7/6/2020 11:12:41 AM
What God Did: Sacrifice
Pastor Kyle Bitter - The Fifth Sunday After Pentecost - Sunday, July 5, 2020
Isn’t it amazing what a difference good cameras and modern computer enhancement technology can make to a person’s appearance? Maybe the most obvious example is the side-by-side pictures you sometimes see of a movie star or celebrity as they appear on the big screen compared to their appearance in regular life. Sometimes they’re hardly recognizable as the same person! Maybe you’ve seen the same thing on a more personal level by playing with the filters and lenses available on snapchat or Instagram or other similar apps. You can see wrinkles disappear, skin blemishes clear up, you can look years older or years younger, whatever you want – amazing differences to your appearance! Even though we all know such things are not representative of reality, we still find ourselves somewhat drawn to them – at the very least enough that we use them somewhat frequently. So why is that? I suppose on the one hand it’s just fun – it’s kind of a cool toy. But, I think there is also a part of us that is drawn to the idea of things being better than they appear to be.
We have a deep-seated desire that things should be better than what we see around us, and that’s not something that is limited to physical appearances! That desire extends into ethics and morality too, and it might be even easier to see there! Just look at the collective outrage people are experiencing right now over things that are unfair or unjust. Even if the unfair events don’t personally affect you, people look at injustice and say, “that kind of thing just shouldn’t happen!” It should be better! And it’s not just out there. How many of us as children, or how many children today, have said, “that’s not fair,” only to be told, “well, get used to it! Life’s unfair!” And that’s true…but we still have the sense that it should be better than what we see!
You know what? God shares that desire. It’s all over the pages of scripture. God told Abraham: “I am God Almighty. Walk before me and be blameless.” (Genesis 17:1b – NIV84). He told the Israelites as a nation: “You must be blameless before the Lord your God.” (Deuteronomy 18:13 – NIV84). In Proverbs, the book of wisdom, God says “He delights in those whose ways are blameless.” (Proverbs 11:20 – NIV84). And the list goes on – the same word, often translated “blameless,” is used 91 times in the Old Testament, usually to describe what’s pleasing to God, and there are other words and phrases that communicate similar ideas! God wants the same thing that we find ourselves longing for. He wants perfect. He demands justice. He expects blamelessness. And, he created us with this desire, because this is the way God wants things to be, because holy, perfect, unblemished, blameless, those are all words that describe God himself!
But the problem is no matter how hard we try, words like flawless, perfect, or blameless are never words that will describe us. We never get there, and people torture themselves over that sad reality! Appearance related mental health issues, eating disorders, and money spent on cosmetic surgery and the like tells the story – we still haven’t reached the perfection we want! It’s true in ethical and moral issues too. The fight against injustice and unfairness is ongoing, but the problems are never solved and we find ourselves asking the same question again and again: How can such things happen in our society! It should be better! It’s in personal life as well. Sometimes it happens that a person makes a single mistake, and then pays for it for life when marriage falls apart, a child or parent is alienated, a friendship is destroyed. You find yourself wondering, “how could I have done that? I should be better than this!” And even if by God’s grace you avoid the kinds of things that cause such public problems, we’re all familiar with the nagging voice of the conscience, reminding you that while you might be pretty good, and you might even have convinced other people you’re really good, you aren’t good enough. You should be better.
Did you know that even Moses, the great servant of the LORD from bible history, could hear that same voice in the back of his mind? Despite the fact that God had called him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, despite the fact that God had used him to part the Red Sea, despite the fact that he had carried out God’s will in so many other ways, Moses wasn’t good enough either. You can see that in the first verse of today’s sermon text: “The LORD called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting.” (Leviticus 1:1 – NIV84). God was in there, Moses was on the outside. God spoke to Moses from the tent because sinful Moses couldn’t stand in the presence of God. No one can. And the implication of that for eternal life in heaven with God are obvious. But, that’s exactly why God was speaking to Moses at all!
Moses wrote what God told him in the book we know as Leviticus. If you’ve ever tried to read the bible straight through from beginning to end, Leviticus might be the place where it started to get hard. It’s filled with all kinds of strange sounding rituals and rules that God asked his Old Testament people to observe. Some of it is hard to understand. Much of it seems very foreign. But all of it points to the same general thing – something has to change if sinful people are going to be worthy to approach God. Something has to change if people are ever going to be considered to be good enough – not just to ourselves and to each other, but to God. God pictured the change that needed to take place by establishing a ritual known as sacrifice. Very foreign to us in the 21st century, but filled with symbolism pointing ahead to the beautiful truth of what Jesus would come to do. Listen to what God wanted the people to do in their worship lives. He told Moses: “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: When any of you brings an offering to the LORD, bring as your offering an animal from either the herd or the flock. If the offering is a burnt offering from the herd, he is to offer a male without defect.” (Leviticus 1:2-3a – NIV84). And there’s that same word we talked about before once again – the word describing what God demands. This verse could be translated: “he is to offer a male animal that is blameless.” Blameless: as the people were not. Blameless: as even Moses was not. Blameless: as is pleasing to the LORD. “He must present it at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting so that it will be acceptable to the LORD.” (Leviticus 1:3b – NIV84).
