Leviticus 16: 6-10; Hebrews 11: 11-14
Human beings, along with any number of other animals, certainly cannot live without water, nor can they live without blood. Horror movies love to show blood, usually in the form of red food coloring put in Karo Syrup. Alfred Hitchcock, in his famous shower scene in the film “Psycho,” used chocolate syrup going down the bathtub drain instead of blood because he said it photographed like blood for black and white film. According to the American Red Cross website, 38,000 blood donations are needed each and every day; and every year, there are 15 million blood donations! When someone is in an accident, almost always there is a need for blood; only those awaiting surgery “bank” their own blood, and it just lasts a short while. So donation of all types of blood are needed; to put the wrong type of blood in a person can kill them; to withhold the right type of blood for an accident victim can kill them. Blood is liquid life! Now enough about blood for a moment, remembering that my son Chris can get faint at the sight of it! But our center hymn today is even called colloquially, “one of the blood hymns,” because it proclaims that by Jesus’ blood, shed for us, we are saved. Historically it was with the blood from a Passover lamb, splashed on the door frames of Hebrew homes that notified the angel of death to “pass over” that house, thus keeping those children safe. That story is in Exodus. So the deliverance of the Hebrews from captivity, and the salvation of Christians from darkness all have to do with the blood of “a lamb” for one, and the blood of “the Lamb” for the other. Both faiths describe a way to bring the children of God closer to God when they move far away through their sins. For Jews, Yom Kippur is known as “The Day of Atonement,” the day that moves the people of God closer to God. Can you believe that it is only once a year that Jews get a chance to bring their regret about, repentance from, and restitution for their sins before God for forgiveness? What a burden: carrying around your sins for 12 months before having a Rabbi declare that you are clean! For Roman Catholic Christians, the upcoming Ash Wednesday is one of a handful of days on the calendar when the “faithful” line up for the Sacrament of Confession. Priests declare forgiveness after some action of penance or some price of indulgence is paid. For Protestants, there are a variety of times one can ask for forgiveness. For Charismatic Christians, droves of people raise their arms before Christ in tears of sorrow at the end of evening services, asking to be rid of the devil as they call out Jesus’ name in rapid fire fashion. Baptists and some Methodists hold revivals, and when they do, they sing gospel songs like the ones I have included today. They weep, they pray, and they sing twenty nine or so verses of “Just As I Am,” listing every known sin under the sun: usually they include drinkin’, smokin’, cussin’, and card playin’, along with stealing and coveting and all the rest. You might have come from such a church. There are other Protestant churches that are labeled by some as “soft on sin.” In those churches you may never hear a sermon on condemnation of sin, or the redemption of the sinner, or the mention the devil. Their aim is to bathe their parishioners only in positive, uplifting words. And then there are other churches, like ours, where Christians weekly are reminded of their sinfulness through a prayer of confession, who understand that words of forgiveness are offered by a worship leader, but realize that forgiveness is “actually paid for” by the blood and cross of Jesus. They also join other Christians, and Jews, in believing what Jesus believed: to be forgiven: remorse, repentance, and restitution had to be in place. They still do. There are too many times in the world when people say they are “sorry” just when they are caught, just when they are confronted with the truth, or just when they want something! No; that is not being sorry in the sinful sense! That is trying to wiggle out of responsibility and lighten the punishment. It is worth remembering that no one gets to go to God and ask for forgiveness before going to the ones hurt by their sins and do the hard work of showing remorse, repentance, and restitution there first. The door to heaven is closed to the ones who have not first tried to make peace, not through the cross of Christ, but with a humble and contrite heart. Are you tired, as I am, of suspects, running from police instead of stopping, driving off in cars at reckless speeds, destroying property and endangering the lives of others? Perhaps the law should say, “You resist arrest,” your sentence doubles. Does it seem that fewer people are willing to take responsibility for their crimes? Taking responsibility for actions is one of the best lessons of life: it is taught by Jews, Christians, and twelve-step programs. Yet how many people are estranged from family, co-workers, friends, or neighbors through an event or words that have put a wedge between them? What a rush of joy and peace I get when a conflicted situation gets resolved, don’t you feel that too? God must also have a heart that longs not only for our human connections, but also our Heavenly one. As the old saying puts it, “If God seems far away, who moved?” Sin moves us farther and farther from the distant shore of Heaven. Church rituals and human confession row us closer to that beautiful shore. But putting Jesus in the back of your boat to be your power and rudder is the most fabulous choice one can make.
In Leviticus, we heard a brief portion of the Day of Atonement ritual, the meaning of which may be best understood by splitting the word so it says “At-one-ment.” “This is God’s work to make us one with God. The “Christian Believer” text on this subject writes these words: “The idea of our human estrangement from God and of God’s seeking to bring us ‘at one’ again is quite beyond explanation….The Letter to the Ephesians uses the language of redemption: ‘In Jesus Christ we have redemption through his blood.’ Job declared ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that at the last he shall stand upon the earth.’” [p. 141] In our affirmation of faith today, we will use a portion of Paul’s Letter to the Colossians that ends with the words: “making peace by the blood of his cross.” Only a Jew, or an informed Disciple of Jesus, can begin to understand how the death of the God made man (who was called ‘the lamb’ by John) could possibly give us a highway to heaven and a new life here on earth. In Hebrews, we find another explanation for this mystery: expiation. “Expiation means appeasing or purifying through a sacred rite. It conveys a picture of our being soiled by sin and in need of cleansing.” How is that cleansing achieved? Through Christ’s blood sacrifice. A revival hymn proclaimed ‘What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus!’” Who washes in blood? How does blood make a soul whiter than snow? This answer is traced back to “expiation atonement” a big term described by blood making souls whiter than snow. Finally, the idea of substitutionary atonement traces its roots back to Genesis 22, when God provided a ram for a sacrifice to take Isaac’s place. God’s test provided a “scapegoat,” but without faith, the test would have failed. There are so many ways to get at the idea of being made “one” with God, that is, closer to God. The theory of Christ giving us power over evil (the “Christus Victor” theory) and the “Ransom” theory (where Jesus is exchanged for us who deserved to be on the cross where he hung,) are two more of the many facets of this diamond called Atonement.
God wants us close: the images of wide open arms, lamps left burning, a father running in robes, and a visit from heaven to a Bethlehem stable show us the lengths to which God will go to be close to us. But therapy rooms are filled with people who, because of painful events, are estranged from others, having shut the doors to human connections and sometimes to Heavenly ones. There are also times when people runs from the ones who caused them pain into the arms of exactly the wrong person; and times when, in anger or apathy, people move away from God, citing that they are spiritual but not religious, and connect with a counterfeit god instead. For all of those people: for you and me and others: God came in Christ, so that we might have life, and have it abundantly. Use whatever image that helps you grasp that. The cross, the blood, and the lamb are images that remind us of one thing: God is always throwing out yet another lifeline to those who are tossed to and fro in the tempestuous sea we call life. So remember and never forget: What can wash away our sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus! Search your soul, sing your heart out, and make a commitment to reconnect, as we stand to sing this hymn.
Jeffrey A. Sumner January 27, 2008