April 6, 2014 Passion Sunday
A New and Better Liturgy
Isaiah 1:10-20, Psalm 71, Hebrews 9:1101, St. John 8:46-59
Today we confront a matter of conscience. The blood of Christ, the author of Hebrews promises us, shall “cleanse your conscience.”
God’s purifying activity within us is ever before us. Each week we ask in the Collect for Purity that God would “cleanse the thoughts of our hearts . . .”
But never is this work of purging us of our sin more evident than on this Fifth Sunday in Lent, also known as Passion Sunday. We hark back to the time, two weeks before His glorious resurrection, when Jesus began to demand His disciples face the fact of His impending suffering and death.
Today commences Passiontide, the final slog through the gloom of the final fortnight to the brilliance of Easter Day. Already, we have begged God for mercy. In our Collect of the Day we prayed, “We beseech thee, Almighty God, mercifully to look upon thy people . . .”
Absent His mercy, we would be consumed. This collect comes to us from the Roman missal through the missal in use in Salisbury in the early days of the English Reformation, the primary book on which Dr. Cranmer based our Book of Common Prayer. Thus it was originally written in Latin, and the word translated “people” could be rendered more literally “family” or “household.”
“We beseech thee, Almighty God, mercifully to look upon thy ‘family’; that by thy great goodness . . .” God’s mercy springs up from His bottomless well of goodness.
“. . . that by thy great goodness they may be governed and preserved evermore . . .” Not by any merit within us but only by God’s goodness will we, His family, enjoy His gracious governance of us as He preserves us throughout His eternity.
“. . . they may be governed and preserved evermore, both in body and soul . . .” We are a unity, physical and spiritual, and so we will remain. We do not implore our Lord to liberate us from these corruptible tabernacles of flesh but to purify them along with our souls.
“. . . both in body and soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Finally, we acknowledge that we may plead for God’s mercy, goodness, governance and preservation based only on the atoning work of our Lord Christ. His “blood” in the Epistle to the Hebrews represents that very life He surrendered on the cross of Calvary that we might be purged of our sin.
I can’t help playing in my mind an old gospel song: “What can wash away my sin? What can make me clean within? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.”
During Passiontide, the themes of sin and pardon mingle, salty and sweet, in our lessons. We anticipate with joy our Lord’s resurrection -- and our resurrection with Him. At the same time, His word keeps before us our sin that made necessary our pardon which He purchased with His blood.
The prophet Isaiah frames the issue for God’s family in his day, still centuries before the coming of the Christ, and the problem could hardly be more acute. Week after week, season after season, year after year, the people offer animals on the altar of their Lord. They comply with His commandments – or so it appears – but God’s prophet informs them their sacrifices avail them nothing.
Isaiah’s prophecy opens with a fusillade: The Israelites are “a sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, a brood of evildoers.” Having “forsaken the Lord,” they “have provoked to anger the Holy One of Israel” (1:4). “The whole head is sick, and the whole heart faints” (v. 5).
If not for God’s mercy, they would have become like Sodom and Gomorrah (v. 9). As our lesson for today commences, Isaiah turns up the burner of the analogy. Israel’s leaders are “you rulers of Sodom” and the rest are “you people of Gomorrah.”
All of their offerings are in vain. “To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices to Me?” says the Lord. “I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed cattle. I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs or goats.”
This systematic sacrifice of dumb beasts is, of course, precisely what Yahweh has prescribed for His covenant people. And as ancient religions go, this one is almost abusively demanding, in terms of both time and money.
The cult of worship demands elaborate ritual and it costs dear. The fattened cattle, those raised for sacrifice, are the most expensive. Their God mandates their worship, yet when they offer it according to His rules and regulations He will not have it. “Who has required this from your hand?” He growls
But then comes His reason: “I cannot endure iniquity and the sacred meeting.” They have come to the sacred place, the temple, on the sacred day, the Sabbath, to offer sacred sacrifices . . . but they have brought with them as well their sin of which they have not repented:
“Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; put away the evil of your doings from before My eyes. Cease to do evil.”
They have not run out of chances. If they keep covenant they will receive blessing; if they continue to break covenant they will incur cursing. “For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
What has God’s family withheld from their heavenly Father? The same thing their primal ancestors, Adam and Eve, would not offer to Him: themselves. The life is in the blood (Lev 17:11); the blood is emblematic of their very being.
God in His great grace has suffered them to offer to Him the blood of bulls and goats as a substitute for their own . . . but the blood of a beast means nothing to the Creator of all that is. Absent the worshiper’s heartfelt contrition for his sin and acknowledgement that he owes God his very life in payment for violating the divine holiness and polluting the creation the blood he offers might as well be dishwater.