What was the point? The next part of the ritual shows that. “He is to lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it will be accepted on his behalf to make atonement for him.” (Leviticus 1:4 – NIV84). Laying his hands on the head of the animal was a symbolic transfer of responsibility – this blameless animal would go in place of the worshiper and his family, carrying the responsibility, the guilt for the way their lives had been lived and suffering the justly deserved consequences! “He is to slaughter the young bull before the LORD, and Aaron’s sons the priests shall bring the blood and sprinkle it against the altar on all sides at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting.” (Leviticus 1:5 – NIV84).
The visual effect had to be powerful – imagine a child seeing this for the first time and realizing what this means: this innocent animal was slaughtered as payment for the sins of that child and the rest of his family! Day after day, year after year, sacrifice after sacrifice, the point was pounded home. There is no forgiveness of sins without the shedding of blood – and if blood isn’t shed by the one who committed the sins, someone else has to die instead! The ritual concluded like this: “He is to skin the burnt offering and cut it into pieces. The sons of Aaron the priest are to put fire on the altar and arrange the wood on the fire. Then Aaron’s sons the priests shall arrange the pieces, including the head and the fat, on the burning wood that is on the altar. He is to wash the inner parts and the legs with water, and the priest is to burn all of it on the altar. It is a burnt offering, an offering made by fire, an aroma pleasing to the LORD.” (Leviticus 1:6-9 – NIV84).
It was a truth pounded home year after year, generation after generation, connected by God’s promises to the real sacrifice many years later that Jesus would make. We remember that sacrifice in the portion of the Apostle’s Creed we have before us today: Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.” The connections are easy to see. Jesus was a blameless sacrifice – totally innocent of wrong-doing, yet condemned to die in Pilate’s courtroom. In Jesus, you don’t see single act of injustice. You can’t find a single mistake for him to regret. He never heard a peep from the voice of his conscience, because there was never any sin. But, he took the guilt of your sins, my sins, the sins of the Israelites, the sins of Moses, the sins of everyone on himself and was slaughtered in our place, pouring out his blood at the cross and suffering the anger of God so we don’t have to. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!” he cried out as God turned his back on Jesus, as sin deserves. And then it was done. Jesus said, “It is finished,” and it was. Sin had been paid for. The final sacrifice had been offered and nothing further was needed. The voice of your conscience and mine can be silenced forever, because the sins it dredges up have been paid for.
The effects of sacrifice produce a powerful change in the lives of God’s people. You can see that happening already with Moses. The next book of the Old Testament after Leviticus is titled Numbers, and it begins in almost the same way as Leviticus – but not quite. See if you can spot the difference. “The LORD spoke to Moses in the tent of meeting…” (Numbers 1:1 – NIV84). Did you catch it? God didn’t speak at Moses FROM the Tent of Meeting like in Leviticus! With the sacrifices described in Leviticus in the background and functioning as a part of the worship lives of God’s people, God spoke to Moses IN the Tent of Meeting. No longer was Moses unable to speak directly to God! The bloody sacrifice had changed things! Not because the animals offered were something special, but because even these Old Testament sacrifices were connected by God’s promises to what the coming Messiah Jesus would do in sacrificing himself!
The effect was far larger than just Moses. You see, what’s described here is not the only kind of sacrifice God’s people made. Later on in Leviticus God describes another sacrifice called a Fellowship Offering. This ritual was a communal meal of thanksgiving where God through his priests and the people would eat together, celebrating the relationship that had been restored between the holy God and sinful people. During this ritual too, blood was poured out as a reminder that the only way this happened was in the blood of a sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins.
That effect extends down to today. You could describe our lives as an ongoing Fellowship Offering of sorts. In fact, the New Testament calls the Christian life a living sacrifice. Just as God welcomed Moses into his presence and spoke with him through the blood of sacrifice, so also God welcomes you into his presence and speaks to you through his Word. He invites you to share his table where you receive the very body and blood that were sacrificed for you! And he invites you to live your life looking through the filter of the sacrifice Jesus made for you.
That means you can look past your own flaws and sins, whatever they might be and no matter how obvious they might appear, because you know that in Jesus’ sacrifice they are gone. God sees you as blameless, holy, perfectly acceptable in his sight – exactly the person he needs to carry out his will in the specific way he has placed before you! Look at other people through that filter of Jesus’ blood too, and you will see past the sins and flaws and shortcomings and see instead a person God loves, a person for whom Jesus sacrificed his life, just like he did for you. That perspective given by Jesus’ sacrifice for you – that’s the solution to struggles with your own flaws and shortcomings. That’s the solution to division and strife. That’s the solution to unfairness of every sort – not anything and I do, but marveling at What God Did in Sacrificing his Son for you. Amen.