The Sacrifice

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 FlossenbŸrg, 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.

The Church’s Greatest Need

The Church’s greatest need has been the same in every age. The Church needs laity and clergy who know the inspired truths of God’s Word and share them with the world.

In today’s text, the writer of the book of Hebrews was complaining about a church that was ignorant of the Christian faith’s basic teaching.

Is this a problem in our day? It certainly is. Over and over again I hear people say they don’t know much about the Bible If these people wanted to learn more about Scripture, there are plenty of opportunities. Bible studies of all kinds are offered in churches each week, and good preaching on Sunday unfolds some of God’s teachings for us.

If a church member is biblically illiterate, it is perhaps because they are satisfied to remain that way. This ignorance of the Word of God could be caused by the Bible’s low priority in their lives, or their lack of appetite to hear what God is anxious to tell them.

People sometimes say there are two subjects they never discuss: politics and religion. These subjects are private and it’s easy to get into a fight over what one believes. Sharing Christian beliefs isn’t worth the risk of losing a good friend.

Do they really mean this? If so, the Holy Spirit has not yet been able to take whatever biblical knowledge they have and turn it into living truth.

Let me mention four basic truths that Christ needs believers to share in our culture:

1. We are created in the image of God. Don’t you want to know the meaning of this biblical teaching yourself? And isn’t it important to share this great revelation with others who feel they are a nobody? Think of it! This concept means you are born with a mind that can think, a will that can make decisions and a soul that is immortal. In God’s eyes you are the crowning work of His creation, and he presents you as precious and important to Him, not because of what you do but because of who you are. Isn’t this a truth that will help many with their self-worth?

2. We are born in sin. Are you willing to take a strong position when the Bible says that you are born in original sin? We move away from God, because it is easier than moving to Him. Man does not have the ability to lift himself up by his bootstraps and stand before Almighty God in his own unrighteousness. Those who think that humans are basically good will argue with you, but isn’t it necessary to tell the world what God’s Word says on the subject of the sinfulness of the human being?

3. Jesus is the God incarnate. The world does not believe this In fact, Jesus died for your sins and mine. Without Him, there is no forgiveness of sin and no personal relationship with God. The unbeliever says that, at best he is a good man. I’ll grant you that Jesus teaches us good morals, but let’s forget this salvation business. The human mind can’t understand this. Would you be willing to weaken a friendship in order to let a person know that we are completely dependant on Jesus for our salvation, and outside of Him we are lost?

4. The only way to heaven is through Jesus Christ. He has said, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me” (John 14:6). Strong words, aren’t they? Yet many people, with little thought of what the Bible says, believe there are many ways to heaven, and they should choose their own way.

These are the basic truths the writer of Hebrews is talking about when he identifies them as the elementary teachings. We need to know them well from a daily study of the Bible and a personal experience with Jesus, our Savior, Lord and Friend.

Oh, it’s fun to talk with those who are spiritually hungry. Many want to hear God’s Word, but few believers share their faith. Knowing the basics both intellectually and experientially gives us a great opportunity to share Christ with those around us at a time we might least expect. Let me illustrate:

I was drinking coffee with some men when Pete joined us. When I asked how he was feeling, he told me of the physical problems that caused him a lot of pain. Then he added, “I have made so many mistakes in my life.”

“Pete,” I said, “you are a Christian man. Listen to what God says through His disciple, in I John chapter 1: ÔIf you confess your sin, He is faithful and just to forgive your sin and cleanse you from all unrighteousness’ (vs 9). ÔAnd the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses you from all your sin’ (vs. 7). Pete, those are God’s words to you this day.”

Soon after, I left the group and Pete said, “Thanks, I needed those words.”

It was just dropping a word from God to a person in spiritual need.

I left Pete to visit a friend who the night before had lost her husband. She told me that it would be a real adjustment to live without him. “I now have to think in the past tense. He’s gone and will not be back.”

I recalled the words spoken by David after his child died, and I shared them with her: “ÔI shall go to him, but he will not return to me'” (II Samuel 13:23). Then I added another biblical thought: “Peg, ÔHere we have no lasting city but we seek the city which is to come'” (Hebrews 13:14).

The conversation turned from lonesome hours without her husband to the assurance of an eternal home where one day soon she would join him. She was thankful for God’s word spoken to her broken heart.

Yes, I am convinced that Christ’s greatest need is to have people who love him share His word with the world, which he loves and wants to save.

