Christ

Wholly Thine

Usually when we talk about Old Testament sacrifices, we end up exploring how they are precursors to Jesus’ death on the cross. His is the ultimate, all-atoning sacrifice, covering sins for all time.

The kind of sacrifice we see described in Leviticus 1:1-9, what we sometimes call “the whole burnt offering,” takes us there, but in a roundabout way. Like the other sacrifices described in Leviticus, it is an ancient practice, a Bronze Age ritual filled with blood and fire. The only similar experience we might have today involves smell—at some point in the process, that bull on the altar must have given off an aroma like steaks on a grill.

The point of the whole burnt offering still resonates today, though. For the one making the offering, it was an act of deep commitment.

Note again what was required to make this offering: an unblemished bull, what today would be a prize winner at the county fair. (People also could bring a male sheep or goat, or if they were poor, a bird. We’re going to focus on the bull today, however.) Such a well-formed beast usually represented years of careful breeding, hard work and what we might call a little luck.

The bull was valuable, not just for what it represented on the hoof, but more for what it represented in offspring for years to come. Bred with the right cows, it could make its owner and his family comfortable, well-off or even wealthy. With such a bull roaming his fields, a man might feel a little more secure in his future.

Instead of leaving it to do what bulls do, however, the owner chose instead to take this prize bull and have it turned into ashes and smoke. Unlike the other types of offerings, there was not the opportunity for the owner or even the priests to consume any of the meat. The priests were entitled to the skin only.

When the time came, the owner would stand before the bull and lay his hands upon the animal’s head. There must have been a sobering moment when the owner could feel the life in the animal, its pulsing, its twitching, perhaps its nervousness at the strangeness of the surroundings. Then, if the ritual were performed as it was typically done throughout history, the owner would slaughter the animal himself, cutting its windpipe and esophagus quickly and deeply with a very large, sharp knife.

Blood would have flown, of course, with the priests catching it and flinging it against the altar. The bull, so alive in one moment, would have buckled and fallen before the owner who had fed it and tended it with such care. It would then be cut up and burned according to the prescriptive details we find in Leviticus.

Certainly, it was an act of atonement, but the whole burnt offering was different from the sin offerings in one particular way. It was far less about blood and much more about establishing a right relationship with God. Or think of it this way: It was less about what a person had done and more about how a person intended to live.

First, if you haven’t picked up on it by now, the bull was intended as a gift to God. It was turned to smoke as much as possible because that is how Bronze Age Israelites perceived offerings going to God, by way of smoke, up into the heavens. A gift was a formal expression of a desire for solidarity, or even friendship.

Second, it was an act of dependency. The one making the offering was saying, “God, I need you more than I need this bull. God, I trust you more than I trust in my own ability as a breeder,” or whatever other occupation might make a person well-off enough to own such an animal.

And despite the seeming primitiveness of the whole burnt offering, we should be able to connect with what was happening in the heart of the worshiper when such a sacrifice occurred.

In fact, it is easier for us to reach that place where we no longer stand in cringing fear of God because of sin. God has made it easier. We simply claim Christ as our own, and the claim sin has on us vanishes. Through Christ, the path to a loving relationship with God has been made clear and simple.

What remains for us is a response to the gift of eternal life we’ve been given. What kind of gifts do we give to the one who has done so much for us already? How do we acknowledge our dependency?

Perhaps we need to determine what our bull in the field is. What might we have bred and grown for our own security, and how might we release that to God, demonstrating our trust in him?

For each person, the answer will be different. The question is well worth considering, however, particularly when so much ministry in the world is needed.

A Very High Price

 

El Greco, "Christum am Kreuz," c. 1578, oil on copper, via Wikimedia Commons

El Greco, “Christum am Kreuz,” c. 1578, oil on copper, via Wikimedia Commons

1 Peter 1:17-23

What is salvation worth?

Strictly in terms of what it costs us, salvation is worth very little. In fact, we usually talk about salvation as a free gift from God. And like a lot of life’s freebies, even people who accept the general idea of the gift can begin to devalue it.

