Passion Sunday

Sunday-of-the-PassionWe’ve been looking at the whole Bible in our sermons this semester, and today, which Anglicans call Passion Sunday, I want to look at Jesus’s passion, which is the traditional term for His suffering and death, and put it in the context of the whole Bible.

Suffering and death were no part of God’s plan for His creation. According to Genesis, these things come into the world in as the result of disobedience. Christians usually refer to this as sin, but that word has come to be much misunderstood. The Hebrew word in the Old Testament means ‘miss the way’, take a wrong turning; the Greek word in the New Testament means ‘miss the mark’. It’s worth remembering this because when you use the word ‘sin’ to non-Christians today, they think of evil of the most dramatic kind, deliberately doing what we know to be wrong. That’s not the biblical idea. The biblical idea is taking a wrong turn, from ignorance or inattention as much as anything else, or failing to hit a target from lack of strength or skill. Most of the time we end up going in the wrong direction even when we have good intentions. But either way, the result is that the world cannot be what God intended, and suffering and death enter our world. You all know the story of what happened in the Garden of Eden when God warned Adam and Eve not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, because once they knew evil you will surely die, He told them. But they took a wrong turn, and the result was not only death but blood, toil, tears and sweat, and all the suffering we see in the world today. But not because Adam and Eve were bad; they took a wrong turn, and the impulse for it came from outside themselves in the famous image of the serpent. The first time the word ‘sin’ is used, that point is stressed; sin lies in wait for us, God says. It lies in wait for us, trips us up, steers us out of the way usually without us even noticing until our own suffering, whether it’s pain or just confusion, frustration, disappointment, depression—until one of those gives us the clue: something’s gone wrong, I’ve gone wrong somewhere.

And the whole Old Testament is the story of men and women being led out of the way, and God not only trying to lead us back to the right path, but trying to restore the relationship between man and God that existed before we took our wrong turn. On God’s part, that meant reminding us of the right way, and urging us to stay in it. All the ministry of the prophets was the delivery of God’s reminders about that. But here’s the curious thing: on man’s part, it didn’t mean listening to the prophets and following the guidance God sent through them. It meant giving God stuff, hoping He’d be pleased with the gift. We weren’t able, by our own effort, to live without losing the way and missing the mark, so we began to offer gifts and sacrifices in the hope that we could atone for our mistakes that way and be reconciled to God.

In the Old Testament, we see various gifts being offered, but the great majority of them are what are called sacrifices. They loom so large in the Old Testament that you sometimes hear people talk about the ‘sacrificial system’ of the Old Testament, and it’s true that the book of Leviticus, in the Torah, is a systematisation of the practice. Yet there is no word for sacrifice in the Old Testament, only words for ‘gift’. One is the regular word for gift, ‘thing given’; the other is ‘thing brought’ and is usually used in reference to an altar, something brought to an altar. Jesus talks about this using the Hebrew word corban, but both words mean ‘gift’, and are used in ordinary conversation as well as to refer to gifts to God. Some gifts, some things brought to the altar and given to God are sacrifices, some aren’t. There is no word in the Old Testament that just means sacrifice. Which makes it tricky when our translations use the word ‘sacrifice’. When we use that word we are often thinking of something demanded by God; if we remember that the word used in the Bible is ‘gift’, or ‘thing brought’, it’s easier to understand what is going on. It’s we who give, we who bring stuff to God. It’s we who have an agenda in this business, not God; we give Him stuff, and we hope that in return He will give us the lives we would have had if we had never lost our way. The first gifts were offered right after we first lost our way and found ourselves outside the Garden of Eden; one gift was grain, the other was an animal, and we’re told that God preferred the latter, but we’re not told why, and we’re not told that either gift was a sacrifice in the narrow sense. Sacrifices come later. When you look at the Old Testament closely, you see that sacrifice is a gift given in a particular way, and for a particular purpose, which is to atone for a particular mistake. What makes a gift a sacrifice is the purpose and the means of giving; the purpose is to atone for sin, and the means is the irrevocable giving up of it by the giver. The giver ensures not just that he himself can never have the gift, but that no one else ever can either: if it’s an animal, it’s slaughtered, if it’s grain or vegetables they’re burned, if it’s wine it’s poured on the ground or on the altar. Even when the priests are allowed to eat some of the slaughtered animal, the animal can no longer be bred or milked, the plant can no longer give seed. It’s all over. Other things are sometimes brought to the altar but not destroyed. The tithes, first-fruits, the wave offering, the heave-offering, are all in that category. Jesus’s words about corban refer to a form of tithe, money given to the priesthood for its ongoing use. Corban is brought to the altar but not as a sacrifice. Not only is there no noun for sacrifice in Hebrew, there’s no verb for it either; the text just says slaughtered, burned, poured or whatever. It’s the context that tells us if it was a sacrifice.

