The penultimate reading of Jesus’ passion history this evening will also serve as a primary basis for our message tonight. Chances are you’ve heard it before. You’re probably familiar with the grim picture it paints. Here is God himself, our savior, brought out after a savage beating and now put to death. Not because he did wrong, but because he didn’t. He would not toe the line with the corrupt religious leaders of the day and instead spoke the truth. Their jealousy drove them to this end. He came to help, and he was executed because they did not worship God, they worshipped themselves.
Of course, it’s easy to point that kind of finger at the events that surround the cross. How dare they attack Jesus. How dare they put him to death for no reason. How loathsome. How vile.
Perhaps you remember some time ago when Mel Gibson produced his Passion of the Christ movie? Now I know he’s been the subject of controversy since then, but let’s put that aside for a moment. There was a stir of controversy around his movie at the time, as it included the biblically accurate line where the crowd, shouting for Jesus’ death, took responsibility for his death. “Let his blood be on us and on our children!” they shout. In compromise, the production chose not to subtitle that line in the film, leaving it only shouted in Aramaic. But what was telling was Gibson’s response to this controversy when interviewed. He was asked, point blank, who really killed Jesus.
His response? “I did.”
Whatever else you want to say about him, his answer was spot-on. The people of the day may have been responsible for carrying out the events that happened, but God orchestrated everything that happened, Jesus allowed jealous men to put him on the cross. But it was my sin that made him go. It was my failures he suffered for there. It was because of me that he did this. It was because of and for me that he died.
The payment made on the cross is universal. Jesus suffered for all at once. Yes. But it is also personal. It happened because of you. It happened because of me. I often like to remind myself that if, in all of creation, I was the only one who ever sinned…Jesus still would have done this. Just for me. Or just for you.
It is a grim spectacle, and a testimony to just how awful our sins are. The defeat of death that plays out here is vicious, and it is difficult to look at, but it is a necessary reminder of the seriousness of our crimes. This is what should have happened to us. Listen, as God goes in your place:
As they were going out of the city, they found a man of Cyrene named Simon. They forced him to carry Jesus’ cross. They came to a place called Golgotha, which means “The place of the skull.” They offered Jesus wine to drink, mixed with gall; but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. After they had crucified him, they divided his clothing among themselves by casting lots. Then they sat down and were keeping watch over him there. Above his head they posted the written charge against him: “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”
At the same time two criminals were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. People who passed by kept insulting him, shaking their heads, and saying, “You who were going to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross!”
In the same way the chief priests, experts in the law, and elders kept mocking him. They said, “He saved others, but he cannot save himself. If he’s the King of Israel, let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now, if he wants him, because he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’ ” In the same way even the criminals who were crucified with him kept insulting him.
From the sixth hour until the ninth hour, there was darkness over all the land. About the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
When some of those standing there heard this, they said, “This fellow is calling for Elijah.”
Immediately one of them ran, took a sponge, and soaked it with sour wine. Then he put it on a stick and gave him a drink. The rest said, “Leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to save him.”
After Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. Suddenly, the temple curtain was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook and rocks were split. Tombs were opened, and many bodies of saints who had fallen asleep were raised to life. Those who came out of the tombs went into the holy city after Jesus’ resurrection and appeared to many people. When the centurion and those who were guarding Jesus with him saw the earthquake and the things that had happened, they were terrified and said, “Truly this was the Son of God.” (Matthew 27:32-54)
There’s a detail in the passion reading that may have blown by you with everything that happened, and I’d like to focus on it this evening. But to understand its significance, we have to go back. Way back. Hundreds of years back to the earliest days of the Israelite nation, on their journey away from Egypt, wandering in the desert.
Back then, the primary place of worship was the tabernacle of the Lord. It was built exactly as God prescribed to them. The Temple of the Lord built in Jerusalem built centuries later would simply be a larger-scale version of this same house of worship. The space was laid out like 3 cubes set side by side by side. The first two formed a single space, the Holy Place, where the majority of worship was done. The last cubic space was separated from the rest by a curtain. Not a lot of detail is given about the curtain, except that it was thick enough that you couldn’t possibly see through it, and that it covered the space entirely, making it 15 feet tall by 15 feet wide.
