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The Holy Horror Show

"Lay your hand on his head and kill him...""Flay him and cut him in pieces..."

"Bring the blood and throw it against the wall..."

"Wring off his head..."

"Tear open his chest..."

"Stack his head on top of his fat..."

"Wash the entrails and stack them with the rest..."

"Burn it all...It is a pleasing aroma."

After reading the instructions on how to offer a sacrifice in the first few chapters of Leviticus, I wonder if an Israelite would have been grossed out in the slightest by watching even our most gruesome horror movies.  This is macabre stuff!  It becomes even more horrifying when you try to put all the images, sounds, smells, and details together in your head to create a decent picture of what it must have been like to be there.

Well before you were able to walk your spotless lamb anywhere near the place of sacrifice, you would have seen the column of greasy smoke reflecting the hellish light of a large bonfire somewhere below.  The screams of dying and frightened animals would no doubt fill the air.  Somewhere, you probably had to jump over or slog through a little stream of blood and gore flowing from the place.  Then you catch a glimpse of it through the gate: fire!  In the flames you can see heads with eyeballs melting in their sockets, burning lumps of slimy fat, kidneys and intestines hanging half over the side of the altar.  And there are priests with blood-stained clothes (so much blood!) slinging buckets of the stuff against the walls of the grill.  Another one snatches a bull close to him as he slashes its throat and one more spray of blood erupts over the scene.

This is hell.  There is no other word for it and there is no other concept in the human imagination that better fits the description of what is going on here.  Just inside the court of the Jewish temple and tabernacle stood a gate to hell.

What was this awful place doing there?  Why in the world did God demand that such a thing ever be a part of His holy worship?  To answer those questions, it is necessary to also imagine what laid beyond the altar of sacrifice.

On the other side of the court stood the Holy Place - the tabernacle or temple itself (depending on where we are in our imagination: the desert or the city of Jerusalem).  This was a palace of heart-stopping beauty.  Literally no expense was spared on the construction of either place.  They were buildings so full of gold and light that our eyes would be quite possibly completely overwhelmed at the sight.  And in there in the midst was the Holy of Holies - the very place where God set His presence and met with His people.  This was heaven.  No more beautiful or holy a place has ever existed in the history of the world.

And yet to draw near to heaven meant that one must first deal with hell.  The burning altar stood between you and the golden palace, and someone or something had to go into that fire before you could proceed.  This was because of a breach of God's Law.  The One who created the universe (including you) gave instructions for how His creatures were to behave and you disobeyed those instructions.  That horrible fire speaks of what you deserve: the end that God has appointed for His enemies.  But He has also made a gracious provision for you.  Another can go into the flames in your place!  Bring a lamb without blemish.  It will go into that hell that you see instead of you, allowing you to pass on by on your way to the glory beyond.

This is the gospel - written with bold bloody letters right at the start of one of the most unread books in the Old Testament.  It is possible for a spotless Lamb to suffer the holy wrath of God so that the wicked sinner can enter His presence.  "Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!"  That was the way that John the Baptist introduced his crowd to Jesus in John 1:29.  Ultimately, none of those bloody animal sacrifices actually removed the guilt of sin from those who offered them (Hebrews 10:4).  Their purpose was to teach people the horrible price of sin and to prepare us to understand what it was that Jesus was doing when He died - the spotless for the blemished - on the cross.

Oh, the Glory of the Substance!

Anyone who has read very much of the Old Testament usually has a pretty negative view of the Israelites.  "I can't believe they were so stupid!" is one thing you hear often.  After all, these people witnessed the most amazing displays of God's power that the world has ever seen and then turned their backs on Him and made their own gods out of logs and lumps of gold.  Such a thing blows our minds because we think that if we would have been there when, say, the Red Sea was parted, we would never again question God's presence or provision. The reality is, though, that we often do just that.  We will stand in awe of God's perfect orchestration of His universe one day, as we become the beneficiaries of His blessing brought about by the coalescing of ten different seemingly random coincidences that all add up to provide exactly what we need, and then question whether all that was really His doing the next day.  We will pray with our church family about the healing of a distant friend, watch that person get radically, miraculously healed to the stupification of all the doctors working on the case, and then get thrown into worry and despair when an ailment strikes someone closer to home.  So in a lot of ways, we're stupid and sinful just like them.

God got so angry with them, though.  As you read through the prophets, you find condemnation after condemnation - all coupled with some of the most hair-raising threats of judgment that you've ever heard.  And when I as a New Covenant believer consider all the ways that my heart suffers from the same sins of faithlessness and forgetfulness as those Old Covenant people, sometimes I wonder about what God would say about His anger towards me.

But several years ago, I stumbled upon one of the most beautiful promises of the New Covenant in Isaiah 54.  Verse 9 of that chapter says, "This is like the days of Noah to me: as I swore that the waters of Noah should no more go over the earth, so I have sworn that I will not be angry with you, and will not rebuke you."  That statement is still almost unbelieveable to me as I type its words onto this page.  He won't be angry or even rebuke us anymore?  Other than just His bare statement that He won't do so, why is this possible now, when before He was so angry?

I found an answer to that question that I really like this morning.  In Isaiah chapter 1, God is once again expressing His anger toward the sinfulness of His people.  He asks them, "What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?  I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats" (verse 11).  He goes on to describe His displeasure with all of the rituals and offerings that He had commanded His people to bring for His worship and for the covering of their sin.

And here was my groundbreaking thought (to me!): God can't say that about the sacrifice of Christ!  He can't say that He's had enough of His Son - that He no longer takes pleasure in the blood of His sacrifice!  When - through faith - we are plunged into Christ, all of God's wrath is swallowed up by the suffering of His Son, and the obedience of Christ is always pleasing to His Father!  Thus, when we stumble and doubt, the solution - Christ's sacrifice - never gets old!  It is never offered by our High Priest with unholy motives.  It is never presented in an unworthy manner.  There is never any admixture of sin or imperfection in what has been offered as pleasing to the Father.  We have been totally saved - even from His displeasure and rebuke!

The Old Covenant Law had but a shadow of the glorious substance that we now know (Hebrews 10:1).  So, knowing that we are covered by the perfect offering of the better covenant, let's not allow guilt for past sins stunt our growth in Christ.  Understand that if you are in Christ, you are a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17).  Therefore, don't linger over disappointments and shame that have stained you in the past - Christ has fully satisfied God's expectations on your behalf.  Rather, forget what lies behind and press on toward what lies ahead (Philippians 3:13).

Sacrificial-Suicidal Glory Prayer

The following quote is copied from pages 95-96 of the book, Shadow of the Almighty: The Life and Testament of Jim Elliot, by Elisabeth Elliot.  It comes from the daily journal of Jim Elliot.

October 26.  "Prayed a strange prayer today.  I covenanted with the Father that He would do either of two things: either glorify Himself to the utmost in me or slay me.  By His grace I shall not have His second best.  For He heard me, I believe, so that now I have nothing to look forward to but a life of sacrificial sonship (that's how my Savior glorified Him) or heaven - soon.  Perhaps tomorrow!  What a prospect!"