W7C7MT ‘It is Finished’: Christ’s last words from the Cross, c1890. Artist: James Tissot. Image shot 1890. Exact date unknown.

This sermon is from Sunday, October 3, 2021 and it was originally preached at St. David’s by the Sea Episcopal Church in Cocoa Beach, FL. where I serve as Rector. I focused on the Gospel text, specifically Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12. You can listen to the sermon here.

Within the wide world of sports, it has become common to debate who is the “Greatest Of All Time” to ever play the game. It is no longer sufficient to describe players as being the best active player, the best player in the league, or the best player of their generation. Constantly saying “the Greatest of All Time” can be exhausting, so a shorthand has been developed: GOAT. It is all too common these days to refer to these individuals as “the GOAT” or to go a step further and use 🐐emoji when typing.

If you have no idea what I am talking about, let me ignite some friendly debate. Who is the greatest quarterback of all time? Joe Montana, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady? Who is the greatest baseball player of all time? Hank Aaron, Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams, or Mike Trout who is currently playing today? 

These debates are raging today with some of the best athletes still playing their beloved sport. As fans, we are left to decide between Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus as the best golfer; Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabaar, or Lebron James as the best basketball player, Cristiano Ronaldo or Leonel Messi as the greatest soccer player, and so on and so forth.

Of course such irrelevant and time-consuming debates over meaningless topics is like asking the question of how many angels can dance on a pinhead. Why would we waste our time debating over the greatness of a single athlete? These debates are not limited to sports, however. How many times have we argued about who was the greatest president in US History? The greatest monarch to rule England? The greatest impressionist painter, American novelist, or jazz musician?

(George Washington, Queen Elizabeth II, Vincent Van Gogh, Ernest Hemingway, and Thelonius Monk, obviously.)

There is something innate to our humanity that desires to create lists and structure hierarchies of greatness and excellence. There is something in us which yearns for and aspires to be “the best of the best,” “the crop of the crop,” or “the greatest of all time.” 

And this innate desire leads us into the heart of Hebrews.

This morning we begin our new 7-week sermon series on the book of Hebrews. The title for our series is Great High Priest and if you’ve ever read the Book of Hebrews you will know that it is full of rich imagery from the Old Testament and it proclaims Jesus’ superiority over all things. Because we are going to spend 7 weeks in Hebrews, I feel it necessary to get some of the obligatory ahem, “throat clearing” out of the way.

Scholars are actually certain of very few things about Hebrews. The author’s identity is unknown. Attributing Hebrews to Paul is no longer in vogue and has long since been debunked. Whereas the author discloses that they are not one of the apostles and that they received their instruction from the Apostles, Paul is bold to say that he received his instruction from the Risen Lord on the road to Damascus.  It is most likely that the author was a companion of Paul or familiar with the Pauline school of thought. More specifically, the author was well read in Greek philosophy and logic as is demonstrated throughout the book, and he/she is extremely familiar with Israel’s scriptures.

The most likely potential authors are Barnabas, Apollos, and Priscilla. I am most persuaded by the idea of Priscilla. Priscilla had experience leading  a house church in Rome, bringing Apollos to faith, and she was close to Paul in Corinth and Ephesus and her husband, Aquila, was a Jewish Christian (read: understanding of Old Testament). Because of this, I will be using the pronouns she/her when talking about the author of Hebrews. 

You do not have to share that conviction with me; there is plenty to be said in favor of Barnabas and Apollos. At the end of the day, it doesn’t actually matter who the author is because Hebrews is still an authoritative piece of divinely inspired writing.

The audience, date, and origin of Hebrews are also all unknown. We have reason to believe that it was composed as a sermon to a house church in Rome between 45-90AD. We know that the Emperor Claudius kicked Jews out of Rome in 49AD (Acts 18:2) because of their belief in Christ–we also know that Priscilla and Aquila were among those who were exiled and that they would then show up in Corinth when Paul arrived in 51 AD. Suetonius’ records it this way, “He expelled from Rome the Jews constantly making disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus.”

