Old Testament sacrifices
Isaiah 1:10-20, Psalm 51, Hebrews 9:11-15, St. John 8:46-59
What Can Wash Away My Sin?
It was Nathanael who said, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46). I was reminded of these words last week when Marjorie and I were in her native state of Illinois. In our fallen human condition we tend to seek someone to look down on, the better to exalt ourselves.
In Illinois, folks pick on the citizens of a neighboring state. They say, “Can anything good come out of Indiana?” The idea is that those Hoosiers are all hicks and hayseeds. The straw stuck between their teeth gives them away.
They lack the polish, wit and charm of Illinois sophisticates. Expect the snobbery to escalate. As Chicago, racked with crime and debt, continues to suck the entire state into a giant sinkhole the size of Lake Michigan, Illinois people will seek more and more targets for their scorn.
They might even notice Oklahoma eventually. The more I think about it the more offended I become. So I want to put in a good word for Indiana. It does have redeeming qualities. A candy-maker in that state wanted to make a candy that would serve as a Christian witness so he made the Christmas candy cane.
He incorporated several symbols for the birth, ministry and death of our Lord Jesus Christ. He began with a stick of pure white hard candy: white to symbolize the Virgin Birth and the sinless nature of Jesus and hard to symbolize the solid rock, the foundation of the church and firmness of the promises of God.
The candy maker made the candy in the form of a “J” to represent the precious name of Jesus, who came to earth as our Savior. It could also represent the staff of the Good Shepherd with which He reaches down into the ditches of the world to lift out the fallen lambs who, like all sheep, have gone astray.
Deciding the candy was somewhat plain, the confectioner stained it with red stripes. He used three small stripes for the blood Christ shed on the cross so that we could have eternal life.
So the execution of the product was flawless but a breakdown occurred in the marketing. The candy became known simply as the candy cane. Rather than a sweet witness to the gospel it became a mindless decoration that turns up every year at Christmas time, signifying nothing at all. The fellow’s heart was in the right place. Maybe he should have called it the Jesus cane.
In any case, something good has come out of Indiana. On this Passion Sunday I want to focus on the blood. God’s purifying activity within us is ever before us. Each week we ask in the Collect for Purity that God would “cleanse the thoughts of our hearts . . .”
But never is this work of purging us of our sin more evident than on Passion Sunday. We hark back to the time, two weeks before His glorious resurrection, when Jesus began to demand His disciples face the fact of His impending suffering and death.
Today commences Passiontide, the slog through the gloom of the final fortnight to the brilliance of Easter Day. Already, we have begged God for mercy. In our Collect of the Day we prayed, “We beseech thee, Almighty God, mercifully to look upon thy people . . .” Our Lord’s blood is the most eloquent expression of God’s mercy.
Now, as you know, we went to Illinois to bury Marjorie’s mother, Norma Edwards. I arrived with our epistle lesson for today rattling around in my head, and especially the explanation of Christ’s high priesthood:
“Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?”
Christ is our Mediator with His Father and ours, our conduit to God. It is because He offered His blood to cleanse us that we have access to our Father on high. That we may enter into His presence when we assemble not only on Passion Sunday but on each and every Lord’s Day.
We drink His blood that He might be in us and we in Him.
So it is that the words of two of the hymns we sang at the funeral service, words I had heard and sung many times before, resonated within me in a special way. From “How Great Thou Art”:
And when I think, that God, His Son not sparing;
Sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in;
That on a Cross, my burdens gladly bearing,
He bled and died to take away my sin.
And from “Victory in Jesus”:
I heard an old, old story,
How a Savior came from glory,
How He gave His life on Calvary
To save a wretch like me;
I heard about His groaning,
Of His precious blood’s atoning,
Then I repented of my sins
And won the victory.
Chorus: O victory in Jesus,
My Savior, forever.
He sought me and bought me
With His redeeming blood;
He loved me ere I knew Him
And all my love is due Him,
He plunged me to victory,
Beneath the cleansing flood.
And when I think of these, I can’t help playing in my mind an old gospel song: “What can wash away my sin? What can make me clean within? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.”
The hymns of our faith are drenched in blood because our Scriptures are so drenched. The New Testament gives us more than 40 references to the blood of Christ, all testifying to its great importance in the salvation of the believer – and not that alone but in our daily life.
Judas the betrayer spoke of it as “innocent blood” (Matthew 27:4) and Peter called it “the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot” (I Peter l:9). It is the cleansing blood in I John l:7 and the washing blood in Revelation l:5, stressing that it removes the guilt of our sins.
Paul calls it the purchasing blood in Acts 20:28 and the redeeming blood twice (Ephesians. l:7; Colossians. 1:14), thus declaring the shedding of Christ’s blood the very price of our salvation. Therefore, it is also the justifying blood (Romans. 5:9) and the blood that brings peace (Colossians.1:20).
Its efficacy does not end with our salvation. It is also the sanctifying blood (Hebrews 13:12). There is infinite and eternal power in the blood of Christ, for it is “the blood of the everlasting covenant” (Hebrews 13:20).
The first reference in the New Testament to His blood stresses this aspect. Jesus said, at the last supper: “This is my blood of the new testament (same as ‘covenant’) which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (Matthew 26:28).
Let no one, therefore, ever count the “blood of the covenant . . . an unholy thing” (Heb. 10:29), for the blood of Christ is forever innocent, infinitely precious, perfectly justifying, always cleansing and fully sanctifying.
The last reference appears in Revelation 12:11: “And they overcame him (Satan) by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death.”
During Passiontide, the themes of sin and pardon mingle, salty and sweet, in our lessons. We anticipate with joy our Lord’s resurrection — and our resurrection with Him. At the same time, His word keeps before us our sin that made necessary our pardon which He purchased with His blood.
