Friday, November 30, 2012

Christ in the Psalms - A Preview

The text below is the introduction to a study on Christ in the Psalms that I'm writing for the small groups at our church for next Lent. I thought I'd post it here as a preview and to give others a chance to give feedback about the idea as I continue to write the lessons. 

This study is an attempt to read Scripture in a different way - or more precisely, an attempt to return to reading Scripture in a very old way. Finding Christ in the Old Testament is nothing new. Even the most cursory reading of the New Testament demonstrates quite obviously that its authors were concerned with articulating their beliefs about Jesus in the language of the Old Testament. What is surprising, at least to me, is the way that they went about that task.

 For a good portion of my life, I had always assumed that Jesus’ identity as Israel’s Messiah was plainly laid out in the Old Testament, easy to find for anyone who was willing to do the work of searching. The relationship between the Old Testament and Jesus, I often thought, was as simple as prediction and fulfillment; that is, the Old Testament outlined clearly what the coming Messiah would look like and Jesus fit the bill perfectly. Jesus’ identity as the Messiah was so plainly obvious that only the Pharisees and other religious leaders in all their hard-hearted tradition and legalism could miss what was obvious to everyone else. If only they had traded in their man-made laws and traditions for a plain reading of God’s word in Scripture then they too would have known that Jesus was the Christ.

 More recently, I’ve come to the conclusion that these assumptions don’t seem to match-up with the way the New Testament authors themselves made use of the Old Testament to talk about Jesus. Far from treating the Old Testament as a book of predictions, I noticed that the New Testament authors seemed to be reading the Old Testament much less literally than I did, applying passages of Scripture to Jesus in very creative ways; so creative, in fact, that the first authors of those passages probably never imagined that what they had written would be used to describe Israel’s Messiah. So, for example, the author of Hebrews can make use of a Psalm that sings the praises of the God who rescues the faithful (Ps 40) to say that Jesus’ own faithfulness makes animal sacrifice an unnecessary part of the new covenant he inaugurates. Likewise, Psalm 110:1, the single verse of the Old Testament quoted in the New Testament more often that any other, is used repeatedly to speak of Jesus’ exaltation to the Father’s right hand and ascension into heaven even though the Psalm’s author almost certainly did not have ascension into heaven in mind when he wrote the Psalm.

 Upon closer inspection, it seems the prediction-fulfillment formula is actually just the opposite of how the earliest Christians understood the relationship between Jesus and their Scriptures. If anything, it appears they viewed the relationship the other way around. It was not so much Scripture which was determinative for their understanding of Christ as much as it was Christ who was determinative for their understanding of Scripture. To be sure, all of Jesus’ first followers believed that Jesus fulfilled the Scriptures. However, he did so in such radical and unexpected ways that it was by no means an obvious truth to everyone who encountered him. In other words, the Pharisees actually had a pretty good point in their arguments with Jesus. The Pharisees were the ones who were looking at what Scripture said about the Messiah and looking at Jesus and seeing that he clearly didn’t fit the mold. Claiming that he was the Messiah and that he was himself authoritative over Scripture and the temple and Israel was enough to get him killed, itself the surest of signs that he was not the Messiah he claimed to be.

 If all of this is true, then why did those first Christians become disciples of Jesus? If Jesus so obviously did not fit everyone’s Messianic expectations as shaped by Scripture, then why did his first followers so boldly proclaim him as the Christ and even the Son of God, even to the point of giving their own lives? It seems to me that it was because they knew they had encountered in the flesh and blood of Jesus the full, definitive Word of God personified and that Word trumped every other word that had ever been spoken or written. They may not have fully realized this as he healed the sick and proclaimed the kingdom of God and they surely doubted whatever they had previously believed as Jesus hung dying and defeated on the cross. But the resurrection and the consequent pouring out of the Holy Spirit planted firmly in the minds and hearts of his followers that God had done something unique in Jesus. So much so that they began to re-read their own Scriptures in completely new ways through the lens of what they knew to be true in Jesus. For the first Christians, Jesus was the light by which the Scriptures were to be read.

