Saved? From What?
A sermon on Hebrews 7: 23-28 by Nathan Nettleton, 26 October 1997
The need for liberation for the poor and oppressed is obvious, but for the comfortable and successful, the enslavements to consumerism, power and hardness of heart are harder to discern and take the intervention of God to break free from.
I remember going to a Larry Norman concert in about 1982. Those of you who are under thirty probably dont remember Larry but he was one of the great heroes of Christian rock music in the 1970s, perhaps best remembered for his waist length blonde hair and his song Why should the devil have all the good music?
Anyway at this concert Larry Norman was taking the mickey out of some of our approaches to evangelism, something we were talking about in part of our meeting last week, talking about our faith with other people. He was taking off the way your stereotypic bible-bashers get stuck in cliches that dont mean anything to others. Are you saved brother? I didnt know I was in danger. I mean are you washed in the blood of the lamb? I hope not.
That image has stayed with me as a constant reminder of the danger of our words losing their meaning by over use and changing contexts, so that our message sounds irrelevant. And some of the most central concepts of our understanding of the Christian gospel can be in danger of this loss of meaning.
Our reading from the letter to the Hebrews uses the image of Jesus as High Priest offering sacrifices for the sins of the people, in order to save those who will approach God through him. Now this image was immediately understandable to a first century Jew whose whole understanding of God revolved around the temple sacrificial system. Sacrifices had to be made by bringing a particular animal to the priest who would cut its throat and then burn it on the altar and this was understood to satisfy an angry God who would then cancel your punishment and accept your prayer. Many tribal societies have a similar view of how to approach a god, and so the image still works in some places, but in our society there is no obvious parallel for the image to draw its meaning from.
So when we want to speak of being saved through Jesus, images of dead sheep going up in smoke may not be all that helpful to most people. But what is it we are wanting to say? We know that we have experienced something real and important, but finding the words for our experience is often difficult and grabbing for biblical cliches is temptingly easy.
Its easier for some people because their need for salvation is more obvious. When we look at a Karen refugee camp on the Thai Burma border on the television news, the concept of being saved has immediate content. They are the poor and the dispossessed, the ripped off and oppressed and to describe Jesus as Liberator, as Saviour has an immediate concrete political, social and economic application. If you stand in the midst of that camp as the Burmese army advances and read the final verses of our Psalm, Evil kills its own kind, dooms the wicked to death. God saves those who keep faith; no trusting soul is doomed, their will be no uncertainty about what you are talking about, about why a saviour might be needed. The people are in grave danger. They need rescuing. Jesus saves.
Now I could pursue that topic, and speak of our responsibilities to our brothers and sisters in the Karen camps or in Nagaland on the other side of Burma. Both ravaged by war and oppression by foreign powers. And coincidentally both predominantly Baptist so that it is even harder for us to pretend they have nothing to do with us. But Ive preached that sermon before, and you know what I think, and this morning I want to take another line.
I want to ask another question. If the meaning of those words are clear when you stand in a refugee camp, what do they mean when you are sitting in a Chapel Street coffee shop? What does it mean for those with comfortable places to live, promising careers, beautiful lovers and frequent access to fine food, excellent wine and the finest espresso? The need to be rescued is not exactly jumping out and slapping you in the face. Do we actually need a saviour? And even if we do, whats it got to do with a Galillean rabbi wandering around the Judean countryside two thousand years ago, mouthing off against the ruling elite until they had him bumped off?
Perhaps it is the contrast of these two locations that gives us our first pointer towards an answer. The relationship between the rich and the poor is radically different now to what it has been at anytime in previous history. Once upon a time the rich needed the poor, either as the objects of their charity to earn themselves salvation, or as the reserve army of labour to keep the wheels of wealth production turning. Now the poor are perceived only as a threat. Mechanisation has rendered their labour unnecessary, but neither can they play a role in the economy as consumers. So what we have brooding away, just around the corner from the coffee shops are seething multitudes of bitter, hostile, alienated people crushed under the burden of abundant redundant time. People with no respect for property rights or personal security because theyve never had any. They dont value human life or dignity because theyve been denied the right to enjoy it.
And so even though it is not as true as it once was that the affluence of the rich is founded on the oppression of the poor, it is increasingly true that those of us with paid employment and some measure of personal security live in a state of perpetual anxiety; fearful of the constant threat of sudden random violence, and fearful that the next round of redundancies could shunt us across to the other side of the equation.
Am I exaggerating? There is a proposal under consideration to build Melbournes first gated community out in Mount Waverley. Gated communities are a phenomena known in the US and even more among expatriate communities living in compounds in third world and middle eastern countries. Mini suburbs enclosed within a wall with a single guarded gate. It is what people build when they are afraid that the law and order system can no longer contain the violent ravaging masses, so instead of locking them inside, we lock ourselves inside.