The idea of sacrifice, especially animal sacrifice, is one that we find repulsive, but its practice is universal at some stage in all human cultures. But the gift idea behind it is as prevalent today as it ever was; we just give God other things, hoping to atone for our sins. It’s only the externals that have changed. And none of it was ever God’s plan. Certainly God loves it when we give Him gifts because we love Him and want to please Him, but He is explicit that killing animals or pouring good wine down the drain aren’t what will please Him. In the Torah God’s word regularises the practice of sacrifice, but that’s God accommodating Himself to our ideas, not God expressing what He hopes for in our relationship. He makes that quite explicit in the words of the prophets: Jer 7.21ff,  I did not speak to your fathers or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. But this command I gave them, ‘Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people; and walk in all the way that I command you, that it may be well with you.’ But they did not obey or incline their ear, but walked in their own counsels and the stubbornness of their evil hearts, and went backward and not forward, losing their way. An explicit statement that the sacrifices were not God’s original plan. God did accept them, and even gave commandments for their regulation, but presumably did so because of the hardness of human hearts, as Jesus said God did when He permitted divorce in the Old Testament period.

The relevance of all this to the passion of Jesus is that His suffering and death is God Himself bearing the consequences of our losing our way, and offering Himself as a sacrifice, to atone for the sins that we cannot atone for. Not because He needs it, but because we do. Jesus Himself has nothing to do with a sacrifice until He offers Himself on the cross. His words in the sermon on the mount about reconciliation, if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift, are applied in general terms to gifts brought to the altar, and do not require that they be brought for sacrifice in order to make His point. Jesus also quotes Hosea’s version of Jeremiah’s point, 6.6 I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God, rather than burnt offerings. Jesus describes the Temple as a house of prayer, not of sacrifice.

Only when speaking of His offering of Himself does He talk in sacrificial terms. In Mark 10.45, the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many, Jesus alludes to Isaiah 53, ransom being generally accepted as translating or at least referring to the guilt offering of Isaiah 53.10. He came to give His life as a sacrifice, and everything He did on Palm Sunday guaranteed that He would be put to death. It all symbolised explicitly His claim to be the Messiah: the donkey ride, the palms, the casting out of the money-changers, his healing of the lame and the blind immediately afterwards, all of these acts were explicit claims to Messiahship. I won’t go into all the details this morning, but I can show you all the passages in the Old Testament that say when the Messiah comes, He will do these things. The gospel writers sometimes quote them, as you will see if you read them. The palm branches that some people waved as He entered Jerusalem had the same significance, because they were often waved as signs of victory. And as people waved them, they cried out ‘Blessed is He Who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna to the Son of David!’—both phrases an explicit acknowledgement of Jesus’s messianic claim.

In the last supper a few days later Jesus made His offering of Himself as a sacrifice clear to the disciples: He used the bread as His way of talking about His offering of his body, ie His whole person, and the wine as His offering of His blood, ie the means by which His life will be offered, just the way the animal’s was offered, by being put to death. It was also His way of saying that His sacrifice would be the last ever needed as atonement for human sin; it never needed to be repeated, only to be remembered. Do this for the remembrance of me.

After the resurrection, those who followed Jesus had no more need to give God sacrifices to atone for their sins. Christians no longer took part in the Temple sacrifices, they went to the Temple only for prayer, the purpose for it that Jesus had acknowledged. The last supper, repeated in people’s homes, had already replaced the never ending offering of sacrifices. There’s no evidence that even the Judaizers, those Christians who believed that you needed to become Jewish before becoming a Christian, still offered sacrifices. The letter to the Hebrews is clear that no further sacrifice needed, he has appeared at the end of the age to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself once for all.

What Jesus did on Palm Sunday made sure that He would not be permitted to live, that He would be handed over to the Romans to be put to death, because to the Romans a Messiah could only be a king, a rival to Caesar. The priests who ‘offered’ him (little knowing what they did) made sure Pilate got that message. But His death is not tragedy, it is triumph. Only our sin, our wandering from the right way, is tragic; God’s victory over sin is total triumph. The question for us is what characterizes our lives, what do people see when they know we are Christians and look at what our lives are like— the tragedy or the triumph? Do they see the losing our way, or the joy that comes from knowing we’ve been put right with God? Are we still dwelling on our faults, or do we have the joy of a clear conscience? Christ’s sacrifice not only changes the way God looks at us, it changes also the way we look at ourselves: Hebrews 10.1f, the law… can never, by the same sacrifices which are continually offered year after year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered? If the worshipers had once been cleansed, they would no longer have any consciousness of sin. I Peter 3.21, Baptism… is an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus gave His life not only so that God could accept us, but so that we could accept ourselves, so we could stop beating ourselves up when we go astray, and just concentrate on getting back on the right path.

So let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience. God calls us not to give Him a gift in the hope of atoning for our sin, for no gift we can give can ever achieve that; He Himself has provided the lamb for the sacrifice, as He did for Isaac, and it atones for the sins of the whole world, for everyone who turns to Him, not to offer a gift, but to thank Him for His gift to us, Christ Jesus our Lord, crucified, risen and reigning in eternity.

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