Friday, 11 June 2010

Sermon on Hebrews 9: 11-15, St Matthew’s, 20th March 2010

My friend – let’s call her Lesley - wrote me an e-mail on Thursday. I’ll read it to you.

‘Yep 26th in the diary. Yeah, I am going to the Cathedral for Maundy Thursday. I guess I have been a bit stressed. Got an interview for this job in Banbury on Wednesday. Suddenly feeling deeply inadequate!!’

I was composing a reply in my head and at the same time thinking of what to say in this short sermon. So I thought I talk to you about deep inadequacy. (And I might send Lesley this sermon as well.)

We surely all feel inadequate at times and sometime this inadequacy can feel overwhelming. And of course certain occasions can make us feel inadequate. Job interviews are one because at such a time we face the possibility of rejection or acceptance. But there are many other occasions in our lives when we face acceptance or rejection and where we can be overtaken by feelings of inadequacy.

The other week I got a letter to say that the Department of Health had turned down my application for a grant to do what I thought was an interesting piece of research: an application which I put a lot of time and effort into writing. For a few days the rejection letter was all I could think of because it affected my sense of self-worth. It made me feel inadequate.

We often try to avoid rejection/acceptance situations but we cannot avoid them all together. This is because all human interaction has at its heart the possibility of both acceptance and rejection. When we meet someone we know in the street we have the choice of whether we talk to them or not. If we say hello and they say hello we are accepted. If we say hello and they do not then we are rejected: provided they’ve heard us of course

And of course there is one big rejection/acceptance situation we might fear: the acceptance or rejection by God.

At such points in our lives we are liable to feel inadequate – even deeply inadequate. Though the feelings generally pass. Either we are accepted or we get over the rejection. For others of us feelings of inadequacy – of rejection - may be more chronic and can blight our whole lives. But is deep inadequacy something we should feel?

I’d already decided to focus on the Hebrews passage before I read Lesley’s e-mail and I think it has something to say about our feelings of inadequacy.

But before turning to Hebrews I think I should acknowledge that the Christian religion can sometimes make us feel more inadequate than we already do: and this is surely a bad thing. The Christian message can sometimes be read as suggesting that we are all worthless scum and, to mix metaphors somewhat, we cannot do anything to drag ourselves out of the mud in which we find ourselves sinking. All we can do is throw ourselves on the mercy of God and he will pull us out of the mud and wash us down with his blood.

I think this is a misreading of scripture. Let us remind ourselves that according to one of the first verses in the Bible we are made in the image of God. At the core of human nature is an image – an image which is not effaced by the Fall – and this means at heart we are not deeply inadequate. We are made in God’s image and so we are loved by God (whatever we have done or will do.)

On the other hand I want to suggest that some humility is a good thing. Feelings of inadequacy are sometimes – perhaps often confused with humility. We do need to be a bit humble. One of the reasons for where we are where we are is hubris, the idea that with just a bit more effort, a bit more science, a bit more economic growth we will all find ourselves back in the Garden of Eden. The Christian gospel is that, despite this tendency to hubris, there is another way. To find that other way we do need to repent of our hubris and rely on something which might seem less tangible but is ultimately more powerful - the assistance of God and the sacrifice of Jesus.

But I would like to suggest that humility is something quite distinct from feelings of inadequacy, and that humility is good and feelings of inadequacy are bad Although I am not suggesting that we can always avoid them. I am tempted to reply to Lesley ‘Oh pull yourself together you are just being stupid. You are clearly a very competent person and if they don’t give you the job they are mad.’ But clearly she knows what she feels and who am I to deny those feelings.

In the passage we heard from Hebrews the writer is developing an argument, The passage is a short extract from this argument. The argument is based on two OT passages: one from Jeremiah which begins: ‘Behold the days are coming, says the Lord, when I establish a new covenant’ [1] and the other some verse from Psalm 40; which begin: ‘Sacrifices and offerings thou has not desired but a body hast thou prepared for me.’ Basically the writer to the Hebrews is arguing – based on these two passages - that Jesus provides a better sacrifice under the new covenant - a sacrifice which is more effective for sanctification, purification and perfection than the old covenant sacrifices – and is effective once and for all.

This is the sacrifice we will remember in a few moments time when repeating the words of Jesus I will say ‘This is my blood of the new Testament – new covenant – which is shed for you and for many for the remission of sins’

The first part of the passage from Hebrews has as its premise that Christ as high priest, in gaining eternal redemption, entered once and for all into the real Holy Place in heaven, the second part proclaims that the blood sprinkled in the rituals of the old covenant has some efficacy – sanctifying as far as fleshly cleansing is concerned – but the blood of Jesus purifies our consciences from dead works so that we might serve the living God. Thus the two main ideas of this text, are that the priestly work of Christ has gone both higher and deeper than the sacrifices under the old covenant. It has gone higher because his work carried him not just to the heart of an earthly temple but to heaven itself. It has gone deeper because it penetrates to the very core of our being. Because of Christ’s sacrifice there is now no shame or guilt that would keep us from entering the very presence of God. .

Perhaps this all sounds very well and good but how does it matter when it comes to job interviews or grant applications or encounters in the street. I would like to suggest that it is relevant. If we can remember that we are made in God’s image and that through the sacrifice of Jesus there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God[2]. We are not deeply inadequate – whatever we might feel at times – we are more than conquerors.

[1] Jeremiah 31: 1
[2] Romans 8: 39

1 comment:

  1. Tee Hee.. a friend, let's call her Lesley thinks this is great :) x