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Cleansed Consciences–Judica 2015


mostaert ManofSorrowsJudica—The Fifth Sunday in Lent

St. Peter Lutheran Church

Hebrews 9:11-15

March 22, 2015

“Cleansed Consciences”

Iesu iuva

In the novel Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky, a young man murders a pawnbroker. He has convinced himself that exceptional people are not bound by the laws of ordinary morality. He kills the woman with an ax and manages to escape without being found out. But he finds himself out. He is pursued by a judge he never expected—his conscience. The awareness of his crime alienates him from his family and friends. Everywhere he goes he either suspects that people suspect him, or he despises them for not knowing what kind of a person he really is.

That’s what a bad conscience does to a person. It makes them live their lives on the run from their sins and from judgment, but everywhere they go they are reminded of their guilt.

You may be surprised to know that we are living in a time when many people have bad consciences. It may come as a surprise because so many people act as if they had no awareness of sin. But don’t be fooled. We live in a time where we are told that everyone is an exceptional person and no one is bound by the rules of ordinary morality. But behind our society’s bold philosophy, which is the same as the main character’s in Crime and Punishment, is the same uneasy conscience that knows that some day there will be a reckoning.

But bad consciences are not limited to the non-believing world. You might think that Christians would be more likely than unbelievers to have a peaceful conscience. After all, we believe in “the forgiveness of sins.” But in reality just the opposite seems to be the case. Christians, you see, not only have God’s law written in their consciences, like everyone else. In addition they have God’s law preached to them from the pages of Scripture. We are much more clear on what exactly God requires of us than the world that only has the handwriting of the law on their consciences.

As a result Christians often struggle with a defiled conscience that haunts them. You probably are not haunted everywhere you go by a murder that you committed. Yet you are often pursued by the awareness that you have not been what God has commanded you to be. It may be that certain specific transgressions haunt you from the past. It may be that you chronically fall into a certain sin. Or it may not be. It’s not only sinful actions that defile us in God’s sight. We are defiled by sinful thoughts, impulses, and emotions. Anger defiles us and makes us unclean and unable to enter God’s presence. Covetous desires defile us. Lust defiles us. Lack of inclination to hear God’s Word and pray defiles us long before we have taken the sinful actions of neglecting His Word.

All these sinful impulses defile us, and the wages of all sin is death. Yet we can’t get away from them.

In fact, when we have a guilty, defiled conscience, all that we do is stained by it. When your conscience is defiled, you produce defiled works—dead works, the epistle reading calls them. You may be acting outwardly according to the law of God, but really your works are like a corpse is to a living human being. They are stiff, rotten, and unclean. That’s because they proceed from an unclean conscience that is trying to justify itself, make up for its own sins. This is what Jesus told the Pharisees. He said they were like whitewashed tombs because they looked pretty on the outside but inside were full of death.   Outwardly they strove to obey God’s law but inwardly they were full of pride, selfishness, self-love. That’s what our works are like when they proceed from a defiled conscience. Such works can’t be pleasing to God. We can’t serve God with a defiled conscience.

In the Old Testament, the priests offered sacrifices for the people when they had sinned in order that they might have a clean conscience again. But the problem was that such sacrifices were only temporary remedies. The blood of a bull or a goat, it’s death, could not really take away sin. Day after day, year after year, animals had to die, their blood had to be shed. But sins were never removed once and for all.

And the law that the Jews had, which expressed the holy will of God, was holy and good and separated the Israelites from all the other nations on earth, because they knew the will of God. But it only increased the problem of a bad conscience. The law is spiritual. It not only judges external behaviors but also the inward movements of the heart. It not only condemns murder but the anger in the heart that leads to it. It not only condemns failing to keep the Sabbath day holy but also the inward contempt for God’s Word that leads to it.

Many times we Christians turn back to the law in an effort to deal with our sin and bad conscience. WE say, “I’m going to repent and try that much harder to put my besetting sin away.” But these efforts usually only increase our bad conscience. We should fight against our sins and drown them as soon as they come to birth within our hearts. But those efforts can never give us a peaceful, clean conscience before God. We can’t give ourselves a clear conscience by any works. Efforts to do so only multiply transgressions and bring forth stillborn, stinking, dead works.

The epistle for today tells us about the true cleansing for defiled consciences. It is not accomplished or effected by us or by any merely earthly priest. It is accomplished by Jesus Christ, who is the high priest and mediator of a new and better covenant than that of the law.

In the Old Testament the tabernacle of God was divided into three sections. Outside the tabernacle was the outer court, where the altar stood. This was the closest laypeople got to the presence of God. They came near to God at the place of sacrifice, where before their eyes and all their senses was the death and burning of an animal for their transgressions.

Just inside the tabernacle was the holy place. In there was the altar of incense. Each day a priest would enter the holy place to burn incense before the Lord, signifying the prayers of the people who had been made acceptable to God by sacrifice. The priests would draw near to God here and then go out and bless the people in the Lord’s name.

