November 10, 2013

A Precious Gift

My wife has a gift for giving gifts.  When people make offhand comments about needing this or that—the kinds of comments that most people, like myself, forget about quickly, she makes mental notes which hare then filed away in her brain’s “gifts” folder.  Later, when it comes time to celebrate that person’s birthday or Christmas or something else along those lines, she opens that drawer back up and is able to put together gifts for the other person that are both meaningful and useful.  For example, for my birthday, she and the boys got me one of those SodaStream drink carbonators.  It’s awesome!  You fill a special bottle up with water, put it on the carbonator, push a button for a few seconds, add whatever flavor you want, and voila!  You have your very own homemade bottle of pop.  They actually do work as easily as all the ads make it seem.  How cool is that?

A few years ago a guy named Gary Chapman wrote a book called The Five Love Languages.  In it he argued that there are five primary ways that people are wired to send and receive messages of love: acts of service, quality time, physical touch, words, and…you guessed it…giving gifts.  This means that some folks are naturally wired to express their love by giving a gift to someone else.  When folks don’t have this particular wiring, you can tell when it comes to present time.  They may accidentally get you something cool, or they may stick closely to a pre-given list, but you get the sense that there wasn’t much thought behind the gift.  Even if it was expensive, it didn’t cost very much.  But for those folks, like my wife, who are wired this way, even the smallest, most inexpensive gifts are treasures to be cherished because they cost a lot.  What more, if you know the person is wired as a gift-giver, then you are even more aware of the preciousness of the gift than the folks who don’t know this and are simply excited because the gift hit the spot for them.  And here’s the thing: the better we understand the cost of a gift, the better we can appreciate it.

Well, this morning we are getting back to our series, Making Things Right.  Before our important break last week to look at Jesus’ declaration that His followers are the light of the world and to commission the Honduras Team for their work this next week, we had spent the previous four weeks talking about forgiveness.  Actually, that’s not totally true.  We spent the first three weeks talking about unforgiveness.  We started out by establishing a baseline for this whole series: if we don’t forgive, we won’t be forgiven.  Unforgiveness prevents us from being able to receive the forgiveness of God for our own sins.  From there we got a lot more personal.  Unforgiveness is not merely some abstract idea that will put us in the wrong line come judgment time.  Unforgiveness is a deeply personal issue that separates us from our heavenly Father now causing a whole assortment of unfortunate side effects.  But, it doesn’t stop there.  Unforgiveness goes on to poison the whole relational networks in which we are involved.  We attempt to force all the people around us, including our kids, to see the world through our bitter lens which, again, causes all sorts of problems.  Finally, two weeks ago we made the pivot toward forgiveness itself.  After stringing you along with the dangers of unforgiveness for three weeks we finally talked about how to actually forgive someone who has hurt us.  Through the story of Joseph’s forgiveness of his brothers after all the garbage they put him through we discovered that forgiveness first demands a full acknowledgement of whatever the offense was.  Then, we step down from God’s throne, honestly assess our duty when it comes to justice, work to get a broader perspective on things, and, most importantly, release the other person from the debt they owe us.  We release them just as God releases us from the debt of sin we owe to Him.

You know, though, thinking about the debt from which God has released us, it’s sometimes hard to really get our minds wrapped fully around it.  I mean, okay, we talk from time to time about sin and how terrible it is, but on a day-to-day basis most of us—myself included—don’t really think in terms of the full weight of sin.  We easily profess our belief that forgiveness is a great gift, but sometimes I think we don’t really grasp just how great it is.  Like the person unwittingly receiving a really cool gift from someone wired to show love through gift-giving, we appreciate it because if we’re honest, we know we’ve done some bad stuff, but we don’t really have a handle on the full weight of the cost behind it.  Now, yes, I did take the numbers from Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving servant a few weeks ago and said that our debt to God would be like someone sinning against us every fifteen minutes without fail for 100 years straight only bigger.  But still, that’s a big enough number as to be abstract no matter how we phrase it.  And here’s the thing: until we understand the cost behind a gift, we can’t fully appreciate the gift itself.

