Sacrifice


Then the LORD said to Joshua, “Say to the people of Israel, “Appoint the cities of refuge, of which I spoke to you through Moses, that the manslayer who strikes any person without intent or unknowingly may flee there. They shall be for you a refuge from the avenger of blood.

Joshua 20: 1-3

 

The cities of refuge that are discussed here in Joshua have a very slight connection to the politically motivated and dedicated ones of our times. In admittedly simplistic terms, the cities of refuge of today’s world are a protest statement against laws and governmental attitudes that the leadership of these cities stand in disagreement with. The places that God through Moses instructed Joshua to dedicate were primarily about redemption and forgiveness. They created an opportunity for people who stood under penalty of a sentence of death in certain circumstances to gain an opportunity to be pardoned and set free to live within the society again. They also cut short the potential for a cycle of violence that revolved around revenge and retribution. These ancient cities of refuge are closely related to the way that God has worked with people and in our world since our first days upon the earth.

 

When Paul said, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 3: 23, 24), he is making a very inclusive statement. The “all” there is a group that enfolds you and me and every other person who has ever drawn breath in this world. We are born with a sentence of death already proclaimed for us, and we will live out our days awaiting its execution upon us if we do not encounter and respond to God’s offer of refuge that comes to us in and through Christ. In God’s great and marvelous graciousness, He took His desire to offer redemption to us to another level of accessibility. In Jesus, God made it so that the cities of refuge in our world are as close as the air that surrounds us. He eliminated the need for us to travel to His designated place, and instead, God came into our world in a manner that makes His love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness real and tangibly present with everyone. We dwell inside of the walls of our city of refuge if we will simply open our eyes to grasp its reality.

 

Christ opens the door to salvation, and He invites us in. This invitation is ours to accept or to reject, but even that offer is an on-going thing. The Lord continues to seek after people as He goes to every end of the earth in His pursuit of us. Unlike these cities in Joshua’s day, Christ’s offer of grace covers all of the sinfulness that we may engage in, for there is nothing that we can do that is greater than the life-saving sacrifice that Jesus offered up on our behalf. God’s heart and His intent is to be known by all people; so, He offers His redemption to all of us. This is the same inclusive “all” that defines our lost state in Romans. When we accept Christ’s offer of refuge, we are set free from the death of sin that covered us previously. Thus, in this new life that we have been granted we are sent out to live fully in the presence of God and to bring the reality of that life that we now enjoy into contact with a world that is still in need of that safe and secure place of refuge.

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The LORD is slow to anger and great in power,

and the LORD will by no means clear the guilty.

His way is in whirlwind and storm,

and the clouds are the dust of his feet.

Nahum 1: 3

 

During this season of Advent we tend to picture Jesus as a soft and cuddly baby, for that is how He came into this world in human form. There is something that is both comforting and is also quite extraordinarily powerful in that image. It conveys, among other things, the fact that God, Himself, was willing to enter into the same life that each of us lives in order to become the perfect and singularly acceptable sacrifice for all of the sins of humanity. It also portrays the reality that Jesus is subordinate to the will of the Father so that each of us who follow Christ are shown that we are to do likewise and seek out the will of God in all matters. But these humble and submissive images are not the totality of the ways that God is present in our world. This aspect of the account of God’s interaction with this world is not even close to the complete description of what advent involves.

 

God is truly with us. He has always been so, for this is true from a point in time that precedes all of the processes of creation that brought the heavens and this world into existence. God, as described by the prophet here, is mighty, patient, gracious, and righteous. He is not quick to judge as He desires for people to turn away from wrong-doing as they embrace His truth and His way of living; yet, He is also willing and able to enter into a judgement that is both swift and terrible for those who reject Him and His way of thinking and living. It is not easy for us to connect the reality of judgement with the image of the baby Jesus, but that is something that we must do. Jesus the Christ is the Savior of all of humanity, and He is also our judge. His justice is the foundational truth that underpins all of Creation. His righteousness is perfect and as such is beyond any of our ability or capacity to grasp except by and through the redemptive grace that Christ pours over and into all who submit to Him as Savior and Lord.

