dirt from the sacrifices and looked more like a slave than a king.

And isn’t that the picture we get of Jesus? On the night before Jesus died, he took off his outer clothes, got down on his hands and knees and washed the disciples’ feet purifying them from the accumulated dust and dirt. But there’s more than just meets the eye. It was a foreshadowing of another purification Jesus was about to provide hours away on the cross. When Peter objected to Jesus washing his feet, what did Jesus say? “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” We need to be washed, purified, cleansed of more than our feet, but of our sin.

That’s what Ash Wednesday is all about. The ashes are an outward sign of what’s in our hearts. Dirt, dust, and ashes. The pride, the arrogance, the selfishness, the sins of our lives has stained us with a stains no detergent, soap, or anything we do can get out. It’s a spot that won’t go away. But that’s why we need Jesus, our Great High Priest. He went to the cross to be pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities, the blood of Jesus purifies us from all sin. The blood of Jesus applied to our hearts, our mouths, our hands, our feet by faith cleanses us from all sins. Wash me, Lord, and I will be clean! Our qualified High Priest has purified us.

And finally, with him we’ll be glorified. “He sat down a the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.” Jesus’ exaltation to the right hand of God confirms to us that His work of purifying us from sins is completed. But the incredible thing is that Jesus’ exaltation wasn’t just for him- it’s for us too. It’s meant to inspire us that Jesus is right now preparing for us a place in glory. God knows our weaknesses, God knows how difficult  life is here on earth, God knows how difficult it is to deny ourselves and follow Christ’s example through life in this world, so He promises us a place with Him in glory, we can be assured that because of the qualified Great High Priest, because He has purified us from all sin, so we will one day, in due time be glorified with Him forever in heaven.

We may have very limited access in this world, but because of the work of our Great High Priest Jesus, we have complete, perfect, total access to God forever in heaven. What grace! Amen.

Freedom!

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17th Sunday after Pentecost
Romans 14:5-9

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, in the name of Jesus, dear friends in Christ, In a letter to James Madison in 1787 Thomas Jefferson quoted a Latin phrase: malo periculosam libertatem quam quietam servitutem, which means, “I prefer the tumult of liberty than the quiet of servitude” or to say it differently, “I prefer dangerous freedom over peaceful slavery.” Now, of course, the context had to do with government and the founding of America, but there is truth to that statement, isn’t there? There’s a certain quiet in slavery and a certain danger to freedom. With laws and rules there isn’t much room for choice. You have to do this and you have to do that, there are no questions, no wondering what I should do. But with freedom and liberty there’s a bit of difficulty. Now, I have to decide what to do, now I’m no longer just told what I should be doing, but I get to choose. Now I have to think, now I have to weigh my options, now I have to make a choice, now I have to take responsibility. So, do you prefer dangerous freedom over peaceful slavery?

Today we’re looking at the freedom that we enjoy as Christians. And I think all of us here would agree that freedom is a good thing, something that we enjoy, something that we want. But with this freedom comes certain challenges that we need to consider. So, let’s consider this today: we need freedom, we have freedom, we live in freedom.

First of all, we need freedom. The Bible is very clear about our condition born into this world. We were not born into this world neutral, we were not born with a blank slate, we were not born partially good and partially bad. God’s Word tells us we were born descendants of Adam and Eve, not only did we inherit our physical DNA from them but we inherited their sinful image. David says in the Psalms, “Surely I was sinful from birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” Earlier in the book of Romans we were told, “There is no one who does good, not even one, all have turned away, there is no one righteous, not even one, no one who does good, we have together become worthless.” Then later in Romans we heard that “the sinful mind is hostile to God it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so.” And Jesus said, “Everyone who sins is a slave to sin.” We weren’t born in freedom, we were born in slavery, slavery to sin.

So, what’s it like to be a slave? Being a slave means that you literally do not have control over your life. You can’t go wherever you want to go, you can’t do whatever you want to do, you can just see whomever you want to see, you can’t eat whatever you want to eat. Your time belongs to someone else, your energy belongs to someone else, your work belongs to someone else. We were born enslaved to sin. There’s a Lenten hymn that says, “Enslaved by sin and bound in chains, beneath its dreadful tyrant sway, and doomed to everlasting pains we wretched, guilty captives lay.”