This should come as no surprise to us. It is, after all, what the New Testament authors themselves tell us. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God...and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”[1] and “God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.”[2] Jesus as the Word of God, the Son by whom the Father has spoken, is one of the most fundamental affirmations in all the Christian faith.

 In spite of that, it seems to me that we often fail to read our Scriptures in accordance with that basic confession. Instead, we approach the pages of Scriptures as if the ink on those thin little pages of paper were the full and definitive Word of God for us, forgetting that title belongs first and foremost to Jesus and only derivatively to Scripture as it witnesses to Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. Likewise, we often speak of “Scripture alone” being enough to answer all of our questions. So we assume that if we can simply “prove” something from Scripture then it can serve as a universal truth for our doctrine and ethics. But what if Jesus’ disciples had stuck to Scripture alone over and above their experience of Jesus? Can you imagine them meeting with Jesus shortly after his resurrection and saying “Well, there’s no verse that says the Messiah was supposed to be raised from the dead so we’re not convinced.”? In my opinion, when we read Scripture as a document with one fixed and inerrant meaning given to us by God to serve as a source for an unassailable system of doctrine and ethics, we become more like the Pharisees who rejected Jesus and less like the early Christians who proclaimed him as Lord. 

 This is, by no means, an attempt to diminish the importance of Scripture. It is, however, an attempt to recapture its rightful place in the life of the Church and the believer: as a witness to Christ. When we remember that this is its purpose, I think it can actually raise our respect for Scripture by reminding us that God’s Word is not something written long ago, lifelessly locked into words on a page. Rather, “the Word of God is living and active,”[3] a Word that speaks to us presently. It goes to work on us like a sharp scalpel cutting us open and laying bare our weak and broken nature before the Great Physician in whose hand it serves as a powerful tool.

 Of course, the New Testament authors quote from a vast array of passages and books in the Old Testament. The Psalms, however, were a favorite of these first Christian theologians, especially as they reflected on the identity of Christ. A few Psalms in particular are quoted repeatedly in the New Testament with reference to Jesus. It is those Psalms which form the basis of this study.

 Each week will focus on a different Psalm, beginning with Psalm 2 on Ash Wednesday and ending with Psalm 16 on Easter.  Most weeks will consist of four lessons; one about the Psalm and three about its various uses in the New Testament. As a part of each lesson you will also be encouraged to interact with the Psalms as prayers. The readings for each Sunday’s worship are also included along with space for sermon notes.  Each week will also include a small group meeting in which you will discuss the passages you have read in the previous week as well as some quotes from the earliest Christian theologians about those passages. You can move through the lessons at your own pace within the week and, depending on when your small group meets, you may not complete all the lessons by the Sunday they are read in worship. (Even though the Sundays in the outline below appear after days 1-4, if your group meets on Wednesdays you might do days 1-2 on Thurs - Fri and days 3-4 on Mon - Tues.) However, you should attempt to complete all the lessons before your small group discusses them later in the week so that you can contribute to the discussion. Here is an outline of what lies ahead.

Psalm 2
Ash Wednesday - Ps. 2; Mark 1:9-11; 9:2-8; 15:39
Thursday - Meditate on Psalm 2, Lesson on Hebrews 1:1-5
Friday - Pray Psalm 2, Lesson on Acts 4:23-31

First Sunday in Lent - Psalm 2:1-9; 2 Samuel 7:1-17; Hebrews 1:1-5; Luke 4:1-13

Small Group Discussion: What stood out to you from this week’s Scripture readings? This week’s sermon? Quotes from Church Fathers with questions for reflection. 

Psalm 8
Week 1 of Lent
Day 1 - Read Psalm 8, Lesson on Psalm 8
Day 2 - Meditate on Psalm 8 (let God speak to you), Lesson on Matt 21:12-17
Day 3 - Pray Psalm 8 (let it speak for you to God), Lesson on Hebrews 2:5-9
Day 4 - Hear Christ in Psalm 8 (Christ speaks with you), Lesson on 1 Cor 15:20-28

Second Sunday in Lent - Psalm 8; Isaiah 8:11-18; Hebrews 2:5-9; Luke 9:28-36

Small Group Discussion

Psalm 40
Week 2 of Lent
Day 1: Read Psalm 40, Lesson on Psalm 40
Day 2: Meditate on Psalm 40, Lesson on Hebrews 10:1-10
Day 3: Pray Psalm 40, Lesson on Ephesians 5:1-2
Day 4: Hear Christ in Psalm 40, Lesson on Luke 7:18-23