The last space was called the Most Holy Place or Holy of Holies. Here was where the ark of the covenant sat, containing a number of holy relics God instructed the Israelites to store there. But what is more significant is that God said his presence would dwell in the Most Holy Place. Of course, we know from our Lenten series that God is everywhere, but he was making a point here, that his presence dwelt there in a unique way, and so to enter this space behind the curtain was truly to come into the presence of the living God.
In this account from Leviticus, God establishes a festival called the Day of Atonement. And in it, he impresses upon the people just how ridiculously difficult and dangerous it is to approach a holy God as a sinful human being. Aaron’s two sons had already died for not treating God’s presence with the proper respect. Listen how strictly God defends his holy presence and how difficult it is for a sinner to approach him. Only with blood could Aaron make this one, tentative approach to God on behalf of the people once every year.
The Lord spoke to Moses after the death of Aaron’s two sons, who had died when they approached the presence of the Lord. The Lord said to Moses, “Tell your brother Aaron that he must not enter into the Holy Place at any time he chooses by going inside the veil which is in front of the atonement seat that is on the ark. This is so that he will not die, for I appear in the cloud over the atonement seat.”
This is how Aaron shall enter the Holy Place: with a bull from the herd for a sin offering and a ram for a whole burnt offering. He is to wear a sacred linen tunic, with linen underwear covering his flesh, with the linen sash as his belt, and with his head wrapped with the linen turban. These are the sacred garments. He must wash his body with water and then put the garments on. From the congregation of the people of Israel he shall also receive two male goats for a sin offering and one ram for a whole burnt offering.
Aaron shall present the bull for his own sin offering, to make atonement for himself and for his household.
After Aaron has presented the bull for his sin offering to make atonement for himself and for his household, he shall slaughter the bull for his sin offering. Then he is to take a full pan of glowing coals from the top of the altar, which is before the Lord, and two handfuls of finely ground fragrant incense and bring them inside the veil. He is to put the incense on the fire before the Lord so that the cloud from the incense covers the atonement seat that is over the Testimony, so he will not die. He is to take some of the blood of the bull and sprinkle it with his finger upon the surface of the atonement seat on its east side. He is also to sprinkle some of the blood seven times with his finger in front of the atonement seat. He shall then slaughter the goat for the sin offering of the people. He is to bring its blood inside the veil and do with its blood as he had done with the blood of the bull. He is to sprinkle it on the atonement seat and in front of the atonement seat. He shall make atonement for the sanctuary to cleanse it from the uncleanness of the Israelites and from their rebellions and all their sins. This is what he shall do for the Tent of Meeting, which dwells in the midst of Israel’s uncleanness. When he enters to make atonement in the sanctuary, no other person may be in the Tent of Meeting until he has come out. In this way he shall make atonement for himself and his household, as well as for the entire assembly of Israel. He shall then come out to the altar that is before the Lord and make atonement for it. He is to take some of the blood of the bull and some of the blood of the goat and smear it all around the horns of the altar. With his finger he is to sprinkle some of the blood upon it seven times. In this way he is to purify it and set it apart from the uncleanness of the Israelites. (Leviticus 16:1-6,11-19)
And here’s where we come to our point.
The Most Holy Place still existed in Jesus’ time. It was simply much bigger and was part of the stationary temple built in Jerusalem, and not a mobile Tabernacle that could be put up and taken down as needed. The linear dimensions were double that of the tabernacle, which means if you remember your volume equations, it was eight times larger inside than the previous model. The curtain separating the Holy from the Most Holy place would hang 30 feet in the air down to the floor.
The rules and promised consequence around the Most Holy Place still stood. No one could just approach God. You didn’t go in there unless you were instructed to and only if you did everything just right or literally being in God’s presence would kill you. Sin cannot stand in the presence of a Holy God. It is a stark reminder of how seriously we are separated from him.
But on this day:
After Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. Suddenly, the temple curtain was torn in two from top to bottom.
