A year is long enough

October 28, 2009

Here is an editorial from the Times in which they argue that the Moderator’s term in office should be more than just one year.  It’s quite flattering that such an august organ as the Times should even be giving the Moderator more than a passing nod.  That they have even taken the trouble to consider how the kirk can better engage with society is a wonder in itself.  We didn’t know you cared. 

Is their analysis right?  I myself heard one of our most respected ex-Mods, John Miller, make this arguement.  He said that it takes a year to get into the swing of things; that one hardly has time to develop relationships or become press-savvy.  He recommended three years. 

All these things are true.  But I for one don’t want the role of Moderator to become any more than merely honourary.  In some ways, I think the modern Mod still does too much.  S/he goes round the country, like an ecclesiastical cheer-leader, speaking to large congregations (because everyone turns out for the Mod), telling us that the kirk is “in good heart”.  S/he goes abroad representing the kirk, and is always received politely, just as one would an elderly aunt.  No one is interested in what she has to say; but we’ve got to keep up the pretence–after all the Church of Scotland is the “mither kirk”. 

If the Church of Scotland is going to  engage better with modern society it won’t be through an extended moderatorial year.  It will be through the effective communication of the gospel from her 1200 parishes up and down the land.  It will be from well-taught, highly motivated Christians, who love the Lord Jesus and love Scotland.  And if ministers are going to give some kind of lead, these will emerge naturally (or spiritually). 

Moderators tend to be establishment figures.    They don’t take risks.  They don’t rock the boat.  They don’t offend, even if it is for the gospel’s sake.  I’m afraid John C Christie will be more of the same.

Anyway, here is the editorial. 

The Church of Scotland yesterday revealed the name of the man who will head the Church next year. Or rather, in the terms the Kirk prefers, it put forward its selection of John Cairns Christie as the Moderator Designate of the General Assembly of the Kirk (see page 25). His name will be considered next May by delegates to the assembly and almost certainly accepted.

The news of an appointment of such significance might have been expected to arouse keen interest north of the Border. This, after all, is the man who will be responsible for leading a church whose membership comprises around 10 per cent of the population of Scotland, and though that membership has fallen below the 500,000 mark it is still considered to be the national church of Scotland, a body that has represented the faithful since the Reformation.

It is, however, unlikely that Mr Christie’s nomination will raise widespread interest or comment. Unlike the selection of a new Scottish cardinal within the Catholic Church, or the appointment of an Archbishop of Canterbury to represent Anglicans, the emergence of a new Moderator has rarely commanded much attention.

The reasons have nothing to do with the calibre of the candidates. There have been some formidable appointees in the past — intellectuals such as Iain Torrance in 2003, dedicated communitarians such as John Miller in 2001, the first woman moderator, Alison Elliot in 2004.

What counts against them is that they have just one year in which to fulfil their office. One year, in which a programme of visits, speeches and occasional tours abroad are arranged. Not surprisingly most people feel that, however hard the incumbents may strive to convey a message, they are simply not around long enough to make an impact. By the time they have completed their programme, they are in line for replacement.

This means two things. First, they do not have the time to build a relationship with the outside world; to create the recognition factor that is so important today; to become familiar to those they need to reach most — the Scottish public. Second, a year is simply an inadequate period in which to draw out and explain what may be a complex series of moral messages. Dealing with some of the urgent issues that face Scotland today — whether they concern family relationships, youth behaviour, crime, sex, or medical ethics — requires more than just a quick-fire response.

The Kirk should be providing clear leadership and guidance of the kind that builds confidence in its judgment. How much more readily that can be done when a familiar figurehead is providing that guidance. It is, perhaps, not surprising that Catholics in Scotland feel they know their cardinals far better than the Kirk’s adherents know their moderator. Of course, there are historical reasons for this; the Kirk is nothing if not democratic and has always set its heart against the emergence of a hierarchy. But in striving for egalitarianism it may be losing something more important — the ability to reach out to its congregations at a time when a shrinking membership needs moral leadership more than it has ever needed it before.

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Moderator Designate

October 27, 2009

Just to let you know that the news about our Moderator Designate is now public.  He Rev. John Christie and you can read all about him the Church of Scotland web site. 

Electing the Moderator Designate is a strange task.  There are 45 of us, one from each Presbytery.  Information about the nominees has been circulated, telling us all about them – their CV, their faith, their hobbies.  So we are supposed to know who were are voting about.

On the day a presentation is made by a proposer and seconder.  They have 10 minutes between them (they have to decide how to divvy up their time).  It’s weird that the committee doesn’t actually get to meet the candidates.  The theory is, I think, that it would be rather unChristian to talk about yourself; undignfied to act like a politician seeking the vote.  It means we have to rely on  descriptions from  ethusiastic admirers.

