Hebrews 9:23-28 “A Second Round”
I know that many of you here this morning are big fans of golf; however, I want to start now with a story about golf for someone we all know and love who is watching this on video because he is working at the golf course right now. This is for you, Robert: “A pastor who really loved to play golf on his day off was in prayer on his hands and knees before the Cross of Jesus. In his prayer time, his thoughts drifted to the golf course. Just then an angel of the Lord appeared before him and reassured the pastor that indeed there are many greens up in heaven. They are all well maintained. The skies are always blue and sunny. The tuft is always trimmed perfectly. The pastor was very excited and thanked the angel for this glimpse of heaven. The angel then continued, by telling the pastor that there was only one problem with the golf greens in heaven. God had the pastor booked for a foursome that Sunday!”
Okay, that was a joke. Here is a true story. I have only ever played golf once in my entire life. I have only ever hit one round of golf. This was way back when I was a teenager, and my best friend (whom I just visited two weeks ago in Los Angeles) invited me on a Saturday morning to go out with him to hit nine holes. My friend had been practicing for years in fact. He had his own clubs. He said I could borrow his father’s set. So, we went down to the greens and teed off.
It must have been beginner’s luck, or what I do not know, but I ended up at par or under on every hole. My best friend was struggling. Sometimes your game is just off, right? By the ninth hole, my friend was actually becoming perturbed at me. So, I told him I had promised my dad to help him with yard work that Saturday and had to cut the game short. For the next few weeks my friend was very sullen with me. He did not enjoy losing to a first-time golfer. To preserve my friendship with my best friend, I just made a decision that I would never play the game again, lest he might ask me for a rematch. To this day, we have never held a second round.
Maybe one day in heaven we will have our second round! That is in fact what our scripture is about today. It is about the next time humanity will meet up with the very person of God, that being Jesus Christ. We get a second round with God. We get to see Jesus again in heaven.
Please remember that this letter is written originally to the Jews in Rome after the death and resurrection of Jesus. Have you noticed that there really is not a lot of talk about heaven in the Old Testament? Once you get to the New Testament, we see a great focus on heaven, but not so in the Hebrew Scriptures. To this day, the focus of Jewish faith is on making THIS life matter because the thinking is that there are really no guarantees for the life hereafter. I can relate to this understanding in so far as if you had never heard of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, then what else would you believe?
The Jews of the day did know this much about a heaven: God was supposed to reside there. Even if you were never going to heaven, you were assured through scripture and faith that God and God’s angels were there! Perhaps the closest understanding that a Jew of the day would have had to what heaven was like was being in the Temple in Jerusalem. The Temple in Jerusalem was built to be a mini “heaven on earth” where God could reside. That is why there was a seat built on top of the Ark of the Covenant that was held in the Holiest of Holies in the Temple, so that God could sit there!
Some of you may be thinking, “Well, that sounds kind of sketchy.” If you are thinking this, then you understand the first line of our scripture for today that says exactly that. The representations of heaven in the Temple are mere sketches—hypodigmata in the Greek. The word “hypo” in the Greek means “less than” or “under.” So, what is represented in the Temple is a cheap knock-off copy of the true realm of God. So what good is it?
Throughout the Middle Ages Christians, both Catholic and Orthodox, built huge churches with vaults and domes plastered with images of heaven that were gilded with flakes of gold. Stepping into a church was supposed to be like entering heaven. To be honest with you, I have spent a lot of time visiting the cathedrals of Europe. I can honestly report to you that I would not want to spend my afterlife in any one of them. They are all cold and musty. They have too many hollow echoes to carry on a decent conversation. And, the thought of cleaning and maintaining that huge space is hardly what I would want to do for an eternity. No thank you!
You know, in the Old Testament, we can find in fact one story of Elijah going up to heaven. Let us look at 2 Kings 2:11, “. . .a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven.” This is indeed the only reference in Hebrew Scripture of a human being able to reach heaven. This is a very special story and explains why the Jews were prone to thinking that Jesus was Elijah.
What happens when Elijah is taken up to heaven? How does the story continue? There is no more mention of Elijah once he is gone. His protégé, Elisha, continues the prophetic ministry, but we do not know what Elijah experiences as he ascends to heaven to be with God.
In Acts 1 of the New Testament, we can read about how Jesus ascends up to heaven. No whirlwind and fire this time. In fact, these seem to be reserved for the coming of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2. Jesus is flanked on both sides by angels. Unlike Elijah, we DO know what happens when Jesus ascends and finds himself in heaven.
Let us read therefore verse 24 of today’s scripture: “. . .He entered the true heaven to face God on our behalf.” The Greek word here that is translated as “appear in the presence of God” is “prosopon” which literally means “face.” Jesus is face-to-face with God on our behalf.
Please recall that the last time humanity went face-to-face with God was when the Almighty called Adam and Eve to account for themselves in the Garden of Eden after their temptation.
Now Jesus is in heaven standing face-to-face with God, saying in effect, “Look, humanity deserves its second chance. I died on the Cross bearing the sins of the world. Let them play the second round!”
What is the second round about? Look at verse 28. On the second round it says “not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting. . . .” The second round is our salvation! Now, I have to admonish the translator here just a little bit. The word that is being loosely translated as “waiting” is actually “apekdechomenos” with its root word being “dechomai” that means “to take in hand or grasp.” You have to imagine that we have our hands up in the air begging to be taken up to heaven just as Jesus was that we too can be face-to-face with God once more. It is as if we are on bended knee in our prayers of contrition and the very hand of God comes down to us and brings us face-to-face. I hope you agree that that is a little more powerful than just waiting for salvation!
Let me be perfectly clear about this: This whole text from Hebrews is about something new that really had not been offered before: “SALVATION.” You see, the understanding here is that we cannot pull ourselves up to God in heaven on our own. It is just impossible. Nothing we could ever do would make us good enough to go face-to-face with God. When we accept this notion that we are therefore in need of salvation, then we lift up our hands and wait eagerly for God to pull us up to heaven.
At the Tuesday morning Bible Study it was well affirmed that what is unique about the Christian Church is this notion that is not found in any other religion or faith tradition on the planet. We grasp for God, and God pulls us up to heaven—not because we have earned it, but because God has the grace and power to save us. Our faith is about a salvation from God. We have faith that this is the Truth of our days because Jesus is the forerunner of our faith. Do you all remember a few weeks ago when we were in Hebrews 6:19-20? “We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters the inner shrines, behind the curtain, where Jesus, a forerunner on our behalf, has entered.. .. “ Because Jesus died but lived again and went face-to-face with God in heaven, we shall also know ascension. So, Jesus is like the guy who played this course before you and is now waiting for you at the 19th hole.
This life on earth is not the end for us. Maybe you have played your 18th hole, but you get that second round. This is really what the church is about. It is not about creating some sketchy version of heaven on earth. The church is about grasping for God so that we can be saved to the true heaven that is possible through Jesus.
As a closing thought, that we should receive that grace from God that God would reach down and lift us up from our grasping hands, does not mean that we can go about our normal sinful lives. What our salvation means is that one day we will surely go face-to-face with the Almighty. The Book of Life is opened, as we know from Revelation 20. We are left justifying our days here. How will you justify the first round? Did you play to your best? Did you cheat? Are you even ready for the second round?