Does it work? No. All the evidence shows that it doesnt achieve anything except to demonstrate that the burgeoning sense of meaninglessness and alienation and the consequent slide into decadence, greed and hardness of heart are just as prevalent among the successful as they are among the poor. The murder of that Australian nurse in Saudi occurred inside such a compound. Gated communities in the US are finding themselves torn apart by their own bored teenagers. Teenagers for whom the assertion that life is meaningless is not a speculation from existentialist philosophers, but a basic truism of their existence.
Hidden away from the corrupting influence of the fallen classes, they are poisoned from within by the dominant ideology of our time - consumerism. Consumerism whose only message is consume, and work hard so you can consume more. Having been sold the impossible lie of unlimited growth, people are conditioned to feel virtuous when they spend for they are giving the lead to economic recovery. Where totalitarian regimes bludgeoned people into cooperation with their absurd ideologies, Consumerism has huge industries of marketing and public relations that seduce people into believing that the only worthy goals are to climb the competitive career ladder, to acquire more wealth and to consume more and more goodies, meanwhile leaving behind an ever increasing heap of material and emotional waste in a guaranteed recipe for social fragmentation, global injustice and environmental disaster.
Some of you here work within the big worlds of business and finance. What do you see when you look at those who have made it to the top of the ladders? Do you see people whose lives are characterised by integrity, inner peace, deep intimate friendships, stable marriages and healthy families? Or do you see people for whom the treadmill is always speeding up, people for whom relationships are measured in dollars per minute, whose idea of sexual fulfilment is a business lunch at a table-top dancing club, who measure quality of life by the number of people ahead of them?
Social scientists now agree with the ancient philosophers that once we have enough to satisfy our basic needs, gaining more wealth and power do not bring us more happiness.
Perhaps the rapidly rising young executive with the caffe latte and mobile phone in Chapel Street is as much in need of a rescue mission as the refugee fleeing a civil war. Perhaps she is just as much a prisoner, locked into a chain gang of compulsive over achievement and competitive consumption, with a multi-million dollar advertising industry hypnotising her into regarding her chains as status symbols, and ensuring that she never questions the system, or asks where her free time has gone, or why her relationships are so superficial and short-lived.
Perhaps the work of Jesus as High Priest is relevant to such a person. Perhaps as much as anyone she needs someone who will plead with God for her and reach out to save her when she gropes desperately for a way out. Perhaps for one so deluded into conformity, salvation would be even more miraculous because it requires opening blinded eyes, binding up a broken heart and setting at liberty one who is oppressed all in one. We only have to look at the suicide statistics, the stress related illness statistics and the domestic violence statistics among the so-called privileged to know how many of them are waking up like our Psalmist begging for a god to lift their burdens and free them from their fears.
Perhaps the renegade rabbi from Galilee did have something to offer to such people as he travelled around developing little cells of creative Christian resistance, sowing seeds of genuine hope, and empowering ordinary people with the strength to say NO to the greed and heartlessness that promise fulfilment and deliver only anxiety and despair.
As our reading said, Jesus is not like the other high priests. Not like the high priests of consumerism who say you are what you do with your spending power. Not like the high priests of corporate culture who say that you are what you return for the companys investment in you. Not like the high priests of education who tell you that you are what you do with your exam results. Not even like the high priests of the institutional church who measure your worth by the rules you hold to unquestioningly.
No Jesus is a high priest who has come to offer you a way to break free from mindless obedience to the decaying values of the dominant culture; who has come that you may have life and have it in all its fullness.
Jesus has come to demonstrate that it is in simplicity, in integrity, in purity and clarity of heart and mind, in generosity of spirit and in warmth of affection that fullness of life is found. And that it is in giving ourselves away, in seeking the wholeness and hope for others, in simple servanthood that we find genuine satisfaction. It is in identifying ourselves with the cause much bigger than our own individual pleasure, the cause of the reconciliation and fulfilment of the entire creation, that we find our lives have ultimate meaning. And it is in giving ourselves to Christs mission of reconciling and healing the world that we discover the ultimate paradox, so clear in the exuberant life of Jesus, that it is in giving up our lives that we find our life, that subordinating our own interests is actually in harmony with realising them.
As the people of God who are being set free, who have stepped out on the road of discipleship, you do have good news to take to the apparently successful ones, to the ones whose designer label sunglasses and mobile phones have become the bars of a prison they cant even see, those lost unwittingly in what the ancients called the paradox of hedonism, that the more you pursue your own desire for pleasure, the more elusive its satisfaction becomes.
There is still gospel for such people, and the good news is still Jesus Saves! although if you dont find a better way of expressing it you wont be heard. And I dont recommend starting with an explanation of the blood of the lamb.
In fact I dont recommend starting with explanations, full stop. Start by living the good news. Its no use trying to introduce anyone to the concept of Jesus Christ. Youve got to introduce them to the person of Jesus Christ, the person you are coming to know in your own places of silence and service and simplicity. The person you are entrusting yourself to, who is breaking you free from enslavement to selfishness and heartlessness. The person you are coming to know in your own life experience as Saviour and Lord. Jesus Christ, our high priest forever.