Summary: God has made it possible for us to change, not by making a New Year's resolution but by the work of his Holy Spirit in our hearts
Sermon by Rev Heather Cetrangolo:
In 516 BCE the reconstruction of the Temple was complete. King Herod renovated it in 19 BCE, expanding the facility to include what was basically a large shopping precinct, where you could buy religious goods and animals for sacrifice. It would have been a great sight to behold, especially for Mary and Joseph who had come from a very small town to the big city.
Mary and Joseph were faithful Jews. They would have travelled for about a week to get there, at great expense. For them, observing the laws of purification was absolutely essential. The scripture says, they “finished everything required by the law” (v39). They dedicated Jesus, their firstborn son to the Lord, which would have involved paying a redemption price to the Temple (Num 18). They also went in order to make a sacrifice for ritual cleansing, following childbirth (Lev 12).
And all of this, for the child who was destined to be the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. His death would destroy the need for a Temple. Because of him, the need for ritual purification would end with his generation.
Last night, Adam and I attended a ritual purification of sorts. We went down to Federation Square to see the fireworks (New Year’s Eve is actually Adam’s birthday and this was his birthday wish this year).
Every year the ritual is relatively the same. People dress up, a lot of people drink too much, and finally we get to the countdown. It marks a new beginning; a fresh start; a time to turn over a new leaf and start again … a time to kiss the person next to you.
Of course, this is a totally secular form of ritual purification. It has absolutely nothing to do with God … and it certainly wasn’t ordained by God, as the day of Atonement was. But here’s what New Year’s Eve countdowns and the Temple sacrificial system have in common:
They don’t effect permanent change.
Jesus came to bring permanent change into people’s lives, to bring in a new kingdom, a new period of history and a brand new life for anyone who wants it. The sacrificial system could not achieve this.
Why not? What was insufficient about the sacrificial system? (as we read the scripture, how do we answer this question?)
There were really two issues.
1. Jesus fulfils the Old Covenant
First, in the long run, no animal sacrifice was ever sufficient to deal with the problem of sin – you had to keep going back. Jesus’ sacrifice was once for all, he bore the punishment of death on behalf of all people for all time (in human flesh) .. so that we can be totally forgiven and freed from death.
But there was a second issue … in the Old Testament, when a sin offering was made, it wasn’t only the priest and God who made the exchange. A person would place their hands on the animal to acknowledge their sinfulness (their need to change), and then the life of the animal would be offered for their sins. There was always an element of repentance.
The Law that God set before Moses was clear: if the people obeyed they would be blessed in the land, if they disobeyed they would be cursed … but, as Deuteronomy chapter 30 says, though they had sinned, if they turned to the Lord (if they repented), he would restore them and have compassion on them. It goes further to say that he would gather them from exile and circumcise their hearts …
2. Jesus brings in a New Covenant
In other words, where there is repentance, God will forgive and bring about a permanent change of the heart … so that there’s no going back year after year after year. As Jeremiah (31) and Ezekiel (36) prophesied, God was going to create a new covenant, in which he would bring about a permanent change of heart.
The problem with the Mosaic covenant wasn’t only that the people continually sinned and needed constant forgiving … God is a forgiving God, which is why he gave the gift of sacrifice … he is ready and willing to forgive and start again … the problem was that they were required to repent … and repentance itself had become a problem.
Because the people were living in darkness, they didn’t know God, they didn’t know the truth, and their hearts had become hardened to the truth.
As Simeon took Jesus into his arms, he thanked God and said, “My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light that will disclose the truth to a multitude of people and the glory of your people Israel” (v30-32)
The prophecy goes on … he says to Mary: