Thomas J Parlette
“Once and for All”
Hebrews 10: 11-25
Maybe you remember a TV show from a couple years back called My Name is Earl. If you’ve never heard of it – you might want to look for it on Hulu or Netflix, it’s worth a look. The show followed the story of Earl J. Hickey, a scruffy, petty criminal with occasional run-ins with the law, whose newly won $100,000 lottery ticket gets lost when he is hit by a car. As he is laying in a hospital bed recuperating, Earl hears about a concept called “karma” on a late night talk show, and suddenly his life starts to make sense. All of his bad deeds have finally caught up with him, and now he needs to start putting some good karma in the bank.
So Earl decides to turn his life around. After a few good deeds, his $100,000 ticket finds its way back to him, and with his new, lucky money, he proceeds to make a list of all the bad things he has done in the past, and with some help from his brother Randy, he begins atoning for all his sins, one by one – and when he does, he crosses them off his list.(1)
“Karma is a funny thing,” says Earl, in almost every episode. I’ve always thought it was a worthwhile show because it deals with some very important theological concepts – like forgiveness, atonement and ultimately redemption. Earl believes that he can earn forgiveness and win his redemption by doing good deeds to make up for his past sins. Quite a weighty theological issue to tackle in a prime-time, network comedy.
Keep in mind Earl Hickey’s approach to life as we consider this biblical passage from Hebrews, which begins: “And every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins…” and goes on to compare Jesus to a great, high priest.
As we’ve heard before, this image of a priest is perhaps the dominant image in the Book of Hebrews. Well, it’s actually not a book, like the Gospels, nor is it a letter as we are accustomed to seeing from Paul. No – Hebrews is actually more of a sermon than anything else. In fact, in his commentary on Hebrews, Tom Long refers to the author of Hebrews as “the preacher” instead of the writer. Hebrews is a sermon that presents Jesus as the Ultimate Priest, the perfect priest. The priest who is able to offer one sacrifice, once and for all, for the forgiveness of our sins, and now sits at the right hand of God.
That’s a very different idea from the normal image of a priest at the time. In those days, when you thought of a priest, you thought of someone who was allowed to enter the inner sanctum of the Tabernacle, the Holy of Holies, and would offer a sacrifice of animal blood for the forgiveness of the people’s sin. The priest was an intermediary, a go-between, between God and the people. As Hebrews points out – the priests performed this function on a regular basis, day after day, they took turns doing their duty. As more sins were committed, more sacrifices had to be made.
In a way, it is similar to the idea of karma in My Name is Earl – as Earl commits sin, he feels he has to make up for each bad deed, and when he has, he can cross it off his list – he is absolved.
Hebrews makes the radical point that Jesus is another kind of priest – the Ultimate, Perfect High Priest, in that he is able to offer one perfect sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus offers his own blood, once and for all, to save us all.
In 1927, a West African man named Asibi was stricken with yellow fever. In that day, very few people survived yellow fever, there was no vaccine, there was no medicine that would help. You just had to get through it and hope for the best. Very few people survived – but miraculously, Asibi did. Somehow, his body conquered this deadly disease. Asibi’s blood contained what scientists needed to cure yellow fever – antibodies with the power to fight off the disease.
So they drew some of Asibi’s blood, and scientists were able to formulate a successful vaccine. Millions of people since have benefitted. When it came to yellow fever, one man’s blood saved the lives of countless others.(2) So too, on the cross, one man’s blood saved the lives of countless people. Jesus Christ, the great High Priest, offered his own blood to save us – once and for all.
In Jesus’ sacrifice, we now have an alternative to karma. In light of Jesus, we now live by grace. The sacrifice has been made. We don’t need to keep sacrificing at the altar day in and day out. Jesus has done the work, once and for all. We live by grace, and grace is a funny thing, a funny and most amazing thing.
When a person works an 8 hour day and receives a fair day’s pay for the time spent – that is a wage.
When a person competes with an opponent and receives a trophy for the performance – that is a prize.
When a person receives appropriate recognition for long service or high achievements – that is an award.
But when a person is not capable of earning a wage, can win no prize and deserves no reward – yet receives a gift anyway – that is a good picture of God’s unmerited favor. That is what a Christian means when we talk about the grace of God(3) – it’s funny thing sometimes, but always amazing.
In the recent book Bono: In Conversation…” the lead singer for the rock group U2 shares some thoughts on the difference between karma and grace: “It’s a mind-blowing concept that the God who created the universe might be looking for company, a real relationship with people. But the thing that keeps me on my knees is the difference between grace and karma.”
“Karma is that idea that what you put out comes back to you – an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Or in physics- in physical laws- that every action is met by an equal and opposite reaction. That’s karma. It’s clear to me that karma is at the heart of the universe. I’m absolutely convinced of it,” says Bono.
And he goes on to say, “And yet, along comes this idea called grace to upend all that as you sow, so shall you reap” stuff. Grace defies reason and logic. Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of our actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I’ve done a lot of bad stuff… it doesn’t excuse my mistakes, but I’m holding out for grace. I’m holding out that Jesus took my sins onto the cross, because I know who I am, and I hope I don’t have to depend on my own religiosity.”(4)
The Good News is that we don’t have to depend on our own religiosity. We don’t have to depend on any sacrifices we make. We don’t have to depend on accruing good deeds in order to receive forgiveness and achieve redemption. We don’t have to win it or earn it or do anything to deserve it. It’s been done, once and for all, by the Great High Priest, Jesus Christ. We need only accept it as a gift, and be grateful. We live by grace my friends.
And in light of that grace, we are made perfect through Christ. That is, as a result of grace, we have the ability to be better people. By grace, we are given the ability to grow into Christ’s likeness, to change for the better, little by little, every day.
I like the way Max Lucado puts it in his book “In the Grip of Grace.” He writes that one time in his life he was a closet slob. He just couldn’t comprehend the logic of neatness. Why make a bed if you’re going to sleep in it again that night? Why put the lid on the toothpaste when you’re just going to brush your teeth again the next day? Max says that he was compulsive about being messy.
Then he got married. His wife was patient. She said she didn’t mind his habits… if he didn’t mind sleeping outside. Well, since he did mind sleeping outside, he began to change. He says he enrolled in a12 step program for slobs… “Hi, my name is Max and I am a slob…” A physical therapist helped him rediscover the muscles used for hanging up shirts and placing toilet paper on the holder. His nose was reintroduced to the smell of Pine-Sol. And by the time his in-laws arrived for a visit, he was a new man.
But then came the moment of truth. The big test. His wife went out of town for a week. At first, Max reverted to his old habits. He figured he could be a slob again for 6 days, and clean up on the 7th. But something strange happened, a curious sense of discomfort came over him. Max found that he couldn’t relax with dirty dishes in the sink. And he actually felt an uncontrollable urge to put his towel back on the rack. What happened? He had been exposed to a higher standard – his wife’s standard. And through the grace of God, he had been able to become better than he was. Little by little, habit by habit – Max changed.(5) Grace is a funny thing – a funny and amazing thing.
In the words of the Preacher of Hebrews: “Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus… and since we have a great high priest… let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.”
“And let us consider how to provoke one another with love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
May God be praised. Amen.
1. Homiletics, Vol. 18, No. 6, p24.
2. Emphasis, Vol. 36, No.4, p32.
3. Homiletics, Vol. 18, No. 6, p25.
5. Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXI, No. 4, p53.