Sunday, March 31, 2013

Jesus as Sin Offering

Jesus as Sin Offering
Leviticus 16
            “And it shall be a statute to you forever that in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall … do no work, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you.  For on this day shall atonement be made for you to cleanse you” (Leviticus 16:29).
            Reading through Leviticus can be mind boggling.  It seems to go on forever, one sacrifice after another described in thorough detail, from the kind of animal to be sacrificed, to the way it is killed, to what is to be done with each part.  After a while it would seem there wouldn’t be an animal left in the Hebrew herds, and there would be blood all over the place.
            Let’s focus on one sacrifice—one day in the Israelite year that continues to be important today for Jews, and, in a different way, for Christians.  Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement,  is observed sometime in September.  It is the event described in Leviticus 16:29.
            God spoke in detail to Moses about the day.  Aaron, the high priest, was to wear special vestments, and was not to put them on until he had cleansed his body.  After he had bathed and dressed,  he was to offer a bull as sacrifice for his own sins.  Then he was to take two goats and choose one by lot to serve as the sin offering for the people.  This goat was also sacrificed.  The other goat was to bear all the sins of the people and be turned loose in the wilderness (the origin of our word “scapegoat”).  Finally, a ram was to be offered as a burnt offering.
            Today, while animal sacrifice is no longer practiced, Yom Kippur is still celebrated as the occasion when the sins of the past year are remembered and forgiven.  It is still a day on which observant Jews do no work.  It is set aside for fasting and prayer, a day when Jews experience the full weight of their sinfulness as well as the forgiveness of that sin.
            Christians believe there was a sin offering once that did away with the need for all other sacrifices.  On Good Friday Jesus became the sin offering for all humankind.  His death on the cross atoned for all sin, past, present and future. 
The writer of Hebrews goes into great detail concerning Jesus’ role as both high priest and sacrifice.  From 4:5 to 8:10 Jesus is described as our High Priest, one without blemish, so that he need not offer a sacrifice for his own sin.  In 9:11 the writer turns to Jesus’ role as sacrifice.  Jesus has negated the need for animal sacrifices by offering himself.  In 10:10 the writer makes it clear that Jesus has become the sin offering “once for all” (italics mine).
In the wilderness, no one was to enter the tabernacle’s Holiest Place.  This statute remained in place in the temple in Jerusalem.  Only once a year, on Yom Kippur, was the high priest to enter the Holiest Place to offer atonement for the sins of the people.  Apparently, so strict was this commandment that the other priests would tie a rope around the high priest’s leg.  In the event he died while in that sacred space, his body could be dragged out without incurring God’s wrath.  Whether this is true, or whether it was ever necessary, I do not know; but it emphasizes the importance of keeping the Holiest Place sacred as God had commanded.
Matthew tells us (27:51) that when Jesus died, the curtain separating the Holiest Place from the rest of the temple was torn from top to bottom.  This not only gave us direct access to God, but gave God direct access to us.  Now, through Jesus’ sacrifice, each of us can come to God to receive forgiveness for our sins.  No longer is it necessary to wait all year.  No longer is it necessary for anyone to represent us before God.  Our Sacrifice and High Priest has opened the door for us, and become our intercessor.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Whose Will?

Whose Will?
Mark 14:32-36
            “Never confuse the will of the majority with the will of God”
We’ve just passed Palm Sunday.  Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter are approaching.  I mention them all because the above quote applies to all—and to each one individually.
            On Palm Sunday, Jesus rode triumphantly into Jerusalem.  He rode on a donkey, a sign of peace; but the crowd didn’t see it that way.  When people spread their coats and palm branches on the ground, they were proclaiming him the conquering King, the one who had come to free them from Roman rule. 
            We cannot imagine how oppressive the Roman Empire was.  Someone has said that the influence of the Empire can be felt on every page of the New Testament.  Nothing we know is as pervasive.  For the Jewish people freedom from Rome meant freedom to live and breathe.  In Jesus, who had demonstrated his power by healing the sick, raising the dead, and casting out demons—as well as standing up to their own religious leaders—they saw One who could cast out what was for them the ultimate demon—Rome.
            The will of the majority was for Jesus to conquer Rome.  That was not God’s will.
            On Holy Thursday, Jesus celebrated the Passover with his closest followers.  It was their will that Jesus not only overthrow the double tyranny of Rome and the Jewish religious leaders, but install the disciples as the new authorities.  This is why they argued behind Jesus’ back about who was the greatest.  They would rule.  They would decide who got voted in and who got voted out.  They would occupy the thrones nearest to Jesus in his glory.
            Jesus knew this vision was wrong.  He knew what awaited him the next day, and wished that it didn’t have to happen.  Still, he knew that this was the reason for which he had come.  In the garden he prayed to his Father, “not my will, but your will be done.”
            The will of this little majority was for Jesus to honor his followers for their devotion.  Jesus knew that was not God’s will.
            On Good Friday Pilate tried to extricate himself from a difficult situation.  He asked the crowd whether he should release Jesus or Barabbas.  The Jewish leaders persuaded the crowd to shout for Barabbas.  Had the crowd been left to make their own decision, they might have chosen Jesus; but that was not to be.
            The will of the majority might have been for Jesus’ release.  That was not God’s will.
            On Easter morning the world awoke to a new reality—even though only a few had any knowledge of it.  Jesus, the Christ—the Messiah—had been raised from the dead.  His suffering was over, his reign of glory begun.  First a small group, and eventually the whole world was called to follow the risen Lord.  His closest companions followed joyfully.  Soon, followers of this new way began appearing all over the Empire.  This fledgling religion, like a tiny flame, caught hold and blazed into a force that has changed the world.
            Still, many—most—refused to accept Jesus as Lord.  They turned their backs on this new way and followed their old familiar paths.  This is still true today.  Even in our own country, which many think of as Christian, there are many who do not acknowledge Jesus as Lord.
            The will of the majority is to control their own lives.  The will of God is that we dedicate our lives to God’s service.  Whose will do you follow?