They may even treat the free gift as something to be taken seriously only when necessary, maybe in old age, near death. To do so, they of course must first deny the possibility that life could deviate from the course they have imagined. But once they’ve firmly deluded themselves on this point, salvation becomes like a gallon of milk to be picked up on the way home from work, except salvation seems cheaper.

Such a human perspective is very wrong, however. Salvation should never be treated as if it is worth what it costs us. The value of salvation is rooted in what the gift cost God. Writing this down, I almost feel silly stating something that seems so obvious. And yet, even people who call themselves Christians sometimes act as if they don’t get it.

The Apostle Peter addressed the cost of salvation in a general letter he wrote to be circulated among churches, a letter we now call 1 Peter. We cannot even begin to quantify the value of salvation in terms of earthly wealth, he tells us. A perfect, sinless being, a man who also was fully God, died so we would not face the punishment we are due for defying our creator.

Why? Simply because the one who made us loves us so much.

In this Easter season, let’s revisit the cross. Most of us have heard stories of Jesus’ humiliation, beating and gruesome death. There was another kind of pain, however, a deeper suffering.

Think on your worst sins. Think of the pain they caused, the damage they did to those around you. Christ absorbed the effect of those sins, removing the power those sins had over you. Now we begin to understand the real pain of the cross—Christ bearing our sins and every sin ever committed. What astounds me is that the tremendous weight of our sins did not rip Christ from the cross and crush him.

I also suspect it was more than just the sin in humanity that caused Jesus to suffer. When evil first escaped into the world, creation was fractured mightily, like a porcelain vase tapped with a hammer. In his suffering and dying, Christ repaired all the cracks, pulling them together with his pierced, outstretched limbs in ways we cannot comprehend.

One drop of his holy blood is worth more than all the gold in the universe, and much more than one drop was shed in the remaking of creation. We already have seen an initial sign of this remaking in the resurrection, and because we are freed from sin, we will see the remaking in full.

When we accept this truth, we begin to live in new ways—not because of any rules we’re following, but because we know we can never provide an adequate response to what God has done. We begin to live as if we’re actually astonished by God’s love.

How do we not respond with everything we have: our time, our money, our very lives? In Wesleyan denominations, we speak often of sanctification, of growing in our love so we respond to God and those around us as Jesus would. Every step on this path to holiness is made by better absorbing the truth of what Jesus did, of what he continues to do this day in the world through the Holy Spirit.

I ask you again: What is salvation worth? Let your answer guide your life.

Flesh Like Ours

First Sunday of Christmas

Hebrews 2:14-18 (NRSV): Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.

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‘Tis the season to remember God behaving strangely.

For thousands of years, humans thought of gods as peculiar, distant beings. They were demanding, capricious things to be appeased.

If you were particularly lucky, the One True God, the Creator God, revealed himself to you in obscure ways: a voice, an impulse, a burning bush. But to see his face was to invite death. For sinful humans, a full dose of holiness was poison.

The One True God did eventually tell us his name, “I Am,” hinting that greater intimacy was possible. The great I Am also made promises. You turned away from me, and now pain and death are your chosen portion. But one will come to deliver all of humanity.

Imaginations reeled at the possibilities. Perhaps I Am would raise up a mighty king, one swift and terrible in his power, destroying all who failed to swear allegiance to the One True God. God’s people, the Israelites, would rule the world. And I Am would smile on them in what the prophets called The Day of the Lord.

That’s the kind of messiah the human imagination creates—a mighty man, a prince of fire, a holy Rambo for the ages.

A show of power was standard operating procedure for any god. And certainly, the One True God had revealed his power before. What else should humanity expect of God Almighty?

“And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”

God in squirming baby flesh? God in poverty, born in a barn? That’s strange.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

God as the loving peacemaker, offering grace to his enemies and exhorting us to do the same? That’s stranger still.

“And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.”

The Son of God nailed to a cross? The sinless God-man dying for our sins? Bizarre.

Once you accept those ideas, the mystery of the resurrection begins to make sense. If the Creator God wrapped himself in humanity only to be vanquished by death, wouldn’t the universe dissolve? Jesus had to walk out of the tomb.