Speeches about the Candidates have a genre all of their own and follows a set pattern.  Basically, every Candidate is a lovely person.  They have been excellent parish ministers – and not just in one place, but in a diversity of places.  They are all really, really clever – but humble with it.  They can relate to all sorts of people – from the highest to the lowest in the land.  They all have a good sense of humour.

It goes without saying (but it does get said) that they are devout Christians with an exceptional piety.  They are inspiring communicators.  They ahve worked hard for the church – locally and nationally and preferrably internationally too.

Add to this mix a supportive family and some very worthwhile extra-curricula activities – charties, sports, and the like.

This year every single candidate was particularly apt for the celebrations in 2010 of the Edinburgh 1910 Conference, the 450th anniversary of the Reformation in Scotland, and Calvin’s 500th anniversary. 

It’s all done and dusted within an hour or so.  Personal comments about the candidates (eg. that they are dull preachers, or might be getting on a bit) are frowned upon. 

So why is one candidate chosen above another?  As far as John Christie is concerned I can only think it’s because he is well known from the Assembly.  He’s been the Convener of the Safeguarding Committee for the last few years, and therefore has had a fairly high profile.  He has proven himself to be a very safe pair of hands.  And more than anything else, this seems to be what the Committee is looking for.

 

 

The Eric-factor

October 27, 2009

I’m just back from Edinburgh where I’ve been voting for the new Moderator.  The result isn’t on the offical Church web-site yet, so I’ll hang fire.  I have some thoughts on the whole process, which I believe is undemocratic.  But that’s for later.

On the way to and from Edinburgh I was listening to Eric Alexander preaching on Romans.  Eric has been retired from St.George’s Tron for over 10 years now, and spent much of the time immeditately after his retirement in the USA (often fulfilling the engagements of the late James Montgomery Boice, his dear friend, who died of liver cancer very soon after diagnosis).

Therefore, I suspect there are some younger folk who haven’t heard of, or who have never heard Eric preach. 

His son, Ronald, has done the Church a great service by creating a web-site of his father’s sermons.  Knowing I would have a long trip today, I downloaded some of sermons on Romans.  Eric preached through Romans three times while at the Tron, quite unapologeticially, since he believes Romans to be foundational for understanding the Christian gospel.

What is it like listening to Eric preach?  Let me put it like this.  Imagine you are watching  the X-factor.  You listen to the finalists singing some well-known number. And they are good; very good.  But then out comes the superstar whose number the amateur has been performing.  Now they sing the song.  Wow.  Same words, same tune, same backing vocals.  But most definately not the same.

I have preached Romans.  I am the amateur, the wanna-be.  Eric is it. 

It’s not that he has unique insights into the text.  He uses the same commentaries as the rest of us.  It’s not that he presents us with deeper doctrine.  Actually, his doctrine is very simple and straightforward.

What really sets Eric’s preaching apart is not his rhetoric (which is flawless) or even his voice (sonorous and captivating).  It’s his application.  Seering.  He takes the same text which we all have; the same doctrine we all believe, and he applies it with surgical precision.  It’s as if he has personal knowledge of my sin. 

Listening to Eric today in the car has reminded me of why we used to flock to St. George’s Tron.  He is to preachers what Pavarotti was to singers or Olivier to actors or Pele to footballers.  He inspires us to be the best for the Lord we all serve. 

 

Weekend in Broughty Ferry

October 26, 2009

It’s been a long time since I have benefitted from turning the clocks back personally, but this morning, at 7am, I was able to walk the dogs in day-light.  I haven’t been able to do that for a couple of weeks and had been forced away from our usual out-towards- the-county route for lack of street lighting.  The dogs also seem to have enjoyed the freedom of being let off the lead.

I note in the press that some are calling for Scotland to have its own time zone (“tundra time” it’s being called) since our neighbours in the south don’t get the same benefit from the change in time.  It would be mad for Scottish clocks be showing a different time from the rest of the country.  But could we not just run our day an hour behind everyone else?  Could our schools and offices not start at 10am instead of 9am, and go until 4pm instead of 3pm?  Our bodies adjust to the reality of a time-change; instead of changing the hour why not change the structure of the day? 

I had a really good weekend at Broughty Ferry.  This was the weekend of the Dundee Presbytery Preaching Conference, primarily for Readers.  I was speaking on Preaching the Cross and Preaching the Empty Tomb.  I was very impressed by the attendance (about 30) and by their enthusiasm, listening to five talks between 9am and 4pm. 

It was particularly good to see some folks I hadn’t seen for a while.  One was Craig Kirkwood.  We were on CU exec together back when we were at Strathclyde.  He was Book Sec when I was International Sec.  Craig went on to be President. 

Another familiar face was Harry McLennan.  Harry is Session Clerk at Portmoak Church where I did my first attachment as a student for the ministry, under Robin Stewart.  Harry’s daughter and son-in-law are the Ferguson’s in Japan who do the Church planter’s blog.  You’ll see the Ferguson File to the right of my blog. 