Come Apart Before You Come Apart

As you listen closely to the people around you, it soon becomes apparent that there are many in our world today who are coming apart at the seams due to living in a pressure-filled world, dealing with overbooked schedules, deadlines, uncertainties, and difficult people. Maybe you are familiar with some of these statements, lifted from conversations I’ve had with folks:

How are you?

“Oh, I’m hanging in thereÉ”

Are you pretty busy?

“I’m just swamped!”

You sound stressed.

“I guess I am kind of uptight.”

Demanding job?

“Some days can be overwhelming. There are so many unrealistic expectations . . . “

Ever heard those? Maybe you’ve even used them.

If that is the case, then I’m really glad that you tuned in today. God has a promising word for you. Actually, it’s more of a picture, and it’s really not new, but it certainly is an important reminder for those of us who are wondering, “Where can I find some peace, strength, and direction for my life?”

The story I’ll read to you paints a verbal picture of a day in the life of Jesus. One can see that he lived a very busy life filled with all kinds of pressures, demands, conflicts, and temptations. In the book of Hebrews, the writer points out that we have a great high priest, Jesus, who really is able to sympathize with our life situations because he was tested in every way like us. As you read this narrative of a “day with Jesus,” it becomes apparent he knew from firsthand experience what a hectic life was all about. This day I will tell you about was also, by the way, the Jewish Sabbath and was supposed to be a day of rest. Let’s review the story again:

It begins with Jesus going to the synagogue in Capernaum, the Jewish house of worship, where he began to teach. In came a man with a demon, who stood up and caused a scene, screaming at Jesus. Can you imagine the tension in that place? Conflict, confrontation! Jesus took him on, casting the demon out and amazing everyone present. He continued teaching.

Afterward, he went to Peter’s home for dinner, rest, and relaxation. But his work was not done. Dinner wasn’t ready, and the cook was sick. Peter’s mother-in-law was sick. I wonder, did Peter know that when he invited Jesus? Jesus wound up healing her and then she began to make dinner.

After dinner, as Jesus is ready to put up his feet again and enjoy a quiet evening, he heard a noise outside. He looked out the window, and there was a huge crowd of people. It looked like most of the town was there. As he looked into the crowd, he witnessed all kinds of misery: disease, mental illness, demon possession. Folks had brought their sick and possessed for healing by him. He was soon swallowed up in the suffering and misery as he worked late into the evening healing all those peopleÑhow draining!

What a day. Busy! Tension-filled! Physically, spiritually, and emotionally draining! And all on what was to be a day off!

As you read through the gospels, you will find that most every day was like that for him. Criticism and rejection and confrontation from religious authorities, more and more sickness, attacks by evil, temptations, storms on Galilee, blank looks on people’s faces as he preached, and then always the anticipation of the cross in the back of his mindÑwhere he would die for the sin of the world.

An amazing thing in all of that: he never came apart! He kept his head on straight and remained cool and calm in some heavy circumstances. How? What was his secret? How did he cope and overcome?

Mark gives us the answer in verse 35: “Early the next morning, Jesus got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.”

Jesus took a “time out” to be with his Heavenly Father. He could not live out those busy, pressure-filled days without it. It was in that time apart with God that he prepared to face what lay ahead in the day.

Jesus lived by that truth found in the book of Proverbs: “Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flows the springs of life.” He watched over his heartÑhis inner personÑtaking steps to care for it. He prayed.

My dear brothers and sisters, if we are ever going to be able to handle all the pressures from our public worldÑour outer lifeÑthen it is imperative that we never neglect our inner world. We need time-outs with God.

A good quarterback in football knows how important it is to call a time-out and consult with the coach during the game. A pitcher calls a time-out to consult with the catcher or pitching coach. A singer warms up before a performance. And Jesus went off and prayed.

Prayer is a great source of strength:

Dr. Alexis Carrel, a physician and Nobel Prize winner, once said, “Prayer is the most powerful form of energy that man can generate. The influence of prayer on the mind and body is as demonstrable as secreting glands. Its results can be measured in terms of buoyancy, a greater intellectual vigor, moral stamina, and a deeper understanding of human relationships.”

Prayer not only strengthens, but also gives us focus:

The next day, the disciples came looking for him, saying, “People are looking for you, Jesus! You really wowed them yesterday! There are more people to be healed. Come on!”

Listen to Jesus’ response: “Let’s go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also, for that is what I came out to do!”

