The answer is: Standing and sitting. What is the question? How about, What is the mark of a Lutheran church service? Standing and sitting. Actually, for us this morning, considering our second lesson (the one from Hebrews), if the answer were “standing and sitting” the question might be, “What is the difference between the work performed by the temple high priest and Jesus Christ?” Standing and sitting. These two actions hold some significance for us this morning. With your ear tuned to those two words, listen to the first couple of verses from our lesson from Hebrews: “Every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God.”
This is more than just a casual contrast. The temple high priest needed to stand continually to perform his repeated ritual acts that presented sacrifices before God so that God might forgive the sinner. In the huge Jerusalem temple it meant kindling a fire upon the huge altar which had horns on all four corners to hold the sticks in place and the animals which were burned so that the sweet smell of smoke would waft to the heavens and please God so much that he would look mercifully upon the poor sinner back down on earth. A priest has to stand to light fires and lay upon them the doves, lambs, and goats. Over and over. But Christ, at the right hand of his father in heaven, can sit down. Why? Because his work is complete and completely effective once “for all time” (as Hebrews tells us.)
For us, for the saints who have gone before us, for our children and their children, it is not the sacrifice of a great high priest which has put us right with God. It is the sacrifice of one Jesus of Nazareth who died on the cross that our sins might be forgiven, that the battle with Satan would be won decisively, that we might have eternal life with our maker. Christ has done this. Now he can sit down at the right hand of his father.
What then? Well, I like to say that any good lesson or any good sermon will always put the salad where the dessert should go. The salad should go at the end! The author of this letter to the Hebrew people does just that. He puts the salad – the lettuce – last. He says, “Therefore, LET US approach (God) with a true heart,” “LET US hold fast to the confession of our hope,” and, “LET US consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.” I’m sorry. Bad pun! But great message!
Christ has paid a great price for us. We can’t pay Christ back for what he has done for us. But we can pay tribute to what Christ has done for us by doing the same for others. This goes beyond doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. This goes beyond doing good things for other people. It goes beyond encourage others to do good deeds. Hebrews says that we should “provoke” others to do good deeds. “Provoke.” That’s a pretty high profile word, provoke.
That’s not easy. First of all, as Christians, we’re taught not to provoke other people. Secondly, other people don’t always take well to being provoked. We don’t like to pester people and they don’t like to be pestered. But Hebrews is calling upon us to do just that – to goad people and prod them, to get under their skin, to be real aggravating at times. It calls on us to disturb others, to ruffle feathers. Hebrews doesn’t call on us to be motivating. It calls on us to be annoying. That’s what it means to “provoke” one another to love and good deeds.”
Think about it. That’s the way Jesus did it. First, he TOLD people to do good deeds in his sermon. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Then he PROVOKED them. I’m thinking of the time he shamed the disciples into helping him feed 5,000 when they were reluctant. I’m thinking of the time when he prodded and pestered his followers to stay up and keep watch whith him in the Garden of Gethsemane. I’m thinking of the time when he affronted the rich young ruler, challenging him to sell all he had and give it to the poor. Jesus wasn’t above using guilt as a motivational tool. He did whatever it took to stir things up.
Stir thing up. We’re coming up to the Advent season in which we will pray, each week, what some call the “cowboy collects.” They’re called the “cowboy collects” because they start with the word “stirrup” “Stir up in us your power, O Lord. Stir up in us your love Stir up our hearts.” Another bad pun! But a great concept. AS God stirs US up, so are we called upon to stir up others. Hebrews says, “And let us consider how to PROVOKE one another to love and good deeds.”
Anthropologist Margaret Mead was asked what the first signs of civilization were in a society. The person who asked her this question expected her to talk about the development of tools and so on. But she said the first sign of an emerging civilization was a healed femur. A healed femur meant that someone had to care for the injured person, not just the broken leg, but by bringing the person food and taking time away from their other activities to care for the person. Compassion, Margaret Mead said, was the first sign of civilization.
Christ is seated. His work is done. The Messiah has come. Salvation has taken place. Satan is defeated. Sin has been redeemed. Death has been whipped. Eternal life has been won for us.
Now it is our turn. Christ provokes us to do for others has he has done for us. By having compassion. Having been forgiven, we must now forgive. Having been given a second chance, we must now give others second chances. Having been served, it is our turn to serve. All who need it. If we do that for just two other people and provoke those to do that for two other people and if those four other people each provoke others, then the world is soon pestered and prodded. They are “stirred up.”
Here’s a new thing I’ll be pestering you about as we head into our Advent and Christmas season. This year we are handing out what we are calling “Reverse Advent Calendars.” You may remember traditional Advent calendars from your childhood … the kind where you GOT something each day leading up to Christmas. Maybe it was a Hershey’s Kiss or a piece of taffy behind each door or in each box to be opened each day. Well a reverse Advent calendar is where you give something each day until Christmas instead of getting something.
We have empty boxes which will be available to you following the service in the narthex. We are pestering you to take one home with you. Then, each day during December, put one item in the box for our food pantry and say a little prayer for the world’s hungry. Then bring the box back Christmas eve or shortly thereafter. We have prepared twelve boxes, but can prepare more if needed. And the idea is NOT to just put all the items in the box on December 23rd, but to set aside a time EACH DAY to give and to pray.
Ready for your salad course now. Having been forgiven, let us forgive. Having been given grace, let us pass that grace along to others. Having been fed, let us feed. Then let us provoke, pester, and prod others to do the same. Let us to out there and stir things up!
Text: Hebrews 10: 11-25