And so, as I was thinking about how we could really wrap our minds around the sheer cost of the gift of forgiveness God has given us, I thought about an attempt to do so by one of the writers of the New Testament.  We don’t actually know the particular author’s name, but his letter to Jewish background believers, possibly in or around Rome, presents one of the most astounding pictures of the what and the who of Jesus in all of Scripture.  Today we call this letter, which is really more of a sermon, Hebrews.  After spending the beginning of the work describing who Jesus is in all His glory, in the second major section of the letter the author spends several chapters focusing more on what Jesus did.  With his audience in mind, the author casts Jesus in the role of the high priest of old but on a much, much grander scale.  There is a portion of this discussion that I think helps paint for us a clearer picture of the sheer cost of the gift of forgiveness we have from our heavenly Father.  If you have a Bible in some fashion early, find your way to Hebrews which is near the back of the New Testament.  Once there, find your way to chapter 9.  We’ll pick up at v. 11.  Follow along as I read.

“But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.  For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.”

Now, there’s a lot going on there, a lot of which we are not going to deal with this morning.  But there is some background that is necessary to really get our minds around what the author’s talking about here.  The author here is talking about the Jewish sacrificial system that was set in place in the Law of Moses and had been mostly practiced since then.  The sacrificial system was designed by God in part as a way for the people to purify themselves from sin.  It never gained for them the lasting forgiveness that we know today, for as the author of Hebrews notes a little while later, “…it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.”  But, in God’s grace, the sacrificial system did do two things.  First, He allowed for the blood of those bulls, goats, sheep, and birds (for poor folks), to serve as a kind of stand-in for their own blood.  I said last week that forgiveness always requires a death which always means the spilling of at least metaphorical blood.  In order for human sins to be forgiven, human blood is required.  How much?  All of it.  You can perhaps see, however, that a truly fair system like that wouldn’t last long.  Thankfully, God isn’t fair.  He’s loving and just.  Because of this, He commissioned the use of animals in our place.  The second thing the sacrificial system did, though, was to remind the people how awful sin actually was.  If we aren’t paying a personal, physical price for our sin it is easy to begin to think that it isn’t really all that big a deal.  Just the opposite is the case.  The sacrificial process was a reminder of this in that it was not a neat and tidy affair.  Listen to a few verses on the process of sacrificing a bull from Leviticus 4.

“If anyone sins unintentionally [what a gracious assumption on God’s part!] in any of the Lord’s commandments about the things not to be done, and does any one of them, if it is the anointed priest who sins, thus bringing guilt on the people, then he shall offer for the sins that he has committed a bull from the herd without blemish to the Lord for a sin offering.  He shall bring the bull to the entrance to the tent of meeting before the Lord and lay his hand on the head of the bull and kill the bull before the Lord.  And the anointed priest shall take some of the blood of the bull and bring it into the tent of meeting, and the priest shall dip his finger in the blood of the bull and sprinkle part of the blood seven times before the Lord in front of the veil of the sanctuary.  And the priest shall put some of the blood on the horns of the altar of fragrant incense before the Lord that is in the tent of meeting and all the rest of the blood of the bull he shall pour out at the base of the altar of burnt offering that is at the entrance of the tent of meeting.”

Now, that’s pretty detailed stuff, but can you get a picture in your minds of what’s going on?  The one who sins actively slits the throat of the animals, in this case a bull.  That’s a pretty grisly thing in and of itself.  But then, he takes some of the blood to dip and sprinkle and rub on the altar.  The rest of the blood gets poured out at the base of the burnt offerings altar which was essentially a big, open barbeque.  I did some digging because I was curious.  An average young bull has somewhere in the neighborhood of 4-5 gallons of blood in it.  Large bulls have more.  Even for sheep and goats, though, there’s about a gallon of blood.  When you take that, add the entrails spilling out all over the place, the butchering that has to be done, the smell in the hot, desert climate, the clouds of flies, and multiply it by 100 or so, you have the makings of a stinking, disgusting affair.  All because of sin.  There was no question in the minds of the people seeking to have their sins covered that sin was a messy, costly, stinking, disgusting affair.

