Every year, many people visit Itasca State Park in northern Minnesota to be at the headwaters of the mighty Mississippi River. It’s only a little trickle stream, but as it flows toward Louisiana and the Gulf of Mexico, it becomes a wide river, a powerful flowing river of current.
Likewise, the cross of Jesus Christ is the beginning point of the blood-red river of God’s grace, which flows to you and me, and to all the world for all eternity that we might be forgiven and reconciled into a relationship with the living God.
When I was a seven-year-old boy, the youngest of four sons born to Oscar and Viola Laaveg, we were boating one day on Clear Lake, Iowa. We had a 14′ maiden boat with a forty-horse, big twin Evinrude pushing it. When we, as a family of six, traveled in that boat across the water, I don’t think we had more than a two-inch clearance from the side of the boat to the water. We had many fun times in the boat.
At the end of the day, it was time to load the boat onto the trailer. The car my father owned to pull the boat and trailer was a ‘63 Belair Chevy with 3 on the tree. My brother, Joel, and I were in the car. I was behind the steering wheel messing around. I had moved the stick shift out of gear and into neutral and was pretending to drive. As I pulled the parking brake lever, the car swiftly began to roll down the incline ramp into the water. My dad yelled “Hit the breaks! Hit the breaks!” but by the time my little foot found the brake pedal, my head was underwater and the car was floating, all four tires off the ground. It was too late. My dad had to call a tow truck to pull the whole mess out of the water.
I remember watching as the tow truck hooked up to the car. My dad put his arm around my shoulders and said, “It’s okay. We can fix this.”
In every person’s life are moments where we’ve inadvertently, foolishly, or rebelliously pulled the parking brake off and rolled into a mess. We get underwater and can’t fix it. Everybody needs forgiveness. This is why God offers us mercy and grace in the name of Jesus. In the Old Testament, He established a system of sacrifice to offer mercy and grace – the sacrifice of lambs and goats. Mercy is pardon given, even though punishment is deserved. Grace is the undeserved, unmerited favor and blessing, love of God for us.
In the Old Testament system of sacrifice, God established a way for atoning sacrifice to be made for the forgiveness of sins. A sacrifice is something precious offered for a reason. Atonement is the satisfaction for a committed offense. God said, “The life of the creature is in the blood.” Sacrifice is my gift to make atonement at the altar, says the Lord. Blood makes atonement for your life.
Throughout the entire Old Testament covenant time, God’s people would worship on the Day of Atonement called Yom Kippur. Once a year the high priest would take two male goats. He would sacrifice one and carry the blood into the holy of holies. Then he would sprinkle the blood on the cover of the ark of the covenant (called the mercy seat) for atonement for the sins of all God’s people.
He would then take the second goat to the edge of the village and put his hand on its head to transfer the guilt and shame of all the people. The goat would travel off into the wilderness as a scapegoat bearing guilt and shame away. All of this foreshadowed the death and resurrection of Jesus for us. When Jesus came on the scene, John the Baptist looked at Him coming for baptism in the Jordan River and said, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
Many passages in the New Testament make the connection between an atoning sacrifice by bloodshed, the forgiveness of sins, and reconciliation between God’s people and Him.
We find Jesus’ words:
• “This is the blood of the covenant poured out for you for the forgiveness of your sins” (Matthew 26:28).
In today’s text we read,
• “In Jesus Christ we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses according to the riches of his grace, which he has lavished upon us” (Ephesians 1:7).
We find Paul words to the Christians at Colosse:
• “It is the Father’s pleasure to reconcile all things to himself having made peace through the blood of the cross” (Colossians 1:20).
We read of the scene in heaven where it says,
• “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:14).
Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross released a blood-red river of grace where God offers us cleansing and forgiveness in His name. Isn’t that awesome! In Jesus’ name we find forgiveness for all our sins.
Do you ever remember dealing with your child or grandchild who was reluctant to take a bath? Even if they were dirty or smelled a bit, they still didn’t think they needed to bathe. It reminds me of the story in the Old Testament of Naaman, the captain of the Syrian army. Naaman was a powerful and mighty warrior, a man of power and prestige in his nation. But he was also a leper. One of God’s people, his servant girl, had said that Elisha could heal him. So Naaman went with his big entourage – a parade of pomp and glory and prestige – to Elisha to be healed. He expected to be met by the same level of pomp and glory, but Elisha didn’t even go out to meet him. Instead, Elisha sent a messenger out of the house and told Naaman to go wash in the Jordan River seven time.
