A sermon by Margaret Hall
It’s well-known that very elderly people respond to music. Even when it becomes an effort to speak, they join in the old love songs of the time between the world wars. The songs sung in the crowded Sunday Schools of that era also stir up memories. One of many that strike a chord is the old chorus, Jesus died for all the children, all the children of the world.
As a central biblical truth, it was a good thing for children to sing. But in more recent times, Richard Dawkins has described the belief that Jesus died on humanity’s behalf as ‘barking mad and truly disgusting’. Others find that language too strong, but still think it was somehow unjust of God to send Jesus to die for others – that it was cruel, even vindictive, and altogether too much about punishment. Many might ask, “If God really loves us, and can do what he likes, why not just forgive us for the wrong we do and the good we don’t do?”
So if God really loves us, and can do what he likes, why doesn’t he just forgive and forget our wrongdoing?
We do expect a lot from God. But it would be too weird, even for us, to expect him to act against his character. If God could ‘just forgive us’, we might think he should. But in the end, it’s not about us. It’s about him – about who he is. It’s about a glory beyond our comprehension – his glory in creating a universe to enjoy – to fill with his harmonies, his order, his love. Human self-will has done its utmost to destroy all that. But still God is who he is. He did what he did – became one of us, in order to undergo for us the death we’ve brought on ourselves.
The Bible produces a weight of evidence for that, like Jesus making it clear that in what God did in Old Testament times, he was showing how he’d bring forgiveness to the world – by the death of the one he would send. We read that on the day Jesus rose from the dead, he found two people mourning his death as they walked to the village of Emmaus. He walked with them and ‘explained all the Scriptures concerning himself, beginning with Moses and all the prophets.’
Later he said to his disciples, “This is what is written: the Christ will suffer, and rise from the dead the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations.”
Early on in Israel’s history, God formalized the covenant he set up with Abraham using the death of animals, as was the custom with agreements in those days. Animals’ blood played a central role in the big event in Israel’s history – their release from slavery in Egypt. They left Egypt the night God spared the firstborns of everyone who’d spread the blood of a lamb on the doorposts of their houses. Having arrived at Mount Sinai, a ceremony was held. Bulls were slaughtered, and their blood sprinkled on the altar, the people and on the written record of the covenant. The day Aaron was ordained as High Priest, Moses sprinkled the blood of animals on pretty well everything in sight.
Under God, Moses set up a system of sacrifices, to be carried out regularly at the tabernacle, which was designed to symbolize the gulf between God and humanity – an outer court where the people gathered, an outer room where the priests went about their duties, and an inner room containing the symbols of God’s presence.
Only the High Priest was allowed in there, and only once a year, to seek forgiveness for himself and everyone else. He carried a bowl of blood, taken from animals the people had offered – a token cost of the loss wrongdoing incurs. Without that blood there could be no forgiveness.
All of that meant a great deal to generations of Israelites, but the real reason for it was to anticipate what was to come.
So God prepared for the event that would win for us what we can’t win for ourselves – freedom to approach him. Part of that preparation was the system of sacrifices, by which we get to understand that common biblical phrase, ‘the blood of Christ’.
We might prefer to speak of the death of Christ or the cross of Christ, but ‘the blood of Christ’ is used more often than either of those, perhaps because it says a whole lot more. It says Jesus’ death wasn’t just one more instance of human cruelty or gross injustice or selfless martyrdom for a cause. Given the background, it says Jesus’ death was a sacrifice for the taking away of sin. It says he died in our place, as our substitute, bearing the judgement we deserve.
For many people the question is, ‘Do we really deserve to be cut off from God? Is what we do wrong and what we fail to do right so indelible?’
In Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist the robber Bill Sykes brutally murders Nancy, the young woman he’s used and abused for years. Day dawns and light streams in on the scene. Her blood is everywhere. Bill does what he can – he washes himself and rubs his clothes; there are spots that won’t be removed, but he cuts them out and burns them.
