I have had the privilege in the last two weeks to spend some time with two women who are at the last stages of their lives. Both of them are at the end of a long battle with cancer and both of them have a lot on their hearts and minds as they enter into this last phase of the journey. As I sat with each of them and listened to them talk about their experiences, I was struck in a profound way by the way that each of them was experiencing the presence of God in very real and powerful ways. Something about this stage of life has allowed them to experience this openness and this awareness of God’s love even in the midst of something that was very scary and often very painful. Now it might surprise you to learn that neither of these women attend a church or any religious group for that matter. They have had exposure to people and places of faith over their lives but that’s never been a central part of their lives.
But their experiences with God were very real. And they were making the process of dying a time where they were also finding unexpected healing.
As we talked about in Children’s Moments today, before Jesus came – there were all kinds of barriers between the people and God. God’s spirit was present and real – but the people believed deeply that they couldn’t just approach God without going through the proper rituals. The high priest was necessary to forgive sins, the temple was necessary for God to be present. In the people’s attempt to understand and relate to God – they constructed all these physical barriers. And one of those was the physical curtain the kept the most holy place separate from the rest of the people.
And when Jesus came he taught them
The kingdom of God is near.
God is near.
He said that when they looked at him – they actually could see God.
This was a whole new way of thinking and in our passage today – the writer of Hebrews is trying to explain to the followers of Jesus how this has changed everything.
The priest kept making sacrifices year after year – but that alone was never really taking care of sins.
But Jesus is the high priest and has offered himself once and for all.
Sins are forgiven.
When Jesus died on the cross
That curtain was ripped in two.
The barriers are gone.
God is here.
Let us approach God with humility and with confidence.
The barriers to God are gone. You are forgiven. Let the healing begin.
When I arrived at Summit, I couldn’t possibly have been more thrilled. I had been appointed to a place filled with amazing people in an amazing location with unbelievable opportunities for ministry. And in my first two years here, I found myself very quickly getting caught up in the busyness of this place – in the energy and in the events and in the newness and in the growth that we were experiencing. I jumped in head first and never looked back.
But by the time I arrived at this summer, I had spent some much time being busy – so much time working on this or that – that I looked up one morning and realized that I hadn’t really prayed in months. My spirit was dry and my body was exhausted and my heart longed to stop talking about God – and actually experience God’s healing for myself.
You see – just because the barriers are gone – doesn’t mean we don’t put up new ones in their place. Amen?
In my effort to “serve God” – I had actually put up a whole bunch of barriers in the way. I had filled my time with stuff, which wasn’t actually what would feed my soul and help me to be the person God was calling me to do.
And I hadn’t spent much time behind the curtain. I hadn’t spent much time in prayer, I hadn’t spent much time in honest and authentic conversation with people who can ask me about how my soul is really doing, I hadn’t spent much time reading my Bible except when I was preaching.
just because the barriers are gone – doesn’t mean we don’t put up new ones in their place.
This is my all time favorite picture of God. Some of you who have heard me talk about this 50 times before – my apologies – but I think it’s important.
It’s Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity. In the midst of war and violence in Russia in the early 15th century, Rublev devoted his life to painting these incredible murals and portraits of God’s immense love for humanity. His beautiful paintings were a visible constrast to the life people were experiencing – speaking loud and clear – that God is still near.
In this portrait – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrei_Rublev he imagines the 3 angels who visited Abraham and Sarah to tell them that after being barren for over 30 years, they would have a son. And he imagines that these 3 visitors were actually the Holy Trinity - and in it – we see God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit sitting at a table together. Connected and in relationship – but my most favorite part of this picture is that it was intended to be viewed just like this – where there is an empty seat at the table and we are invited.
This past August when I realized how long it had been since I had actually sat at the table with God and I started moving in that direction – I felt something begin to shift.
Some healing began to happen.
When I started to be more honest with myself -
The barriers between me and God began to be revealed for what they really were and I was finally able to listen.
I realized I had made a lot of excuses before about why I didn’t have time to pray.
But being in the presence of God and experiencing God’s love for me and for others – is actually the most important part of my job and anyone’s job in truth.
And what that shift has done is not to make me into some holy person who is more righteous or pure than others. Hardly. Anyone who spends more than 5 minutes with me will know that this is true.
But it has meant that the barriers between a rich spiritual life, one where I’ve stepped beyond the curtain into the very presence of God are fewer.
It means the things that block my ability to know and experience God are fewer.
And so I’m much more likely to actually be able to listen and to change.
But it’s hard for me – and I know it’s also hard for you.
We don’t come here because we are looking for a place to bake muffins for. We don’t come here because we have nothing else to do on Sunday morning.
We come to church for lots of different reasons, but my guess is that all of us are looking for healing – all of us are looking for an encounter with God that is real – that speaks to the actual struggles in our lives – and we are looking for the healing that comes with other companions on the journey.
And while we don’t have to wait until we are near death to experience it, we do have to start being honest with ourselves about the things we have placed between ourselves and God.
What are the barriers that are keeping you from coming to the table of God?
What are the barriers that make it harder for you to hear?
Life isn’t easy.
There are kids to care for – their futures to think about.
There are bills to pay – even when we don’t have a clue where to pay them.
There are people to deal with – even if they drive us insane with their drama.
There are papers to write – even when we don’t have anything to say.
There is an endless stack of things waiting for us.
There are people who need us – to be someone we aren’t sure we can be.
There are local, domestic and global problems that plague us and make us fearful about the future.
There is our past that haunts us and the voices inside us telling us that we aren’t good enough
And there is our own ego – that wants to think that we don’t need any help.
We are all in need of healing.
Coming to church has never been enough.
Serving pastries and setting up for worship, giving $$ to the church, and even… preaching sermons on Sundays.
If we aren’t careful, sometimes those things can actually be holding us back from God – because we’ve mistaken them from actually being honest before God and each other – we’ve mistakenly thought that doing these things would provide healing…
Hear the good news.
The curtain has been torn, the way to God has been made clear.
Your chains have already been broken.
The barriers are only there if we allow them to be.
There is nothing stopping you from experiencing the amazing grace that God has offered to us at this table.
On your chair, there was a broken piece of a chain.
I invite you today – while the choir sings and while the offering is taken today –
If you are ready to let go of some of the things that have been barriers for you in your walk with God, we invite you to come forward – and to let go of these chains into this bucket.
There will be several of us ready to pray with you around the room if you would like prayer.
And for some of you – perhaps the barrier for you is that you have actually never known God – if you have been hearing the voice of God inviting you to experience his love and grace for the first time, we invite you to share that with the person you pray for and that we might pray for God to come into your life – to experience the salvation and healing and redemption of Jesus for the first time.
And if you aren’t ready to let go of these yet – take them with you.
But don’t hang on to them too long!