Third Sunday in Lent: Psalm 40:1-8; Hosea 6:1-6; Hebrews 10:1-10; Luke 13:1-9

Small Group Discussion

Psalm 110
Week 3 of Lent
Day 1: Read Psalm 110, Lesson on Psalm 110
Day 2: Meditate on Psalm 110, Lesson on Mark 12:35-37
Day 3: Pray Psalm 110, Lesson on Mark 14:53-64
Day 4: Hear Christ in Psalm 110, Lesson on Hebrews 1:13; 7:11-22

Fourth Sunday in Lent: Psalm 110; Exodus 29:1-9, Hebrews 5:1-10, Luke 20:41-47

 Small Group Discussion   

Psalm 69
Week 4 of Lent
Day 1: Read Psalm 69, Lesson on Psalm 69
Day 2: Meditate on Psalm 69, Lesson on John 2:13-22
Day 3: Pray Psalm 69, Lesson on John 15:18-27
Day 4: Hear Christ in Psalm 69, Lesson on Romans 15:1-7

Fifth Sunday in Lent Psalm 69:4-9; Isaiah 53:3-9; Romans 15:1-7; John 12:1-8

Small Group Discussion

Psalm 118
Week 5 of Lent
Day 1: Read Psalm 118, Lesson on Psalm 118
Day 2: Meditate on Psalm 118, Lesson on Matt 21:1-44
Day 3: Pray Psalm 118, Lesson on Acts 4:1-12
Day 4: Hear Christ in Psalm 118, Lesson on 1 Peter 2:4-10

Palm Sunday: Psalm 118:19-29, Isaiah 28:14-22, 1 Peter 2:4-10, Luke 19:28-40

Small Group Discussion  

Holy Week
Maundy Thursday: Read Psalm 22, Lesson on Psalm 22 and Hebrews 2:10-18
Good Friday: Meditate on Psalm 22, Lesson on John 19:23-27
Holy Saturday: Hear Christ in Psalm 22, Lesson on Matt 27:45-50

Easter Sunday: Psalm 16:5-11, Acts 2:22-36, 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, John 20:1-18

[1] John 1:1, 14, ESV.
[2] Hebrews 1:1-2, ESV
[3] Hebrews 4:11

Monday, November 26, 2012

With Power and Great Glory

Luke 21 is a mysterious and puzzling passage of Scripture - though perhaps we produce some of that puzzlement ourselves in the assumptions we bring to the text. Its talk of wars and destruction, famine and pestilence have caused countless Christians to speculate as to when the events described in this chapter might take place. Many modern Christians have assumed that the events referred to here are still future ones that will take place before Jesus returns. Consequently, many Christians have also spent a good bit of time trying to match up events of our own time with the events described in this chapter and others like it thereby predicting that the return of Jesus is near. This approach, however, is problematic for a number of reasons.

Perhaps the most important of those reasons is that Jesus himself warns against it in this very passage. The disciples ask Jesus when all these things will happen to which he replies:
"See that you are not led astray. For many will come in my name, saying, 'I am he!' and, 'The time is at hand!' Do no go after them." (v. 6)
This, combined with Jesus' admonition in Acts 1 that no one knows the time and date of Jesus' return, should be enough to put to rest every attempt by Christians to put together any kind of "End of the World" timetable or blueprint.