The audience was clearly familiar with the Old Testament because the author quotes Israel’s scriptures at length. The ethnic background of the recipients of Hebrews is not actually important, what we should be focusing on is “the complex way in which they would have related to the dominant Greco-Roman culture, Jewish subculture, and Christian community” around them.

In short, Hebrews is a sermon written by someone with a pastor’s heart to a house church with special attention to Jesus’ superiority and what it meant to live as a Christian within the larger Greco-Roman world and Jewish subculture. The author’s primary tactic was to show various high points of the Old Testament and of Israel’s beliefs and to then demonstrate how Jesus suprasses them all. 

In Hebrews, we are told:

Jesus is greater than the sacrifices of Israel
Jesus is greater than the angels
Jesus is greater than Moses, Abraham, Aaron, and Melchizedek
Jesus is greater than Israel’s high priests

One could argue, in contemporary language, that Jesus is the Greatest of All Time. Our image, painted by James Tissot, shows Israel’s “all stars” welcoming Jesus into heaven after the crucifixion. Jesus is the GOAT.

This is where we are going over the next 7 Sundays. My throat has been sufficiently cleared–we may dig in!

In order to set the table this morning, I want us to work through the opening 4 verses of Hebrews 1 line by line because I think the author is doing so much incredible work in this section that we need to give it our utmost attention. 

We begin with verse 1: Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets. Let’s stop there. This is our first indication that the audience might be Jewish Christians and that the author is familiar with the Old Testament. The reference to “our ancestors” demonstrates a shared ancestry based on the teachings of Israel’s prophets.

The author invites us to think about Israel’s prophetic tradition. She will quote the prophets Moses, Nathan, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Habakkuk, and Haggai throughout the sermon. She will also quote David’s psalms, Abraham, Aaron, and Joshua, all of whom played a prophetic role in Israel. 

The author begins her sermon with God’s words spoken to Israel through the prophets because those words encapsulate the whole of the Old Testament. Even if each prophet only proclaimed a piece of the message, their collect witness presented the whole picture of God’s love.

She continues, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son. The reference to “these last days” is made over and against her previous reference to “long ago.” Something has shifted human history separating then from now. This is an eschatological term, that is, it describes “the last days,” and it is used here to demonstrate that this new form of speaking is definitive and authoritative.

We are told that God is now speaking to us “by a Son.” Don’t be confused by the use of “a” instead of “the.” This is not suggesting that there are more than one son, but rather a way of highlighting the numerous prophets of old and the singular son of now. This Son is the final word from God.

Who is this son? First of all, she writes about him: whom he appointed heir of all things. The language of heirs, testaments, and testators was common in this culture, but this is unique because here we find a son who inherits without the death of the testator. That is, we know that we only receive an inheritance from parents and grandparents upon someone’s death, but this Son was able to inherit without his Father’s death. We will be told later that the Son’s inheritance is made possible by the Son’s death rather than the Father’s; indeed that our inheritance is made possible by the Son’s death.

through whom he also created the worlds. Lest we begin to think that the Son is mortal, fallible, and temporal, the author shows that He is eternal. This language is intentional and it should take our minds immediately to Genesis 1 and John 1 where we find the divine logos of God, the second person of the Trinity, present and active as the world is being created. This Son who is the spoken word of God and who is the heir of all things was also present for creation, thus being an eternal being. Can you begin to see what our author is setting up??

Our author isn’t done yet; she goes on to describe the Son as the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being. Glory, imprint, and being are terms that Jewish Christians would have understood. The Old Testament in general, and the Pentateuch specifically, are replete with references to God’s glory. Moses’ face shone and radiated God’s glory after meeting with YHWH atop Mt. Sinai; Moses says to YHWH, “Show me your glory” and YHWH passed by him. No mortal could see the full glory of God and live…and so God was imageless and invisible. Israel was commanded that she could not make graven images of God–this is why the imprint of the Golden Calf is such idolatrous sin…and here we are told that the Son is the reflection of God’s glory and the very imprint of God’s being. When one sees the Son one sees God.

and he sustains all things by his powerful word. Because this Son reflects the glory and is the imprint of God’s being, he has powerful words that sustain all things. That is, Jews believed that YHWH upheld the entire created world by his word, by his presence, by his very being, and our author now attributes that live-giving, and world-sustaining power to the Son as well. 