God’s family has a problem . . . but the problem is worse than it seems.
The author of Hebrews allows that the law God gave Moses bustled with types and shadows . . . and then he proceeds to chase the types out of the shadows. And when he does we see that the Mosaic law could not have led Israel out of her spiritual wilderness even had she been on her best behavior.
Taking up Isaiah’s theme, he instructs that the blood of bulls and goats could only ever have sanctified for the “purifying of the flesh.” This was a surface scrubbing that could not penetrate to that asylum deep inside us where the root of our sins abides.
What can wash away my sin? What can make me clean within? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
The second Adam will come and offer what the first Adam withheld, His perfect obedience, His very being. This Messiah will be the Savior of the family of God; He will bathe them in the blood of His righteousness and, cleansing them, He will share His resurrection with them.
He will institute the new covenant God foretold through another of His prophets, Jeremiah. Under it, said Yahweh, “I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be My people” (31:33).
Messiah will serve as Mediator of this new and better covenant. But will the family of God know Him when He appears?
Those who are truly sons and daughters of the Father on high will know His only begotten Son when He arrives. St. John reports on yet another of Jesus’ disputes with the leaders of Israel. Our Lord tells them, “He who is of God hears God’s words; therefore you do not hear, because you are not of God.”
Their slanders escalate; He must have a demon. He makes Himself out to be greater than Abraham and the prophets. Jesus replies, “If I honor Myself, My honor is nothing. It is My Father who honors Me, of whom you say that He is your God. Yet you have not known Him, but I know Him. And if I say, ‘I do not know Him,’ I shall be a liar like you, but I do know Him and keep His word.”
And there’s more. Abraham, their patriarch, says Jesus, is one of His biggest fans. These Jews are so flummoxed they’re gargling with their own blood. How can this impudent rabbi claim to have known Abraham? Jesus answers, “Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.”
They have no doubt as to His meaning. When Moses asked Yahweh for some credentials to establish his God-given authority before the Israelites, Yahweh told him, “Thus you shall say to the children of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you’” (Ex 3:14).
Jesus, the Nazarene, the carpenter’s son, is claiming to be divine. Blasphemy! They take up stones to stone Him; He eludes them.
This encounter takes place in the temple, where they offer the blood of bulls and goats. They do not know Him for the only acceptable – the perfect – sacrifice, who will offer not the blood of beasts but His own blood. They do not recognize Him as the ultimate High Priest who is Mediator of the new and better covenant, who will make His offering not in a tabernacle made with hands but will present it to God in the true Holy of Holies, the sanctuary on high.
These Jews will not relinquish the types and embrace the Holy One they prefigured. They refuse to see in Him the true temple through whom all must pass to enter the Father’s holy presence. They will not put away their tired rituals that could never bleach their sins and receive the blood of Christ that can purge their consciences of the dead works that they might serve the living God.
In our conscience, brothers and sisters, resides the knowledge of our acts that lead to death – eternal separation from God – that bar us in the here and now from offering ourselves finally and fully to Him. But because of what Christ has done the approach to the divine throne stands wide open.
For the Israel of God, as St. Paul calls the New Testament church, real worship can flow out and merge with the pure waters of the river of life. Only take this blood of Christ that cleanses all it touches and use it to relieve your consciences that you might enter into the holy presence.
But these Jews will not accept it. They will not look upon the accretion of hypocrisy they have layered onto the law of Moses over the centuries. And they will not understand that even if they drilled down to that law as God gave it they would mine only a provisional covenant that provided severely restricted access to God and imperfect sacrifices inadequate for a deep purging of their sin.
They cling to their old liturgy that could not cleanse their consciences, did not clear their hindrance to unsullied worship. Year after year, the family gathered on the Day of Atonement – Yom Kippur.
But only the high priest could approach God in His sanctuary, and only then with an offering of animal blood for his own sins and another for the sins of the people. There they enact this liturgy with the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, only to re-enact it year after year.
A clean slate on Yom Kippur was nothing more than a white suit in search of a dirt road on a rainy day.
Our Lord bids us, “Follow Me!” into the heavenly Holy of Holies, enter into My once-for-all offering of Myself for the cleansing of your consciences. The Mediator of a new and better covenant has brought into the world a new and better liturgy.
Enacting this liturgy, we enter into His perfect sacrifice, which in Biblespeak means “complete.” It is never to be repeated. We are baptized once into a passion suffered once as a sacrifice offered once for the sins of all . . . of all who embrace this truth.
They looked ahead to another sacrifice and another and another; we remember an offering made once-for-all. It comes far more dear than theirs . . . but we do not bear the cost. And now prepare your hearts to enter anew into the new and better liturgy with a conscience salved by the blood of the Lamb. Amen.