A second important facet of Jesus' discourse in this passage is that it is all ultimately a response to comments about the temple. The chapter opens with the story of a poor widow putting two copper coins into the temple offering and Jesus commenting that she has given more than all the rest because she has given all she had. Afterward, some of those present are marveling at the temple in all its glory. The Jerusalem temple was indeed a building that would have inspired awe by ancient standards. It was both enormous in its construction and ornate in its craftsmanship. But rather than joining in their gawking over the temple, Jesus says:
"As for these things that you see, the days will come when there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down."
This prophecy by Jesus was quite literally fulfilled in 70 A.D. when the Romans put down a Jewish insurrection and burned the temple to the ground in the process. Far from being a prediction about the future, much of what Jesus speaks about here takes place in the disciples' own lifetime. In fact, Luke makes a point of speaking about the disciples in Acts in a way that fulfills Jesus' words here. In v. 12-14 Jesus says:
"But before all this they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name's sake. This will be your opportunity to bear witness. Settle it therefore in your minds not to meditate beforehand how to answer, for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict."
In Acts 4, Luke tells the story of Peter and John being arrested and brought before the religious leaders because they have been preaching in the name of Jesus. When they are given the chance to defend themselves, Peter is filled with the Holy Spirit and speaks eloquently about Jesus. When the religious leaders heard Peter's speech they are astonished that some with education could speak as Peter has just done. Furthermore, seeing the formerly crippled man that Peter had just healed standing next to them, the council is unable to speak in opposition to what Peter has just said. Jesus' words in Luke 21 are fulfilled in Peter.

Thirdly, it is important to recognize the kind of literature we are dealing with in this passage. Like its similar sounding counterparts in Daniel and Revelation, this passage is an example of apocalyptic literature. The Greek word from which this literature derives its name means to reveal or uncover. The purpose of apocalyptic literature is to pull back the curtain of everyday, visible reality and expose the greater reality that easily remains unseen. So in Revelation, for example, John portrays seemingly harmless compromise with the Roman Empire as nothing short of keeping company with a Great Harlot who derives her seductive power from the unholy psuedo-trinity of false prophet, satanic beast, and devouring dragon. Likewise, Jesus is uncovering an important reality for his disciples when in v.27 he describes himself as the Son of Man described in Daniel 7. A few verses from that chapter of Daniel will suffice to show why that would be a reassuring image for those who count themselves followers of Jesus.
"I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away; and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed." Daniel 7:13-14
In other words, in the midst of all this tragedy, when things seem most hopeless, Jesus' disciples are still to raise their heads and their hopes high because their redemption is near. Even as nation rises up against nation, Jesus is the one to whom dominion over all the nations has been given. Whatever chaos the powers that be may cause, Jesus is the one true power who reigns supreme.

In some ways, this may seem an odd message for this time of year. We would rather think of holiday cheer and a cute baby boy born in a manger. But the gospels will not let us forget that the baby boy in the manger is the one who rules the nations. Furthermore, this is an appropriate word for the first Sunday of Advent for it is the coming of Christ and his kingdom which is our hope. As Christians, there is a certain sense in which we are always living in a season of advent because it is Christ's cosmic reign of peace and justice which we eagerly anticipate even as we live in a world of wars and rumors of wars. We are always a people who are waiting, a people leaning into the future, living into the day when the Son of Man will come in the clouds with power and great glory. May His kingdom come.

Monday, November 19, 2012

A Different Kind of Fiscal Cliff

Last week, I wrote about some of the surprising ways in which Leviticus calls us to love our neighbor. Leviticus 25 is another one of those somewhat surprising ways. Israel has already been commanded to keep a Sabbath rest every seventh day. Now God declares that the land is to have a Sabbath as well - every seventh year. In that year, the people of Israel were to leave the land uncultivated, allowing it to grow wild. It is easy to see how this would have been a remarkable practice of trust in Yahweh for the people of Israel - just imagine taking a whole year off of work and trusting God to provide in that year. God promised that if Israel kept this command that the land would produce enough surplus in the sixth year in order to provide throughout the scarcity of the seventh year. Israel was to trust God in the promised land just as they had to trust Yahweh to provide during their wilderness wandering.

But the commandment becomes even more exceptional. In addition to leaving the ground fallow every seventh year, Israel was also to celebrate Jubilee every 50th year. As a part of this celebration, Israel was commanded to proclaim liberty throughout the land; slaves were released from their slavery and property was returned to its original owner. It seems the year of Jubilee was a way of maintaining some level of economic equality within Israel. In other words, it was acknowledged that some Israelites might grow wealthier and others poorer and that in itself is not condemned. However, it seems there was also an acknowledgement that if left unchecked this disparity of wealth could become to great and therefore unjust. As a result, every 50th year was to serve as a "leveling of the playing field". If someone had grown so poor that they had to sell their property or sell themselves or a family member into slavery, then on the 50th year they or their family member or their land were to be released. God specifically states that land was not to be sold into perpetuity because the land ultimately belonged to God (v. 23). As such, God would not allow the land to be used to accumulate a wealth so great that it was crushing one's neighbor. There had to be limit on how much one could profit while another suffered.