When he had made purification for sins. This is where things get interesting and we will be returning to these themes of purification, sins, and sitting down throughout our sermon series. The Son made the purification for sins because he was the purification for sins. Like I told you last week, Israel was used to making daily burnt offerings, weekly sabbath offerings, occasional sin offerings, and one annual offering for the atonement of sins. The Son makes the definitive, once-and-for-all purification for sins. 

What does he do afterward? he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high. This is significant for two reasons. First, this is imperial power language. Emperors and supreme leaders would often sit while their subjects stood in their presence. The right hand was the seat of power and the fact that Jesus occupies that seat and is seated in it means that he has incredible power and authority. As we know from the Nicene Creed, it is the place from which he is presently reigning and ruling over all things. Second, and of equal import to Hebrews, and this is something we will talk about more in the coming weeks, but Israel’s high priests had to perform the rituals, sacrifices, and offerings day after day, week after week, year after year. There was no time for sitting down. The high priest was always standing up, always offering, always working because their offerings were insufficient. As the Great High Priest, Jesus is able to sit down because his offering is once and for all. Period. No additives, no extras, no fine print.

This son has been elevated to a high level, for4 having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs. This verse is the crucial point that takes us into chapter 2. The author is comparing Jesus to the angels and showing that Jesus is superior. What did the angels do? It was believed in Israel that the angels gave the two tablets to Moses. The entire law, the entire writing that would encompass Israel’s spiritual, civic, religious, and moral life was handed over from God to people by angels. There are angels seated on the top of the ark of the covenant, on the mercy seat where YHWH would reside…and Jesus is greater than the angels. Can you believe that? This is our first taste of the author taking something from Israel’s past and making the argument that Jesus is superior.

This is quite the opening 4 verses to this sermon. I have just spent more than 10 minutes walking through verses which would have taken 30 seconds to read. They are that rich and robust.

When we move into our verses from chapter 2, we are again met with this idea of Jesus being superior to the angels. The author begins with a quotation from Psalm 8, “What are humans that you are mindful of them? You made him a little lower than the angels,” something highly familiar to the Hebrews. Even though humanity is lower than the angels, and remember that Jesus assumed our humanity and is therefore “for a little while lower” than the angels, God entrusted the world to humans.

I’m not even going to let you ask the question, why does any of this matter? because our author answers it for us: Jesus is elevated higher than the angels through his suffering, crucifixion, and saving work.

Jesus is “crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death.” God is glorified in Christ crucified as Christ was enthroned upon the cross. The crown of thorns and the robes given in mocking jest by the soldiers betrayed a deeper truth: the king of glory was hanged upon the tree and there we see God’s glory truly reflected. Remember that from the first few verses. The impress and imprint of God is made manifest most fully through the suffering servant who “tasted death for everyone.” 

Jesus suffers and dies so that he may bring many sons and daughters to glory. This is the Good News, my friends. This is why we are the church. This is why we are here this morning. Jesus’ death was intended as once-and-for-all in order to bring men, women, and children into God’s glory. Jesus is the pioneer of salvation and he has paid the price so that we don’t have to. Jesus has died the sinner’s death that we might enjoy eternal life in the presence of the Trinity. 

So why does it matter that Jesus is greater than the angels? It matters because he is elevated through his sufferings, he is made perfect through his sufferings, we are made perfect and saved through his suffering and death…and because of this we are able to call him brother, we are able to refer to God as abba, father. We are the sons and daughters brought into glory. Your job, beloved, is to bring more sons and daughters into glory by introducing them to our Great High Priest, the one who holds all things together, the one who has been elevated to be higher than the angels, the one who is seated at the right hand of the Father, the one who has offered himself as the sacrifice for sins once-and-for-all, that we may not die but live forever. Amen.