I’m not putting the talks on the blog since they are far too long.  I’ll just say one thing.   A point I made in both talks is that as preachers we must never forget that the crucifixion and the resurrection were both historical events.  If Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion of the Christ” alerted the Church to anything it’s that modern people have no idea just how horrific a death crucifixion was.  2000 years of church history have sanitised the cross for us. 

So I was arguing that it’s important to take our listeners to Calvary.  Let them hear the nails being hammered through the wrists; let them feel the six-inch thorns piercing the brow; let them taste the blood trickling down the cheeks and into the mouth; let them smell the foul mixture of faeces, urine and vomit.  Remind them that something real happened. 

The same goes for the empty tomb.  The Bible presents the resurrection as a fact, not a parable, still less a myth.  We need to scurry with the women through the quiet Jerusalem streets; we need to see the stone rolled away.  Let us peer over Peter’s shoulders as he stares at the neatly folded grave-clothes.  Similarly, let us walk a step or two behind the disciples on the Road to Emmaus, so that we can overhear what that stranger is saying to them. 

Take us there, not in an attempt to pad out a colourless story, but to help our listeners realize that something really happened on that first day of the week, that first Easter morn.

WE HAVE A PRIEST

October 10, 2009

Leviticus 8 with Heb.7:23-8:2 Sermon #3

 INTRODUCTION

We’re not very good at ceremonies in the Church of Scotland; at least that’s my view.  I’ve been to services in other churches where ceremonies and rituals are their forte.  The clergy are robed in bright, attractive vestments.  The congregation know when to stand and knee and even when to leave their pew and come to the front.  There’s all sorts of paraphernalia assaulting the senses: sight and sound and smell. When it’s done on a grand scale it can be very impressive. 

We, however, don’t really go in for that sort of thing.  The nearest we get to a grand occasion is the ordination and induction of a minister.  All of Presbytery is expected to be present.  We process into the church in single file.  But because we don’t have a proper dress code we can look quite a motley crew.  We’re supposed to be wearing our academic gowns and hoods.  But none of it is uniform.  Some opt for sober black.  Others prefer the blue of the saltire.  There are those who insist on what’s called ecumenical white; while there are others who refuse to wear anything other than a suit and tie. 

My robes are second hand and have seen better days.  But since I hardly wear them it’s not worth replacing them.

When we come to the part of the service where the Presbytery lays hands on the new minister there can be an almighty scrum, as we all jostle for position.  It’s supposed to be one of the holiest days in a minister’s life.  But I recall one colleague telling us that that as he knelt and bowed his head all he could think about was how on earth did these guys get their shoes so shiny. 

The giving of the right hand of fellowship can be a bit of an obstacle course as ministers and elders try to pass each other in a tight space and then work out how to return to their own seat. 

I don’t know how it looks to you, but from my vantage point these services aren’t always the dignified occasion they purport to be. 

BRIDGE

Aaron’s ordination as high priest was not only a dignified occasion; it followed a very precise procedure as directed by the Lord God himself.  The office of high priest was the most important in Israel.  The ordination service not only served to induct the high priest into his office; it sent out a very clear message to everyone as to what God expected of them.  For the high priest was the living embodiment of the nation. 

Israel was called by God to be a nation of priests.  That’s what the Lord had said to them at the foot of Mt. Sinai (Ex.19:6):

Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.

They were to represent God to the whole the world, and the whole world to God.  The priesthood in general and the high priest in particular were to be to Israel what Israel was to be to the rest of humanity.  Hence, the elaborate ordination ceremony; the setting aside of these men for God’s service. 

In 1Pet. 2:9 the apostle tells us:But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.

The New Testament Church of Jesus Christ no longer has a priesthood—it is a priesthood.  Every Christian has a priestly role.  Right at this very moment we are fulfilling our priestly calling as we offer worship to God.  Peter says that in 2:5: you also, like living stones, are being built into a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 

Our calling is to represent God to the world and the world to God.  On the one hand  we declare the love and mercy of God to our unbelieving family and friends.  On the other hand, through our prayers of intercession, we bring those who are in need to God’s throne of grace. 

And if we are a kingdom of priests, we need a high priest, to lead us, and who himself represents us before the Living God.  The Lord Jesus Christ is that high priest.  This is the theme that weaves its way through the book of Hebrews.  As we read in Heb.8:1:

We do have such a high priest who sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven and who serves in the sanctuary, the true tabernacle set up by the Lord, not by man.

PLAN

Today we’re going to look at Aaron’s ordination service in Leviticus 8.  But just as we did with the sacrifices, we’ll do so as Christians.  If the New Testament writers looked back at this ceremony and could see how it pointed forward to the Lord Jesus, we have an obligation to be asking ourselves: what does this teach us about him and about his church?

TEXT

First, then, let’s look at Leviticus 8.  Up till now Leviticus has dealt with instructions for the various sacrifices.  There’s a summary statement in 7:37: These then are the regulations for the burnt offering, the grain offering, the sin offering, the guilt offering, the ordination offering and the fellowship offering.