And yet, every time we sin, every time we turn our back on God’s Word, every time that we do what WE want to do instead of what GOD wants us to do, every time we’re selfish, every time we’re prideful, we’re asking to be enslaved by sin. Sin doesn’t bring freedom, sin brings slavery, sin brings guilt, sin brings anxiety, sin brings pain. So, what do we need? We need freedom. That’s the first point.

The second point is, we have it! That’s also the message of the book of Romans, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came through Christ Jesus.” Jesus existed in all glory, freedom, riches, honor, Jesus couldn’t possibly gain anything more for himself, but he graciously came into our world, subjected himself under God’s law. His hands have done what was required of ours. His lips have spoken what we should have said. His ears have heard the pleas for help to which we should have listened. His heart has loved the Lord with the love that we owed to him. His mind has maintained the purity and truth that God demanded from ours. His blood has paid the penalty we deserved. So there is nothing left that we are required to do. He paid the ransom price to set us free from our slavery of sin with his blood shed for us on the cross, rescuing us, redeeming us, liberating us from our slavery to sin. Then in further grace he sent the Holy Spirit to you through water and the Word to bring you to faith so that the freedom he won on the cross might be yours personally. Jesus has set you free. You are free from all laws. You are free from having to do anything in order to go to heaven – Jesus did it all. Jesus fulfilled every obligation you are under and set you free. You are truly free. There is no fine print, there are no catches, there are no strings attached. That’s the 2nd point: we have freedom. Glorious freedom from sin, death, and the power of the devil forever!

Lastly, how do we live in this freedom. Here is the joyful, but not always easy part. And this is what the apostle is addressing in our text. Having been rescued and redeemed by the Lord we want to serve him with our lives. How do we do that? Well, we look into God’s Word, there God tells us what it means to live as his child in this world. But what if it’s something not addressed in God’s Word? What if it’s something that isn’t commanded by God or forbidden by God? What should we do? The term we use for these things is called “adiaphora” and we have Christian freedom to do or not do things that God has neither commanded or forbidden. Here’s what God says, “One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind.  Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord.” Why do we worship on Sundays? It’s not because Sunday is a more sacred day than any other day of the week. We worship on Sundays partly because Jesus rose from the dead on a Sunday, partly because we’ve done it that way for many years, partly because it’s the day that most people can come. Would it be wrong if we decided to have worship on a different day of the week? No. We could do that. The problem comes when someone says, “We must only worship on Sunday.” That would be adding something to God’s Word, that would be legalism. God allows us to choose when to formally worship Him.

Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God.” There’s nothing wrong with eating certain foods, there is nothing wrong with not eating certain foods. Finally, the underlying question to ask about things that are not commanded or forbidden in God’s Word is: Can I do this or not do this to the glory of God? God gives us incredible freedom. In Christian freedom we, as a church, can decide how it is that we want to worship God in a fitting and orderly way. In Christian freedom, we as individuals, can decide how we want to serve God with our lives. An example that I read preparing for this sermon is actually one that we’re somewhat facing as a congregation. We have an increase in worship attendance and we have an increase in our gradeschool enrollment. Some may feel that since the worship service affects the most amount of people and is an integral part of the life of our church that expanding or improving our church facility should be the priority. Others may feel that since children are the future of our congregation that we should focus on expanding our school facility. With is right? Both are. But if the majority decide opposite from what I think, love says, “Even though this is not what I wanted, I’m going to support it.”

Why so? “For none of us lives to ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.” Christ set us free not to be selfish but to have self-less love for others.

Martin Luther once wrote: A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all. What does that mean? That’s our lives. We have been set free, gloriously free, free from sin, death, and the devil. Free to live here and free to live forever in heaven. We are free to live our lives to the glory and praise of God. At the same time, we don’t use our freedom selfishly or in self-serving ways. Rather, in love and in freedom, we live for the good of others, we live to serve the good of others.

Love

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16th Sunday after Pentecost
Romans 13:1-10

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ! In the name of Jesus, dear friends in Christ, it seems that if you want to spark a very passionate and very argumentative conversation with someone today, just start talking about politics or policies or something that involves the government. It seems that in our nation people are very passionate about what our government should be doing. And that isn’t a terrible thing. We live in a country where the citizens of our country actually participate in a small way in government in the ability to elect officials to govern us. So it is important for citizens to be aware of the government and have knowledge so they can vote appropriately. But that also presents some challenges. How do we as Christians view the government? How do we live in this present world when in reality we are citizens of heaven? How do we balance this tension between the fact that heaven is our true home and yet if God has not yet taken us out of this world by death that we are still to live out our lives in this world?