This sermon is from Sunday, September 26, 2021 and it was originally preached at St. David’s by the Sea Episcopal Church in Cocoa Beach, FL. where I serve as Rector. I focused on the Gospel text, specifically Mark 9:49-50. You can listen to the sermon here.

Rebecca and I started dating while we were freshmen in college. When it came time for us to celebrate our first dating anniversary, we wanted to do something special. We took a day trip to Macon, Georgia where we walked around historic downtown, we saw Three Blind Mice on stage at the theatre, and because we have always been lovers of great food, we went out to a fancy restaurant. 

These two 19 year olds, one far more mature than the other, went to Marco’s Ristorante Italiano for a romantic dinner. It was at Marco’s that I had a life-changing culinary experience. 

And you thought I was setting up a story about all the mushy, gushy stuff!

I ordered one of the house specials: the Baked Mediterranean Branzino. This wasn’t your normal dish: it was baked in a very thick layer of rock salt. For those not-in-the-know, crusting fish or meat in rock salt allows for a slower, more even cooking process. The meat is protected from the flames and so cannot be charred, burned, or scorched. 

My branzino was wheeled over the table on a cart. Then the production began. The waiter cracked through the thick layer of salt and revealed the fish contained within. The waiter then carefully filleted the fish, peeling back the skin and removing the bones, all done tableside. He then transferred the fish to my plate and then covered it in a sauce of white wine, capers, and shrimp. 

My mouth is salivating just talking about it. 

The drama of presenting and filleting the fish tableside, and then eating it has been lodged in my memory ever since. The key to the whole process was one of the most basic elements on earth: salt.

In her cookbook-turned-Netflix-documentary series, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, chef Samin Nosrat talks about the efficacy and essentiality of salt. She quotes the famous chef, James Beard–yes, of the James Beard Awards–with regard to salt. Beard once asked, “Where would we be without salt?” Nosrat answers the question: adrift in a sea of blandness.

Nosrat suggests that instead of using more, we need to use it better. Salt adds flavor to food, and it is better to add a little bit of salt at a time while cooking instead of adding a bunch at the table. Salt is a team player because in addition to having its own unique flavor, it also enhances the flavors of other ingredients.  

Salt can be used as a protective layer in baking temperamental meat because the salt creates a barrier which keeps flames out and allows meat to cook evenly and more slowly with the natural flavoring of its own juices. We only have to go back to the pre-refrigeration era when salt was used primarily as a preservative when salt was used to keep meats and foods longer, through either curing or pickling. It preserved the food because salt does not lose its saltiness or salinity. 

Even our bodies contain more salt than you may realize. Salt regulates the electrical charges moving in and out of our bodies, and it affects taste, smell, tactile functions, and our nervous systems. Our tears are salty. Basal tears and reflex tears have a higher salt content because they help keep our eyes healthy and free from debris, infection, and germs. 

You can use salt to draw out a stain from a carpet or shirt, you can place salt in your shoes to remove an odor (or so I’ve read online), and salt is used when creating bleach. Salt is used in fireworks because the energy which is created during burning emits different color lights. Salt is used by the Vatican in their chemical formula when smoke rises from the Sistine Chapel to announce the results of a papal election. 

Finally, salt doesn’t burn. At least not in ordinary circumstances. You have to reach such extreme temperatures of 1470 degrees fahrenheit in order to melt table salt, or 2575 degrees fahrenheit for it to boil. Salt might change the color of a flame–a chemical reaction having to do with energy–but once the fire is extinguished you will find the salt buried beneath the ashes. 

Salt flavors, enhances, purifies, and preserves.

Our gospel passage ended today with Jesus making some comments about salt in verses 49-50. Jesus concludes our pericope by saying: 

“For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

These verses are going to take us on a saltiness journey today, a trek of salinity, and I hope by the end of it that you will all embrace living as a salty people…and no, I don’t mean salty in the insulting sense.