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Tension and Resolution

Tension and Resolution
Matthew 16:26
            Early in their education musicians are taught about tension and resolution.  Tension occurs when a chord is unstable—dissonant.  Resolution occurs when that tension—that dissonance—is resolved.  The composer uses a consonant chord, everything comes together, and all ends happily.
            This is also the essence of good storytelling.  “Boy meets girl; boy loses girl; boy finds girl again—and they live happily ever after” (in some form these are usually the last words of the story).  Tension is created.  Consonance occurs.  Tension is resolved.  The story ends.
            Christianity is full of such tensions.  Jesus is the Prince of Peace, yet he comes to bring a sword—to divide families.  Jesus comes as the Messiah the Jews are expecting, but because he comes as a baby, born to poor parents, and not as a conquering king riding on the clouds, he is rejected by many.  Paul says, “The preaching of the cross is foolishness, confounding the wise.” (1 Corinthians 1:18-25)  The word “paradox” seems to have been created just to describe Christianity.
            Matthew tells us that Jesus said gaining the world but losing our soul is disaster.  The world tells us that nothing matters but the world’s standards.  We are caught in the middle.  We have to live in the world.  We have to earn a living.  We have to coexist with our neighbors, our friends, our families.  Yet we know that Jesus calls us to a higher standard.  We have no choice but to live in this world, but we are told not to be of this world.  How can we reconcile these two extremes?   How can we live in the world but reject the world?
            Paradox.  Tension.  Where’s the resolution?    
            In at least one sense there isn’t one.  There are tensions in Christianity that apparently can’t be resolved.  There are well-meaning liberals and well-meaning conservatives who are committed to following Jesus Christ.  Can they both be right?  Does one side have to be wrong?  Where’s the middle ground between these two extremes?  Do we have to find a resolution?
            I think not.  I believe we are all created in God’s image.  I also believe that no one side, no one viewpoint possesses the whole truth.  Each of us reads God’s word and applies it to our own lives in the way we feel led.  Each of us hears God’s voice differently, calling us to different ways of looking at the world and its problems. 
            If we say, “This version of Christianity is right, so all others must be wrong,” we’re denying God’s sovereignty of judgment.  We’re placing ourselves in God’s chair and trying to make decisions for God.  Yes, I know we read the Bible, think we understand what we see there, and, because we need to be really sure, really right, really positive we understand God we reject all other interpretations.  If I’m right, then you must be wrong.  We believe there can be no other correct way but ours.
            Tension. Paradox.  Must there be a resolution?
            Yes, there must—but it won’t happen here.  There is a resolution, but it may not occur during our lifetime—or our children’s lifetime, or their children’s lifetime.  The resolution will occur in God’s time.  We are called to live our lives in this tension because we live in the in-between time.  Christ has come.  Christ will come again.  Until that happens, we will each interpret the Christian gospel the way we understand it, and live in faith, hope and love.
            Tension?  Paradox?  The way we live now.  Resolution?  That’s what heaven’s for.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

