People often look for a sense of peace by pursuing religion. There is a sense of peace that can be obtained through a perceived connection with transcendence. In other words, you feel connected to something much bigger than yourself, and so someone or something, good hopefully, is in charge. Also, religion satisfies the craving that we seem to have for “cosmic justice.” Whether through karma following the evil throughout history, or a judgement of the wicked at the end, religion helps restore our sense that justice will be served. And so we can make some sense of suffering and gain a sense of peace. Therefore that people pursue religion is very natural. But does it work? While religion can bring us a sense of peace, can religion bring us real peace with God?
The answer is hinted at in the events of Christmas. Consider the religious leaders of the day and their participation at the manger scene. Were the priests invited to see baby Jesus, or did they take the initiative to go and see? No. Were the pharisees invited to see baby Jesus, or did they take the initiative to go? No. And the scribes? Again, no. When God sent His angels to issue an invite to come see the newborn king, none of the religious types were invited, but instead shepherds! The shepherds likely would not have been welcome in the Temple because their work with animals would make them “unclean,” but they were welcomed into the presence of Emmanuel, “God With Us.” And the magi took the initiative to go and see. Admittedly, the Bible does not explicitly place them at the manger and they may have shown up quite a bit later. Regardless, they were not even of the right religion! Right from the get go we have a sense that Jesus is not going to be about religion. He is going to be about God reaching people, all kinds of people.
If the Christmas story hints at religion being incapable of ushering us into the presence and peace of God, then the Bible explicitly states it elsewhere: “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4 NRSV). There is much religion and many religious rites presented in the Bible, but they are not an end in themselves. Instead it all points beyond itself to God and the fact that the sin-caused gulf which exists between God and humanity is real and a real problem. But religion can never get us right with God, and so can never really give us assurance of peace with God. You get the sense that no matter how much religion you do, it is never enough: “And every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins” (Hebrews 10:11 NRSV).
How then can peace with God be found?
Let’s take our focus from the manger to the cross: “But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, ‘he sat down at the right hand of God'” (Hebrews 10:12 NRSV). Notice the contrast between the priest who must continue standing for his work is never done, and Jesus who sits down because His work is accomplished. One is reminded of Jesus’ words on the cross: “It is finished.” It is through Jesus that our sins are atoned for and dealt with. It is through Jesus that justice is fully served and love is fully expressed. Religion does not bring us peace with God. God brings us peace with God.
Now many say things like “all religions are different paths that lead to God.” This expression does not work well because the different religions have different ideas of who God is in the first place. Some religions don’t even have a concept of God. And the expression does not work well for Christianity, for we do not see the Christian life as a journey that leads to meeting God at the destination. We are in the presence of God now! We do not live good and holy lives along the way so that we can some day be with God. We live good and holy lives because His love and His presence drives us to repentance. We live in His presence day by day, He is with us for the journey: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20 NRSV)
You are invited! Just as the shepherds were invited to meet the King of kings and Lord of lords, so are you. Not through religion, but through His grace.
19 Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Heb 10:19-22
(The full and rather long sermon can be heard at http://goo.gl/SFiSkp)
Photo is of a manger scene my Dad painted which now sits outside of our home.