We’ve looked at just two of these, the burnt offering and the fellowship offering.  Now it’s time to get the ball rolling; to implement the system.  The tabernacle is all set.  Everything is in place.  All that’s needed are the staff. 

Aaron and his sons have been set aside to be the priests for Israel.  They will be assisted by their relatives from the tribe of Levi.  However, they can’t just turn up on Monday morning and start offering sacrifices.  They themselves have to go through an elaborate ceremony.  As I’ve said before, you cannot barge in on God.

The process begins with washing (v.6).  The outward cleansing is expected to mirror an inward, spiritual purity.  As the Psalmist says:

Who may ascend the hill of the Lord?  Who may stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands [the outward] and a pure heart [the inward].

An outward show of morality and respectability doesn’t wash with the Living God.  There must be inner purity too; purity of heart and mind. 

Next (v7ff) Moses dresses Aaron in his high priest’s regalia.  The tunic was an undergarment made from linen; the sash was long and embroidered and went round his waist; the robe was made of blue material and was worn over the tunic like a poncho.  The ephod was like a vest or waistcoat that was worn over the robe.  It supported the breastplate which was studded with twelve jewels representing the twelve tribes of Israel.  The idea was that the high priest carried the entire nation close to his heart. 

The Urim and Thummim mentioned in v.8 were a couple of stones which were used for casting lots (a bit like dice). 

The turban was also made from blue material and attached to it was a gold plate on which were inscribed the words “holy to the Lord”. 

 These gorgeous vestments conferred a dignity on Aaron that was almost royal.  No one could doubt the importance of his role.  His ministry was nothing less than to mediate between God and the nation.  Their standing before God depended on him.

But again all the outward paraphernalia counts for nothing if the inner man is not right.  Ps.132:9: May your priests be clothed with righteousness

How often have simple Christian folk been so dazzled by pomp and ceremony, by gold and gilt, that they have been blind to the moral and spiritual poverty of their leaders?  Never be fooled by outward appearances.  Or by honours and titles—bishop, archbishop, Right Reverend, Very Reverend. May your priests be clothed with righteousness. 

 

The next step in the process is to sanctify the tabernacle and all its furnishings, including the altar, before they can be used.

Only now (v.14) can the first sacrifices be offered; and they are for Aaron and his sons.  There is no pretence that because they are the priests that they are intrinsically better or holier than anyone else.  They too are sinners in need of forgiveness.  In fact, we read in 9:2 that the first sacrifice Aaron himself offered was a bull calf, with echoes of his role in the Golden Calf fiasco.  If he is to offer sacrifices on behalf of the people, he himself needs to be in a right relationship with God.

Again, how foolish we are when we imagine that ministers are somehow in and of themselves better than everybody else.  A colleague of mine was telling a parishioner of sleepless nights following the birth of his son.  She refused to believe him.  She couldn’t imagine a minister’s baby being anything but an angel. 

Let me assure you: ordination does not confer perfection, either on us or our children.  Day and daily I need forgiveness of sins just as you do.  And I assure you, before I preach any sermon to you I have preached it to myself first.  You don’t want the kind of preacher whose mantra was “Do as I say not as I do.” 

Next (v.23) Moses does something rather curious.  He puts some of the blood from a ram on the lobe of Aaron’s right ear, on the thumb of his right hand, and on the big toe of his right foot.  He does the same to Aaron’s sons.

What’s going on?  It seems that this symbolises what is expected of the priests.  The right side of a person, of anything, was considered the important side.  Instead of covering them entirely with blood, Moses is symbolically indicating that their whole bodies are now handed over to God.  With their ears they must listen for his word; with their hands they must serve him; with their feet they must walk in his ways.  It takes us back to the Apostle Paul’s plea in Rom.12 that we offer ourselves as living sacrifices to God.  The priests were living sacrifices.  Their whole selves were devoted to God. 

Finally, v.30 tells us that Moses anointed Aaron and his sons with oil and blood: So he consecrated Aaron and his garments and his sons and their garments.

 To be anointed is a sign of being chosen and authorised by the Lord for a special task.  Kings as well as priests were anointed. 

The chapter ends with Moses telling Aaron and his sons to remain within the Tent of Meeting for seven days, the assumption being that there were more sacrifices to be offered during the course of the week.  It all makes our Church of Scotland ordination services look rather lack-lustre by comparison. 

APPLICATION

I wonder if you noticed that throughout the ordination service it was Moses who fulfilled the role of priest.  It was Moses who washed Aaron and his sons; who dressed Aaron and who offered the sacrifices on their behalf.  Moses was priest to the priests. 

If we are to be a kingdom of priests, we ourselves need a priest.  We need someone to offer a sacrifice on our behalf, to consecrate us, to anoint us; for we would not dare presume to serve God on our own initiative.

