II Corinthians 5:16-21 Genesis 22: 1-14,
Last week we looked at the death of Christ under one of the metaphors the Bible uses to describe why He died. The Death of Jesus was a Ransom. We had become hostages, enslaved, in captivity, and needed a kinsman to deliver us from our oppressors. And Jesus was our closest relative, and he paid the ultimate price for our freedom.
But that is only a part of the story. It is true that we have been victimized. But we all know the modern discussion that tells us that those who are victims turn around and become perpetrators of hurt against others. We are not only victims, but also villains.
That is the reason the scriptures offer a second metaphor. We need to be ransomed because we have been enslaved. But we also need atonement made because sin has severed the relationship with God. Now the word “Atonement” is a tricky word. In the English language it comes from two very simple words, “At one” It means to bring those who are opposed to each other into unity. To restore a broken relationship and get two people who were at loger-heads to be “at one” with one another. The metaphor is simple. It says that we are revolutionaries against God. We are rebels with or without a cause, and our relationship with our Creator is in bad repair.
And something needs to be done to bring the two sides together. A means by which atonement can be achieved needs to be found. But why must a means be found? Why doesn’t God just declare amnesty for us all? Why not just let us off by His divine decree. Why must there be something done, and why on earth must it be at the high cost of the death of his Son? Why must a sacrifice be made at all? Why not just forgive us?
2. The High Cost of reconciliation
Let me offer a possible explanation. Someone betrays a friend. The friend is wounded by it. That person has several alternatives.
She can simply jettison that former friend. She can walk away from the friendship and says “who needs her.” Make the severance of the relationship permanent. Now that is an easy approach.. It’s done all the time.
There is a second alternative. The hurt person can simply cover up her feelings about the crime. She can pretend it never happened. She decides not to bring it up. She does not speak of it. Just gloss it over. She decides to continue the relationship. But it is now a surface relationship. Down deep trust has been damaged. The friendship is less intimate. The conversations are less nourishing. The friendship does not grow, but has stalled and actually diminishes. The pain is suppressed, the guilt of the other is suppressed and everything appears all right. But it isn’t.
There is a third alternative. The issue must be faced. It can’t be allowed to fester. But the friend does not come forward to say “I’ve done a terrible thing. I have come to tell you that I am sorry. I betrayed your confidence and I am so sorry. Please forgive me.”
But the tragedy is that the former friend does not come and say that. What is a person to do? The one who has been hurt takes the initiative. She approaches her friend, and knows that as she does that she can lose the friendship altogether. But the relationship is important. She meets with the one who has hurt her, and says “I need to talk with you. I feel terribly hurt by what you have done. I feel shattered. I do not understand why you did it. Can we talk about it.“ The very process increases her pain. She can be even more hurt by what happens next. Too many things are unpredictable. She can destroy the last vestiges of their friendship or it might bring about reconciliation. But the conversation must be held if true friendship can take place.
Love will always choose the third alternative. Love will seek reconciliation. It will be painful if there is resistance to the reconciliation. There is a high price be paid and the price will be paid by the one granting forgiveness. The person who wishes to forgive and bring about reconciliation will be more pained by the breach, than by the crime that precipitated it. The person wanting reconciliation will be less concerned with justice and personal healing, than for the restoration of a broken friendship. And so, for the love of the other, will open up the sore subject and take the risk.
And God who is love initiates the conversation with us. Listen to Charles Wesley as he sings one of his hymns.
I have long withstood his grace
Long provoked him to his face
Would not listen to his calls
Grieved Him by a thousand falls.
We are people who in one way or another have thumbed our nose at God’s offer of friendship. We have been prodigal sons and daughters who have wanted independence from him and headed out on our own, leaving God sad at our misunderstanding and our refusals. But God does not wish the relationship to be severed. He would do anything to reverse the resistance. He does not choose to cancel the friendship and walk away from us in anger. He cannot keep quiet about the issue because it would be a relationship built upon dishonesty and distrust.
A Way to bring about a conversation that can lead to reconciliation must be found. And the death of Jesus Christ upon the cross is the means that God chose. But why choose the death of His son as the means of our forgiveness.