No Free Lunch

No Free Lunch
Isaiah 55
            “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”  I believe this statement came into being because taverns in big cities used to have lunch items available on the bar.  Of course, you had to buy the drinks.  What the tavern owner charged for the drinks more than paid for the “free lunch.” The food seemed to be free, but really wasn’t.  It was a come-on to make people buy more drinks.
            I worked for a while as a salesman for a men’s clothing store.  We charged for alterations to any suit, slacks or sport coat.  When customers questioned the charge, my boss told them that no matter where they bought their clothes they were paying for alterations.  If a store offered “free alterations,” they simply raised the price of their clothing to cover any changes they might have to make in the garment.  In effect, customers were paying more for alterations than they would at our store, where you only paid for the work that needed to be done.
We know that, one way or another, we have to pay for anything we get.  Clothing, food, amenities in hotels—everything must be paid for somehow, either in direct payment or in added-on cost.  There’s no such thing as a free lunch.
God works differently, and Isaiah knew it.  Listen to the message God gave Isaiah to deliver to Israel. 
Come, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and whoever has no money,
come buy and eat!
come buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
Israel was in exile.  The hated Babylonians had defeated the nation, desecrated and destroyed the temple, razed Jerusalem, and taken the leaders—anyone of potential importance—into captivity.  Those left behind saw no hope.  Those who had been led away captive thought they would be home quickly.  Surely God would smite their enemy and return them to the Promised Land.  But God didn’t.  They stayed so long that they gave up hope.  The prophet Jeremiah told them they might as well get used to life in captivity, settle down and settle in.
Finally, Isaiah came with a new word from God.  Lunch would be free.  They could eat and drink at God’s table “without money and without price.”  How could this be?  God says, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.”  In human transactions there’s no such thing as a free lunch.  In God’s shopping mall, everything is free.
We call this “grace.”  God gives us what we need and doesn’t keep a tab.  We get all we need to sustain ourselves without paying a cent.  In fact, we can’t pay for it.  No matter how much we have, we can never afford to buy God’s great gifts.
Grace.  Christ opened the path to grace for us, and stands at his table ready to welcome us with open arms.  All we have to do is take and eat. 
Near the end of the chapter Isaiah says:
For you shall go out in joy
and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and the fields before you
shall break forth into singing
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
Come to God’s table.  The lunch is free—really!  Free!

Sunday, March 3, 2013

No Small Parts

No Small Parts
Mark 3:14-19
            Too many times in amateur (and perhaps some professional) theatre productions, actors who have been cast in bit parts have heard the words, “There are no small parts, only small actors.”  And, to a certain extent, it’s true.  That’s why the Motion Picture Academy and other theatre arts organizations give awards to supporting actors and actresses.  Sometimes those with small parts are better in their roles than the stars.  We have all seen plays (again, mostly amateur productions) where someone with a small role is so good that he/she makes everyone else look bad by comparison—not because of an attempt to upstage the leads and take over the show, but simply because that particular actor is a great fit for the part and outshines everyone else.
            On the other hand, we know that in the majority of cases, these words have been used to soothe the hurt feelings of those who have only a few lines—or perhaps, no lines at all.  The director doesn’t want hard feelings among the cast—or worse, to have someone quit the show because he/she feels cheated.  So the director tries to make everyone feel important—even those who just walk onstage and stand there.
            A call to potential greatness or a way to smooth potentially troubled waters—whichever result is expected from the utterance of these eight words, they have become an integral part of the theatre.  As long as we have actors these words will continue to be heard.
            The same sentiment occurs in other areas of the arts as well.  The poet John Milton concludes his sonnet on his blindness with the words, “They also serve who only stand and wait.”  Even the lowly triangle player in the orchestra would be missed if he didn’t “ting” at the correct time.  Life itself is full of small roles and support personnel.
            It should come as no surprise that when Jesus called the twelve he didn’t choose all superstars.  We know about Peter, of course, and Andrew, his brother, and James and John, the “Sons of Thunder” (wouldn’t that make a great name for a pair of superheroes!).  Judas Iscariot is a name we know.  We always remember the villain.  Other names stand out:  Matthew (the tax collector), Philip, Thomas (he who has earned the nickname “Doubting Thomas”).  Perhaps you even remember Bartholomew.  But can you name all twelve?  You might be interested to know that the list changes from gospel to gospel.  Some of the “lesser” members of the twelve have such small parts that not even the writers of Jesus’ story could remember all their names.
            Some of the twelve are mentioned in the lists and never heard from again.  Then there was Matthias.  You may remember him from the first chapter of Acts.  He won the election to replace Judas.  We see his name twice ( in verses 23 and 26), and never again.
            Small parts?  Small actors?  Which is true?  Or are both true?  Or neither?  In the end, does it really matter?  We know Jesus chose them—chose them to be part of his inner circle.  He didn’t choose them because of their great reputations or excellent references.  He didn’t choose them because he saw them becoming leading actors.  He didn’t choose them to shine forth in the pages of history, to be remembered for their great deeds.  But Jesus did choose them, and taught them, and sent them out to preach the gospel, and heal diseases, and cast out demons.  It doesn’t really matter if we can’t remember their names, or if they didn’t get big write-ups in the gospels.  It matters that Jesus chose them, and commissioned them, and trusted them to do God’s work in the world. 
And Jesus chooses us in the same way and for the same reasons.