Genesis 22:1-18 Psalm 22
Hebrews 10:1-25 John 18:1—19:37
God forbid that I should glory,
save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Today is the most solemn day of the Christian year.
We have prepared ourselves for it with a forty day fast. We have intensified our focus on the Cross by veiling it this past week. Last night we have stripped away all other signs of our faith, in the church, except this Cross, that we might focus on it.
It is all preparation to celebrate Easter. And yet, there can be no Resurrection without first the Death of our Lord. No empty tomb, without the Cross.
But what does the Cross mean?
We could describe it to a child and the child could give us the right answer – Jesus died on the Cross for our sins so that we could be forgiven and have new life. But we know that this knowledge, proclaimed to the disciples, proclaimed through the ages, held by us in our minds, remains a mystery. There is something hidden about it, though it is something that we know we must contend with, we keep returning to it – it is not found so explicitly in other world religions. We hang a cross on our necks, we build cathedrals on the plan, the weekly Sacrament flows from that Cross, the Cross is in the centre of our daily prayer – forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.
How can we make sense of it? We can only peer in at the edges, we see through a mirror darkly.
Let’s look today at the notion of sacrifice as we ponder the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
Jordan Peterson, a psychologist, has said the almost universal practice of sacrifice in ancient cultures, is based on the discovered principle “that something better might be attained in the future by giving up something of value in the present.” [Twelve Rules for Life: An antidote to chaos, p. 164] Although we may think the ancient idea of sacrifice to be primitive and barbaric, we understand this principle of sacrifice intuitively today, in a more spiritual but no less real way. For example, it is obvious to us that if we give up current pleasures – sitting on a beach, watching movies – to attend to studies it will help our future well-being. Or we understand that the sacrifice of time now to work, can bring some expected future comfort: daily food, a house, support for our family, a trip, support in our retirement. If we sacrifice one kind of freedom to marry, to have a child, something is lost, but something far greater is attained. If we undertake any kind of spiritual discipline that is not easy – fasting, prayer, reading the Bible – we must sacrifice our time and energy and immediate pleasure now, but we are promised a present and future benefit – wisdom, insight, greater spiritual liveliness, a more loving heart, our sanctification.
But it works the other way also, if I choose a pleasure right now, I am also making a sacrifice – I am sacrificing the future possibilities that can’t now come about. If I don’t apply myself now, I sacrifice my growth. Whatever we do, we are making a sacrifice. What we hope for, is that we are making a good sacrifice, even the best sacrifice possible in our decisions about how to live.
We see it at the centre of the story of the very first descendants of Adam and Eve – the brothers Cain and Abel – that very short but foundational story begins with comparing the sacrifices they offered up. And from it we see the principal that there are better and worse sacrifices. “Now in the process of time Cain brought a sacrifice to the Lord from the fruits of the ground. Abel also brought a sacrifice from the firstborn of his flock and of their fat. The Lord respected Abel and his offering, but He did not respect Cain and his sacrifices.” [Gen 4:3-5]
If some sacrifices are better than other sacrifices to please God, what is the best sacrifice? What is the highest sacrifice that one can give?
In the Law of Moses, a pair of turtle doves are better than an offering of fine flour, because the birds are living creatures. But, if we can afford it, a lamb is better than two turtle doves, and an unblemished lamb is better than a blemished lamb because it is worth more to us. But there are even better sacrifices than these. If we follow the logic of hierarchy of being, it is surely our very selves, that is a far better sacrifice. And even higher than giving up our lives, would be to give up the child whom we have come to love – most parents would give up their own life to save their child (and in some sense they do).
Abraham is asked by God to be willing to make that highest sacrifice possible for a human being. He is rightly horrified as we are when we read the account, but he is also willing, but his hand is stayed at the last minute, and God promises that he will provide the sacrifice – a ram caught in a thicket is substituted. Jesus says to the Pharisees, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day, and was glad,” I think he is referring to this moment – that God would provide the sacrifice.
God shows us that a good sacrifice in the present can bring future reward. He also shows us that a good sacrifice in the present can undo or substitute for the future destructive consequences of our poor choices. We are not bound forever by the consequences of our poor sacrifices.
Under the Law of Moses, this sacrifice was made for that offence, and the greater the offence the greater the sacrifice needed to undo the consequences. When an Israelite sinned, he brought an animal from his flock and its throat was cut. That is not something easy to forget, especially for a child who would witness this – it made them take their actions more seriously. It helped Israel to see justice, to appreciate the consequences of sin, that it is costly, and that is a start to their reform – to come to the knowledge of the reality of good and evil in themselves and of the brokenness of the human heart.
Israel also began to see the futility of those sacrifices – you see it in the Psalms, you see it in the Prophets – Do you think that I will eat the flesh of bulls and drink the blood of goats?... Offer [that is, sacrifice] unto God thanksgiving… and The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit: a broken and contrite heart, O God, you shall not despise… [e.g. Psalms 40, 50, 51] You see at the same time a longing for an efficacious sacrifice, a sacrifice that would truly change hearts. [see Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, Part II, pp. 233-235]
Jesus Christ, is the highest, the greatest sacrifice that can possibly be made – the sacrifice to which all other sacrifices pointed: the Son of Mary, the Son of God, willingly offers himself in our place – the perfect human being, the unblemished life, who is one person with the divine Son.
And we are told by Jesus that we can trust in this sacrifice,
it can be ours to offer, we can plead it, by trusting in it, by having faith in him:
- Jesus says, “The Son of man…came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” [Mark 10:45] He ransoms us from the debt owed, from the future consequences we would otherwise experience from sin.
- John says, “If anyone sins, we have an advocate, Jesus Christ the righteous, and he is the propitiation [the atoning sacrifice] for our sins.” [1 John 2:1-2]
We plead this once for all sacrifice for the sins of the world when we gather for Holy Communion.
Someone might ask, why go to a Good Friday service and try to bend my emotions in some way to feel sad when I don’t feel honestly on the inside that I’m responsible for the death of Jesus?
I think the teaching, of Jesus’ atoning sacrifice for all, can be taught to all, so that when a person does have the experience of being convicted for sin, he or she can then turn to the Cross rather than to despair – it is a seed planted there waiting to grow into a tree of life.
That is how it happened for me. Outside of the Church I came to see the need for a sacrifice to be offered for my sins, but what sacrifice would be sufficient? And then the power of this offering of Jesus Christ, that I had been taught for many years as a youth, finally struck home – I could embrace it, in my deep fear, and I could rest in it as I came to know His love.
Then I could begin to make better sacrifices in my life and begin to plead His Sacrifice as I stumbled forward and am still stumbling.
Jesus died that we might have abundant life: not a life downcast with guilt, or a life of regret or enslaved to past mistakes or afraid of the punishing consequences of our sins.
He gives us the gift of life built on the Truth, with eyes opened wide, a life full of meaning, a life uncertain, and so, an adventure. It is the only life that is truly worth living.
Today we give thanks to God for Christ’s sacrifice this Good Friday,
or we can pray for the grace to see the need for this mercy,
or we can pray for the grace to accept this great gift.
Perhaps for each one of us it is some combination of these.
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Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it: except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain. Psalm 127:1,2