Therefore since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess.  (Heb.4:14)

You see, not only is the Lord Jesus the sacrifice that procures God’s forgiveness for us; he is the high priest who offers that sacrifice.  Aaron and his sons operated within a system that was limited and temporary.  The blood of bulls and goats and lambs could never eradicate sin.  That’s proved by the fact that even the priests had to offer daily sacrifices for themselves.  All they could do was offer the worshipper the assurance that he was reconciled to God until the next time. 

They and the sacrifices they offered were prophetic pictures of the perfection that was to come in Christ.  Heb.7:27: Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins and then for the sins of the people.  He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself. 

He offered himself.  The Lord Jesus is both the perfect sacrifice and the perfect priest who offers the sacrifice.  And that sacrifice was once for all; it is sufficient for all time, never to be repeated. 

Such a high priest meets our need—one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens.  (Heb.7:26)

That’s your guarantee that what the Lord Jesus did on Calvary 2000 years ago is still effective today.  You can look to the cross and to the Lamb of God hanging there, and claim him as your sacrifice.  Do that by faith, and not only do you have your sacrifice, you have your priest, who will present himself to the Father as your perfect substitute. 

And there’s more.  The Lord Jesus’ priesthood continues (Heb.7:24): because Jesus lives for ever he has a permanent priesthood

 Although he cried out on the cross, It is finished, signalling an end to his sacrificial work; yet his work as our great high priest is by no means over.  v.25: Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him because he always lives to intercede for them.

 Do you remember I told you that Aaron wore a breastplate studded with twelve jewels representing the twelve tribes of Israel?  It was symbolic of him carrying the nation close to his heart; rather like some people these days who wear a locket with a picture of their loved ones inside. 

 The Lord Jesus Christ holds his beloved people close to his heart.

 We read in Heb.4:15: For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet without sin.  Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence that we might receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.

Here is a high priest who sympathises with us in our struggles.  We might be so ashamed of where our darkest thoughts and desires are leading us that we are tempted to hide them from the Lord.  Satan certainly tries to persuade us that if we were to confess such shameful secrets the Lord would be bound to spurn us in disgust.  I’m sure that’s why there are so many back-slidden Christians who, having yielded to temptation, long to return to the fold, yet cannot bring themselves to do so, for they fear not only our condemnation, but the Lord’s. 

Jesus isn’t like that.  And neither should we.  He sympathises with our weaknesses.  He understands.  “Facing temptation?  Been there,” says Jesus. 

You say, But he was without sin?  How can he understand, how can he help, if he’s never actually sullied himself with sin? 

Let me illustrate it this way: is a drunk any use to another drunk?  Is an addict going to help another addict to break the habit?  Does it not sometimes take someone who has been where the drunk has been, who has endured the pain and misery that can lead to someone hitting the bottle, yet has remained sober? 

Is it not the loving mother or father, sitting through the night with their drug-addicted child , shivering with them, weeping with them, who sees them through safely to the dawn of a new day? 

When our Lord Jesus Christ lived on earth wasn’t wrapped in cotton wool.  He lived life in the raw.  He knows what it’s like to be human.  And therefore when we come to him in desperate prayer—with our fears and tears—he can truly say, I know, I know

More than that, he can and will help.  He is able to save completely those who come to God through him for he always lives to intercede for them. 

Dear struggling Christian, the Lord Jesus Christ is praying for you.  Isn’t that a wonderful, comforting thought?  The Lord Jesus Christ who died to save you continually brings you to his Heavenly Father’s attention so that nothing will stand in the way of you being saved completely. 

Look at Rom.8:33: Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen?  It is God who justifies.  Who is he that condemns?  Christ Jesus—who died—more than that who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and his also interceding for us. 

 Our Lord’s prayers drown-out Satan’s accusations. 

What exactly our Lord prays is beyond our knowledge.  But we know that he prayed for his disciples while on earth.  To blustering Simon Peter he said (Lk.22:32): Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat.  But I have prayed for you Simon, that your faith may not fail.  And when you have turned back strengthen your brothers. 

 That prayer saved Peter from becoming another Judas.

 John 17 tells us that the Lord poured out his heart to his Father saying: My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one.  (v.15)

And later (v.24): Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory

It’s hard to imagine two prayers more necessary for the people of God today.    

Dear old Bishop Ryle puts it like this: Christ’s Priesthood is the great secret of a saint’s perseverance to the end.  Left to ourselves there would be little likelihood of our getting safe home.  We might begin well and end ill.  So weak are our hearts, so busy the devil, so many the temptations of the world, that nothing could prevent our making shipwreck. 

But thanks be to God, the Priesthood of Christ secures our safety.  He who never slumbers and never sleeps is continually watching over our interest and providing for our need. 

Start us in the narrow way of life, with pardon, grace and a new heart, and leave us to ourselves, and we should soon fall away. But grant us the continual intercession of an Almighty Priest in heaven—God as well as Man, and Man as well as God—and we shall never be lost. 