The prophet Isaiah frames the issue for God’s people in his day, still centuries before the coming of the Christ, and the problem could hardly be more acute. Week after week, season after season, year after year, the people offer animals on the altar of their Lord. They comply with His commandments – or so it appears – but God’s prophet informs them their sacrifices avail them nothing.
All of their offerings are in vain. “To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices to Me?” says the Lord. “I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed cattle. I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs or goats.”
This systematic sacrifice of dumb beasts is, of course, precisely what Yahweh has prescribed for His covenant people. And as ancient religions go, this one is almost abusively demanding, in terms of both time and money. During the nine-day period from the Day of Atonement through the final day of the Feast of Booths the Israelites sacrifice 73 bulls, 15 rams, 107 lambs and nine goats.
The Israelites bring their offerings faithfully. What is their Lord’s complaint?
They have come to the sacred place, the temple, on the sacred day, the Sabbath, to offer sacred sacrifices . . . but they have brought with them as well their sin of which they have not repented:
“Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; put away the evil of your doings from before My eyes. Cease to do evil.”
What have God’s people withheld from their heavenly Father? The same thing their primal ancestors, Adam and Eve, would not offer to Him: themselves. The life is in the blood (Leviticus 17:11); the blood is emblematic of their very being.
God in His great grace has suffered them to offer to Him the blood of bulls and goats as a substitute for their own . . . but the blood of a beast means nothing to the Creator of all that is. Absent the worshiper’s heartfelt contrition for his sin and acknowledgement that he owes God his very life in payment for violating the divine holiness and polluting the creation, the blood he offers might as well be dishwater.
Taking up Isaiah’s theme, the author of Hebrews teaches that the blood of bulls and goats could only ever have sanctified for the “purifying of the flesh.” This was a surface scrubbing that could not penetrate to that asylum deep inside us where the root of our sins abides.
What can wash away my sin? What can make me clean within? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
The second Adam will come and offer what the first Adam withheld, His perfect obedience, His very being. This Messiah will be the Savior of the people of God; He will bathe them in the blood of His righteousness and, cleansing them, He will share His resurrection with them.
St. John reports on one of Jesus’ many disputes with the leaders of Israel. Our Lord tells them, “He who is of God hears God’s words; therefore you do not hear, because you are not of God.”
As they say on late-night television, but wait, there’s more. Abraham, their patriarch, says Jesus, is one of His biggest fans. These Jews are so flummoxed they’re gargling with their own blood. How can this impudent rabbi claim to have known Abraham? Jesus answers, “Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.”
They have no doubt as to His meaning. When Moses asked Yahweh for some credentials to establish his God-given authority before the Israelites, Yahweh told him, “Thus you shall say to the children of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you’” (Exodus 3:14).
Jesus, the carpenter’s son, the Nazarene – Can anything good come out of Nazareth? — is claiming to be God. Blasphemy! They take up stones to stone Him; He eludes them.
This encounter takes place in the temple, where they offer the blood of bulls and goats. They do not know Him for the only acceptable – the perfect – sacrifice, who will offer not the blood of beasts but His own blood.
They do not recognize Him as the ultimate High Priest who is Mediator of the new and better covenant, who will make His offering not in a tabernacle made with hands but will present it to God in the true Holy of Holies, the sanctuary on high.
As the Ebola outbreak spread across Africa in 2014, and then across the world, fear spread even faster than the disease itself. In the U.S., new fears flared when a nurse at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas contracted the deadly virus from a patient, a Liberian who brought the virus into the country when he came to the US to visit family.
The most alarming element of this case was that the nurse seemed to have followed all the rules, adhering strictly to Centers for Disease Control protocols for prevention and protection. Everyone wanted to know, “How could this happen?”
In all the hand-wringing that followed, a senior fellow at the London Center for Policy Research observed, “It’s hard to trust the CDC when there is no room for error.”
That was precisely the problem with the law: no room for error. The apostle James declares, “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it” (James 2:10).
Protocol could not save them. So it was that our Father on high sent His beloved Son to shed His blood for our redemption.
In our conscience, beloved, resides the knowledge of our acts that lead to death – eternal separation from God – that bar us in the here and now from offering ourselves finally and fully to Him. But because of what Christ has done the approach to the divine throne stands wide open.
For the Israel of God, as St. Paul calls the New Testament church, real worship can flow out and merge with the pure waters of the river of life. Only take this blood of Christ that cleanses all it touches and use it to relieve your consciences that you might enter into the holy presence.
Those Jews of yore clung to their old liturgy that could not cleanse their consciences, did not clear their hindrance to unsullied worship. Year after year, the people gathered on the Day of Atonement – Yom Kippur.
But only the high priest could approach God in His sanctuary, and only then with an offering of animal blood for his own sins and another for the sins of the people. There they enacted this liturgy with the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, only to re-enact it year after year.
A clean slate on Yom Kippur was nothing more than a white suit in search of a dirt road on a rainy day.
Our Lord bids us, “Follow Me!” into the heavenly Holy of Holies, enter into My once-for-all offering of Myself for the cleansing of your consciences. The Mediator of a new and better covenant has brought into the world a new and better liturgy.
Enacting this liturgy, we enter into His perfect sacrifice, which in Biblespeak means “complete.” It is never to be repeated. We are baptized once into a passion suffered once as a sacrifice offered once for the sins of all . . . of all who embrace this truth.
They looked ahead to another sacrifice and another and another; we remember an offering made once-for-all. It comes far more dear than theirs . . . but we do not bear the cost. And now prepare your hearts to enter anew into the new and better liturgy with a conscience salved by the blood of the Lamb. Amen.