Proper 28b • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
When Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God... for by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.
You can tell from our Scripture readings this morning that Advent is almost upon us, as the passages chosen take on some of that aura of anticipation for the Great Day of Christ’s triumphal return, the judgment of the world, and the end of all things. But there is another theme in these passages, a theme not of expectation but of identity. For all three readings today urge us, each in its own way, not to be deceived by substitutes, cheap or elegant, but to hold out for the real thing. All our Scriptures today urge us to make a clear distinction between Jesus and all other ministers, who go from good to bad. The message is that Jesus is the Savior, the Son fo Man and Son of God, and no one else and no one other. As the hymn says, No man works like him.
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We start with one who isn’t a man at all: with the Archangel Michael, described in the vision of the prophet Daniel as the great prince, deliverer of God’s people. And while Michael the Archangel is clearly a deliverer and rescuer of God’s people, one who brings much good, he is also not the Christ; he is not the son of God. And this is revealed most clearly in his name, Michael. For in Hebrew, Michael, Mi k’ El, means “Who is like God?” — the implied answer being, of course, no one! Only God is God, and however great and powerful an angel or archangel may be, even Michael the leader of the hosts of heaven, the greatest of all angels and archangels, he is still a creature, a minister and servant of God, but not God himself. Michael is not God. No man — or angel — works like him.
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The Epistle to the Hebrews from which we been reading over the last few weeks has also been attempting, and continues, to make a distinction between the earthly ministers of God and the heavenly Son of God — who, while he has a ministry, and shared our human life and walked among us as one of us, is in his own full reality as the Son of God as much above the angels as the angels are ranked above rank and file human beings.
The author of this epistle has been referring to the earthly priests who serve in the earthly temple, the ordinary priests as well as their leader the high priest. And the message the author persists in delivering is that these priests have a ministry that is temporary and insufficient — good at most for the time being, but needing to be repeated day by day, and year by year, because the multitudes of their sacrifices cannot atone one for all for sin. For if the priests and their sacrifices could do away with sin once and for all they would not have to be repeated day by day and year by year. Even the great sacrifice of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when the high priest would enter into the holy of holies with the blood of the sacrifice and pronounce, that one time, on that one day, in that one place of the holiest part of the temple, speak the unspeakable name of God in the inner and most holy part of the temple — even that the most holy of all earthly sacrifices could not suffice to do away with sin once and for all — the most it could do is atone for sin year by year, one year at a time.
But Jesus, through the gift of himself on the cross, is superior to any merely human priest, even the high priest, for he offers the sacrifice of himself and he brings his own blood through the veil of the heavenly temple into the real holy of holies — the one of which the earthly temple is a mere imitation — a model or a replica, but not the real thing. No man, not even the high priest, works like him.
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Which is why, when the disciples show their admiration for the great stone structures of the temple and its surrounding buildings, Jesus declares to them that those stones will tumble to the ground — not one stone will be left standing on another. He is reminding them that this that the earthly temple which they behold there, however beautiful and glorious, is already the third or fourth such house of worship to stand on that spot — the tent and the tabernacle of Moses were replaced by the temple that Solomon built; the Assyrians destroyed that temple, and years later Ezra and Nehemiah repaired it, and then Herod the Great reconstructed it and built most of the grand buildings which the disciples are admiring at that point — the temple that took forty years to build. This temple, this temple of stone, however glorious, and its surrounding precincts, however majestic, are no more an eternal habitation than any other human construction. All of the predecessors to Herod’s Great temple have been replaced, and this one will be too. And all of them — every last one — are built as imitations of the true heavenly temple, which is above.
In this Jesus warns the disciples not to be fooled by imitations, architectural or, as he goes on to say, human. Recall how he said, “Destroy this temple and I will raise it up in three days” — and that in this saying he was referring to the temple of his body, which is the eternal and everlasting temple that sits at the right hand of the Father in the heavenly places. It is not the temple of stone and mortar that is the incarnation of God; it is Jesus Christ.
And just as he applies the prophecy of the raising of the temple to himself, so too he apples the lesson about imitations to himself personally: he assures them that some will come who will try to lead them astray, coming even in his name and even declaring, “I am he!” These false Messiahs will lead many astray, but Jesus warns the disciples to be on their watch. He assures them that say what they might, perform what wonders they will, no man works like him.
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And that is the God’s honest truth. No one works like Jesus. Even the best of us is like Michael, marked as it were with a label that says, “Who is like God — not this one!” Even the noblest and most costly sacrifice is pale and wanting beside the sacrifice of Christ upon the cross — the innocent giving himself on behalf of the guilty, a human being doing in that act what no other human being could do, because only he is Son of God as well as son of man.
But don’t be discouraged in this. each of us still has our ministry to carry out, even as we know that we are not like God and cannot work like him. There is good news in all of these lessons: we don’t have to do what Jesus has done — because he has done it. We get to ride on his coattails, having the confidence to enter the sanctuary by his blood, by the new and living way he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, because we are members of his body — so that we can approach the throne of grace with a true heart in full assurance of faith. He who has promised is faithful, for he has accomplished what no one else could do. For us, beloved, for us, who as members of his Body have salvation. Thanks be to God, that no man works like him.+