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Sermon Review of the Holy Epistle to the Hebrews: The Book and the Sword

Hebrews 4:11-16 speaks of a fearsome sword that divides soul and spirit, joint and marrow, and reveals the inner intentions of the heart. Discover the edenic background to the double-edged sword of the book of Hebrews and the Way to the tree of life.

-D. Thomas Lancaster
Sermon Twelve: The Book and the Sword
Originally presented on April 6, 2013
from the Holy Epistle to the Hebrews sermon series

Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one may fall through such disobedience as theirs.

Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.

Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Hebrews 4:11-16 (NRSV)

D. Thomas Lancaster started this week’s sermon by going over the sense of distance we sometimes (often?) perceive exists between us and God. I’ve experienced that distance more than once. I’ve attributed that distance to my own faults and failures. After all, what else could it be?

Lancaster went through the ancient, traditional approach that people took to “access” God. As I’ve always surmised, why should an infinite, omnipotent, God want or have to listen to one tiny mortal human being? Who do we think we are, anyway that God should be mindful of us?

So usually ancient man had to go to a god’s temple, bring an appropriate sacrifice, and allow the priest of the temple to offer the sacrifice on our behalf. They needed a priest.

I can already see where Lancaster is going and the expected Christian response that, as believers, we are now our own priests (1 Peter 2:5) and don’t need an intercessor. God removed the veil separating man from the most holy place (Matthew 27:51, Mark 15:38).

But let’s wait and see how far and in what direction Lancaster takes this sermon.

Lancaster says the requirement of a priest did not always exist. Adam and Eve walked with God in the garden, in Gan Eden, in paradise and there was nothing between them and Him.

But that didn’t last too long.

Then the Lord God said, “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever” — therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life.

Genesis 3:22-24 (NRSV)

Leaving EdenNo, the cherubim are not cute, little, baby-like angels. The keruvim are big, dangerous, fierce angelic beings with a flaming sword, no less, turning in each direction to bar the way to the tree of life.

And human beings walked out of Eden and have been in exile ever since, trying to find a way back, trying to return to paradise, and even we, who have put our faith and devotion in Messiah, are still separated from God, still in exile, still on the outside looking in, some of us more than others, it seems.

He slaughtered the ox and the ram as a sacrifice of well-being for the people. Aaron’s sons brought him the blood, which he dashed against all sides of the altar, and the fat of the ox and of the ram—the broad tail, the fat that covers the entrails, the two kidneys and the fat on them, and the appendage of the liver. They first laid the fat on the breasts, and the fat was turned into smoke on the altar; and the breasts and the right thigh Aaron raised as an elevation offering before the Lord, as Moses had commanded.

Aaron lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them; and he came down after sacrificing the sin offering, the burnt offering, and the offering of well-being. Moses and Aaron entered the tent of meeting, and then came out and blessed the people; and the glory of the Lord appeared to all the people. Fire came out from the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fat on the altar; and when all the people saw it, they shouted and fell on their faces.

Leviticus 9:18-24 (NRSV)

Lancaster showed us in the verses above, the inaugeration of the duty of the Levitical priesthood. So now only priests can enter into the presence of the Lord and only after making extensive preparations on their own behalf as well as on the behalf of those they represent.

Again, I know what you’re thinking, Christians. Hang on. The answer is coming.

burning-bushIs there a way back to Eden, a way back to the level of intimacy that Adam and Eve (or Chava, actually) enjoyed with Hashem? Is there a way past the keruvim and the flaming sword?

Lancaster took a look at the sword through the lens of rabbinic commentary, principally Genesis Rabbah, and came up with different opinions about the sword. Some say it is angels, and others flaming Gehenna. One Rabbi said circumcision. The final opinion is that the sword is Torah, for as it says:

Let the high praises of God be in their throats and two-edged swords in their hands, to execute vengeance on the nations and punishment on the peoples…

Psalm 149:6-7 (NRSV)

Lancaster then took his audience over some previous territory:

For if the message declared through angels was valid, and every transgression or disobedience received a just penalty…

Hebrews 2:2 (NRSV)

The word “message” in Greek is “logos” or “word” and is representative of the Torah, and it contains judgment for disobedience of transgressions, just as the sword was God’s response for disobedience at Eden.

The sword is logos, Torah, God’s standard, God’s instruction. How can we get past God’s judgment, past the sword, is there a way back to Eden?

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

John 14:6 (NRSV)

It’s no coincidence that the ancient name for the Jewish worship stream devoted to Yeshua (Jesus) was called “the Way.” Genesis 3:24 says the sword guarded the way to the tree of life” (emph. mine). Just like Israel in the days of the Tabernacle, in the days of the Temple, the writer of Hebrews is telling his Jewish readers that they need a priest to help them draw nearer to God, but even though they had priests to intercede and offer sacrifices in Herod’s temple, there was an even greater priest in an even greater, heavenly Temple, and only through him could they, can we approach any level of intimacy with God.

