Sin has always been treated lightly by humankind. This is not true, however, with God.
God said to Adam, “You must not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die” (Genesis 2:17). St. Paul wrote that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). He also said, “Just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, . . .” (Romans 5:12).
Since we are all sinners, we cannot have a relationship with our Creator unless God provides a way for us to be forgiven for our sins. So, the Bible talks about the sacrifice for sin in the book of Hebrews. The writer also tells about the way back into a relationship with God.
Sacrifice for sins as practiced by the Israelites
The Israelites practiced animal sacrifice as a way to find forgiveness for their sins. We find this practice described in Leviticus: on the Day of Atonement the Israelites came to the Temple to make a sacrifice for their sins. They came with cattle, sheep, goats, and other animals, which were to be sacrificed and have the blood spilled on the altar.
We read, “If his offering is a goat, he is to present it before the Lord. He is to lay his hand on its head and slaughter it in front of the Tent of Meeting. Then Aaron’s sons [the priest], shall sprinkle its blood against the altar on all sides” (Leviticus 3:12-13). The Bible goes on to say, “. . . without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Hebrews 9:22).
This act of animal sacrifice brings peace to the worshiper as his sins are forgiven. On the next Day of Atonement the High Priest will repeat the sacrifice. It is for us a prophetic act pointing to the Christ who is to make the supreme blood sacrifice once and for all.
Christ, the perfect sacrifice
We read, “When Christ came as high priest of the good things that are already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made, that is to say, not part of this creation. He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption” (Hebrews 9:11-12).
Through Christ’s suffering and death at the cross, he made full atonement for the sins of the world. This is the Gospel. Those who receive him have passed from death into life. Their sins are forgiven.
Christ becomes our mediator, the one making intercession for our sins. He did this by giving his life as a ransom for many. This is one of the blessings of the communion service. When we come to the communion table, Christ is present through the bread and wine, and we receive the assurance of his pardon.
We should never forget that Christ’s atoning death is the only way to the Father. His sacrifice is sufficient.
The life of the redeemed
No sacrifice made by us for Christ is needed, nor will it contribute anything to our salvation. Jesus once said, “Anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:38-39).
What do those words mean? Do they relate to the truth that Christ sacrificed himself for us?
This interpretation of our response to Christ’s sacrifice helps me in this way: when we accept his sacrifice for our sins, we identify ourselves with him and carry his message to the world. This verbal testimony Ð pointing to Christ as God’s sacrificial offering for our sins Ð can, however, bring suffering to us.
The disciples and early Christians knew what it meant to be identified as one who belongs to Jesus. Thousands were martyred for witnessing to Christ, and we can read their stories. Throughout the years, and enduring into our current time, many of the faithful have given their lives under Communism, Nazism, and the attacks of other enemies of the cross.
One of the most well-known martyrs was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who died at Flossenbrg, Germany, only days before World War II ended. He left behind these words on death:
Come now thou greatest of feasts on the journey to freedom eternal; death, cast aside all the burdensome chains, and demolish the walls of our temporal body, the walls of our soul that are blinded, so that at last we may see that which here remains hidden. Freedom, how long have we sought thee in discipline, action and suffering; dying we now may behold thee revealed in the Lord.
But there are other types of suffering that, although they do not take our lives,
are still crushing. They are many, but the Christian has to discover them personally. This I know for certain: if you live a life in 2009 that holds up Christ, you will know what it is to suffer for Christ. A hostile, out-of-control world wants nothing to do with Christianity. Consequently, we learn how to live our faith without experiencing suffering.
Popular Christianity is all around us. It makes us feel good, and it costs little. This distortion of the Christian faith has not yet learned that sin is serious to God.
I am writing this sermon one week before the inauguration of our new American President. The question that I now ask could be posed to either political party: How would our nation react if the leadership had said, On Inauguration Day, those of us who confess Christ as the Lord of Lords are invited to meet at the National Presbyterian Church in its huge sanctuary for a worship service. There will be a gifted preacher who will speak about the need to turn to God daily as we face an enemy whose goal is to destroy our nation spiritually, politically, financially, and every other way. And then Presidents Bush and Obama will lead us in a prayer for insight and strength to lead this nation by God’s direction.
I believe such a service would be greeted with joy by Christian people. On the other hand, other voices would denounce such a service on the basis of separation between church and state.
Christianity practiced according to our culture today calls for us to make little sacrifice. True Christianity brings with it a cross, to be born by the followers of Christ.