 

So, as we celebrate the joyousness of this season, we should also be entering into a time of reflection, confession, repentance, and acceptance of that grace. Christ came to us, and He did so in the most vulnerable of all possible manners, but that was done so that God could fully demonstrate His sovereignty, might, and unrelenting heart for justice in our world. God took that infant and raised Him up to be the only absolutely significant person to ever walk upon this earth, the Father accepted the grief of brutal loss so that sin could be extinguished, and He poured out His infinite power and might in the resurrection so that we would all see the Lord’s mastery over the elemental forces of this world. Advent can mean renewal, a form of revival for followers of Christ when we turn away from all that holds us back from fully participating in Christ and in His righteousness during our days. We know that Christ will judge the wickedness of this world; so, we are called upon by Him to live righteously, to proclaim God’s justice and peace, and to love all people and each aspect of creation with the same unceasing passion that the Father has lavished upon us.

While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”

Acts 13: 2

 

Although it is by no means a practice that is mentioned frequently in the Bible, fasting is clearly connected to prayer on a number of occasions. It was something that God’s people had done from very early times, and it appears to have been something that was engaged in as a normal part of seeking the Lord’s wisdom and leading by the participants in the newly formed Christian church of the first century. Fasting, as discussed here, involved a commitment to stop eating and probably to also stop consuming fluids for a period of time while engaging in focused and intensive prayer. These were times when the people needed the Lord to speak and to provide them with His wise direction or when they desired for God to take action that was beyond their doing. Despite the fact that there is not much recorded about the nature of the practice in the early church, it seems clear that they took fasting very seriously.

 

It does aappear to me that the idea of fasting goes far beyond being hungry. Yet it is totally about hunger, and that idea encompasses fasting from food and all other forms of abstinence or refrain that are dedicated to the Lord as a form of fast. Fasting is a commitment of our bodies to a time of concentrated communication with God. It is a practice in which we purposefully empty ourselves, yield control, and lay our comfort on the altar of grace. In my understanding, it should not be an ecstatic practice in which hunger and thirst are used as a physical means to enter into an altered state of being or consciousness. If true hunger and especially thirst have reached that point, the practice is potentially dangerous to one’s health and the focus has shifted away from God’s voice and onto self. Fasting is best when carried out privately and personally or with a small group of like-committed followers of Christ. The point of this is to resist the temptation to make it an act that makes a public statement as this inevitably points toward the person and distracts everyone away from waiting on the Lord.

 

As we can see from the example of the early church, fasting is not a somber event. They were engaged in worship while they fasted. The strength that they needed to engage in the singing of songs, praying, sharing God’s Word, perhaps doing a little holy dancing, and all of the rest of the activity that was worship came from God and was provided by and through Christ’s Spirit. When we enter into a time of fasting, the point is, in fact, to become increasingly hungry. Yet, the hunger that should be desired is that of the person who “hungers and thirsts for righteousness” as this is a state of being that God reaches into and fills with His holiness. Here, in the midst of the fast, we will be fed as our souls are seated at the banquet table of Christ’s love, truth, and grace.

For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth.

Deuteronomy 7: 6

 

Let me start out by saying that I do know that this verse is about Israel and that it is situated in a passage about God’s choosing of these people to be His enclave of righteousness and also His point of human outreach into the world. However, God’s plan for redemption of this world was bigger than that, and it remains much greater to this day. In Christ, we all are granted the gift of inclusion in the Lord’s grand plan for adoption into the heavenly family of grace. By the blood of Christ all people are now included based solely upon our belief in Him as there are no longer any racial, familial or other external qualifiers for such earthly and eternal status. We are now the ones who carry on the charge to be holy and the calling to be righteous that was originally placed upon Israel. We are the laborers that God has called to do His work in this rich field of spiritual harvest that is the earth in our days.

