Sermon delivered by Joel Snider, pastor of First Baptist Church in Rome, G.A., on Apr. 5 2009.
I think all of us know that about 2,000 years have passed since the time of Christ. If you are not a biblical scholar, you may not know that means it has been about 3,000 years since the time of King David and close to 4,000 years since the time of Abraham. If you are doing research and you see something with a 20th Century copyright on it and think, “That’s old,” that really makes things in the Bible look way back there.
It is befuddling to us when we encounter stories of such things as sacrifices. What is all this in Leviticus about taking bulls, goats, lambs, and other animals and killing them in ritual ways? It had to be done in a certain way and only priests could do it. When we read that, we may not be sure what it meant but most of us are confident that it doesn’t mean anything today. When was the last time any of us spoke about a sacrifice as a part of a relationship to a god? When was the last time we thought there was any kind of meaning in that? When we talk about sacrifice in our culture, the typical ways that we use sacrifice are things that parents do for their kids. “I worked 60, 70, 80 hours a week so that we could take that vacation. I sacrificed.” A lot of times when we say sacrifice that means, “I worked long to be able to afford something. That is one of the most typical ways that we use it. A lot of times we use it with diets. You sacrifice something that you really want to eat for the way you want to look. All the advertisements say, “You don’t have to sacrifice calories for flavor. You can have all the taste you want. Don’t sacrifice anything.”
If there is anything about sacrifice that is the least bit religious, it may be some bizarre story in the newspaper about an animal that has been found killed someplace or a fictional sacrifice in an Indiana Jones movie. Quite honestly, whatever it meant, it just doesn’t mean anything for us today. Sacrifice is a concept that is far, far away.
This is our last step on our journey through the Lenten season towards Holy Week and towards Easter. As we have made this journey, we have looked at different ways that scripture describes what the death of Jesus means for us. We have looked at different ways the scripture uses to try to explain how Jesus’ death makes us one with God, how it puts us back together, how it makes peace with God. We have seen that there is a variety of ways that it does it. Quite honestly, the experience of what Jesus did on the cross is too much to try to capsulize in one image or one statement so the Bible uses an array of things. We talked about how it is like paying for an adoption, how it is like when Jesus steps in and is the punishment for us. We have probably all heard that Jesus is the sacrifice for our sins.
The Book of Hebrews is not a common book that we read. It is not a book that many of us are very familiar with. Hebrews 10:11-18 is about trying to help people understand they have made the right decisions. Particularly for Jewish followers of Christ in that time, the writer of Hebrews (and nobody knows who wrote the book) would compare Jesus to different things in Jewish worship. He would say, “O, Jesus is superior to angels. O, Jesus is superior to Moses who gave us the law. O, Jesus is superior to Aaron who was the first priest.” In this particular part, he said, “O, all those sacrifices, over and over and over again. Jesus is the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. He is the last one. He is the complete one. He is the final one.”
When we are growing up, even if we have not studied it very much, we have picked up some things from the Old Testament about the way people lived and we don’t do them any more. I can remember as a child asking my grandmother, “How come we don’t sacrifice?” As a seven or eight-year-old child, I was given the clear explanation that Jesus is the final sacrifice. We don’t need another.
We can all buy that, but we are all so far removed today from where sacrifice had any meaning at all that we do not understand how it works. What does sacrifice really mean? I can agree that Jesus is the sacrifice, but how does that work? If I look at it in a very cursory way, I think, “OK, I kill a lamb and that makes me happy somehow and I am forgiven of my sins.” I don’t know about you, but that is not very satisfying to me. Somehow that seems just a little empty. So let’s think about sacrifice for just a moment.
A sacrifice really had two parts. The first part was the gift. A person brought the animal. It had to be a perfect animal, an animal without blemish. It could not be one that was sick or had a broken leg because to bring an animal that was no good anyway to God would be an insult, wouldn’t it? You would only bring your best.