3. The Sacrifice was His
It was understood in the O.T. that a sacrifice was necessary for the forgiveness of sin. A person who had sinned understood that he needed to make it right with God. He would take a lamb from the flock. It was to be an unblemished animal. The best of his flock. He would bring the lamb to be sacrificed. It was the way that God had ordained as the way forgiveness was received by the offender. The sinner, participating in that act, would leave with conscience cleared and heart free. It was wonderful news, by the way. The alternatives are
(1) Sins are not forgiven. Period. The relationship is over! Or,
(2) You can ask for forgiveness, but you will never know if you have really been forgiven. You will just have to hope so. Or
(3) God said I have given you a way to deal with sin and a broken relationship. Bring a sacrifice, and this innocent creature will suffer instead of you, and it will be the means by which you will be forgiven, so you can get on with life. God had already forgiven them, but they needed to know that and to experience the liberation of it, so that they would not go through life avoiding contact with God with whom they should have had a conversation about their wrong doing. God provided a way to deal with guilt and guilt feelings, and a broken relationship. The sacrificer was intended to leave the service of worship with heart and conscience free, singing an Old Testament version of the Hymn,
“My God is reconciled.
His pardoning voice I hear.
He owns me as his child.
I can no longer fear.
With confidence I now draw nigh,
And Father, Abba Father cry.”
But there was some confusion always remaining. The question was raised, “Had God forgiven me because I have given Him a valuable animal? Have I paid the price for my own forgiveness? Was it Quid pro Quo. I have done my part, so God has done his?”
The New Testament adds its corrective to this misunderstanding. The message is clear. In the death of Jesus Christ on the Cross it is God Himself who has provided the sacrifice. It is God who has given the best of His flock. Jesus is the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world. It is God who bears the full cost of our forgiveness.
If someone were to ask the question, “can sin be forgiven? The answer comes back, “O yes!” If someone asks the question “how can we know that our sins are forgiven?” the answer comes back, “God made the sacrifice that is intended to remove all doubt. If he was willing to give His own Son for us, then why on earth would he withhold forgiveness. If he gave his son to re-establish a broken relationship, why would he want to hold us off?” St. Paul has said it most clearly: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself.”
4. God reconciles us to Himself
By the way, that is the right way to say it. Jesus was not reconciling God to us. He was not trying to placate an angry Father, and so made a sacrifice to get God off our case. Jesus was not trying to get around justice by trying to bribe the judge with the biggest gift he could find. God was already reconciled to being reconciled to us. The Sacrifice of Christ was to bring about our being reconciled to him.
Let me explain what that means. We are revolutionaries in the hills surrounding the Kingdom of God. We have been sniping at God whom we have judged to be unfair. And God has called upon us to lay down our arms and to be reconciled to Him.
But we distrust him, so we stay in the hills, eking out an existence with significant deprivation. Over the years ambassadors have been sent to plead the cause of the king. But not one of them was quite trusted. And then one day the city gates open, and the Son of the King comes walking out towards the hills. He is unarmed. There are no battalions of soldiers to offer him protection. All by Himself the Son of the King walks towards the enclave from where the worst opposition has come.
And the rebels in the hills, as one man, train their guns on this solitary figure and a hundred guns blaze out their deadly fire, and the body falls to the ground. The King’s Son has been killed. And the crumpled body lies there on the pathway. And surprise, no army comes thundering out of the city to take revenge. No shots come from the battlements of the city. There is just silence. And the rebels break out in cheering. What a coup. They killed the King’s son!
Then someone asks the dangerous question. “What on earth is the king doing? Didn’t he know what we would do with his son?” “Well sure!” said some. And then the question, “Do you think that the King means what he says. That we can go home. That we can put down our weapons? That he wants us to be full members of his kingdom and of his family? And someone says, “I think this proves it! There can be no doubt. It’s about time we were reconciled to Him.”
The Old Testament tells the story of Abraham willing to offer his only son as a demonstration of how much he loved God. Willing to pay any price that God asked. In the same way the death of Jesus was intended to be the irrefutable demonstration of how much God loved us. He was willing to do anything to unite those that were separated from Him. Love could not cancel the friendship. But neither could Love coerce the friendship. But the ultimate demonstration of his intent might induce us to return to Him, to trust Him, and enter into an increasingly close relationship with him.
There is an interesting account taken from the time of the crucifixion. At the very moment of the death of Jesus the veil of the Temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The veil had been intended to keep people from blundering into the Holy of Holies. It had been used to convey a sense of mystery. It had concealed the ark of the covenant from becoming a fetish or an idol. But it had not been intended to keep people away from the presence of God, as though God were unapproachable. But as the centuries passed that was the impression. God was seen to be aloof. He was perceived to be distant. He was not considered approachable by we commoners. But that was a lie! And at the very moment of the death of Jesus, God tore the curtain that had been seen as separating God from people. How do we know it was Him? If vandals had done it they would have torn this thirty foot high heavy curtain from the bottom to the top. But God tore it from the unreachable top to its very bottom and declared that he was approachable. The tearing of the curtain and the rending of the Son of God removed all doubt. The need for resistance is over.
Hymn 208. “Alas and Did My Saviour Bleed.”