This had to be one of the most radical of all of Israel's laws (so radical, in fact, that many scholars question whether or not it was ever actually practiced in Israel). If it is hard to imagine on an individual level what would happen if one intentionally went without work for a year trusting God to provide then it is even more difficult to imagine the kind of large scale economic restructuring that would take place in a society where every land-debt was forgiven and every slave released on one day. How would our own society be transformed if every debt was forgiven every 50 years? (To his credit, Pope John Paul II called for the year 2000 to be a year of Jubilee, a call which went largely unanswered by the corporations and nations of the world. However, there has been some discussion since then about the wealthier nations of the world forgiving the overwhelming debts owed by poorer nations.)

Isaiah 61 uses this radical language to describe Israel's own return from exile. The prophet declares:
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor ; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor..."
 "To proclaim liberty" is language lifted right out of Leviticus 25. In his commentary on Isaiah, Walter Brueggemann argues that "the year of the Lord's favor" is also an allusion to the year of Jubilee. Isaiah uses this language of Jubilee to proclaim God's deliverance of Israel. The poor, brokenhearted captives described in this passage are God's own people who have been exiled from their homes by the nation of Babylon. God is, in effect, declaring a year of Jubilee through the prophet Isaiah for Israel itself by proclaiming that the debt of Israel's sins have been canceled, that they will be released from their captivity, and that they will return to the land God gave them. The God who commanded Israel to practice Jubilee is now enacting Jubilee on their behalf.

Jesus quotes these words from Isaiah in Luke 4. In fact, they are programmatic for the way Luke will go about portraying Jesus in his gospel. Bringing good news to the poor, binding up the brokenhearted, and proclaiming liberty to those held captive by disease, disability, ritual impurity, and prejudice are precisely the kind of things we see Jesus doing in the gospel of Luke. After reading from the scroll in the synagogue, Jesus hands its back to the attendant and sits down - the position from which someone would typically expound on the Scripture just read. Jesus' only words are "Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

Initially, the people marvel at Jesus' words. When Jesus read this, the people of Israel lived in their own land so they were not in exile in the traditional sense. However, they lived in their land under the rule of Rome. As such, many Jews considered themselves to be living in exile and looked for God to deliver them from that exile again just as God had in the days of Isaiah. So the synagogue audience is excited because Jesus has just proclaimed that Israel's return from exile is close at hand. Furthermore, Jesus' makes this proclamation in his hometown of Nazareth. Surely, the people assume, if the messiah who accomplishes the return from exile is from their very own town then they stand to find themselves at the head of the victory parade.

In fact, Jesus sums up those assumptions well when he says:
"Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, 'Physician heal yourself.' What we have heard you did in Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well."
 But Jesus then undercuts those assumptions when he says:
And he said, “Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown. But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heavens were shut up three years and six months, and a great famine came over all the land, and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.”
Not only does Jesus remind them that no prophet is ever accepted in his own town. Jesus also cites two instances of prophetic ministry in which gentiles receive God's deliverance while Israel does not. In other words, Jesus declares that his promise of Jubilee and return from exile is not for Israel alone but for non-Jews as well. The audience which first responded to Jesus' message so favorably now becomes so angry that they try to push him off a cliff.

I find it fascinating that Luke chooses to portray Jesus' proclamation of salvation in the economic language of Jubilee - to say that the salvation Jesus brings is akin to an emancipation proclamation and a nation-wide mortgage burning ceremony all rolled into one. Like the audience in that synagogue, our response to such a revolutionary message will probably be largely determined by where we stand. So long as we think we are the ones having our debts canceled then we welcome the word of liberation. When we find out that some one else might receive the same grace, we question this message or perhaps even become angry. Or to put it in terms of the wealthiest Christians who have ever inhabited the face of the earth, so long as Jesus' message of liberation is about canceling our spiritual debts we are happy to accept it. But what if Jesus' proclamation of Jubilee is also a call to restructure the economic systems which benefit us but lead to the oppression of others? What if praying for the forgiveness of our own spiritual debts entails our forgiving of all kinds of debts on behalf of others?