 

Although this task can be great and carrying it out can seem overwhelming due to the numbers of people who do not know God, in reality it is a very light burden that we carry, for the Lord goes before us in it and He provides the strength and wisdom for doing the work. Additionally, Christ takes full responsibility for the outcome. Our role is to be willing, available, and forthright in our proclamation of our relationship with Christ. It seems that God wants for us to respond to His love for us by bringing that same love into our world so that the way that we are held as treasure by God is reflected onto the people that we encounter along the path of life, and the love that God pours out onto us by virtue of His intensely paternal attitude toward us provides the way and the means for us to truly love others as well.

 

God does set His people apart from this world in that we are to avoid embracing its broken and evil aspects as our own. We are to remain separate from its idolatry, violence, and selfish ambitions so that we are led by God’s Word and infused with His Spirit to live out Christ’s calling to bring the Gospel of Christ to every person that we can contact as we lovingly embrace them in full appreciation of their unique, God-image bearing creation at the hands of the Father. This is a primary purpose for God’s sacrificial work of calling us into relationship with Him. He has set us apart from this world so that we can enter into it as people who are clearly different from the rest; yet, this is not a difference that is born out of superiority but rather it is one that is formed up in humility and by service to the Lord. As we are God’s treasured possession, God desires for us to be people who hold that status with open hands by pouring out Christ into our world and by sharing the truth of His redemption as we go along our way.

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge;

fools despise wisdom and instruction.

Hear, my son, your father’s instruction,

and forsake not your mother’s teaching,

for they are a graceful garland for your head,

and pendants for your neck.

Proverbs 1: 7-9

 

Many of the people that I know lament about the condition of our world, and I admit, that I have joined them in these words of complaint and concern. There is a lot of unwise and ungodly thinking and behavior afoot around us. This lack of God’s wisdom in our world starts from the top, from our leaders, and flows down to the rest of us; however, it also starts with each of us and spreads outward to the rest of our culture. I do not think that God intends for us to be helpless in the face of sin and of sinful thinking as it is found around us. He has never been silent on these issues of righteousness or about the need for His people to be holy, that is set apart from the world and from its ways of thinking and acting. The Lord calls upon us to be curative salt and the penetrating light of truth and love in every place where our feet take us.

 

As followers of Christ, I believe that we have a multi-directional responsibility to fulfill to our Lord. We are to live in a transformed and a reformed personal reality that is framed by the first two lines of the passage above. The concept of fear of the Lord contains within it the idea of respect, honor, obedience, following after, and passionate love. When lived out it leads to a life of commitment to God wherein we trust Him to the degree that we are able to confess our sinfulness, repent of it, and enter fully into the grace that Christ grants to us in return. All of this leads to the outworking of transformative change in us, and this brings about the desire to serve Christ in ways that bring that same truth and love into contact with the world that has gone so badly astray from God’s righteous path. Also, as we live in a close and an intimate relationship with Christ, it is much easier to see and to respond to the foolishness of people we encounter who are living outside of the influence of God’s wise counsel.

 

So, we are also called by God to enter into all aspects of the world around us in order to participate in bringing the wisdom of the Lord into its decision-making discourse. Jesus entered into all areas of life without reservation or hesitation, and He poured out God’s righteous truth, unending love, and the hope of redemption onto the tired and ravaged landscape of this world. As His followers, we are to do the same thing. We are to take action where it is needed, and we are to speak up when truth is lacking. Additionally, God places a mandate upon us to teach this same righteousness to others. Although the writer of this proverb speaks about children, we can safely interpret that to include literal children and grand-children as well as other people that we come into contact with. As we know Christ, we are to share that knowledge. As He works in us to shape and to mold us into His glorious image, we must take this new life that we have been granted and do as our Lord did by pouring its truth, love, grace, and redemption out into our world as an offering of worship to God.

 

The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?