What more, in spite of lasting for several centuries, this really wasn’t a long-term, modern solution to the problem of sin.  Can you imagine the sheer number of bulls and cows and goats and sheep and birds that would be necessary if Christians—all 2 billion or so of us—were still engaging in this practice today?  PETA members around the world would collectively have a heart attack.  I mean, the covenant (which is a super-promise that established an operational framework between God and us) of the law itself which established the sacrificial system was certainly an act of God’s grace because He could have left them to their own devices in their sin.  But the truth is that a new covenant was needed.  Yet, covenants between God and people always required blood.  In fact, covenants generally required blood.  We can talk about why another time, but for now you just need to know that covenants required blood.  The problem then, became: whose blood?  The blood of the inaugural sacrifice had to ceremonially pure.  There could be no fault or blemish.  Also, again, it really couldn’t be animal blood because animal can’t take away sin; it can only cover it.  The penalty for sin is death and in His mercy God accepted an animal’s death in place of our own even though this didn’t really pay the price and only dealt with a single, specific sin meaning an endless line of sacrifices were necessary.  So then, the question becomes how to solve this problem?  How to create a new covenant, and new standard of operation, that would result not merely in the covering of sin on a sin-by-sin basis, but rather a permanent offer of forgiveness of sin in order that God would now be able to fellowship with us permanently if we took Him up on His offer?

The solution, of course, was Christ.  He became the high priest for all humanity.  A priest is simply someone who speaks to God on behalf of the people.  Jesus got before God, not simply by going into a physical temple that was merely a representation of the throne room of God, but by actually entering into His throne room to intercede before God on our behalf.  Moses did this on a number of occasions for the people of Israel.  They blew it in a big way, God declared He had had enough and was going to wipe them out, Moses spoke up and defended them, and God relented and them another chance.  All Moses could do, though, was offer animal sacrifices to cover for the people’s sins.  Jesus gave Moses the big one-up.  Instead of sacrificing an animal for our sins, because He was fully human and totally without sin, He sacrificed Himself.  He poured out all of His own blood in order to not only see our sins forgiven—real forgiveness this time because the accounting was equal—but to initiate a new, permanent covenant of forgiveness through grace wherein anyone who accepts Jesus’ Lordship can receive forgiveness of sins.

Come back to the text with me at v. 15: “Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant.”  Make sense now?  We have forgiveness because of Christ’s sacrifice.  A few verses later he sums all of this up by saying something really important that we’ve been saying all morning: “…without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.”

This once again brings us back to this critical point.  Forgiveness requires death.  It always has.  It always will.  There is no forgiveness unless a death of some kind takes place.  When someone has offended us, we have to die to ourselves, to our ego, to our desire to be God, in order to release them from the debt they owe us.  For God to be able to extend to us the forgiveness that He has, a death had to occur.  But, unlike the merely metaphorical death that occurs when we forgive someone who’s hurt us, here an actual death was necessary because there wasn’t any metaphorical death that could adequately pay the price.  The reason for this is that when someone offends us, we’re not the chiefly offended party.  God is.  This is because all creation belongs to Him and if something is wrong in His creation He is the one most bothered by it.  But, since He’s already forgiven them by virtue of the death and resurrection of Christ, no more real deaths are necessary, only the death of our illusions to be something more than we are.  But again, for God to forgive us a physical death was necessary.  Either we had to die or somebody else had to die in our place.  But, if someone was going to die in our place they had to be perfect in every way.  Otherwise he could have only paid the price for his own sins.  And, since sin keeps happening, it had to be a sacrifice that could suffice once for all time.  But only God could ordain that.  Friends, this is exactly what Christ’s sacrifice did.  Jesus Christ the God-man gave up His life on our behalf dealing with sin finally and for all time.  Christ’s self-sacrifice paid the price permanently.

