The sun is too bright and your knees are starting to ache. It feels like you’ve been standing there for hours. There is a nervous, quiet hovering over the mass of people around you. A little one is hushed by his mother and someone coughs, drawing the stares of many. Suddenly a young man up and to your left calls out I smell it! I smell it! As the excitement begins to swirl around you the fragrance of the Holy incense hits your nose too. And it is a welcome relief – not just because a tight-packed crowd standing in the hot sun is never pleasant, but because you know it means the Most Holy place is filling with the sweet smell of the incense, a cloud to cover the mercy seat of the Lord most High.
And you can’t help but wonder if God doesn’t appreciate it too. For you know how much your people must stink in his nostrils. The corruption, the pettiness, the selfishness and self-centeredness. You’ve seen things even in your own little town that make you wonder if there are any true believers left. It is every man for himself. The way neighbour treats neighbour, the way the innocent are taken advantage of. The way false idols and foreign gods seem to keep popping up wherever you look. It is enough to make your old shoulders droop and sag.
Another raised voice pulls you out of your gloomy thoughts. The High Priest is back and the offering is being made. The blood spurts and flows, and an acrid tang mixes with the incense already thick in the air. At the name of Yaweh pronounced aloud your heart flops and you, with everyone in that crowd drop to the ground and put your face to the dirt. How many of them mean it and how many are just going through the motions? Do they even understand what is going on here? After all these years you still can’t get used to the sound of that name spoken on this day when it is forbidden on all others. How many around you think it is all just a joke?
As the high priest disappears again, you can’t help but wonder at all the blood spilled. When will it be enough? When will it be too much? The fighting and feuds. The corruption in government. The abuse and cheap regard for the lives of others. With so much blood spilled will even the sacrifices of this holy day be enough? Or will one day the blood spilled on all other days be too much for the blood of this day to cover?
For what seems like hours you go in and out of your doubts and dark thoughts, mixed with proper reverence and worship. You do your duty, whether your neighbours do or not. You make your prayers more fervent than ever before. You watch the sacrifices made, the offerings given, the prayers recited, and the scapegoat taken away. But will it be enough? As the crowds begin to disperse you are still conflicted inside. Each year you come back in the hopes that this day will mean that God does not forsake your people and abandon you as you know you deserve. Each year you pray for family and friends who seem to care less and less. Each year you hear rumours of rising powers and a world in fearful turmoil. Is this the year that God will come and save or is it the year when He turns His back on us forever?
Dear friends in Christ, we who await Christ’s reappearance can sympathize, can’t we? We can harbour all the same doubts and fears as we do our own Christian duty and watch the world seem to fall apart around us. Is it enough? Have we done our best? Is God still there? Can we still trust? Will this year be better or worse? Is this the year that things will not be able to hold together for our little congregation or is this the year when God blesses us like never before? What about all those friends and neighbours, family and co-workers? For the ancient Israelites the best answer they could be given was wait and see, and next year we will do it all again. But we have a much better answer in Christ as the writer of Hebrews shows us.
24For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.
The earthly sanctuary was built according to the pattern God showed Moses and Solomon. More importantly, it was from the heavens themselves that God came down and was actually present among His people. God’s Presence and promise made His sanctuary more than just another worship place or earthly dwelling. The ark was both the throne and the footstool of the Lord. Here is where Israel could find their gracious and forgiving God. God had come down and “allowed himself to be found” here as in no other place.
Yet, unlike the OT sacrifices, Christ’s sacrifice was once and for all. The true thing is heaven itself, which has its reflection in the earthly sanctuary with its sacrifices and rituals. Yet Christ does not continue to offer himself as a sacrifice or continue to sprinkle His own blood. We don’t need to keep coming back and asking the questions year after year. That sacrifice is finished. What Jesus now does is to “appear before God on our behalf.” Unlike the OT priests, Christ has true access to the presence of God. Jesus our true high priest does not continually go in and out of the earthly sanctuary, but has entered into heaven itself to appear continually in the presence of God on our behalf. The high priest who came down from heaven has returned to heaven and remains in that temple for us.
25Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, 26for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.
On the Day of Atonement, the High Priest entered the Most Holy Place only after offering the proper sacrifices, undergoing the appropriate purification rituals and only by means of sprinkled blood of animals. It was a never-ending process of making temporary atonement repeated every year, over and over again. If Christ’s atonement worked the same way then He would likewise have needed to suffer often from the foundation of the world to its bitter end.
But Christ’s sacrifice doesn’t follow the pattern of those that went before. No. They all foreshadowed Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice on the cross. The OT sacrifices only hinted at the fullness of what was to come in Christ. With great fear and trepidation the high priests entered into the darkness in which the Divine Presence was shrouded. For those few minutes (and no more) man was allowed to come before the throne of the Holy God. But in Christ made flesh, dwelling among His people on earth, the Divine Presence is brought to light, to abide in the daily lives of men. His sacrifice is so much superior to those offered by the Levitical priests. Where their yearly action always called sins to mind: Jesus instead annulled sin. And that is why the OT sacrifices or sanctuary are no longer needed. Christ has dealt with sin once and for all.
27And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, 28so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.
Here the point of comparison is applied. Just once Jesus was offered to do away with the sins of one and all. “Many” is not meant to leave some out but to be contrasted with “one.” In this way the universal atonement is not denied but emphasized. To make this even clearer, we are told that Jesus will appear a second time but this time Not to deal with sin (which is already completely dealt with) His second coming is only for the final deliverance for God’s children already confident in the forgiveness of their sins.
But why are we so confident of this? What happens to those of us who live in the “end of the ages”, while we wait for the Son to appear again? Not because of anything we do for God or for this world around us. The Tabernacle, the Temple, and all the sacrifices and rituals performed therein were all just preparation for the coming of Christ, God himself, who tabernacled among us and who is the “high priest of a better covenant” as the author of Hebrews says.
Truly, God does not leave us alone, but in the means of Grace He is constantly “coming down” to minister to us. He is truly present in the Word and Sacraments assuring us of His Word of forgiveness and salvation. Assuring us that God is with us even now. Reminding us that even if this year is not good for us – He will be. For He always has been. Maybe this year will be good, maybe not. But God’s grace and favour are never in question. For we have the only begotten Son of God mediating for us before the Throne of Heaven. We have the sacrifice of His own body and blood to cover our sins and grant us standing with Him in His Father’s heavenly temple. Everything that needs to be done has been done – once-for-all!