Jesus kept his eye on the ball. He was focused on his God-given mission: to bring the Good News message to all people. Prayer has a way of doing that for us, keeping us remembering to whom we belong and what our real purpose is in life, as God’s children.

This story wasn’t an isolated event in the life of Jesus. Study the gospels, and over and over again, you’ll see him getting away in prayer to check in with his heavenly father. S.D. Gordon wrote about Jesus’ prayer life in his book, “Quiet Talks on Prayer.”

How much prayer meant to Jesus! It was not only his regular habit, but his resort in every emergency, however slight or serious. When perplexed, he prayed. When hard-pressed by work, he prayed. When hungry for fellowship, he found it in prayer. He chose his associates and received his messages on his knees. If tempted, he prayed. If criticized, he prayed. If fatigued in body or wearied in spirit, he had recourse in his own unfailing habit of prayer. Prayer brought him unmeasured power at the beginning, and kept the flow unbroken and undiminished. There was no emergency, no difficulty, no necessity, no temptation that would not yield to prayer.

Like Jesus, we need to come apartÉbefore we come apart!

Some of you who are listening probably know from personal experience what time alone with God in prayer can do in one’s life. But others have not had that experience. Why?

For some, there is no personal relationship with God. He’s only a supreme being out there somewhere. Nothing could be further from the truth! God wants to have a personal, ongoing relationship with each one of us. He gave his Son, Jesus Christ, as a sacrifice for your sin, so that you might receive and enjoy that personal relationship.

Some agree that prayer is important, but they get too busy with life. Day after day goes by without a time-out with the one who knows what makes life work.

Others may feel they are self-sufficient, that they have “no real need for that sort of thing. If it is to be, it’s up to me.” If that is your philosophy, my question is this: “Isn’t it strange that the Lord of Lords and the King of Kings needed it and you don’t?”

Still others have been disappointed along the way: “God let me down another time when I asked for help. I won’t be disappointed again.” In response to that a couple quotes come to mind. One is from C. S. Lewis, the great Christian thinker of the last century, who wrote: “If God granted all the silly prayers I’ve made in my life, where would I be now?” Another is from Philip Yancy, who wrote in his book Prayer: Does it Make Any Difference?: “Life is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be lived. Prayer offers no ironclad guarantee, just the certain promise that we need not live the mystery alone.”

There are many who would like to get going on something like this, but they don’t really know how to get started. Here are a couple steps for you to use: first, find a quiet place away from noise and distractions. It may be a room in the basement, a quiet spot out in nature, even in your car as you sit in the parking lot before work.

Next try using this acronym, which has worked so well for me and thousands of others. It’s called ACTS.

Begin in Adoration: “God, I love you because you areÉ(faithful, gracious, all-powerful).”

Next move into Confession: “God, I’m sorry forÉ” Be specific as you inventory.

Thanksgiving is next: “God, I thank you forÉ”

Supplication is the last: “God, I need your help and care forÉ”

I encourage you to try the ACTS prayer method. And then instead of immediately rushing off, sit quietly in his presence.

At first, all of this may seem a little stiff and clumsyÑbut let me tell you, this is a wonderful tool to keep yourself focused during your quiet time with God. I use it and it’s been a real help to me over the years.

Life is filled with many pressures, conflicts, confrontations, and responsibilities. Many people are coming apart at the seams. Many people are getting off track from God’s purpose and missing out. But it doesn’t have to be that way in your life! Take some regular time-outs!

I’m reminded of the Apostle Paul testifying, “What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son but gave him up for all of us, will he not with Him also give us everything else?”

As you read the story of the early church and the book of Acts, every action those early Christians took and every decision they made was first bathed in prayer. They had learned the value of prayer from Jesus. And the church prevailed as God’s people were strengthened even in the most difficult of circumstances.

Martin Luther once said, “No one knows how strong and mighty prayer is, and how much it can do, except he who has tried it.”

I remember hearing Dr. Billy Graham saying one time at an evangelism conference that there are three secrets to effective evangelism crusades: number one, prayer. Number two, prayer. And number threeÉprayer.”

I urge you to start today. Make this visual lesson from our master, Jesus, a personal regular habit: “Come apart, before you come apart.”

Where Privacy Ends

No matter how much we might like being in the public eye, a time comes when we all want privacy. We prefer not to share certain parts of our lives with anyone else, even if they are very special to us.

But there is also a time and place where all privacy ends.

Listen to these words from the Scriptures: “For the Word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:12-13).