1 Corinthians 10: 16

 

Paul is talking about the formal celebration of the Eucharist or as we in the church often refer to it, The Lord’s Table or Holy Communion. Yet, he is also speaking to something bigger, more expansive, than just that. Paul is sharing his thoughts on what it means to be a part of the totality of the body of Christ. In certain ways, this is a very real union of people with other people and together with God. This is the most significant thing that occurs as we come into a relationship with God through Christ beyond the fact of God’s entry into us through the presence of the Holy Spirit within. It is firstly in union with Christ and then in union with His body that we are made useful and granted purpose and mission in this world. This is wherein our lives are transformed into ones that carry eternal weight and enter into God’s everlasting glory.

 

This participation that Paul mentions is not a form of ritual, either. It is life, itself. When people come to Christ and surrender our lives to Him, we are infused with Him, with God, in a manner that is mystical and wonderful. There is present in us both the reality of change within our beings, and at the same time, we carry forward an unlimited potential for transformative change and growth. This brings to light the concept of participation, for in Christ, we are called by God to engage with this world in ways that bring the revelation of love, grace, and truth that was the life that Jesus lived into direct and continual contact with all that is lost, broken, and without God in the course of our days. This engagement with the world is the truest expression of our communion with Christ that we can pour out.

 

So, if life itself is an expression of the sacred and the holy in that it is formed up and participated in by the presence of Christ within our hearts, minds, and souls, so then the conduct of our lives must follow along in that it too will be in all ways a statement of Christ’s presence within us. This is carried out in the way that we treat others and in the manner in which we enter into the discourse and the actions of our world. Christ brought love, respect, and equality of treatment into His interaction with all and so should we. The Lord granted healing to those who were sick in body, mind, spirit, and being, and we are to be His instruments of healing in these troubled days. Christ sought peace within people and peace in the world’s social order, so too, we need to be the people in our world who set aside its violence and turn to other means for resolving our differences. These are but a few of the ways that those of us who follow Christ participate in His blood and in His body so that every day of our lives can be an expression of our holy communion with the Lord.

Many seek the face of a ruler, but it is from the Lord that a man gets justice.

Proverbs 29: 26

 

The modern philosopher John Rawls said, “Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought.” I think that Rawls means that justice is fundamental. It is foundational to the formation of our society, and it is an essential platform upon which our society and its systems of governance are formed. Yet it is something that is sadly lacking in our world. Far too often it is held as a tool of power and as a device of oppression. Rulers, governmental and religious leaders, and others in positions of authority and might impose their own concepts of what is right and just upon others in order to bring about conformity and subservient behavior. As a result of this our world is filled with people who live in fear and who, in turn, become fearsome.

 

Upon consideration of the idea, I think that Rawls is right. Justice is something that should underlie all of the institutions that people use to organize ourselves. It is something that God placed into our world as a part of its creation design. The desire for justice and the capability to grant it are inherent in God’s creating humanity in His own image. Justice is a characteristic and a quality of God. I believe that if there were no God, there would be no justice. It is like the other higher qualities of love, peace, mercy, grace, and righteousness. These are qualities that people desire and that benefit us; yet, all of them exist solely because they come from God, Himself. Humanity on its own has a very bad track record in regards to the way that we live together. It is solely through the grace of God that we do find peace, engage in loving others, and seek to govern in a righteous manner. It is that same grace that leads us to justice for ourselves and for others.

 

If we seek to live in a just world, we must submit ourselves to the King of the Universe. It is essential for us to recognize that we are subjects of an authority that is higher than all other and that is also foundational for all earthly rule and rulers. This reordering of our allegiances is essential for us to become people who treat others justly. Additionally, living in this manner is not learned in government classes or through participation in our processes of governance, it is learned at the foot of the cross of Jesus. Justice is best understood as we follow in the steps of Christ, for He walked among us and responded to the people and the situations of His world in a manner that brought His living example of God’s created desire and intent for just, relational engagement among all people face to face with the real world where we live. In order to know justice, we need to avoid the halls of government until we know the path of Christ. Yet, once we are walking in the steps of the Savior, we should boldly bring Him and His glory into those same halls.

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