CONCLUSION

The Old Testament believers required a priest to stand between then and God, to present their  sacrifice to God.  Friends, nothing has changed.  We still need a sacrifice if we are to be at peace with God.  And we still need a priest to present it for us.

Just as the Lord Jesus Christ is our perfect sacrifice, so he is our great high priest.  Have you taken him as your sacrifice and priest?  Are you depending on him, totally depending on him, not only to start you on the Christian road, but to take you to the end of the road and to heaven itself?

Here is a priest who bears you close to his heart; a priest who feels every sadness, every sorrow.  Here is a priest who never forgets to pray for you. 

Is he your great high priest?  Can you say with men and women of faith: We do have such a high priest

Only a people with such a high priest can themselves fulfil the priestly calling of the church to the world: offering acceptable spiritual sacrifices to God; and declaring his praises to all who will listen.

LIVING SACRIFICES

October 3, 2009

Leviticus 3 with Rom.12:1-2 Sermon #2

INTRODUCTION

This week we have been marking the outbreak of World War II seventy years ago. One word which we often associate with the war is the word “sacrifice”. On monuments up and down the land, and across Europe and beyond, there are lists of the men who paid the ultimate sacrifice, the loss of their own lives, fighting for their country. Of course, it wasn’t just the soldiers on the front line who made that sacrifice. Nor was death the only sacrifice to be made. Civilians at home sacrificed the security and comfort of every day life, as food and clothing and petrol were rationed and as they worked longer and longer hours to ensure the success of the war-effort. It reminds us that the concept of sacrifice goes well beyond the original idea of presenting an offering to a god. It can be applied to any situation where we surrender something, or deprive ourselves of something, for the greater good, or for someone else’s sake. Parents may sacrifice certain necessities for themselves in order to give their children more. Conversely, a devoted daughter may sacrifice the happiness of marriage in order to care for a invalid parent. Workers may be asked to sacrifice a pay rise in order to keep the company afloat. While the concept of sacrifice may be rooted in the rites and rituals of ancient worship, we are well aware that many a sacrifice is made without a drop of blood being spilt.

RECAP

Animal sacrifices were at the heart of the Old Testament system of worship. Last week we were thinking about the sacrifice known as the burnt offering. This sacrifice was to be offered when the worshipper sought forgiveness of sins. I was pointing out that very specific instructions were given by God for how the ritual was to be performed. The animal offered had to be from the worshipper’s herd or flock, or had to be a dove or a pigeon. It couldn’t be a wild animal he had hunted down. It had to be a male without defect, that is, the most valuable he owned. It had to be alive when he brought it. It couldn’t be something that had died anyway. In short, it had to cost the worshipper something; it had to be a real sacrifice for him.

I was pointing out that these instructions came from the Lord God himself. Indeed, Leviticus is the book in the Bible with more direct quotations from God than any other. It teaches us how God wants to be worshipped. It shows us how God wants to be approached. Sinful men and women cannot barge in on God any old way. The sinfulness of sin demands that we dare not approach God without a sacrifice. I was saying that God has not changed his mind. If we, as Christians, do not enter God’s presence with animal sacrifices it is not because he no longer demands a sacrifice. It’s because a sacrifice has been offered that has everlasting and universal power.

As Christians we come before the Living God by faith in the sacrifice offered by his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, on the cross of Calvary. He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. We have been redeemed, says the Apostle Peter, not with silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or spot. He gave himself up for us, says the Apostle Paul, as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. The hymn puts it like this: Jesus, my great High Priest, offered his blood and died my guilty conscience seeks no sacrifice beside His powerful blood did once atone and now it pleads before the throne.

 BRIDGE

Now, we tend to get impression that worship during Old Testament times was all about seeking the forgiveness of sins. We have in our minds a worshipper rather on edge; who, conscious of his guilt, brings a bull or a lamb or goat, for he is anxious about his relationship with God and his status within the community. We are vaguely aware of regulations which designate someone as “unclean” and therefore obliged to keep their distance from everyone else. There seems to be a lot of spiritual angst among the ancient Jews. While it’s true to say that the temple could be a very sombre place, that’s not the whole story. There was, in fact, a lot of joy associated with the sacrificial system. That might surprise you. But it’s true.

Earlier we read from Dt.27 where Moses looks forward to the Israelites entering the Promised Land. In v.6 he tells them to build an altar and to offer burnt offerings on it to the Lord your God. But in v.7 he goes on to say that after the burnt offerings they are offer fellowship offerings eating them and rejoicing in the presence of the Lord your God. At the end of 1 Kings 8 we read about Solomon dedicating his brand new temple to the Lord. v.63 says: Solomon offered a sacrifice of fellowship offerings to the Lord: twenty-two thousand cattle and a hundred and twenty thousand sheep and goats. So the king and all the Israelites dedicated the temple to the Lord. Now look at v.66: On the following day he sent the people away. They blessed the king and then went home joyful and glad in heart for all the good things the Lord had done for his servant David and his people Israel. No wonder they went home happy. For a fellowship-offering was different from a burnt offering. The burnt offering was completely consumed on the altar. Nothing remained. But with a fellowship-offering only certain parts of the animal were burned up. The rest was shared out among the priests and worshippers. In effect, they had a massive barbeque. And Solomon’s barbeque was a barbeque to end all barbeques.