We try to hide some of our sins and weaknesses even from ourselves. “I didn’t say that” and “I didn’t do that” are words spoken not only by children but also by adults. “I am not that kind of person,” we say. “You are judging me at my worst. Why won’t you give me the benefit of the doubt?”

A certain person from our town murdered his family. However, this man is thoroughly convinced he never committed this crime. Somehow, in way some way, the mind is able to blot out things we do not want to remember. People do not want to be confronted with themselves.

When I was a pastor, counseling was not the strongest part of my ministry. So I once asked a professional counselor for help. When he had studied some notes from my counseling sessions, he told me my approach to those I counseled was too confrontational. The person being counseled went away frightened or offended.

I recall a woman who once came to my office with a problem. She was active in the congregation and appeared to have a nice family. So I was shocked when she told me that she and her husband were having marital trouble. After receiving a summary of what was happening between them, I asked a confrontational question: “How have you contributed to the failure of your marriage?” She quickly replied, “I am not perfect, but I cannot share my husband with another woman.”

I comforted her a bit when I replied, “You are absolutely right. However, we are now talking about how your attitude toward him might have caused him to think his actions were explainable, if not justifiable.”

This woman had placed her feelings in a little box and was not going to share her knowledge of what happened in their bedroom with anyone. That was too private.

The professional counselor told me our conversation had moved too fast. Such a conversation should not have taken place in the first meeting. It was just too confrontational. I could see his point. However, the time would come when this woman, if she really wanted help with her marriage, had to realize that there is no privacy when you enter into God’s presence. Remember the Bible says, “Nothing in creation is hidden from God’s sight.” She could choose what she wanted to share with me, but when she stands before God, everything is revealed.

Christianity is confrontational. Let me give you two excellent illustrations.

In II Samuel 11 and 12 we find the story of David’s sin concerning Bathsheba and her husband Uriah. You might be acquainted with this story from Bible study or the movie that was made from it. In summary, David committed adultery with Bathsheba, and she became pregnant. Learning this, David wanted to cover his sin, so he told Uriah to take a furlough from the army assignment he was currently on. However, Uriah refused to leave his men in the thick of battle, so David had him sent to where the fighting was the worst. Uriah was killed.

David was guilty. One day the Lord’s servant, Nathan, visited David and told him a story about a rich man who robbed his neighbor of his only possession, a lamb. This rich man had many cattle and lambs but did not want to kill them for food, so he instead ordered the poor man’s one lamb to be killed and eaten.

At this point in the story Nathan asked David a confrontational question: “What should be done with this man?”

David was furious. “This man should be killed!”

Then Nathan confronted David again: “David, you are this man! You had many riches but this poor man had little. You stole that one lamb and fed it to your guests!”

There was complete silence until David spoke these words: “I have sinned against God.”

Hearing this, Nathan comforted David with good news: “The Lord has taken away your sin.” This is grace. David did not have to hide his sin. He confessed it, and God forgave David making him whole again. David could not continue to cover up his sin. Remember, “Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give an account.”

The second illustration involves a motivational speaker. He tells people with emotion, “You can do anything you want to do if you set your mind to it.”

Yet this is not what Jesus said. Rather our Lord says, “I am the vine and you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

Paul understood Jesus’ teaching and he wrote to the Philippian Christians, “I can do all things through him who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13).

In these words, Christ confronts the egotist who thinks he can do anything and puts him in his place. This is confrontational. I cannot do anything I want to do on my own strength. This may be offensive to people, but it is the truth.

Luther wrote in his catechism, “I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to Him, but the Holy Spirit calls me by the Gospel.” Only Christ can save me. Salvation is by grace through faith in Christ. We do not like being described as poor, helpless sinners whose good life cannot win favor with God. However, hiding our sinful condition can only be disastrous.

A time comes when the message of the Bible demands a question and an answer. God’s Word is more than historical record. This Word lives in our day and addresses our mind and soul. He comes with an appeal to receive Christ, a warning that rejecting Christ means being lost, and hope and strength to encourage us that, with God’s help, all will be well.

God’s Word is relevant. It is like a sword that penetrates into our heartsÑto convict us of sin, but also to offer hope and guidance, forgiveness and peace. God is not playing games with us. Raymond Brown has said it well: “God’s Word can analyze our thoughts. His Word probes more deeply than the voice of man, however interesting and eloquent. It brings subconscious motives to light.”

There is a time when all privacy ends. When the Holy Spirit speaks through the Word of God, everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of Him to whom we must give account.