Let us revel in this strange time of year, when we remember God doing the unexpected and anticipate the promised return of Jesus Christ, Lord of all.

‘Tis the season of the flesh and blood God.

Gimme Three Steps

However you’re tempted to sin, there’s a way out.

That’s Paul’s promise in the 10th chapter of his first letter to the early church in Corinth. He begins with a reminder of the early history of the Israelites, evoking images of them fleeing Egypt, escaping Pharaoh’s army, crossing the Red Sea, and wandering in the desert for 40 years.

He highlights particular sins they committed during that time: idolatry, sexual immorality and complaining. These are just three items on a very long list of sins potentially separating us from God, but Paul makes a point of connecting these three sins to death.

It’s not difficult to see how these ancient temptations remain relevant today. We don’t make little idols out of wood or metal too often, but we live in a culture that offers us many alternatives to God. I would define an idol as anything that becomes more important to us than our relationship with God. Some examples might be sports, celebrities, work, or the acquisition of wealth for wealth’s sake.

Sexual immorality has become so rampant that we now live in a culture trying to redefine what God has clearly defined as sin. Many of your minds went to homosexuality when you read that previous sentence, but it’s important we keep that particular sin in context with other sexual sins. Frankly, within the church we have a more visible problem, if we’re just willing to see it. It is sex outside of marriage—premarital sex and adultery.

I’ve actually known people who railed against homosexuality while they were at the same time involved in adulterous or extramarital relationships. But in God’s eyes, they are all grievous sins. And the readily available, addictive nature of pornography only makes matters worse as people engage in behaviors that actually change the chemical structure of their brains, damaging their ability to participate in present and future holy relationships.

The sin of complaining also is not hard to find in modern times. It’s the sin of negativity, an unwillingness to trust that God is at work in the world. The early Israelites failed to trust God when he was visibly before them. We fail to trust God despite his full revelation to us through Jesus Christ and the promise he is changing the world now through the resurrection.

At a minimum, these sins can bring about the death of dreams and plans. At worst, they can separate us from God in ways that lead to eternal death.

So how do we escape? If we trust the Bible, we have to believe what Paul tells us: “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”

As I was working on this sermon, the Lynyrd Skynyrd song “Gimme Three Steps” kept coming to mind. It tells the story of a man in a bar who has gotten a little too friendly with another man’s girlfriend, and he ends up “staring straight down a forty-four.”

When you’re looking down the barrel of a very large gun, you’re facing death. The frightened man asks for one thing, “three steps toward the door,” a way out.

When we’re facing sin and the death sin brings, we need three steps away from where we’ve found ourselves. Here are the three best steps I know to take:

Prayer. Yeah, I know, preachers are always telling you to pray. But I mean it. When you realize you’re about to cross a line, stop and reconnect with God. Temptation arises when the connection is broken. It doesn’t have to be a fancy prayer. A good start would be, “Lord, help me out of this situation where you and I both know I’m weak.”

Scripture. The Bible isn’t just any book. Believers understand there is life-changing power from God flowing through it as we study its words and absorb their meaning. Learn where the Bible talks about your temptation. Learn also where the Bible offers you words of comfort and grace in difficult times.

Accountability. Here’s the step most American Christians don’t like to consider. This involves a relationship with another strong Christian who can talk with you in confidence when you’re struggling. Maybe it’s a one-on-one accountability partner who has faced similar temptations. Maybe it’s a small group of people you can trust. This third step is so important—it is your accountability partner or partners who act as the presence of Christ. They allow the Holy Spirit to fill them so God is visibly with you as you struggle.

By the way, if you’re in the Kingsport, Tenn., area, there’s a new Friday night worship opportunity that should result in the formation of such accountability groups.

Finally, remember that we’re doing more than just avoiding death. We’re accepting the life God continually offers us. As Paul tells the story of the Israelites in the desert, he speaks of the water that sustained them, water flowing from a rock as needed. “And the rock was Christ,” he says.

It’s a startling reminder. The redemptive aspect of God has always been with us; Christ simply was most visible on the cross. He remains with us today, continuing to heal us from sin.