Will we find the nearest cliff?

Monday, November 12, 2012

Charity Is No Substitute

What do you think of when you hear Jesus' command to "love your neighbor"?  What does it mean to fulfill that command?

I preached a sermon on this topic several years ago and I was somewhat surprised afterward when someone said to me "You know pastor, you're right!  I really need to do a better job of loving my neighbor." - by which this person quite literally meant their actual next door neighbor. It was a pleasant surprise though. This is the kind of epiphany we could all have and our communities and churches would be all the better for it. I know I could do a much better job of loving my actual next door neighbor.

However, I imagine that most of us understand this command a bit less literally. We realize that our neighbor can actually be anyone we encounter. In fact, by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus communicates to us that the question for us should not be "Who is my neighbor?" but "Am I being a neighbor to everyone I encounter?" And I would guess that when we think of being "neighborly" to the people we encounter in our daily routines that we usually think of being kind, courteous, and lending a helping hand when its needed. Again, these are good things and we could do a lot worse as the Church.

But I think many of us would probably be surprised to know that when Jesus says that the second greatest commandment is to love our neighbor as ourselves, he is quoting a verse from Leviticus. We might be even more surprised to hear the kind of things that our associated with loving our neighbor in that passage. Here is a sampling:
"When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard, You shall leave them for the poor and the sojourner: I am the Lord your God." 19:9-10
"You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him.  The wages of a hired servant shall not remain with you all night until the morning." 19:13
"You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor." 19:15
This isn't exactly smiling-at-your-grocery-store-cashier or giving-a-few-bucks-to-a-stranger kind of stuff. In fact, this isn't the language of individual charity at all. We're talking about harvest and wages and courts. This is the language of business and law we are dealing with here. In other words, when Leviticus speaks of "loving our neighbor" this is not something that is merely a private or individual matter. Love of neighbor extended even into God's expectation for Israel's businesses and legal systems.

Of course, this is not to say that we can simply pick up these commands and implement them unchanged in our own corporations and justice system. The verses I quoted above are ones that might cohere more readily with our modern sensibilities but they are surrounded by verses which we ignore entirely; verses that prohibit garments made of two kinds of material or that condone slavery or that forbid certain haircuts, not to mention the entirety of the sacrificial system. No, a good biblical ethic must consist of more than merely a series of verses that give us a list of do's and don'ts. Furthermore, we live in a democracy very unlike Israel's theocracy and we find ourselves in the midst of a complex global economy where it can be extremely difficult to discern what is most loving for our American neighbors, much less our neighbors half way around the world.

In spite of all of that, Leviticus challenges us to see that Jesus' command to love our neighbor extends well beyond individual acts of charity. Loving our neighbor in this world means being informed about the products we buy and how they impact those who make them. It means thinking about how the laws of our land will impact the disadvantaged and defenseless.

St. Augustine, probably the most influential theologian in the history of the Church, is often quoted as having said "Charity is no substitute for justice withheld." Helping those in need is not a substitute for remedying the unjust systems which lead to their need in the first place. We are a people called to love our neighbor. Caring for our literal neighbors, our co-workers, those we encounter day to day is a good first step but we must also love the neighbor we may never meet by witnessing to a kingdom in which justice and mercy prevail.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Day of Atonement

Leviticus 16 describes the Day of Atonement, an offering carried out once a year by Aaron and his priestly descendants. The ritual began with the priest removing his ornate priestly garments, washing himself with water, and putting on plain linen garments. The sacrifice itself actually involved three animals: a bull and two goats.

The bull was slaughtered as a sin offering for the priest himself and his household. The priest then entered behind the inner curtain of the tabernacle, the most holy place, bringing with him fine incense and the blood of the slaughtered bull. This was the only time each year that the priest ever entered this inner most part of the tabernacle, the place which represented the very presence of God. The incense was apparently for the priest's own protection (16:13, perhaps the cloud of smoke serving as some kind of barrier even as the priest stands in the very presence of God?) and the blood was to be sprinkled on and in front of the mercy seat as a way of cleansing this most holy place from the priest's sins accumulated throughout the year.