FELLOWSHIP OFFERING

We read about the fellowship offering in Leviticus 3. There are no prizes for guessing why this sacrifice was the most popular. In a world where most people hardly ate any meat it was a chance for worshippers to gather together and have a party. There were a variety of reasons why someone might want to offer this sacrifice. It might be that you had been ill and had prayed for healing, and you had been healed. It might be that you had made a vow, a promise to God, that if something you longed for happened you would make this offering.

That’s what Hannah did. Remember how she prayed for a son, promising to return him to the Lord. Her prayer was answered, and when Samuel was weaned she brought him to the tabernacle to serve the Lord. But she also brought a bull to be sacrificed. That was a fellowship offering. And then you could just bring a fellowship offering because you wanted to. There was something you wanted to celebrate, like a bumper harvest, or the safe arrival home after a long journey. You wanted to give thanks to God. A fellowship offering was the way to do it.

The name “fellowship offering” is just one way of translating the Hebrew term. The Hebrew word is related to “shalom”, the word for peace. Hence, some translations call this a peace offering. The point is that it was about being at peace, in harmony, in close fellowship with God and with your family and friends. It was a sacrifice that was shared with others. Some aspects of the ritual were just the same as for the burnt offering. The animal had to be without defect; but it could be male or female. As with the burnt offering, the worshipper laid his hand on the head of the animal to show that he was identifying with it, before slitting its throat. It’s blood was collected by the priest who sprinkled it on the altar.

However, instead of the whole animal being placed on the altar only certain parts were. v.3 tells us that the fat, the kidneys and the liver were placed on the fire on the altar. They were for God. As they burned they became an aroma pleasing to the Lord. The rest of the animal was returned to the worshipper which he also shared with the officiating priest.

Why did the fat, the kidneys and the liver go to the Lord? In the ancient world the fat was considered the best part of the animal. I know that’s the complete opposite of our attitude. But think about it. This was a world where most people were hungry most of the time. To be fat was a sign of prosperity. To have fat animals was sign that you could afford to feed them well. We still use the phrase “living off the fat of the land” to mean that someone is living in luxury. By offering the fat to God the worshipper was giving the Lord the best part of the animal.

As for the kidneys and the liver, people then thought of them in much the way we think of the heart. We think of the heart as the centre of our emotions. We love someone with all our heart; we show appreciation by giving heart-felt praise; if we are nervous, our heart is in our mouth; to be cruel is to be heartless. By offering God the kidneys and the liver the worshipper was, as we would say, giving him his heart; giving his self whole-heartedly. So the idea of the animal being the worshipper’s substitute was still there.

CHRISTIAN APPLICATION

As Christians we are no less thankful to God for all he has done for us. Just like Old Testament believers we are grateful for the Lord’s goodness to us. The problem for us is that we don’t have any prescribed sacrifices which we can bring in order to show our gratitude to the Lord. Indeed, within our own Protestant, evangelical circles, there is a suspicion of anything that might appear to be trying to win God’s favour.

The Lord Jesus Christ is our sacrifice. We need no other sacrifice beside him. Our Roman Catholic friends can place adverts in the newspaper in fulfilment of a vow. But we don’t have such a system. Is there anything we can to do to render thanks unto the Lord, as the psalmist puts it? In Romans 12, after eleven chapters of unfolding the plan of salvation, the Apostle Paul says to his readers: Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship.

Actually, a literal translation would be in view of God’s mercies. It’s plural. In view of God’s many, many mercies towards us, offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God. In Old Testament times the people brought an animal sacrifice to demonstrate their thankfulness to God. But now, under the new covenant, an animal is inappropriate. The God who gave up his dearly beloved Son for us deserves nothing less than ourselves, our whole selves. Just as in the past the animal sacrifice was an aroma pleasing to the Lord, so the giving of our selves is holy and pleasing to God.

Note that the apostle speaks about offering our bodies. We mustn’t make the mistake of thinking that so long as we’ve read a chapter of the Bible and said our prayers before going to sleep that we’ve done our duty to God. True worship, true devotion expresses itself in concrete, visible actions. In Hebrews 13:16 we are told: And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased. No one relishes the thought of making a sacrifice; still less of being the sacrifice itself. So how do we get to the position where we are willing to sing “All to Jesus I surrender” and really mean it? Paul says it requires a change of mind.