But this is no easy thing. One does not simply declare that they “believe in Jesus” and suddenly it’s alright and everything’s groovy. In Rabbinic interpretation, the Torah was given with a sword so that if Israel obeyed God, the Torah would save them from the sword, and if Israel did not obey God, the sword would mete out judgment, which as we see many times in the record of the Tanakh (Old Testament), that is exactly what happened.

Contemplate three things, and you will not come to the hands of transgression: Know what is above from you: a seeing eye, a listening ear, and all your deeds being inscribed in a book.

-Pirkei Avot 2:1

All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all To fall on Him.

Isaiah 53:6 (NASB)

There is none righteous, not even one…

Romans 3:10 (NASB)

lightEven the mere thought of entering into the presence of God should send us into fear and trembling, for who is without sin, and who has not disobeyed the most powerful, almighty, infinite God? It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Hebrews 10:31).

The sword, the Torah, is God’s standard of righteousness and it judges us. In and of ourselves, we cannot pass by the flaming sword and enter into God’s presence in paradise.

But there is some good news:

Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Hebrews 4:14-16 (NRSV)

Once a year in the days of the Temple in Jerusalem, the High Priest would go through a special set purification rites and sacrifices for himself simply to prepare to enter into the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement, on Yom Kippur, to present the annual offerings to atone for the sins of the nation.

But he had to do this once a year, and he had to offer many sacrifices just to atone for his own sins first, so he could be in such a state of purity in order to be acceptable enough to enter into the Most Holy Place in the earthly Temple.

This was an effective system but it had limits. The writer of the Book of Hebrews says there is one even more righteous than the High Priest of the line of Aaron. This priest is without sin, a tzadik who is completely Holy unto God. It is he who is our hope, not of entering the earthly Temple (as it will one day exist again) to make offerings, but to enter past the keruvim, past the flaming sword, past the desperate hazard of God’s judgment and the threat of burning eternally in Gehinnom, so that we may rest in God’s mercy in paradise.

What Did I Learn?

I particularly appreciated the word play associated with “the way” as illustrated in Genesis 3:24 and John 14:6, and how that “way” allows us to return from the exile humanity experienced as a result of the failure at Eden. It puts me one step closer to understanding why we all need a “Savior,” and why prayer and repentance to Hashem is “not enough,” a question that has plagued me for quite some time.

But it also brings up a question or rather, it reminds me of an unanswered question I typically ignore except at times like these when I can’t avoid it.

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.

Hebrews 4:15 (NRSV)

There seems to be a disconnect between this verse and the one that follows, and even between one part of this verse and another.

Yeshua (Jesus) lived a perfectly human and yet a perfectly sinless life for thirty some odd years. I probably can’t avoid an act of disobedience for thirty some odd minutes (or even thirty seconds, sometimes). So Jesus can sympathize with us when we are tempted and tested because he knows the difficulty and suffering of testing as well. Lancaster says it wasn’t just the three trials of the tempter he had to endure (Matthew 4:1-11), but living a human life, he endured human temptations.

So he can sympathize with me when I am tested in the manner of humans, just as he was tested in all human frailty…

…but he did not sin…ever.

unworthySo our high priest can sympathize with our trials, just like the Aaronic High Priests as human beings could sympathize, but an Aaronic High Priest could also sympathize with failure and having sinned because they weren’t perfect…they sinned.

Jesus never sinned, which is what qualifies him to enter into the Heavenly Holy of Holies on our behalf, but how can he possibly sympathize with human failure when he never failed?

Recently, Derek Leman wrote a very good piece on the meaning of grace that transcends the traditional Christian interpretation and adds a great deal of depth to God’s divine kindness and mercy and His undeserved gifts to human beings.

On that level, I can understand why Jesus the High Priest would intercede for us before the Father, and I can imagine that he might feel merciful and even experience pity for we pathetic human beings (I may not be apprehending Derek’s point as much as I need to here), but sympathy or rather empathy because our experience is his experience? I don’t think so. I can’t see how you can understand failure unless you’ve failed. Since Jesus never failed, how can he, or God the Father, the infinite and unknowable Ein Sof, possibly understand us? How can Jesus ever understand me when I fail?

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The Alleyways to Eden

The objective of all man’s toil in this world is to reach higher than his own mind, higher than mind at all. Not to a place where the mind is ignored, but rather, to its essence, to the inner sense of beauty and wonder that guides it.