Through the apostle Paul God gives us direction on how we are to carry out our lives in this world while we are not of this world. Remember that the government under which the apostle Paul lived was not a very nice government. Apparently, the government was very corrupt, dominated by unbelievers, promoted pagan idolatry, and would later on introduce some of the most horrid persecutions against Christians. But, nevertheless, notice what the apostle Paul tells us: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted.”

God has chosen to deal with you and me through representatives. One sphere of those representatives are all those who have secular authority over you and me. That includes the president, the members of congress and the senate, that includes the governor of our state and the house and senate, that includes mayors, judges, the police- everyone in authority over us have been given their positions by God. God is ultimately the ruler of the world and so those who have positions of authority have been put into those positions of authority by God.

Next, God tells us why government exists: “For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended.” The purpose of governmental officials is to keep the peace and order and provide protection for society. Governments should have laws that pose terror for people who would otherwise be menaces to society.

Next we’re told that those in authority are actually God’s servants. “For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” Why should we respect those in authority? Because they are in positions of authority established by God. They ultimately are to serve God’s purposes. They’ve received their power from God and execute judgment in the world and bring God’s judgment on people who disobey him. Those in government are finally to carry out God’s will. As soon as a ruler begins to make laws or demands that are contrary to God’s will, they are no longer servants of God, but usurpers of the authority which God has given them. The only time Christians will disobey the government is if it makes rules or demands that are contrary to God’s will. Then we are bound to a higher authority and must obey God rather than people. That doesn’t mean Christians will incite open rebellion against the government but patiently refuse to act contrary to God’s will – even if it means persecution.

Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.” Unbelievers will submit to the government’s laws out of fear, fear of punishment. There’s a part of each of us, a sinful flesh, that also submits out of fear. But as Christians we have an even better reason to obey the government in all things unless it tells us to disobey God and that is this: God wants us to. When we submit to authorities we are obeying God.

This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you ow them: if you ow taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.” You see, when rulers are carrying out their jobs as representatives of God, when they rule according to God’s commands, then they provide a peaceful society in which we can do our God-given work of living for the Lord and sharing the gospel. So, we pay our taxes willingly, we don’t need to pay more than what the government says we should pay, nor should we pay less than what the government says we should pay.

Finally, to sum it all up, to describe how a Christian lives in this world in relationship to the government, to your neighbor, to your community, to anyone, God tells us: “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” So how do we live as citizens in this world but not of this world? It is summed up in this word “love.” Love others means seeking no ill or harm to anyone. Love isn’t so much a fuzzy feeling or an emotion inside as it is a mindset that says, “I care so deeply about this person that I’m going to shape my actions to serve that person’s best interests.” You see, it’s not so much a gushy feeling as it is a decision to care about someone and show that care in the way that I act toward that person.

So, the question here is, do you do this? Do you honor those in authority over you? Do you gladly and willingly pay your taxes, giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s? Do you pray for those in the government and those in authority over us? Do you gladly and willingly obey the government’s laws? Do you find yourself getting so wrapped up in politics that you forget that God is ultimately in control and those in power are there by God’s design and God will somehow someway work things out for the good of His people? Do you have a sincere love for every other person, shaping your actions to serve their best interests?

If we’re honest with ourselves, each of us has to say, “No. I’ve failed. I haven’t kept the fourth commandment. I need a substitute, a Savior.” And then we look to Jesus and we see in him the perfect substitute, the one who perfectly kept the law of love. Even while he was being nailed to a cross by an angry mob he said, “Father, forgiven them, for they do not know what they are doing.” He suffered and died there for all our sins of disrespecting those in authority, all our sins of failing to love our neighbor as ourselves, and every other sin we’ve committed. Because of that God sees you right now as the perfect citizen and as having loved others perfectly 100%.

Right now you’re an heir of eternal life. But right now God wants you to live in this world. You don’t belong to this world, you’re a citizen of heaven. But while you’re here, reflect the love of your Savior, honor and respect those in authority. Love your neighbor as yourself. For in doing so, you will have plenty of opportunities to communicate the greatest love to others by sharing with them the love of God in Christ our Savior. Amen.