Thirty feet, top to bottom. This was not some damage as a result of the earthquake that happened here. This was a deliberate, miraculous sign. Jesus went to the cross for our sin, and he suffered there for it. It was ugly and he died. It looked like a miserable defeat. But then, the curtain was torn.
You see...the divide was gone.
Our sin, our un-holiness is what separates us from a Holy God. It’s what keeps us from being able to approach him. It divides us from him.
But it’s gone.
Your sins are paid for. They don’t exist to God anymore. You can approach him with confidence, because you are holy in his eyes now. The tearing of the curtain says, “Come on in.” As we sit here, day by day feeling cut off from the rest of the world, we have this privilege. We can approach God ourselves with petition and prayer, not needing any intermediary.
And at the end of all this nonsense, we go to him. Nothing stops us anymore. The curtain is gone. We leave here, we go direct to God’s presence, to be with him forever. This is our promise, bound up in the tearing of that curtain as Jesus gave up his life for you.
Tonight, with reverence we humbly remember why this was necessary. We let ourselves be reminded what the stark cost of our sin really is. We feel the shame that it was my fault this happened. It is good to be reminded why we need a Savior. It’s good to look at the cost of our sins so we stay humble. But we should not wallow in this evening as though it were a loss. More than ever we need to remember that this was a triumph for God and for us.
Jesus went willingly for you and for me. He stayed there because he loves you. He died to pay your price. It looks ugly, but it was a victory. God did exactly what he set out to accomplish this night. The curtain is torn, the divide between us is removed. Defeat? No; victory!
Presents are exciting. Even as a grown man of nearly *cough* years old, it would be hard for me to say that the pile of gifts under our tree doesn’t get me excited, that one of the best parts of the holiday for me is finding out what’s in all those brightly colored packages that have been sitting there taunting me for weeks.
Of course, presents are awesome, but we all know they’re not the reason we celebrate, we talked about that last night as God gave us his Son. We’ll look at that gift again today of course, it’s Christmas! But there’s more to unwrap from God, that’s why we’re all here this morning instead of playing with the new toys we unwrapped. (And I hope you got some proper toys. You’re never too old for toys.) So, this morning, we’re going to take some time and unwrap a few more presents, presents from God himself, presents that truly give us reason to celebrate.
I. Our Gift to God
We all know the expression, it gets repeated year-round, just more often at Christmas: “’Tis better to give than to receive.” So, with that in mind I thought maybe we’d start off at looking not at what God has given us but what we got God this year.
So? What did you get the big guy? Maybe an extra donation in the offering plate? Spend some extra time volunteering for the special services or in the community? Maybe you tried to reach out and make peace with that one family member.
Except… didn’t God give you that money to start with? Isn’t he the one that gave you the time and the strength and the ability to contribute here and out there? And if we’re being honest, wasn’t it partly your stubbornness and pride that caused the family rift to begin with?
I’m just shooting in the dark here with these but we could go on and on. The fact is, we can’t GIVE God anything he doesn’t already have. Everything we have came from him first. And on top of that, we daily ignore him, defy him, and act contrary to him. Our gift to him this year has been nothing…plus grief.
Let’s humbly remember this as we consider God’s gifts to us. We have given him nothing. He owes us nothing. In fact, we ought to be punished for our behavior. Our reading from Romans 3 reminds us of our default state:
Just as it is written:
There is no one who is righteous, not even one.
There is no one who understands. There is no one who searches for God.
They all turned away; together they became useless.
There is no one who does what is good; there is not even one.
Their throat is an open grave.
They kept deceiving with their tongues.
The poison of asps is on their lips.
Their mouth is filled with cursing and bitterness.
Their feet are quick to shed blood.
They leave a trail of destruction and suffering wherever they go.
The way of peace they did not know.
There is no fear of God in front of their eyes.
II. God's Gift: Himself
Between what little we have done for God and the grief we have given him, it’s shocking enough that he would offer us a way out of our situation at all. We committed the crime, we earned the punishment. He should refuse to ever come near us again. And even if God were to offer a way out, you would expect some kind of bargain, right? Rather than the jail time we could pay the fine as it were.
