Sin in the Camp
Cascades Fellowship CRC, JX MI
August 17, 2003
The story of Frankenstein has fascinated generations since its appearing in 1818. It is a many-splendored thing, speaking eloquently on such social ills as child neglect and scientific advancement in the absence of ethics. The story is just as relevant today in the light of parent absenteeism and cloning as it was in the day of its writing.
But the story speaks to us in many other ways as well – subtle ways, evident only to the observant and wise. I remember when I studied this story in college. Since Romantic Literature was an upper level class, it was filled with literaries, who read into every story and poem their own ideals, rather than striving to understand the author’s intent. The theories on the message of Frankenstein abounded, and grew stranger as we progressed through the book.
Everything from Marxist theories to Freudian interpretations peppered our discussions. In all honesty, it was maddening, particularly when the story itself makes it clear that the real message is the arrogance – the pride, the hubris – of man in his continued and essentially unfettered manipulation of nature. Frankenstein vividly depicts how the pride of creating something new, which drives the motor of discovery, could have adverse consequences in the broader community.
When viewed theologically you can boil Frankenstein down to story about sin. Pride, arrogantly assuming the mantle of God, is what got us in trouble in the garden and it is the root of the travails that assail Victor Frankenstein. The monster becomes the embodiment of his pride and runs amok, destroying all the scientist held dear. What we find out about sin in Frankenstein is that it has a seeping quality about it – it pollutes all it touches, even beyond the sinful act itself.
Sin is a topic we don’t talk about much anymore. We speak at length and fondly of grace, we dwell often on love, we thrill at the talk of mercy, but when the conversation turns to sin, we clam up. We don’t have much to say. Many in the Christian church would like us to forget about sin. Why not accentuate the positive? Why talk about sin? All it does is bring us down – destroys our self-esteem. We cannot attract new believers to our church by talking about sin – such negativity would only drive the seeker away. No one wants to hear about how bad we are.
To accommodate this happy outlook we have even gone so far as to change the lyrics of some our oldest and most beloved hymns. No more talk of worms! It’s too degrading! Let’s change it to say “…to one such as I” or “ a sinner such as I.” Somehow we think that the change will make the truth more palatable to the unbelieving. Why talk about sin at all when we have so much good news to give?
Let me offer two answers – a common sense answer and a theological answer. The common sense answer is simply this – in order for the good news to be good, it must have a comparative, something to measure it against. For good news to be good, there has to be a bad news. Sin is the bad news.
The theological answer is that sin is the cosmic problem. It is the reason for the existence of the good news. And biblically speaking, without the emergence of sin in Genesis 3, we don’t have Genesis 4 through Revelation 22. The Scriptures tell the story of how God deals with the problem of sin and reclaims his misdirected creation. We need to speak of sin because it is essential to our story. Only in the shadow of the Fall does the light of the good news appear in its truest brilliance. We need to know how bad our situation really is before we can appreciate how good it can be in Christ. And we need to remember how bad it really was in order to truly grasp how blessed we are in Christ. So we talk about sin.
Which brings me to our passage this morning. Leviticus 4:13-21 is a passage filled with startling imagery aimed at exposing the seriousness of sin. It presents in compelling detail what the people of God must do when they realize the stain of sin has spread over the entire community. I want us to begin this morning by taking a look at the context for this passage – moving from its broader context to its more immediate framework. Then we will explore some of the imagery, coming to grips with how seriously sin should be taken. Finally, we will talk about this passage in our context – does it speak to us today?
The Book of Leviticus doesn’t get much airplay from the pulpit today. And for good reason – we just don’t know what to do with this book full of laws and regulations. In our grace-filled religion law seems so… well, legalistic. And all that animal sacrifice stuff, that just offends the new millennium Christian’s sensibilities. But when you read Leviticus in the light of how the Exodus narrative ends, the book becomes less about law and more about how to live before a gracious and holy God.
You may remember that Exodus ends with the account of the glory cloud representing God’s presence settling on the Tabernacle. God now dwelt in the midst of his people. But there is an unarticulated problem – God is holy, Israel is not. They are a sinful and stiff-necked people. It has not been that long since the Golden Calf episode. And holiness demands that sin be dealt with. How can they hope to live in the presence of a holy God and not be consumed?