All day he wanders round London. At night he goes into a pub, and finds a corner to eat and drink alone. In comes a man selling cakes of soap, which he says “remove all sorts of stains, rust, dirt, mildew, spick, speck, spot or spatter.” He grabs Sykes’ hat. “Ah, give that back,” cries Sykes.
“Gentlemen all,” says the man, “observe this dark stain upon the gentleman’s hat, no wider than a shilling, but thicker than a half-crown. Whether it’s wine-stain, fruit-stain, beer-stain, water-stain, paint-stain, pitch-stain, mud-stain or blood-stain….” The man got no further, for Sykes with a hideous oath overthrew the table, and tearing the hat from him, burst out of the house.
Bill Sykes had done all he could to remove the signs of what he’d done, but all day long he’d been wearing a thick spurt of Nancy’s blood. Spilt blood speaks of death. Death is about separation. Bill justly earned separation from his life, by separating Nancy from hers. We have to admit, murder is a horrible sin.
Yet Jesus said that any way we demean another human being – even by being angry or looking down on them – will bring on us the same judgement as murder. Why? Because demeaning others breaks the spirit of God’s law.
By nature we don’t live God’s way of pure love for everyone. That puts us under the curse of separation from him – a gulf we can’t cross. In the bright light of God’s unfailing love, our lack of love is a stain we have no way of removing, however hard we try.
The wonder is, that whatever ways we’ve turned away from loving God and others, God hasn’t turn away from us. Instead, he provided the means for the curse to be lifted, the gulf crossed. He provided a substitute, to take on the curse, bear the pain of separation, suffer the death – so that we might appear before him, unstained. That Jesus died for us is central to what Christians believe.
But Jesus’ death was one death long ago. How can that work for the whole world for all time?
It was a death like no other death. The death of the eternal Son of God has to be a unique event, with unique consequences. It was followed by another unique event – his resurrection from the dead, certifying that he spoke the truth.
One truth he spoke was that that he’d give his flesh for the life of the world, and as a ransom for many. He said he’d give his life for his sheep, including the sheep he has from outside the fold of Israel. He’d bring them as well, he said. He said that when he was lifted up (meaning, lifted up on a cross) he’d draw to himself people of all kinds, and that everyone who accepts his body was broken for them will live forever. He sent those who believed in him to make disciples of all nations, with the promise to be with them until the end of the age. If we believe in him at all, we should believe in the effectiveness of his death, for all people and all time.
The writer of the letter to the Hebrews had no doubt about the once-for-all effectiveness of Jesus’ death. He wrote:
Christ did not enter heaven to offer himself again and again, the way the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood that’s not his own. Christ has appeared once for all to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself…… The blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanses our consciences from acts that lead to death.
Jesus’ death was unique in that it was voluntary. ‘He offered himself.’ We don’t have a choice about whether we’ll die. As God-in-flesh, Jesus did have a choice. For him, death was something he accomplished.
Lifted up was he to die.
‘It is finished!’ was his cry.
Jesus’ death was unique in that it was undeserved. ‘He offered himself unblemished’. He’d done nothing to deserve death – the Roman governor who tried him was adamant about that. Of course countless people are put to death unjustly. But the material point for us is that Jesus’ death was undeserved in God’s sight. Those who knew him best consistently testified that he had no sin. His enemies brought accusations, but couldn’t agree on what they were. He wasn’t bound for separation from God, as we are. He didn’t die on his own account.
Trusting that Jesus died for us is the only way to escape what awaits every one of us. Again from the letter to the Hebrews, “people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgement.”
Our death means we’ll face that judgement. Jesus’ death means that when we do, we can be acquitted. Every stain can be washed away – but only by the blood of Jesus.
Rock of ages, cleft for me, / Let me hide myself in thee.
Let the water and the blood / From your riven side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure: / Cleanse me from its guilt and power.
Nothing in my hand I bring. / Simply to your cross I cling.
Naked, come to you for dress; / Helpless, look to you for grace.
Foul, I to the fountain fly. / Wash me, Saviour, or I die.