Here is my true confession.
Of all the Advent readings following the Book of Common Prayer lectionary, this is the one that puzzles me the most.
I can think of so many other lections that would make more sense.
The justification, I think for this one is the opening phrase.–Circle that one in your Bible. “When Christ came into the world”. I think that is what ties this passage to Advent. I checked to see if maybe the Latin Vulgate used a variant of “advent” in its rendering, but it does not. It uses the word ‘ingrediens” which means “to go in” or “enter.” This makes perfect sense for our word ingredient, which are the things that ‘go into’ a dish. Don’t ever say you learn nothing from the Greenbean blog.
But watch this–Jesus is and was the missing ingredient in the world.
I’m telling you, that will preach.
Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body have you prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure. Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come to do your will, O God, as it his written of me in the scroll of the book.” When he said above, “You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings” (these are offered according to the law), then he added, “Behold, I have come [note–this word come is venio, which is in the same word family as advent] to do your will.” He does away with the first in order to establish the second. And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”
Most of this is a citation of Psalm 40:6-8. In fact, there are eighty-nine words in these verses, and only thirty-four are not from Psalm 40. This means sixty-two percent is from Psalm 40.
This leaves us to ask two questions.
The first question is, what is Psalm 40. The answer is Psalm 40 is a plea for the Lord to come and help. It begins with, “I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry. He drew me up from the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock”. The quotation Hebrews uses is not far after that, and then it is followed by a reference that sounds a lot like preaching–“I have told the glad news of deliverance”–then in verse 12 of Psalm 40 we find a reference to sin. “My iniquities have overtaken me.” Finally, Psalm 40 finishes with a reference to the enemies who gloat and a call for the Lord to not delay.
It is a beautiful Psalm. The rock band U2 wrote a song called “40” that is an interpretation of Psalm 40. It is a beautiful prayer.
The way the writer uses Psalm 40 is telling. He indicates that Jesus is the one who said it, which is for us a WOW moment. It is the equivalent of saying, “Remember that time when Jesus said “A wandering Aramean was my father?” (Dt. 26:5). There is something special here in putting the Psalms actually on the lips of Jesus in a specific way. I also find fascinating the sacerdotal trail: blessing leads to sacrifice that leads to preaching that leads to confession which leads to petition mingled with praise.
The second question is, what commentary does the writer of Hebrews add to this citation. In very few words, he adds four thoughts.
- He indicated Psalm 40 doesn’t have full meaning apart from Christ’s advent.
- Jesus canceled the old ways (law and sacrifice) in favor of the new (grace and praise).
- The new offering is his atoning death.
- We are sanctified by this new, once and for all offering.
It is a stunning theological move to take Psalm 40 and preach the atoning death of Jesus, but that is exactly what the writer of Hebrews does. This methodology would fail every seminary class, Bible test, or preaching test that exists today. You can’t just draw lines from one text to another without some kind of clear connection. Yet that is what the writer of Hebrews does. And he or she can do that, because it is scripture. You and I, not so much.
The Advent Angle
Here is your advent perspective. You cannot separate the birth of Christ (when Christ came into the world) with the work of Christ (to save human beings). The fourth Sunday of Advent, ever so close to Christmas Day, tempts the preacher and spiritual leader to move into the sweet nostalgia of glowing candlelight and drain the moment of its blood. The writer of Hebrews forbids this, and that is good reason why this is actually, against my judgment, a great Advent reading.