Divided from the holy place by a curtain was the Most Holy Place, the holy of holies. This was something like the throne room of God on earth. No one came into the Most Holy Place except for the chief priest, and that only once a year, with blood to sprinkle to make atonement for the sins of the people. But it had to be repeated every year. There was never a time when the people could say, “Our sin is gone. It is at an end and we are at peace with God.”

Our high priest, Jesus, did not enter into this Most Holy Place. Our reading from Hebrews says He went through the more perfect tent—the tabernacle not of this creation, not made with hands. He went into the eternal dwelling place of the Most Holy God. And He went, not carrying the blood of a goat or a calf that had died to make atonement for the uncleannesses of the people. He went into the eternal presence of God once with His own blood, the blood of the eternal God made flesh in the womb of the virgin. He offered His own blood once to make atonement for the sins of the whole world. And by that one offering, says the Epistle to the Hebrews, He “secured an eternal redemption.” That means by one offering of His blood He caused all sin from the beginning of creation into eternity to be blotted out and cancelled. There is no repetition of this sacrifice, no daily or yearly offering, because by His one offering Jesus removed all our sins forever with His blood. We can now say our sin is at an end. It is removed forever.

He mediates a new covenant between us and God. Under the old covenant offerings had to be made repeatedly to cleans the consciences of the people of Israel. Every time they sinned there would need to be a sin offering. Every year the chief priest would need to sprinkle the blood of atonement on the mercy seat for the whole nation.   But Jesus doesn’t offer repeated sacrifices over and over. By the eternal Spirit of God He offered up His body and blood without blemish, without stain of sin, to the Father in His agony on the cross. By that one offering He has merited for us an eternal inheritance wherein we stand before God as His priests, servants, and sons forever. His death seals this inheritance to us.

Thus the blood of Jesus cleanses our consciences from dead works because we know that He has redeemed us eternally from sin by His one sacrifice. None of our sins are counted to us who believe in Jesus. Not even the sins of thought and emotion and attitude that constantly rise up within us. Not the sins from our past that haunt us. Not the sins we struggle with. We have been cleansed from their defilement by the death of the eternal Son, who offered Himself up for us. He establishes this new covenant or testament, in His blood, and brings it about that God regards our sins as covered, paid for, blotted out. Therefore we have no need to try to justify ourselves. We have already been justified by the blood of the eternal Son of God.

But Jesus not only atones for our sins; He also cleanses our consciences from defilement by applying His blood to us. He reconciled God to us by offering His blood for us. But He also cleanses our consciences by washing us, anointing us with His blood.

In the Old Testament if you touched a dead body or stepped on a grave you were unclean. Contact with death brought defilement, because death is the fruit of the uncleanness of sin. If someone was made unclean by a dead body or a grave, he was not allowed to come near God in the temple.

But God provided a means of cleansing from defilement. A red heifer would be slaughtered and burned to ashes, and they would mix the ashes of the heifer with water and sprinkle this on the person who was defiled on the 3rd and 7th day, and then he would be clean again.

The letter to the Hebrews says, “if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer” made someone clean who was defiled through contact with death, how much more will the blood of Jesus cleanse our consciences from dead works! In other words, if the ashes of a cow made someone clean who had touched death, much more will the blood of Jesus cleanse our conscience from sin when it is applied to us.

And how does Jesus’ blood touch us and cleanse our consciences? When it is preached that it was shed for you. That happens in preaching the good news. It is also applied to you when Jesus gives you His blood with the wine. He says, “Take, drink, this holy blood was shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. Take, eat, this holy body was given for you.” There He cleanses you from defilement; all the uncleanness of your heart is cleansed. And He has sprinkled His blood on you once and for all when He baptized you. There the cleansing properties of His blood sanctified and cleansed you. You were scrubbed clean of all your defilement because you died with Him and were raised.

So cleansed, we are able to serve God. In the flesh with our bad conscience we cannot produce pleasing works to God. But now we have been set free from sin through the blood of Jesus. We have been released from God’s wrath by the offering of His blood. We have been eternally redeemed from our sin. And we have been cleansed from sin’s defiling of our conscience by the blood of Jesus which is applied to us in the word, baptism, and the Holy Supper. With consciences cleansed by His blood we can serve God in freedom, offering Him thanks for our redemption with our lips.

We serve Him by being served by Him. He served us by offering Himself to the whips, the nails, the cross, and the spear and the wrath of God. He serves us by applying the blood He shed to our wounded consciences. We serve Him by receiving His cleansing and going forth in freedom to love our neighbor as He has loved us. Be served by Jesus. Be cleansed by Him. Then do likewise for one another, and begin to rejoice in the eternal inheritance Jesus died for you to receive.

Amen.

Soli Deo Gloria

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