He says in v.2: Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind It means being so in love with the Lord Jesus that we are willing to turn our backs on all that the world values—willing to sacrifice it—and allow God’s Holy Spirit through God’s Word to create within us the desire for God’s good, pleasing, and perfect will. Don’t miss the fact that the apostle doesn’t command us to offer ourselves as living sacrifices. He urges us. It’s to be a freewill offering, an offering freely given, not because we have to but because we want to. That’s the idea behind the phrase this is your spiritual act of worship. The Greek word which is translated “spiritual” is logikos, which is where we get our word “logical”. The apostle is saying that when we understand the amazing grace of God; the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God, as he puts it in 11:33; then the only logical response is to love him with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. Scottish theologian, John Murray, talks about the constraint of consecration.

If your heart has been melted by his love, then you feel you have no alternative but to surrender all to Jesus. So how does this work out in practice? When we join the Church we promise to give a “fitting proportion of our time, talents and money for the Church’s work in the world.” What do we mean by “fitting proportion”? Fitting, I suppose, in proportion to how God has blessed us. Let me ask you: is that how you gauge the proportion of your time, talents and money you give to the Church. I’ll broaden it out: is that how you gauge the proportion of your time, talents and money you give to the Lord, whether through the Church or some other God-honouring, Christ-centred agency? When the ancient Israelites wanted to demonstrate their gratitude to the Lord they brought a sacrifice. What sacrifice are you giving the Lord; you who claim Jesus Christ as your Saviour? In these days of economic austerity money is tight. Every penny counts. Does that mean the Lord’s work must suffer? Does that mean our giving is to be any less sacrificial?

I don’t have anything to do with counting the FWO envelopes or with the finances of our Church. But I do see the reports that our treasurer Duncan Shaw produces. We have some very generous givers in this congregation. But we also have some people who, if their giving reflects how good the Lord has been to them, well, all I can say, the Lord can’t have been very good to them. Paul says of the Macedonian Christians (2Cor.8:2): Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as they were able, and even beyond their ability.

Everybody seems to be busy these days. Our most precious commodity is time. Is our time so stretched that the Lord is getting less and less of it? When we are pushed for time, does the Lord get shoved to the side? At the very least public worship on a Sunday must be sacrosanct. Are we not even willing to make sacrifices in order to honour the fourth commandment?

When we choose not be in Church, when we choose to be elsewhere, we are sending out a powerful message to all around us that our faith comes second. And we are sending that message to the Lord too. The same goes with our attitude towards our career. There often comes a time when we must ask who really owns my soul. A Christian must weigh up the money and status that promotion brings against the possibility that there will be no time left for serving others in Christ’s name. Are you giving the Lord the “fat” of your time? Or just the skin and bones?

Lord in the fullness of my might I would for thee be strong I would not give the world my heart and then profess thy love I would not feel my strength depart and then thy service prove. I would not with swift-winged zeal on the world’s errands go And labour up the heavenly hill with weary feet and slow. O not for thee my weak desires, my poorer, baser part O not for thee my fading fires, the ashes of my heart.

And then, as Christians, there are other, less quantifiable sacrifices that we make because of our faith. There are times when we must sacrifice our popularity because we refuse to go along with the crowd or are compelled to say things others don’t want to hear. We may have to sacrifice our honour and allow ourselves to be misunderstood and bad-mouthed because we won’t stoop to the same dirty tactics as our detractors. Even in the act of forgiving someone we make a sacrifice—we sacrifice a very natural desire to be the victim, we sacrifice our need for pity, and sometimes even for justice. Can I also suggest the offering to the Lord of our children?

What do I mean by that? I mean that we can be so ambitious for our children, wanting them to do well and prosper in the world, that for all the respect we give ministers and missionaries and evangelists, we wouldn’t want our own kids follow that route. And not just because these aren’t well paid jobs with very little status in our society. But because we know these are callings that in and of themselves demand huge personal sacrifices. And also because we are aware that it might mean losing them—that they won’t be around for us. As I said at the beginning, many a sacrifice is made without spilling a drop of blood.

 CONCLUSION

I want to conclude by, in a sense, standing everything I’ve said on its head. We’ve been talking about sacrifice, the sacrifices that we, as believers, may want to make in response to God’s grace and mercies. David Livingston was once asked to comment on the sacrifices he had made. Remember this was a man who could have had a lucrative career as a doctor, but who instead, endured more hardships than we could imagine, including long separations from his family and constant illness—and all for the sake, not of exploration, but the gospel. Do you know what Livingston replied? I never made a sacrifice. We ought not to talk of sacrifice when we remember the great sacrifice that he made who left his Father’s throne on high to give himself to us. It turns out that when we are in love with Jesus it never enters our heads to call anything we’ve done or anything we’ve given a sacrifice. For whatever we have lost, and whatever we have forsaken, and whatever we have been deprived of pales into insignificance when compared to the joy and the glory that is ours in Christ Jesus our Lord.