The Episcopal Church of the Holy Innocents
Make Disciples, Not Members Sermon by the Rev. DWHinkle A2C December 23, 2018
Scripture: Hebrews 10:5-10
“5Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said,
‘Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired,
but a body you have prepared for me;
6 in burnt-offerings and sin-offerings
you have taken no pleasure.
7 Then I said, “See, God, I have come to do your will, O God”
(in the scroll of the book it is written of me).’
8When he said above, ‘You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt-offerings and sin-offerings’ (these are offered according to the law), 9then he added, ‘See, I have come to do your will.’ He abolishes the first in order to establish the second. 10And it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.“
Sermon: The New Testament lesson for this 4th Sunday of Advent doesn’t sound very Christmasy, does it? It begins, “When Christ came into the world.” I suppose that this could be seen as a vague reference to Christmas. But when did he say those things about sacrifice? And what about that part which says, “He abolishes the first in order to establish the second?” Abolish what first? To establish what second?
This can be a difficult lesson to pondered, but I believe it has something important to say to us about Christ coming into the world at Christmas. First, when did Jesus say something about sacrifice? Well, twice in Matthew (9:13 and 12:7) Jesus says, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.'” He’s paraphrasing from the Book of the Prophet Hosea (6:6), which says, “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” Virtually all the prophets made this same point in one way or another? The prophet Micah’s version is perhaps the most famous (6:6-8): “With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
So, one thing the letter to the Hebrews is telling us is that Jesus came into this world at Christmas to continue the same message of the prophets: God desires mercy, not sacrifices.
But he came to do even more. Hebrews makes this clear from the very beginning. Here are the opening verses of this letter. (Hebrews 1:1-3):“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…”
What did the Son do differently? He not only spoke the same message about God desiring mercy over sacrifice, but he came to be the sacrifice to end our need for sacrifices “once for all.” We often sing the Agnus Dei as a Fraction Anthem before receiving communion. “O Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us.” Along with our lesson from Hebrews chapter 10, this sums up the essence of our faith. Christ comes into this dark, broken world to show us that God’s will is mercy. He takes away our sin by becoming the Lamb of God.
So, what is our sin that he takes away? Based on these kinds of passages, I’d describe what Christ does something like this: He sacrifices himself to our sacrifices, which we keep doing instead of mercy. We no longer relate well to what “sacrifice” was all about, so let me suggest how we might interpret it. Sacrifice was at the heart of their practice of religion, not just in Israel but over most of the world. And sacrificial rituals still persist even today. “Du ut des” I give something in order to get something is it’s basic meaning. Blood sacrifices were given in order to please the anger of the gods.
Now, think again about those vague words in this morning’s lesson from Hebrews, “He abolishes the first in order to establish the second.” Abolishes what first? To establish what second? First, Jesus comes to abolish our practice of sacrificial religion to the extent that it does not lead to the second, which is the establishing of God’s will. Remember, Jesus tells us that God’s will is mercy: “Learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.'” God desires for us to follow his Son in showing mercy to others. If our practice of religion isn’t about showing mercy, then Jesus came to abolish it and to establish something else in its place.
Let’s finish, then, by asking ourselves about our practice of religion. Does it revolve around showing mercy as Micah put it, “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” For example: Are we willing to sacrifice others for the sake of ourselves? How is it merciful to require others to die so that we can be free? How is it merciful to view the death of innocents as necessary and worth it?
Another way to see this is to ask whether we are more about keeping and increasing church membership, or making disciples? I believe that being fixated on keeping members is more like being in a club: it fixes on who’s in and who’s out. The Pharisees, for instance, often accused Jesus of not observing such boundaries between who’s in and who’s out. It was to their accusations that he responded, “Learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.'” But we can better avoid such pitfalls ourselves, I think, if we focus instead on being disciples and making disciples of Jesus, who came to show us what mercy means.
So, Jesus came among us to continue the message of the prophets: God prefers mercy over sacrifices. And he came to offer himself to our desire for blood in order to expose it as Satanic and to end it. I’d say that’s a pretty good Christmas message, wouldn’t you?