That is the broader framework you must bring to any reading of Leviticus and when you do, you find that Leviticus is not all about law – crime and punishment. It is God’s gracious provision for his people. It is instruction on how Israel can live with God in their midst.
Now let’s narrow the context a little. In the first three chapters of Leviticus we are introduced to sacrifice as the means of atonement and reconciliation to God. In chapter 1, the burnt offering atones for sin; in chapter 3, the fellowship offering or peace offering reconciles our relationship with the Creator. Only one thing more is needed – purification.
What we must remember when we are dealing with sin is that it is not so easily contained to a single act. Dealing with sin requires more than just forgiveness. Like a pebble thrown into the still waters of a pond, sin spreads beyond the sinner. As noted earlier, it has a seeping quality about it. It defiles not only the sinner, but the place where the sinner sins. And in a very real sense – biblically speaking – the sinner carries the stink of sin wherever he or she goes. For ancient Israel, this included the Tabernacle – the place where God dwelt among his people. We’ll explore this more in a few moments.
Now with the broad and narrow contexts in view, let us consider the imagery of our text. Much has been made over the centuries concerning each element of the sacrifice. In the eyes of some commentators, the blood of the animal symbolized the soul, the fat portions the best part of man, and the meat and hide that is carried outside of camp the body of sin that is to be burned up in the fire. Of such symbolic interpretations I am not altogether sure of their validity.
There are, however, three things I am sure of. The first is that there is clearly a substitution taking place in the sacrifice – the animal dies in the place of sinner. Look with me at vv.13-15 of our text.
If the whole Israelite community sins unintentionally and does what is forbidden in any of the LORD’s commands, even though the community is unaware of the matter, they are guilty. When they become aware of the sin they committed, the assembly must bring a young bull as a sin offering and present it before the Tent of Meeting. The elders of the community are to lay their hands on the bull’s head before the LORD, and the bull shall be slaughtered before the LORD.
What is striking in this passage is the oozing nature of sin. This is not for the sin of the individual. In fact, if you read on in Leviticus chapters 4 and 5 you will find that there is specific instruction given to the individual for making a sin offering. In this particular passage, however, God addresses communal sin – the failure to be a people defined by allegiance and obedience to God. It is not necessarily one communal act, but rather a communal attitude or laxity toward sin. This is the defilement of the mass of individual sin in the community come home to roost.
And so the elders, representing the whole of the community would come before the tent of meeting with a sacrifice – a bull – and place their hands upon its head as it was slaughtered. Commentator Matthew Henry remarks, “He that laid his hand on the head of the beast thereby owned that he deserved to die himself, and that it was God’s great mercy that he would please to accept the offering of this beast to die for him.” The clear intention of placing the hand on the head of the sacrifice was to identify the sacrifice with the sinner – in this case, to mark it as standing in the place of the sin-stained community. The wage of sin is death, so without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness.
Imagine the scene, you are an Israelite in need of forgiveness and cleansing, so you bring the requisite sacrifice before the tent of meeting. The cloying stench of blood hangs heavy in the air – the sacrifice smells the carnage and begins to struggle. You wrestle the animal into place, putting your hand on its head. And while this act of identification is taking place, the priest draws the knife across the neck of the sacrifice. In clear, graphic detail you – the sinner in search of forgiveness and cleansing – see up close and personal that the wage of sin.
Sin is serious business. Everything about the sacrifice points to how profoundly sin impacts our life and our world. And as we have noted, sin must be dealt with.
Which leads me to the second thing I am sure of concerning the symbolism of this passage. Despite the disturbing picture it presents, the killing of the sacrificial animal is not the central point. The central focus of this passage is what is done with the blood of the sacrifice, because it reveals the nature of the sacrifice – purification.
To get a grasp on what is happening let’s take a look at this diagram.
When you read through chapter 4, you will find that it follows a pattern. It deals first with the sin offering of the priest – who bears the corporate presence of Israel before God. Then, we have our passage for this morning – the sin offering for the community. The sin offering for the individual leader in the community and then for the individual follows.