As one does, we need to move backward from Mark into the book of Leviticus. I promise I’m not trying to continually plug our new Bible Study series, but trust me when I tell you that Leviticus has everything to do with the Gospels. In Leviticus 1 and 2 where we find descriptions of the offerings that Israel is supposed to offer to YHWH. 

The Israelites are supposed to make a burnt offering to YHWH on the altar. The burnt offering was made daily during morning and evening prayer, while the Sabbath offering was once a week, the sin offering was presented as needed based on the sin, and the offering for the atonement of sins was made annually. Israelites could offer an animal from the herd, flock, or air and there were various provisions made for preparing the offering. 

Salt plays an essential role in the process of koshering meat. You’ll hear more about this in October during our Bible study, “Leviticus: The Hidden Gospel,” but here are the high points. Based on the Levitical code, Jews were prohibited from eating blood. The process for draining blood from animals was intense: “The meat or poultry is soaked in clean water for thirty minutes, then removed to drip dry. After a few minutes of dripping, the meat is salted and left to hang for sixty minutes to further draw out any remaining blood. After sixty minutes of salting, the meat is washed three times in cold, clean water to remove any remaining salt.” Salt helped to draw out the remaining blood from the animal to make it pure enough for eating or sacrificing. 

When describing the logistics of making the burnt offering from herd, flock, or air, YHWH repeats this phrase three times: 

An offering by fire of pleasing odor to the LORD.

Salt was part of the purification process, but it was also part of the offering itself. If we skip to chapter 2 and read about grain offerings, we are told that, “You shall not omit from your grain offerings the salt of the covenant with your God; with all your offerings you shall offer salt.”

YHWH commands Israel to always include salt with all of the offerings presented on the altar. Salt is placed on the meat as it is being placed on the altar for burning, that it might be an offering by fire of pleasing odor to the LORD. The belief being that as the smoke and aroma rose to YHWH from the altar, he would be pleased with the offering. The quality of the offering was a mirror into the heart of the worshipper. 

The practical side of this is fairly easy to understand: salt brings out flavor and so adding salt to the burnt offering would produce a more pleasing aroma. The confusing part is the reference to the “salt of the covenant with your God.”

Don’t worry! I started you on this wild goose chase and I’m going to see you through it. Salt was used as part of covenants in the ANE because it represented perdurability and permanence, it had an eternal quality. Salt does not lose its saltiness because it is not adversely affected by time, water, or fire. It can neither be burned nor can it be drowned, and it does not weaken with the passage of time. This is why our ancestors started using salt as a preservative. 

The “salt covenant” in Leviticus 2:13 is mentioned two other times in Scripture: once in Numbers 18 and once in 2 Chronicles 13. In Numbers, YHWH references his salt covenant with Aaron and the Aaronic priesthood. In 2 Chronicles, YHWH references his salt covenant with David and the Davidic line. In both instances, the salt covenant is eternal. It is forever. 

Israel was not the only nation to include salt in their covenants. “Covenantal allies all ‘tasted the salt…’” “Loyalty to the Persian monarch is described as having tasted ‘the salt of the palace.’” “Greeks and Arabs are known to have eaten salt together when they concluded covenants.” In short, “To add salt to the offering was a reminder that the worshipper was in an eternal covenant relationship with God.”

Salt, the great purifier and preserver, the element which cleans, endures, and flavors, also represents the eternal nature of a covenant. No wonder Jesus is a priest in the line of Melchizedek forever and that he will reign on David’s throne, forever. 

Salt was a sign of promise, not judgment.
Salt was a sign of perdurability, perseverance, and endurance.
Salt was a sign of loyalty and fidelity.
Salt was a culinary depiction of Good News.

So as we come back to Jesus’ comments in Mark 9 we have to keep this in mind. Jesus has been issuing a warning to those who would cause little ones to stumble. He warns the disciples of being thrown into the fires of Gehenna where the flames are never quenched, but now he is bringing salt into the equation. It feels random and yet…

Our minds should immediately go back to the Levitical code where salt was required on all burnt offerings. 
We should remember the eternal salt covenants made with Israel, with Aaron, and with Moses.
We should remember that the salted burnt offerings offered an aroma pleasing to the LORD.