I know you’ve heard something like that before if you’ve been around the church very often, but think about it for just a second.  The fact is, you’ve done some things wrong in your life.  We both know that’s true.  You’ve been in a place where you’ve needed forgiveness.  Even if there wasn’t another person specifically in view, you’ve done some things you knew were offensive to God because your conscience started going haywire when you did them.  You’ve done some things that made you want to look for someone to make things right.  What more, you’ve done some of these things more than once.  In fact, some of them have you stuck in crazy cycles where you keep doing the very thing about which you feel so badly.  You keep trying to make restitution with someone, but it’s not making any real difference.  You need a forgiveness that lasts and which further, enables you to start making some head way on whatever it is.  You need someone to pay the price permanently because you sure can’t seem to do so.  Thanks be to God: Christ’s self-sacrifice paid the price permanently.

Come back to the text with me one more time at v. 24 to see the results of this: “For Christ has entered not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.  Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then [Christ] would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world.  But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.  And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.”

Christ’s self-sacrifice paid the price permanently.  As a result, we can be saved permanently from our sins.  We were saved when Christ died and rose.  We are saved the moment we place our faith on Him and accept His self-sacrifice for what it was.  We will be saved fully and finally when He returns again to make us complete in His image.  Now you know as well as I do that this doesn’t mean we won’t sin anymore.  There’s still a war waging between our old flesh and our new spirit and sometimes we fall back into our old ways.  But, the price for our sins has been paid; we need only seek the forgiveness and receive the gift.  This gift of salvation, however, is not merely concerned with making us well.  It serves to make us whole such that over time, as we live in and out of this salvation, we gradually come to sin less.  Our desire for sin begins to weaken as we allow the Holy Spirit further and deeper into our hearts.  What an amazing gift this is!  The animal sacrifices of old may have pressured the penitents a bit to sin less simply by force of their gruesomeness and economic impact, but they didn’t offer any help beyond this.  This new gift of salvation, though, is infinitely more precious.  It was given by the one who is the giver of all good things.  And now that we understand the cost better we can appreciate it all the more.  Christ’s self-sacrifice paid the price permanently.

 

Since we have been given life, how then shall we live?  We are to live a life that is totally consonant with the gift we’ve been given.  And the better we understand the gift—as we have sought to do this morning—the more truly we will live.  We were given this gift in order for us to not die, but live.  Therefore, in our lives we must choose life.  We cannot walk the paths that bring death.  Sin is, for followers of Jesus, utterly inappropriate.  It’s unseemly.  It feels wrong.  If we were given a gift to draw us out of the hands of death, why would we pursue the kinds of behaviors and actions that necessitated death in the first place?  Lisa gave me the SodaStream as a fun way to make drinks.  It wouldn’t make any sense for me to use it as, say, a step stool.  Christ’s self-sacrifice paid the price permanently.  There’s no reason to test it.  It doesn’t make sense to receive a gift and use it in a way other than it was intended.  That’s an offense to the giver.  So instead we take the gift and use it as it was intended.  With my SodaStream, I enjoy the drinks.  With the gift of forgiveness intended to bring us life, we live.  We make choices that bring life.  We put others first.  We put God’s kingdom before even that.  We give generously to others from our overflow—and we all have some overflow.  We expose ourselves to media that encourages and affirms us and doesn’t poison our minds and hearts with garbage.  We share the life we enjoy with others.  We work in every situation and with great intentionality to see the people around us become more fully who God designed them to be.  And yes, we forgive.  In short: We live.  Death and all its fruits are no longer necessary.  Christ’s self-sacrifice paid the price permanently.  So let us receive the gift and live.