The two goats served as a sin offering for the people of Israel. The priest would cast lots over the two goats to see which would be designated for God and which for Azazel (more on that in a minute). The goat designated for God was slaughtered and its blood was brought into the most holy place and placed on and in front of the mercy seat just as the bull's blood and was meant to cleanse the inner sanctuary of the people's sin accumulated over the course of the year. The priest would then use both the bull's blood and the goat's blood to cleanse the altar at the front of the tabernacle as well.

The priest would then lay his hands on the second goat, the one designated for Azazel, and confess over it all the sins of the people of Israel. This goat was then sent off into the wilderness to "bear all their iniquities on itself into a remote area." There is much debate about what "Azazel" means. Some think it may be the name of a demon roaming in the wilderness while others think it may be a name for the wilderness itself. The simplest explanation is probably that the word is a combination of the Hebrew words for "goat" and "to go away". It is the goat that is sent away carrying Israel's sins; or as many English translations term it, the scapegoat.

Although the meaning of the sacrifices and rituals in Leviticus can often be opaque to us, this one actually seems to be relatively clear. Much like the regular sin offerings, the sacrifices on the Day of Atonement were meant to purge the tabernacle of Israel's sins both through the cleansing agent of blood and now also by being carried away on the scapegoat. Unlike other sin offerings, this was the only day each year when the priest entered the most holy place behind the second curtain of the tabernacle. The presence of God was so holy and tremendous that one could not simply enter the most holy place on a whim. But even this most holy place had to be cleansed of Israel's sin from time to time so as not to drive God away. So the priest entered by the blood of bulls and goats this one day a year to cleanse the inner sanctuary.

It is specifically this Day of Atonement ritual on which the Epistle to the Hebrews builds much of its portrayal of Christ as our high priest. When the priest entered the earthly tabernacle, Hebrews argues, he is entering only a copy and shadow of the real tabernacle of heaven where God's presence truly dwells. Christ, on the other hand, has entered the true most holy place in heaven. Much as the blood of bulls and goats allowed the high priest to enter into the inner sanctuary, so Christ's own blood has allowed him to ascend into heaven and be seated at the right hand of the Father. Since Christ perpetually dwells in the presence of God he does not have to make this sacrifice year after year but is able to intercede for us continually. Furthermore, by accomplishing all this in our own human flesh, Christ has also cleansed us and opened the way for us into the very presence of God.

This ritual and the argument which Hebrews builds on it surely seem foreign to us for a number of reasons. Perhaps not least of these reasons is that we don't really regard the presence of God as all that holy or tremendous - at least not in the way these ancient Israelites did. We walk casually into our churches, take our seat, and expect God to show up in a mighty way after only a few worship choruses. We pray and expect that God will listen and grant our requests. Come to think of it, isn't God present everywhere? So what's all the fuss about with the curtains and the incense and the blood of bulls and goats?

As a result, perhaps we miss out on just how good the good news of Hebrews is. If Leviticus as a whole, and the Day of Atonement ritual in particular, teach us anything it is that the presence of a holy God is not something to be taken lightly. While Hebrews proclaims the good news that Christ has opened the way for us into the presence of God, the Levitical roots of Hebrews' argument reminds us of what an enormous gift that is. After all, it took not the merely the blood of bulls and goats but the blood of the Son of God to make it happen.

Honestly, I'm not exactly sure where Leviticus and Hebrews are leading me this week.  I have a lot of thinking to do about these passages between now and Sunday. But I do know that this theme of just how precious God's presence is seems to keep coming up as I've been preaching through Exodus and Leviticus. In Exodus, Moses knows that it is only the presence of God which distinguishes Israel from all the other peoples of the earth and as such it is worth wrestling for. In Leviticus, the whole purpose of the tabernacle and sacrificial system seems to be about providing an appropriate place for God's presence to dwell in the midst of Israel's camp. It seems to me that the Church also should recognize that the only thing which sets us apart is the presence of God transforming us and as such we should do whatever we have to in order to provide an appropriate place for God's presence to dwell in our midst.