Thursday’s Reflection on Ash Wednesday

Somber as it was, I really enjoyed being with the folks of Cassidy UMC at the Ash Wednesday service. It is a very powerful, personal experience for me to place ashes on the foreheads of adults and children as we remember our mortality and dependence on God. I pray that Lent will be a deeply reflective time for all, and that we will draw closer to God.

We showed a brief video during the service, and in it there was a phrase that startled me. I don’t remember the lead-in exactly, but the video was listing things we should give up. One was “false relief.” At first, I thought it was a typo, that it was supposed to say “false belief.” But false relief makes perfect sense—think of all those things not of God that we do to escape the brokenness of our lives. When we give up false relief, we are left with nothing but true relief, the redemption and renewal Christ has brought into the world.

May we worship well throughout Lent and rejoice at the message of Easter.

Budding Prophecies

Jeremiah 1:4-10

I’ve always been intrigued by preachers who use the title “prophet.” A prophet’s prospects for long-term popularity seem dim, at best.

Prophets may be well-known in their time, perhaps even gathering astonished crowds with miraculous signs. The actual act of prophecy, however, is unlikely to make the prophets many friends. And the more prophets prophesy, the less their audiences seem to like them.

And yet, what higher human calling can there be? Yes, prophets sometimes speak of the future. But more importantly, to prophesy is to be so directly connected to the mind of God that you can speak God’s will directly into the everyday world.

Young Prophet

Jeremiah was a prophet, called at a very young age to speak God’s will to God’s chosen people—a people divided politically, anemic in their faith and on the verge of a terrible downfall. He was so young, in fact, that he protested his calling, citing his youthfulness.

The ability to prophesy is not rooted in human concepts like age or education level, however. It is not even rooted in a particular prophet’s immediate existence, in his or her conception and birth. Judging from Jeremiah, God’s placement of prophets through history is strategic and part of the plan of creation.

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you,” God said in his opening revelation to Jeremiah. “I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”

It is as if God wired creation with a broadcasting system, and the prophets are the woofers, mids, tweeters and subs resounding according to the Creator’s will.

When God speaks, change usually is demanded, particularly when the situation has become as unholy as the one in which Jeremiah found himself. And therein lies the problem for the prophet. People are naturally resistant to change. In fact, I would argue that the further people are from God, the more resistant they are to holy change. It certainly seems to have been the case in Jeremiah’s day.

Loud Complaints, Heavy Burdens

Jeremiah’s pronouncements were so strong, in fact, that we now call lengthy complaints “jeremiads.” God complained loudly that his chosen people had turned away, looking to other gods. Through Jeremiah, God warned the people they were headed for disaster. The disaster—the siege and conquest of Jerusalem by the Babylonian Empire—happened during Jeremiah’s prophetic tenure.

The burden of all this prophesying took its toll on Jeremiah, as it does on prophets throughout the Bible. Consider what Jeremiah was called from the start to do among his own people, to “pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow.” Only later would his prophecies contribute to building and planting.

During one particularly trying time, Jeremiah resounded bitterness: “O Lord, you have enticed me, and I was enticed; you  have overpowered me, and you have prevailed. I have become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me. For whenever I speak, I must cry out, I must shout, ‘Violence and destruction!’ For the word of the Lord has become for me a reproach and derision all day long.”

His only comfort lay in his understanding that those who would persecute him would face God and eternal dishonor. And yet, he still wished that he had never been born. The Bible is silent on Jeremiah’s end; stories outside the Bible indicate he was stoned to death by his own exasperated people.

A Fire Within

So why prophesy? Why suffer so? Jeremiah answered that question in his discourse of complaint, recorded in Jeremiah 20:7-18. “If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,’ then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.”

Prophets prophesy because they are made down to the marrow to do so.

Now, there can be joy in prophecy; there are times when the prophets glimpsed how God’s plan to save unholy humanity would unfold. For the Old Testament prophets, it must have seemed a vague, distant joy, like a clear sky on a deeply cold night about an hour before sunrise. There are at least nine places in Jeremiah where the prophet saw the Christ to come.

