Made for sacrifice.
A Sermon for Passion Sunday
March 26, 2023 at Holy Communion
Isaiah 1:10–20, Hebrews 9:11–15
“In sacrifice and offering you take no pleasure” (Psalm 40:7). In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. ☩ Amen.
Here’s a puzzle for you: is Christianity an religion in which we offer sacrifices to God, or not? Is Christianity a sacrificial religion?
I can imagine that our instinctive responses to that question go a few different ways. Perhaps you say, “No, Christianity has nothing to do with offering sacrifices; that’s a pagan thing.” Or perhaps you would say, “We don’t literally sacrifice anything, but we are supposed to live live sacrificially, in a metaphorical way.” Or perhaps you say, “Of course! We offer a sacrifice to God every Sunday at the altar.”
Well, which of these views is Christian?
All of them are Christian, actually. They all play a part in complex but crucial role of sacrifice to the Christian faith. The whole story is this: Human beings are made to offer sacrifices as signs of our thankfulness to God our Creator. But sin gets in the way, and it is totally fruitless to offer sacrifices as a way of restoring our relationship to God. Only Jesus on the cross has ever offered himself totally and innocently to God. Sharing in Jesus restores our ability to offer true sacrifices, as we offer ourselves to God in Christ.
So all three of the reactions I described are correct: no, we do not offer sacrifices to try to appease God. But we do offer God the spiritual sacrifices, and this is all possible because of Jesus’ sacrifice, which is at the centre of our faith.
The reason for talking about sacrifice today is that this is exactly what Holy Week is about. One week from today, we will hear the first account of Jesus’ suffering and death. Today’s readings, which have the theme of sacrifice all over them, are preparing us to interpret what will go on in Holy Week: we will witness Jesus offering himself as a perfect sacrifice to God.
But before diving into those readings, let’s set the stage. When is the first sacrifice in the Bible? It’s very early: in the fourth chapter of Genesis, we see Cain and Abel offering sacrifices. We hear that “Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions” (Genesis 4:3–4). What is going on here? These aren’t sacrifices for sin: they are simply acts of worship. From the very earliest days, we human beings have worshipped God by destroying a portion of what we have to acknowledge that it is not really ours, but came originally from God. This is what we were made to do: to receive God’s goodness, and gratefully acknowledge God as the giver.
(I’m told that Orthodox Jewish wives traditionally observe this sacrificial principle by selecting the best roll that comes out of the oven, and throwing it immediately in the fire.)
But once sin was introduced to the equation, human beings began using sacrifice to try to overcome the distance between us and God caused by sin. So sacrifice began to be used as an “apology” to God at best, as if to say, “I’m so sorry for my sin, and look what I’m willing to give up as a sign of my contrition”—or at worst, as a bribe to God, saying, “God, I know I’ve sinned, but here, I’ll make it up to you with this goat.” Although we don’t use goats, this attitude is alive and well today. We say, “God I know I’ve sinned, but here, I’ll make it up to you by doing …”
Our Old Testament reading is about how this attitude can’t actually overcome the problem of sin. God looks down on his people and sees them offering constant sacrifices—“new moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations”—but they do not reform their hearts. He says that, despite all of their sacrifices, his chosen people are just as bad as the ancient people of Sodom and Gomorrah. What does God want instead of their sacrifices? Righteousness. He says, “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil; learn to do good” (Isaiah 1:16–17). True sacrifice is to offer oneself fully to God, body and soul, in righteousness and holiness.
But that is precisely what our Epistle reading says that Jesus did: he “offered himself without blemish to God” (Hebrews 9:14). What we were only able to signify by animal sacrifice, Jesus actually did: he voluntarily and totally gave himself to God. And, unlike us, he didn’t do it because he had a bad conscience about sins—he had no sins. No: he sacrificed himself so that he could “enter once for all into the holy places,“ (Hebrews 9:12) achieving by his act of pure devotion the reconciliation with God which we are all longing for. Christ’s sacrifice is his pure pouring out of himself, body and soul, to the God who made him.
This is the key to restoring our true sacrificial relationship with God. As people who share in Christ’s life, we can also offer ourselves to God wholly and purely.
Christianity is an essentially sacrificial religion. Our relationship with God consists in offering back to him from his creation signs of our thankfulness and joy for his gifts. Although sin introduced distance into that relationship, in Christ a relationship of pure sacrifice has been restored. Living in Christ means offering ourselves wholly and without reserve to God, just like Jesus did, as a 24/7 spiritual orientation.
But it also means making particular, specific sacrifices as signs of our love and gratitude. We sacrifice of time for prayer and worship. We sacrifice symbols of our life—bread, wine, water, oil—and ask God to use them to deepen our relationship with him through Christ. We sacrifice our financial means on the altar of church and the altar of the poor. A Christian who doesn’t sacrifice simply isn’t a Christian, because sacrifice is how we act out our relationship with God.
That’s the point as it applies to us, but, as we conclude, I should say that we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves. On Easter morning we will be told that we rise with Christ to restored relationship with God—but there is still Holy Week between now and then. Keeping in mind what we have learned about sacrifice, our job for the next two weeks is simply to watch the sacrifice play out. Watch Jesus give himself entirely, unreservedly, unashamedly so that you could be reconciled to God through him.