There is a pattern to how the blood is used in each sin offering. As the presence of Israel – in the person of the priest - penetrates deeper into the Tent of Meeting, the blood of the sin offering must be sprinkled accordingly. Why? Because sin pollutes, it seeps, it defiles.
For sin to be fully dealt with the pollution of sin needs to be purged from the sinner – in particular where it has seeped into the presence of the Holy One of Israel. The presence of the sinner, even in seeking atonement, defiled the Tabernacle. Ah, but there is grace in the instruction concerning the sin offering. It is the means of purification, the way to clean up the pollution spread by sin. Through it the sinner was purified and able to stand in the presence of a Holy God.
The final thing I am sure of concerning the symbolism of this passage is that the removal of the rest of the animal that was not burned upon the altar of burnt offering represents the removal of the pollution of sin from the camp. It is a declaration that the camp is clean and Tabernacle is once again purified and a fitting dwelling for the presence of God.
All of this imagery – disturbing and brutal as it is – reveals to us just how serious sin really is. It is not just mild indiscretion – just a personal weakness that when time permits we can deal with at our leisure. Sin requires immediate and drastic action because it disrupts the bonds of covenant relationship. Most important to note is that it breaks fellowship between Creator and creature. But, tragically, it also breaks the bonds between brothers and sisters in Christ.
I could provide you with an endless list of examples of how sin disrupts the fellowship of the faith community, but let me ask you a couple questions instead. How often do we run to a fellow believer and joyously exclaim that we just slept with our neighbor’s spouse? We don’t – instead we work hard to keep it secret. We build walls of deception to hide our sin. Or how often after a Sunday service do you get everyone’s attention in the fellowship hall to share that juicy piece of gossip? You don’t – instead the gossip is whispered, one eager ear to another, in secret. Do see a pattern here? Sin seeps into all our relationships, isolating us with walls of deception – destroying the unity we are supposed to share in Christ.
Sin really does need to be addressed – individually and corporately. Its seeping, polluting, defiling nature demands radical measures. What are we to do? If we sacrificed an animal as Leviticus describes PETA would certainly pursue us to the ends of the earth. We would be charged with animal cruelty. How then do we deal with the defilement of sin?
Look with me at Hebrews 13:11-12
The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp. And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood.
Beloved of God, the atoning death of Christ has purchased so much more than our pardon from sin. His death has even done more than purchased our peace with God. The blood of Christ is also the means by which we are purified – cleansed completely from the stain of sin – and enabled to stand before God.
Think about that for a moment. The shameful stench and filth that clung to us because of our past sinful life – whether it be from drug abuse, dishonesty, promiscuity, perversion, drunkenness, violence, adultery or murder, you fill in the blank – is wiped clean. We are not only justified, we are purified in the sight of God, because of what Christ has done. People of God we are clean! Our uncleanness washed away by the blood of the Lamb. We are clean!
Maybe you’re here today and you don’t feel so clean. The stink of some secret sin hangs over you like bad body odor. Or maybe you don’t realize how clean you really are – you’ve grown up with Christ and it never dawned on you that you need to be cleaned in the first place. And you still struggle with a lifetime – be it long or short – of white lies and quiet private lusts. Regardless I have good news this morning – you can be clean! How?
Think back to our passage again – when was the sacrifice offered? When the person or community recognized and acknowledged the sin. Only then did they lay their hand on the head of the sacrifice, admitting their need for atonement and cleansing. 1 John 1:9 tells us that if we acknowledge our sin, if we confess it, God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sin and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
Having sin in the camp is a dangerous thing. It must be dealt with. Only one measure is radical enough to deal with it finally and fully. The good news is that God has done something radical. He has shed his own blood – not only so that we could be forgiven our sin, but also to wash away the pollution of sin. Let’s keep our camp clean. Let’s acknowledge our sin before God daily – trusting ourselves continually to the finished work of Christ. If you have never experienced the cleansing that is ours in Christ, I invite you to talk to me after the service. You can not only know the grace of forgiveness in Christ – you can be clean.