“A river went out from Eden to water the garden.” The garden is Mind, where all worlds begin. Eden is a place of delight beyond the garden, far beyond. Yet its river nurtures all that grows there. Adam is placed in the garden to discover the Eden flowing within.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“The River From Eden”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

And the Lord God said, “Now that the man has become like one of us, knowing good and bad, what if he should stretch out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever!” So the Lord God banished him from the garden of Eden, to till the soil from which he was taken. He drove the man out, and stationed east of the garden of Eden the cherubim and the fiery ever-turning sword, to guard the way to the tree of life. Genesis 3:22-24 (JPS Tanakh)

Ever since the expulsion from Eden, man has been trying to get back to paradise and to God. We haven’t been doing a very good job along the journey and we’ve taken many detours. The idea of “paradise” means many different things to many different people. I think there’s something inside of us that “remembers” the freedom we had to explore and to master our world, and we mistakenly try to recapture that freedom along a lot of poorly chosen routes. Some of those back alleys and rough streets lead to drugs, sex, booze, money, and other activities we somehow think will give us what we once had and then lost. The irony is that we try to recover paradise by the very acts that caused us to lose Eden and to lose our intimacy with God in the first place. We try to find God by making service to self as paradise and sin as our “god.” Notice the shape the world is in. We haven’t been doing a very good job along the journey.

But with a lot of wrong decisions, we’ve also made a few right choices, or at least choices that point us in the right direction. Sometimes we do so only by stumbling along, half perceiving the light along the path that God has provided to show us the way. Most of the time, even when we see the light, we don’t really know what to do with it and how to follow where it leads. And yet, God said the answer is there.

I do not turn aside from your teachings,
for you have taught me.
How sweet are your words to my taste,
sweeter than honey to my mouth!
Through your precepts I get understanding;
therefore I hate every false way.
Your word is a lamp to my feet
and a light to my path. –Psalm 119:102-105

The way back to Eden is along the path that God has illuminated for us with the power of His Word. His Word is what we have in the Bible but He also caused His Word to “become flesh and live among us” (John 1:14) in a manner we cannot fully understand. God has provided many different ways we can become aware of Him and to come to know Him. As we become aware of God, we join with Him and put our “thumbprint” on His plan for us, in our own humanly imperfect way, declaring that we are involved with Him and with the ways of Heaven. Those of us who love God and who seek Eden have many and varied methods of revealing ourselves to the world. In walking along our different paths, we somethings encounter each other. When we do, we don’t always recognize that we are connected or if we do, we don’t always agree with how someone else is walking their own path.

Ever hear of Women of the Wall? I hadn’t either until just a few days ago. In their own words, they are…

a group of Jewish women from around the world who strive to achieve the right, as women, to wear prayer shawls, pray and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall (Kotel) in Jerusalem, Israel. The Western Wall is Judaism’s most sacred holy site and the principal symbol of Jewish people-hood and sovereignty and Women of the Wall works to make it a holy site where women can pray freely.

They started as seventy Jewish women who gathered at the Kotel on December 1, 1988 to pray aloud with each other, which is the first time in history this has ever happened. Later, they gathered again to read from a sefer Torah at the Kotel.

However, it’s illegal for women to pray together at the Kotel in such a manner, and Anat Hoffman, the leader of Women of the Wall, was even arrested in July 2010, according to a Haaretz.com news story.

Anat Hoffman, the women’s prayer group leader, was arrested and taken in for questioning after she was caught holding a Torah scroll in violation of a High Court ruling prohibiting women from reading the Torah at the Western Wall.

While the desire of Jewish women to pray at the Kotel wearing talitot and tefillin runs counter to the Orthodox authorities, is it really wrong for them to do so? From the point of view of the Orthodox, it may be, but in this case, I must question whether or not the intent of these women really runs counter to the desires of God. They are walking their own path, created by their awareness of God, and the path is defined by their devotion to God as Jewish women. This isn’t the first time I’ve been critical of something regarding Jewish practice, such as in the treatment of converts wishing to make aliyah to Israel or some of the barriers synagogues place in front of Jews who wish to worship on the High Holy Days.

I want to honor the right of Judaism to define itself in terms of God as well as in terms of culture, custom, and lifestyle, but I am also aware that halacha doesn’t necessarily reflect the will of God with perfect clarity (and sometimes that can be an understatement). Paul said that we see “in a mirror dimly” but someday, it will be face to face (1 Corinthians 13). Whether you think it’s right or wrong for women to pray at the Kotel, they are seeking what we are all seeking; a way to walk along the path that leads back to a “paradise lost” and to return to the “lover of our souls.” According to the vision of John, one day we will arrive at our goal.

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. –Revelation 22:1-5 (ESV)

Until that day, we search the free mountain trails and rough back alleys of our lives and our world for that one slender thread of light amid the darkness that guides us to an illumination beyond human expression. Day by day, we follow the thread, that lamp for our feet, and we walk the steps, which are different for each and every one of us, enduring hardships and being misunderstood. We will continue to travel until that one day when we will look up into his face, and he will wipe away our tears, and “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4 ESV).

Amen and amen.