Springfield Cathedral — Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9, John 18:1—19:42
Many people go through life with an appearance of confidence—confidence in their ability to deal constructively with whatever comes their way. Some of these folks even seem cocky in their attitude, like they think they can do no wrong. If I have anything resembling wisdom after nearly seven decades on this planet, it’s that those who come off as cocky are usually, deep down, the most unsure of themselves. They project bravado as a way of covering up for their profound feelings of inadequacy.
The rest, of course, already know they’re inadequate, and don’t make any attempt to conceal that fact. Oh, we put up a brave front. We try to do our best, and often get things right. But, even when we get things right, we can’t help but be aware of how short of the mark even our best efforts fall. We are inadequate as adult children of our parents, as parents of our children, as spouses of our partners. We are inadequate as employees, or as leaders in the workplace. We are inadequate as citizens, as participants in political discourse. We are inadequate as Christian disciples, as followers of Jesus. We cannot offer to God that which God desires and deserves from us. Yes, we do our best, but that’s precisely the problem. The best we can do is, actually, the best we can do. And it isn’t good enough.
Now, God knows this about us. He always has. And he has a plan to put things right. That’s why we’re doing what we’re doing, here, this week. But, before the once-for-all intervention of God, through Christ, in our plight, there was a temporary fix. Among the people of Israel, his chosen ones, God instituted a system of atonement for human inadequacy, which we may as well go ahead and call by its proper name—sin. A rather elaborate system of sacrifice was inscribed in law, sacrifice of both inanimate matter—produce of the field, grain in various forms—and blood sacrifice, the sacrifice of animal lives. There was a cultic priesthood—the descendants of Moses’ brother Aaron, and the tribe of Levi—priests who were responsible for the ongoing ritual sacrifice and worship, first in a tent in the wilderness, and eventually in the temple in Jerusalem. The blood of oxen, sheep, goats, and turtledoves was offers by the priests continuously for the inadequacies—the sins—of the people.
This system of atonement was effective in mediating forgiveness of sins. After all, it was instituted by God. It’s what God himself ordered. But none of it had a very long shelf life. It was temporary. Like the manna in the wilderness, it was good for today, but rotten tomorrow. Tomorrow’s sins required sacrifices tomorrow. Effective, but temporary.
In Jesus, we have a longer-lasting fix, a permanent solution. The late Anglican New Testament scholar Reginald Fuller puts it this way:
The Old Testament sacrifices were continued until God undertook to do for human beings what they could not do for themselves, that is, offer the sacrifice of perfect obedience to God. This God did in sending his Son. But human beings are not thereby relieved of their obligations. They can now be taken up into Christ’s own sacrifice and are enabled to offer themselves, soul and body, in union with that sacrifice, so that the imperfection of the believers’ self-oblation is transformed by the perfection of Christ self offering.
Now, that’s a big bite to digest, so let me lay it out … in shorter sentences! Even under the Old Testament sacrificial system, God was doing for us what we could not do for ourselves. Yes, human beings had to bring their agricultural produce or their live animals to the temple, and the priests had to offer the sacrifices, either by burning the grain or slaughtering and burning the animals. But God himself provided this system. Otherwise, there would have been no way of making atonement for sin. In Christ, though, at the cross, God makes permanent provision—as the author of the letter to the Hebrews puts it, “once, for all.” As we respond to Christ in faith, participating not in a sacrificial system but a sacramental system, we become one with him in his self-offering on the cross. We are united with him in his sacrificial death, and our wholly inadequate self-offering is transformed into the one, full, perfect, and sufficient satisfaction and oblation for the sins of the whole world. On the cross, Jesus is both victim and priest; he is the Lamb of God, taking away the sins of the world, atoning for our manifold inadequacies, and granting us peace.
There’s an old gospel chorus that says, “Jesus paid it all.” Well, yes, Jesus did “pay it all.” There is nothing of our own that we can bring to the table by way of atonement for our sins. In the words of the baptismal liturgy, “Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?” Yet, the Christian pilgrimage is not one of passivity. We are to be active disciples. We are to strive for the perfection to which God calls us. But we must never embrace the delusion that we can ever get close to that goal by our own efforts. Our salvation is not something we “win,” but something God in Christ “wins” for us. In the words of the “golden oldie” hymn, Rock of Ages: “Nothing in my hands I bring. Simply to thy cross I cling.”
We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world. Amen.