Gospel for Goats
Good Friday morning 2015 had just dawned, looking 'good' at least, promising another sunny day. The Bible lessons had not offered any big surprises. But as I decided to read through the texts one more time, my eyes became affixed to Hebrews chapter 10, verses 12-14. Referring to Jesus it declared:
But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool. For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.
Obviously, as an ordained minister I had read the passage numerous times over the years. This time, however, I was drawn to the meaning of the words in a whole new way. The historical nature of the one-time sacrifice of Jesus began to unfold before my eyes. It was just like looking at a side-by-side comparison between the Old and the New Covenant. I was perplexed. How come I had not seen it before?
I stood at the pulpit and watched the audience. The church was packed because of the Easter Conference at the picturesque lakeside setting of Vivamo Retreat Center in southern Finland. As I was reading the Gospel Lesson aloud I felt an urgency I had seldom experienced before a speech. The message was burning in my heart.
I began the sermon with a few sentences on the fallen state of all humanity, how every man, woman and child in the world has this natural, ongoing tendency for straying from the ways of God and not following Him. Then I continued with a brief narration on God's desire to renew the original relationship with His creation. I spoke about God's attempts to draw His people back to Him in the Old Testament, how he gave the Israelites the law to remind them of His ways, so that they would not get lost forever. How He decided to provide His people a way of repentance through shedding the blood of sacrificial goats and lambs as a confession of sins.
As a somewhat unrefined demonstration, I picked up a stack of hymnals representing various sins and brought them to the church altar. I didn't have a lamb with me, although there would have been a few of them available in the field close by the church. Then again, no small flock of lambs would have been sufficient to cover all the sins of the people.
I brought more hymnals to the altar, along with an unlucky, imaginary goat. And more sins with more goats. This turned out to be the real issue with the Old Covenant: not the lack of goats per se, but the fact that these sacrifices needed to be administered over and over again. Every time, only the past sins were forgiven. And, after a while, it became evident that the animal offerings had no real power to overcome the sinful nature of man.
Thus comes the New Covenant, the new and fundamentally better way of dealing with the problem. God sends His only son to the world. Jesus is born of the Virgin Mary and raised as an ordinary boy, but with no sin. At the age of around thirty, Jesus gives His life on the cross on Calvary as the pure, perfect sacrifice. And since then, there has been absolutely no need for another sacrifice to be offered.
But here comes the interesting part. What if we, even now that Jesus has given His life for us, commit a sin again, quite 'unintentionally' of course, as Leviticus 4:27 so kindly phrases it? What are we supposed to do then?
I placed a wooden twelve-inch cross on the altar rail. Then I grabbed a couple of hymnals and looked at the audience. "What must I do with these hymnals, these so very unintentional sins of mine?" "You must confess them to God", someone replied. "Bring them to the cross."
"And that's it?" I asked. "They will be forgiven just like that, because of what Jesus did?" "Yes", people nodded. "No goats needed?" "No." Many smiles.
"Okay." I left the hymnals with the cross and took a few steps, looking happy. But then I realized I had a hymnal under the white gown I was wearing. I brought it out for everyone to see, seemingly embarrassed. "Where did this come from?" I said to myself. "What am I going to do with this?"
"You just take it to the cross", said the helpful audience. "Like this?" I put the hymnal beside the cross. A sin confessed and forgiven. And then another one. And one more. I discovered more hymnals, one after another, undoubtedly setting a very bad example for the congregation.
"Well then, can you please tell me what is the difference between the Old and the New Covenant?"
Everyone was quiet. After a moment someone answered: "There is no need for a sacrificial goat."
"Correct. And as you were watching me walking back and forth before the altar, at first repenting the Old Testament way, and then as a Christian, the lack of goats was about the only difference there was."
"You know, this is the Good News I've believed in for over thirty years. But now I have finally acknowledged what it truly is. It is a gospel for goats. You see, because of Jesus all the goats have been set free. No more fear, no more threat of sudden death." I raised my hands and shouted: "Hallelujah! Hear the Good News: Jesus has died for all goats!"
People laughed. After a moment I said with a solemn voice: "But if you think of us humans, nothing has changed, really. Just like in the Old Testament, in this demonstration of mine, forgiveness still depends on us, on our feeble repentance. We are condemned to stagger in circles, struggling to believe that maybe God will forgive us yet again, even though we have so often failed him."
Nobody said a word.
"So, is there something wrong about this kind of a gospel?" I asked. "Now, listen to what the Bible says in Hebrews, chapter 10."
And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again, and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool. For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.
The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this. First, he says: "This is the covenant I will make with them after that time, says the Lord. I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds." Then he adds: "Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more." And where these have been forgiven, sacrifice for sin is no longer necessary. (Hebrews 10:10-18)
I went on with the sermon, looking intensely at the audience.
"The problem is we might have never quite understood the most fundamental difference between the Old and the New Covenant. Unlike the repeated and powerless offerings officiated by the Old Testament priests, the sacrifice of Jesus was a unique one-time act of grace, fully completed on Calvary nearly two thousand years ago. It was never to be repeated. That is because this time our past, present and future sins were all forgiven, once and for all."
I took the wooden cross from the altar rail and walked to the left front corner of the church. "This is where the cross should be standing in the course of history. A long way from us, and two thousand years before our time."
After all, this is the very truth Christians have always confessed: Jesus died on the cross for all people, and through His sacrifice we have been forgiven. But it is one thing to confess it, and quite another to really absorb and believe it. I should know, having not seen that for decades.
It is crucial that we allow the forgiveness and grace of God be given to us on Calvary as a gift. We need to understand there is no way we can pay for it, and there is absolutely nothing we can do to deserve it--because it was all given to us in advance. This is the true gospel Apostle Paul himself cherished. It brought him such a great joy and assurance to know that Christ had redeemed him before he became a Christian:
You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6,8)
To be honest, the whole idea of us carrying our sins repeatedly to the cross is plain foolishness, regardless of how sincere we may feel about it. It's really no more than a mental exercise. We need to see the crucifixion of Jesus as being a true historical event, and to take anything to the cross we would require a time machine. We have to understand how treacherous and wrong it is to keep replicating or time-shifting the atonement in our mind. So imperceptibly, it hides the actual grace of God from us.
After forty-five minutes of turning around my own previous understanding of the cross, I was finally coming to the end of my sermon.
"The minute we realize that the atonement in Christ is a genuine historical fact, our ongoing struggle to fulfill the demands of God's law is over. Suddenly it becomes irrelevant for us to try to carry our sins anywhere. Why should we? Has Jesus not carried them to the cross already? Where could we possibly take them?"
"We might as well drop them off." I let the remaining hymnals fall from my hands to the floor and lifted my empty hands. "And now that I'm not holding them anymore, I could even consider doing something else with my life. Maybe something... good?"
- Markku Sarento
(This sermon from 2015 is an excerpt from my
little book "Returning to Grace".)