Sermon March 30

A Sermon Preached by Dr. Stan Henderson
Trinity Presbyterian Church
Oroville, California

March 30, 2014

“The Perfect Sacrifice”

Hebrews 9:11-15

This hymn has some powerful words – “Alas! and did my Savior bleed and did my sovereign die? Would He devote that sacred Head for sinners such as I?” The songs of Lent are filled with references to the cross and the meaning of Christ’s death on the cross. And it is in our hymns that we find help in understanding the mysterious depth of meaning in the cross of Jesus.

This hymn was written by Isaac Watts, who was something of a revolutionary when it came to music in the church in 17th and 18th century England. In fact, he was part of a religious movement that was officially branded as Nonconformist, because it questioned the authority and teaching of the Church of England in some matters. During a period when it was unheard of in England to sing anything in the church other than the Psalms of the Old Testament, Watts sought to paraphrase many of the Psalms and to incorporate other Old and New Testament scriptures and imagery into the songs.

For this, Watts was roundly criticized. His hymns were referred to by his detractors as “flights of fancy” or “Watt’s whims”. Some churches split and pastors were fired over disagreements about whether or not his hymns were appropriate expressions of the Christian faith. Eventually Watt’s hymn movement won out and you will find in our own hymnbook fourteen of his compositions. Many of Isaac Watt’s hymns are ones that you would recognize, like – “Joy to the World!”; “O God, Our Help in Ages Past”; “Jesus Shall Reign Where’er the Sun”; and “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”.

This one – “Alas! and Did My Savior Bleed” is well-known, but we don’t sing it very often. It is a very appropriate hymn for the Lenten season, but I really chose it because the title has the word “bleed” in it. There are several other songs in our hymnal which incorporate the word “blood” in the title and we never sing them. These are hymns like – “Jesus, Thy Blood and Righteousness”; “Nothing But the Blood”; “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood”; “The Blood Will Never Lose Its Power”; and “Are You Washed in the Blood?”

You may be familiar with some of those hymns. Some religious traditions sing them, but Presbyterians not so much. Some of you may love those hymns and others of you may feel squeamish about them. Why are there hymns that focus on the blood of Jesus? There is a place for it, and that’s what I want to talk about in this sermon.

Our passage in Hebrews makes me think of those hymns that speak about the blood of Jesus. Hebrews is a book filled with Old Testament imagery and it may in places seem strange and difficult for us. It has a lot to say about the tabernacle in the wilderness and the sacrifices of the people of God. That’s not something we are very familiar with. Most of us have never seen an animal being killed, let alone sacrificed, and we would be horrified if we did. So when Hebrews goes on and on about sacrifices and blood, we might think it’s in bad taste.

In our sermon text the author of Hebrews talks about the sacrificial system of the ancient Israelites, and in particular, the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer. The sacrifices he refers to take place on the holiest day of the Jewish year – Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement. On this day once a year, two goats were chosen. One was killed along with a bull, and the blood from both of them was taken by the High Priest into the Holy of Holies of the Tabernacle and later on the Temple. The blood of the animals was sprinkled on the Ark of the Covenant as a symbolic way of paying for something or making restitution for the sins of the people.

The other goat was known as the scapegoat. When the High Priest laid his hands on him all of the sins of the people were symbolically transferred to the goat. Then the goat was taken outside of the city and run off into the wilderness. All of this was intended to mean that there was a fresh start for all the people who were now forgiven by God. At work here was the principle of substitution – the slain animals and the scapegoat were stand-ins for the people of God. The ashes of a red heifer was another ceremony of purification from uncleanness.

The author of Hebrews takes these sacrificial ceremonies, which were known to all religious Jews, and compares them to the blood of Jesus Christ shed on the cross. Hebrews says: “If the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God!”

The central event of our faith is the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The death of Jesus did not come as a surprise or happen by accident. This was God’s plan for the human race from the beginning. Jesus taught his disciples – “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” After his resurrection, on the road to Emmaus, Luke says that Jesus explained to the two disciples – “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”

What took place on the cross of Christ, we call the atonement. It refers to a substitution for sin. Richard John Neuhaus spoke of it this way: “Atonement means that, at the command of the Father and in the power of the Spirit, the Son did the perfect deed of love that is the life of God. It was utterly gratuitous, driven by no necessity other than love.”

The standard way people could experience forgiveness was to make the right restitution, the right kind of sacrifice. At the hand of the high priest the blood of the sacrifice was counted as a substitution for the sins of the people in order to make things right with God again. However, the book of Hebrews describes Jesus Christ as the high priest who “entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.”

And in the next chapter, Hebrews says: “Every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, ‘he sat down at the right hand of God.’” It says he sat down because it was finished. Christ’s substitutionary atonement for our sins was accomplished once and for all on the cross.

Isaiah 53 declares: “But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”

Jesus Christ stands in for us. I think every parent at one time has wished they could stand in for their child, to bear their suffering, their pain. I’ve never met a parent who did not say of their critically ill child, “How I wish it could have been me instead.” That is exactly what God felt. And that is exactly what God did. In Jesus Christ, God has come to be our substitute, to bear the consequences of our sin.

John Stott said: “For the essence of sin is man substituting himself for God, while the essence of salvation is God substituting himself for man. Man asserts himself against God and puts himself where only God deserves to be; God sacrifices himself for man and puts himself where only man deserves to be. Man claims prerogatives which belong to God alone; God accepts penalties which belong to man alone.”

The Apostle Paul explained it this way: “For our sake God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

Jesus said to his disciples: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” There is no more moving narrative than someone willingly sacrificing their life to save another. We can see a literary example of it in Charles Dickins’ novel, “A Tale of Two Cities”.

Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay fall in love with the same woman, but she marries Charles. The story takes place during the French Revolution, and by the end of the book Charles is arrested and is awaiting execution the next day. Sydney, who looks just enough like Charles, sneaks into the prison and knocks out his former rival, has his friends take him to safety, puts on the other man’s clothes, and stays there to die in his place.

Later we are introduced to a waifish seamstress, also a prisoner on her way to the guillotine. She walks up to the man she thinks is Charles and asks him to comfort her, until she realizes it is not Charles. Her eyes get really big and she whispers, “Are you dying for him?” And hushing her, he says, “And for his wife and child.” Then she begs him again, “O let me hold your brave hand stranger.” She is comforted in the face of death by the mere idea of a substitutionary sacrifice, and it wasn’t even for her.

The crucifixion of Jesus Christ is not just one illustration of God’s love for us. This is God’s most supreme revelation of himself to the world. In that sacrificial act, God has spoken in human history and we must hear the Word of God. What brought Jesus to the cross was a love more powerful than all our sins. Because of that love Jesus Christ endured a criminal’s death in order that we might be free from sin and free to accept his love. He went to the cross for us.

For Isaac Watts, the response to Christ’s sacrifice on the cross was this:
Thus might I hide my blushing face
While His dear cross appears,
Dissolve my heart in thankfulness,
And melt mine eyes to tears.

But drops of grief can ne’er repay
The debt of love I owe:
Here, Lord, I give myself away –
‘Tis all that I can do.

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