Summary: Throught out history, people have felt the need to make sacrifices to please God and atone for their sin. The Cross is all we need.
3rd Sunday in Lent March 19, 2006 Series B
Grace be unto you and peace, from God our Father and from our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Let us pray: Dear Heavenly Father, you sent your Son, Jesus the Christ, to reveal you kingdom and to redeem us from sin and death. Through the power of your Holy Spirit, increase our awareness in the significance of Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross, and deepen our faith and trust in the saving grace his cross offers to us. This we ask in Christ’s holy name. Amen.
Richard Jensen, in his book, The Crucified Ruler, begins his commentary on our Gospel lesson with this rather strange story.
“The young girl lay bound on the altar. It was she who had been chosen to be the sacrifice made to the gods on behalf to the people this year. She was terrified. She watched every movement that the priest made throughout the ceremony. And then, at the climax of the ritual, the priest moved toward her with knife held high. Terror flooded her consciousness.
And then the knife came down. It plunged into her heart. In just a few moments, she was dead. Her blood flowed over the altar, dripping down to the ground. The major sacrifice of the year was now complete. The people breathed a great sigh of relief. Perhaps now, perhaps with this sacrifice, the gods would smile upon them for another year.
This is a strange story, to say the least. Strange, but true,” Jensen concludes. “Many different peoples in many different cultures in the course of human history have made use of a human sacrifice in order to please the gods.” End quote.
To be sure, as I shared with my confirmation students in our study of the Old Testament, some cultures and peoples living as neighbors to Israel, practiced child sacrifice. In fact, some Biblical scholars believe that this practice is what gave rise to the story of God testing Abraham’s faith, by asking him to sacrifice Isaac.
We know the story well. Isaac was the SON GOD had promised would be born to Abraham and Sarah, even when it seemed impossible for them to conceive a child due to their age. Isaac was the HOPE of Abraham and Sarah, that from their offspring, God would bring forth a great people, too many to number. And then God tested Abraham’s faith, by asking him to sacrifice Isaac.
So Abraham led his young son up a tall mountain, where he built and altar to God. The two of them gathered wood for a fire. And when Isaac asked his father where they would find the animal to sacrifice, Abraham took Isaac, bound him and placed him on the altar. Then he took his knife, and just as he was about to plunge it into his son, God shouted, STOP! God said, "I do not desire the death of Isaac!
So Abraham unbound Isaac, and discovered that there was a ram caught in a thicket of briars. Abraham took the ram, laid it on the altar, and sacrificed it – IN ISAAC’S PLACE.
Two things might be gained from this story. First, is the fact that God’s cry to stop Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac was not just an indication of God’s grace that was extended to Abraham and Isaac. Rather, it was an indication to all of Abraham’s descendents, that God did not desire child sacrifice, and that his descendents should not engage in that practice.
Secondly, since this story records that God provided a ram for Abraham to sacrifice in place of Isaac, it was interpreted as an endorsement for the religious and cultic practice of sacrificing animals in thanksgiving for God’s blessings, and as an offering to God for the atonement of sins.
This was reinforced in the story of the first Passover. As the last of the ten plagues was about to claim the first-born of all of Egypt, due to the Pharaoh’s refusal heed God’s demand to free Israel from bondage, the people of Israel were instructed by God to take an unblemished lamb for each household, sacrifice it, and spread its blood over the door posts of their homes. And when the angel of death came, it passed over the homes of Israel, marked by the blood of the lamb, sacrificed for their deliverance.
The lamb was then roasted and eaten, along with unleavened bread and bitter herbs, in a meal of thanksgiving for God’s grace and Israel’s deliverance from bondage. And that meal, that celebration of God’s redeeming grace, has, since that first Passover, been celebrated by Israel, even to this day. It is the most important festival of the Jewish faith.
At the time of Jesus, the religious practice of offering animal sacrifice was such a part of Israel’s religious devotion to God, that every Jew was expected to make an annual visit to Jerusalem, where they could offer their sacrifices in the temple – the holy house of God.