Naaman was indignant and refused. “Aren’t there clean rivers in Syria? Why have I been sent to this prophet and forced to bathe in the dirty waters of the Jordan?” Yet his servants impressed upon him that if Elisha had asked him for some noble sacrifice or dangerous action, he would’ve done it to be clean of leprosy. Give it a try, they said. So Naaman submitted and bathed seven times in the Jordan. Scripture tells us he was healed and his skin became clean like a little child. Naaman was so full of gratitude that he proclaimed, “There is no God in all the world like the God of Israel, Yahweh!” He expressed faith in Yahweh, and he worshiped the living God (II Kings 5).
When you and I understand the depth of our sin, the level of our imperfections, and that we are lost from God, then we understand what God has done for us in the purifying love of Jesus Christ. We are invited into a relationship of His mercy and grace. All of life changes. We realize we have been saved. We have been served sacrificially. We have been forgiven, and we are grateful.
In Old Testament times, the central saving story was the Exodus where Moses appeared before Pharaoh. God sent a series of ten plagues. The last plague was the loss of the life of the oldest child in every household unless they protected their house by smearing the blood of a perfect, unblemished lamb on the door post. When their faith was expressed in this way, they would be protected from the angel of death. The blood on the doorjamb marked the household as believers in God who belong to the Lord, those who in faith accept and believe the promise of God.
Today you and I can still, in the name of Jesus, take the blood of Jesus Christ as a protection covenant on our lives so we know we are forgiven, we belong to God, and we are alive forever in the promise of His love. All of life changes when we bathe in the blood-red river of Jesus Christ’s grace. The current of the Spirit’s grace carries us to a whole new way of life. The Spirit within us now shines with grace as it emanates from our life and shows love to the people around us.
I recently heard Dave Bohnet from Jefferson, Iowa tell the story of a time when he worked in a nursing home. He noticed a ninety-something-year-old woman sitting in a wheelchair in the corner of the room. “Young man,” she said to him.”Young man, come over here.” Well, Bohnet was in his upper fifties, not a young man, but he went over to the woman. She said, “I want to give you my business card.” Bohnet put her card in his pocket, made his excuses, and left.
Later he pulled out the old woman’s business card, thinking to himself, “What business does an old woman have?” The woman’s card said this, a prayer:
“Come, Holy Spirit. Enlighten our hearts so we can see the things of God and so we might know God in our soul. Sanctify all we say and do that we might live to the glory of God.”
Reading her prayer, tears streamed down Bohnet’s face as he realized that yet at this stage of her life, the business of the woman was to bear witness to her love for Jesus Christ who had shown her mercy.
The current of the red river of Jesus’ grace removes our bondage and moves us in to freedom. The old rhythms of life can fall away, and the manifestation of the love of God flows through our person in the power of the Holy Spirit. We move from being self-centered to being sacrificial in love.
I know a retired dentist here in Spencer – Dr. Terry Shively. He and his wife, Stevie, make multiple trips annually to the poorest rural areas of the nation of Haiti to do dental work. Natives from Haiti travel as many as four and five hours by foot so the dentist can serve their dental and oral needs.
Also in those twelve-hour days, Shively and his wife stand in one hundred-degree heat to serve those needy people. Why would they do that? Because the red river of Jesus’ grace has touched them and carries them. The love of Jesus Christ compels them to serve others in His love.
Dear friends, I want you to know the passionate love of God like the mighty rivers of the Mississippi. Regardless of the weather or the season of the year, the current of the river is always flowing. You may not want to drink from the water. You may not want to harness its energy. You may not want to boat on it, or ski on it, or fish in it, but you cannot stop the mighty river of the Mississippi from flowing.
Likewise, you cannot stop the love of God from flowing to you in the blood-red river of the grace of Jesus Christ. From the cross of Christ, His love flows to you forever that you might believe you are forgiven, reconciled to God, and His child forever after. Amen.
Rev. Lee Laaveg