Jesus’ comments aren’t all that confusing, then. When we read them in their levitical context we see that Jesus is reminding his listeners of YHWH’s eternal covenant with and his steadfast love for his people. The focus here ought not to be on the fire but on the salt. Going with fire first places the wrong emPHAsis on the wrong syLLAble. 

In the first instance, the reference to everyone being salted with fire, the salt means that the aroma will be pleasing to God and that the offering will endure. Paul will later play with this language in his epistle to the Romans when he writes, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” Our bodies are supposed to be living sacrifices, proverbially placed on the altar before God, metaphorically covered with salt, that is the enduring covenant because YHWH’s steadfast, covenantal love lasts forever.

The second comment from Jesus is an example of obvious hyperbole. He says, “Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it?” This doesn’t make any sense because we know that salt does not lose its salinity…and I think that’s the point. Jesus is making such an outlandish statement to demonstrate just how useless salt would be if it lost its salinity. Salt is good but salt which is no longer salty is worthless…but the salt of God’s covenant is everlasting. 

The last phrase about peace is something also straight out of the Levitical Code and from the  cultures of the ANE. Peace offerings were made between individuals when one had slighted or offended another or when one needed an ally. A key component of such an agreement was either an offering with salt because the salt represented the enduring nature of the peace being made, or a meal included salt. As I mentioned earlier with the Persian monarch and acts of fealty, loyalty, or fidelity, salt was an outward expression of an inner truth: when salt was present it meant that the bond would endure. This is why Jesus can say, “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” Salt is the manifestation of the covenant and peace is the natural state of relationships for those who are in covenant with God.

This goes back to what I was talking about last week with perichoresis and being in communion. Our very existence is derived from our relationship with God. Our other relationships, therefore, must also be understood within the context of our relationship with God. Covenant and salt go hand in hand.

Jesus makes similar statements during the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 when he tells the disciples and listening crowd that they are the “salt of the earth.” If salt was intended to flavor and enhance the burnt offering; if it was used as part of the purification process and as a preservative representing the eternal covenant, then Jesus’ suggestion that the people be salty is of the utmost importance.

You, my friends, are to be salty people.   

Let’s play this all the way out with the same characteristics of salt:

Enhance – Our pericope started because the disciples had witnessed someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name and they tried to stop him. They acted territorial about mission in the Kingdom of God as though they had the corner on the ministry market. Sounds familiar to a lot of churches. 

If the disciples had been salty, they would have enhanced the ministry of others rather than trying to stop them. The phrase “in Jesus’ name” is all we need to know: this individual was doing Kingdom work. We need to be happy about the fact that other churches in Cocoa Beach are doing legitimate Gospel ministry and support them; we need to support people at St. David’s who are doing ministry even if it’s in “our” field. Salt enhances!

Flavor – Our call as Christians and as the church is to add flavor to all that we do and to everything around us. It is good that we gather together faithfully on Sunday mornings for worship and prayer, but our mission field is where we need to be salty. Getting involved with the arts, with hands-on-outreach,

Purity and Purify – Salt was part of the koshering process as Israel sought to keep clean and pure while living in the world with others. Our call is the same. We are in the world but not of the world, set up as an alternative community, a community of the resurrection, over and against the consumerism and narcissism of the world. To be pure is to allow the Holy Spirit to form and transform our hearts and minds into Christlikeness. To purify is to set on a mission of blessing the world, setting apart people, places, and things for God’s glory, helping the to flourish. We accomplish this as being agents of reconciliation, forgiving as we have been forgiven, and inviting others into the fellowship of the redeemed.

Preserve – This is the big one. Salt is the sign of the covenant because it endures forever. God has promised us his never-ending, never-dying, stronger than death, steadfast love, and therefore we have been invited to endure, to persevere, and to be preserved. We must continue on in the faith, preserving the faith as handed down to us by the saints.

Stay salty, my friends.