Think how blessed we are, knowing the story of Jesus Christ in full. Through prayer and study, we can so much more easily understand the radical truth of what God is doing in the world to save us.

Prophets for Today

And yet, we still need prophets, or at a minimum, prophetic moments implanted in us by the Holy Spirit. It remains a difficult world. Just as it happened in Jeremiah’s day, people turn away from God now, trading a potentially eternal relationship for what is immediate and worldly.

We are called to examine ourselves and change our ways. We are called to find ways to convince others to practice a vital, ruddy faith, one rooted in the bloody cross and the dawning resurrection.

If we take such steps and speak what we hear from God, there are plenty of people out there who will want to stone us, certainly figuratively and perhaps literally. But with the Holy Spirit burning deep in our bones, how can we not prophesy? After all, we have been remade down to the marrow.

Leveling and Straightening

Isaiah 40:1-11

I’ve recently developed a new appreciation for flat, smooth roads.

I bought something called a Trikke, which looks like an oversized kiddie scooter. It’s not for toddlers, however. Instead of a platform, there are two bars running from the front wheel to two back wheels. You stand over the two back wheels and hold on to a handlebar, which controls a long post attached to the front wheel.

The joints are all cambered; to make the Trikke go, you get it rolling by kicking the ground scooter-style and then twist and rock the whole thing to propel the inverted V forward. I got the Trikke for exercise. (I seem lately to be suffering from “fat pastor syndrome.”) Riding this contraption is a lot of fun, but frankly, I’m not yet very good at it.

The Trikke goes great downhill, of course. I can keep it going pretty well on a level, smooth surface, too. As for uphill—well, at least I get a lot of exercise pushing it, looking like Fred Flintstone starting his car as my feet scurry between the v-shaped bars.

Because of my Trikke experience, Isaiah 40:1-11 has taken on a whole new meaning for me. “Make straight in the desert a highway for our God,” we read there. “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low, the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.”

Not that the prophet was saying God would arrive in the Holy Land on a Trikke.  It’s just that I’ve developed a new appreciation for smoothing out those physical hills and rough places that also stand as symbols of life’s impediments, its pain and disappointment. (Overweight bicyclists, hikers and runners will probably understand this metaphor, too.)

The people of Judah, one of two kingdoms that had come out of a fractured Israel, certainly would have understood Isaiah’s words on both a literal and metaphorical level. In the 39th chapter, Isaiah had predicted the Babylonian conquest and the taking of God’s “chosen people” into captivity as punishment for their sins. In the 40th chapter, however, Isaiah seems to be addressing people already in captivity, separated from their homeland by a rugged stretch of desert.

While comprehensible, Isaiah’s words also must have sounded very strange. No hope seemed in sight for a captive people far from home. The idea of the God who had condemned them leading them home along an easily traversed highway must have seemed improbable, even on a metaphorical level.

Perhaps that explains verses 6 through 8, with their withered grass and faded flowers standing as Lamentations-like complaints about the temporary nature of life. When God seems far away and you see nothing but life’s pain, cynicism creeps in. Isaiah tries to reflect the mood of the times he lived in, as well as difficult times to come.

He also notes, however, that the word of our God will stand forever. It is a nugget of hope, both for the Jews trapped in bondage and for us today.

During this Advent season—this time of year when we re-experience the Jewish longing for a messiah, and our own longing for Jesus Christ’s return—we remember this passage from Isaiah for the encouragement it ultimately brings. God does come.

“See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him,” Isaiah says. “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.”

Eight centuries later, another prophet, John the Baptist, would evoke Isaiah’s words in proclaiming Jesus as the promised Savior. And it was God himself, we discovered, who would level and straighten the path through our rugged, sin-pocked deserts so we could return to a relationship with our creator.

God triumphs! He triumphs through Christ’s suffering and death on the cross, with Jesus’ resurrection providing proof that sin and death are defeated.

Following God’s straight, smooth path requires only that we believe—no theological twisting and contorting, no pushing our way over the hills. Simple belief.