Imagine it this way. Let’s say it is your birthday, and I wrap up and give you a pair of my old socks. I promise you that you would not want them. Let’s just say one of the socks has a little hole in it. You open up the present and you think, “Used socks with a hole!” You would think, “He was going to throw those away anyway,” and I was so I might as well give them to you. That would be what it would be like if we were to take a sick lamb or a lamb with a broken leg or something else. You were going to get rid of it anyway. What does it say to God if that is the gift we sacrifice?
So the first part of the sacrifice is always the value. It is always an expression of “Here’s the very best I have to give to you.” It is an expression of love and affection. It is a measure of my heart.
The second part isn’t simply killing an animal. The second part is identifying with that lamb, goat, or bull. When the lambs were sacrificed at one year old, they were still small and young enough to be called a lamb. There is an African translation of the Bible where they were trying to come up with a way that would translate the idea of the Lamb of God because there were no lambs in that particular part of Africa. Finally, they translated it and called Jesus the Giraffe of God because a giraffe in their culture was an innocent, guileless, harmless creature. You have to remember this is what we are sacrificing. It is this innocent, young lamb. As I prepare to give it to God and I take it and hold it, its innocence reflects back on me and I recognize myself. I recognize this one here has done nothing wrong. How could a lamb do anything wrong? I am going to take my sin and put it on this lamb. In that moment, something is supposed to take place in my heart where I repent, where I confess my sin before God, where somehow the animal and I become one. In the death of that animal, I recognize what is supposed to be my death.
What takes place in the heart of the person who sacrifices is more important than the death of that animal. If it were just strictly the death of an animal, we could go and stand outside a slaughter house and claim all of those deaths as sacrifices for us. But we can only claim it when the death of that animal is tied to the repentance in our hearts. When I recognize that I have a need to be forgiven and I have offered this to God as a way of saying, “I love you; please accept my gift and forgive me,” then real sacrifice has taken place.
We could kill goats or lambs all day long, and if there is nothing that goes on in our hearts, it is not a sacrifice. The difference between a slaughter house and a temple is not that one has been deemed holy and one dirty. It is what takes place in the heart of the worshipper in the temple. Unless something happens in me, it means nothing.
As the writer of Hebrews has said, we have come to understand that the sacrifice of Christ was the sacrifice that has ended all sacrifices. They were going to execute Jesus. That’s what it was. It was an execution, and God said, “I am going to redeem this execution and instead of Jesus simply being a victim and it being a tragic and senseless death, this will be the sacrifice.” While you and I live in a time where we cannot go back and touch Jesus and say, “Jesus, you are my lamb and I am putting my sins on you,” by faith we can say, “My sins are on that sacrifice,” then that heart thing starts to work so that I come to repentance and I come to that moment where I realize what I really want to give to God is more than I could ever pay. “God, would you accept your son that you provided me to give so that I might be forgiven.” It is in the heart. It is not just the death. It’s what the death and what goes on in the heart do together. In that moment when I repent, I find that God has been extending love towards me all along. God wanted to bring me home. God wanted to set me free and with that sacrifice at Calvary, nothing more is needed. That was enough.
Over the weeks, we have talked about several images. There will be no test. You don’t have to be able to remember them all and you don’t have to write them down in the best order. What takes place on that cross is more than any of us could ever describe. Maybe today the image of sacrifice speaks to your heart and it enables you to understand what Christ has done in a way that something else has not. A couple of weeks ago, we talked about being slaves to sin and Christ paying the price that set us free. Maybe that is the one. Today it may be one, and next month it may be another. The important thing is not what we say about the cross. The important thing is that we trust that the cross is the way that God has done this. We don’t find peace with God by going to the seventh level of consciousness. We don’t find peace with God by obeying the rules of some other sect or religion. Our faith is the cross of Jesus Christ and all the ways we have come to understand it, all the ways that scripture describes it. It is what makes us whole with God, what gives us our peace and where our forgiveness is found. That is what makes us Christians.
Christ is indeed the substitute for our punishment. He is the price of our adoption into the family of God. He is the price paid to set us free. He is the example that shows us the way we are supposed to live. He is the last sacrifice that calls out of our heart’s repentance and says, “God forgive me. I love you.”
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.