Sin and Sacrifice

Devotional for Monday, May 25

Before we launch into today’s devotional text, I am mindful it is Memorial Day. Let’s spend a few minutes in silence and reflect on those in the military who have given their lives in service to our country. As individuals come to mind, lift up those names out loud. Without these people, we would not be citizens of the United States. It’s unlikely we would be free to do what we are about to do, openly explore our relationship with God.

Leviticus 9:1-11 (NRSV)

On the eighth day Moses summoned Aaron and his sons and the elders of Israel. He said to Aaron, “Take a bull calf for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering, without blemish, and offer them before the Lord. And say to the people of Israel, ‘Take a male goat for a sin offering; a calf and a lamb, yearlings without blemish, for a burnt offering; and an ox and a ram for an offering of well-being to sacrifice before the Lord; and a grain offering mixed with oil. For today the Lord will appear to you.’” They brought what Moses commanded to the front of the tent of meeting; and the whole congregation drew near and stood before the Lord. And Moses said, “This is the thing that the Lord commanded you to do, so that the glory of the Lord may appear to you.” Then Moses said to Aaron, “Draw near to the altar and sacrifice your sin offering and your burnt offering, and make atonement for yourself and for the people; and sacrifice the offering of the people, and make atonement for them; as the Lord has commanded.”

Aaron drew near to the altar, and slaughtered the calf of the sin offering, which was for himself. The sons of Aaron presented the blood to him, and he dipped his finger in the blood and put it on the horns of the altar; and the rest of the blood he poured out at the base of the altar. But the fat, the kidneys, and the appendage of the liver from the sin offering he turned into smoke on the altar, as the Lord commanded Moses; and the flesh and the skin he burned with fire outside the camp.

A pen full of animals, carved up and burned in a variety of ways, along with some grain and oil—it’s not a sight we’re likely to see in our lifetimes. What can we take away from an ancient and bloody text like this?

It is a worthy effort to make a detailed study of what’s going on here, exploring the precise purposes of the different sacrifices and how the people would have understood each one’s significance. I want us to take a step back today, however, and consider something simpler.

Look at how seriously these people treat sin!

In their world, sin clearly mattered. They understood how sin separated them from God, and their lives revolved around how to better please God and how to escape the deadly repercussions of sin.

Part of this sacrifice was to atone for the sins of the priestly leader, the one who had to draw closest to God. Leading in such an environment was very dangerous business. What is unholy cannot survive long in the presence of the one who defines holiness.

And I am struck by how, in comparison, Christians often don’t take sin so seriously, either as leaders or as “the people.” Perhaps it is because Christ has made forgiveness relatively easy, from our perspective.

Animals no longer have to cry out in shock, collapsing as they bleed to death. Massive altar fires need not be stoked. We hear the story of the cross, we believe, and we are saved from sin.

But let’s ask ourselves a question. Have we fully considered Christ’s perspective as he made forgiveness possible? I think of the story of Jesus praying before his arrest, and I am struck by how the spiritual weight of all the sins of the world likely was far more painful than the physical suffering he experienced. And there’s no doubt the physical suffering was horrible.

Considering Jesus Christ’s deep suffering on our behalf, can we learn to look at our own sins, committed or contemplated, and perhaps learn to recoil from them in horror? Such a thoughtful reaction would be a step toward holiness.

Lord, make us daily aware of the price you paid so we can escape sin and eternal death. Amen.

Psalm 51, Day 6

Devotional for Saturday, May 23

Psalm 51:16-19
You do not desire a sacrifice, or I would offer one.
    You do not want a burnt offering.
The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit.
    You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God.
Look with favor on Zion and help her;
    rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.
Then you will be pleased with sacrifices offered in the right spirit—
    with burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings.
    Then bulls will again be sacrificed on your altar.

The end of this psalm reminds us it was written in a place and time. Burnt offerings were the order of the day for relating to God, and would continue to be so for a long time.

But we also get a glimpse of what was to come, what was to make possible the healing of broken and repentant hearts even today. Sacrifices were a means to an end. To demonstrate this, God came in flesh to provide the ultimate sacrifice, atoning for every sin committed.

Fully divine, Jesus could not be repentant, but he could demonstrate how terribly broken God’s heart is when we sin. Through Jesus, God experienced a painful and humiliating death, bearing the weight of all the world’s sins while nailed to some timbers. All this to help us break free from sin’s grip.

To take advantage of this great gift, all we have to do is be contrite and repentant enough to believe. We have to humble ourselves, finding our place in the great design of the universe. We are the created, God is the Creator.

As always, there is good news in this story. The Creator loves his creation dearly. The joy and freedom God offers far exceeds what we could find on our own.

With all his power and all his wealth, King David believed it, and we should, too.

Thank you, Lord, for the process of repentance and salvation, a gift freely given and undeserved. Amen.