We’d expect that since we made the mess between us and God, his solution would be for us to clean it up. Some herculean effort, some list of labors that we had to perform to get back into his good graces. And that would be utterly fair. But instead of sending a list of demands to us, God does what he usually does, he takes what would make perfectly normal human sense...and then does the opposite.
He does not send a list of demands. He does not send some cruel taskmaster to get us back on track. Instead he sends...his Son. He sends, himself. The all-powerful, limitless God of creation, becomes part of his creation, joins us as a helpless baby and sets in motion the chain of events that will lead to our rescue and freedom from the mess we made. Because he is human, he goes in our place. Because he is God, everything he does can count for everyone. God’s first gift is, quite plainly, himself.
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governing Syria. And everyone went to register, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the town of Nazareth, into Judea, to the town of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was from the house and family line of David. He went to be registered with Mary, his wife, who was pledged to him in marriage and was expecting a child.
And so it was that while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son, wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
There were in the same country shepherds staying out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified! But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. For behold, I bring you good news of great joy, which will be for all people: Today in the town of David, a Savior was born for you. He is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: You will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” Suddenly, there was with the angel a multitude from the heavenly army, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward mankind.”
III. God's Gift: A Perfect Life
Of course, God did not come here to walk around, take in the sights, and see what all was going on planet-side. He came here on a mission. You see, God, as a holy being, has two major requirements for anyone to be part of him or in his presence. It’s not arbitrary, it’s sort of like the laws of physics. Because he’s holy, certain requirements have to be met.
And the first one is a perfect, obedient, life. This makes sense. To be in God’s holy presence, you need to be holy yourself. And it’s not like his demands are unreasonable or cruel. In fact, the core of his command is love! Love God first and love each other equally. All his other commands flow from these. And yet as we confessed, we haven’t. We have been selfish and cruel, ignoring God and hurting each other.
We could not live a perfect life, so Jesus did. His entire lifespan as a human was carried out in perfect obedience to his Father. From birth to his march to the cross, he kept God’s will perfectly and when he was finished, he handed that life over to you to wear as a white robe that covers you completely. Your life is perfect in God’s eyes through Jesus’ gift.
We see just one example of Jesus’ obedience during his temptation in Matthew 4:
Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the Devil. After he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The Tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become bread.”
But Jesus answered, “It is written:
Man shall not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes out of the mouth of God.”
Then the Devil took him into the holy city. He placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, and he said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written:
He will command his angels concerning you.
And they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.”
Jesus said to him, “Again, it is written:
You shall not test the Lord your God.”
Again the Devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. He said to him, “I will give you all of these things, if you will bow down and worship me.”
Then Jesus said to him, “Go away, Satan! For it is written:
Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.”
Then the Devil left him, and just then angels came and served him.
IV. God's Gift: Forgiveness
I said before that God has two major requirements to be in his presence. One is the perfect life he lived for us and gave to us, the life that covers us now and makes us holy in his eyes. The other is that we be totally free of sin.
Well, wait, you might say, isn't that just the other side of the same coin? If we have a holy life, aren’t we automatically free from sin? Sure, we would be, if you had actually lived a holy life. But as we’ve established, you didn’t. The holy life you have is a gift, it covers you, it shows you as holy to God, but there’s still the problem of your debt.
You see, God has a justice system. It’s utterly perfect, utterly fair. Every sin is a crime against that system and like any other system of justice, every crime must be paid for. Whether that payment is community service, a fine, or jail time—reparation must be made. In this case, the payment that needs to be made for crimes against God himself… well it’s eternal death. It’s the agony of hell.
That is… a stern penalty. It is not a debt we could easily pay. And so the next gift God gives us through Jesus is full payment for our crimes.
On the cross, Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” You see, hell is nothing less than to be completely abandoned by God. And that is what happened to Jesus on the cross. It was there that God abandoned him, that he suffered hell itself in your place.
And when it was done, knowing that your payment was made, he uttered that famous word “tetelestai”. “It is finished” in our reading. Also translated as “paid in full”. Jesus’ work was complete, the debt was paid, and God’s gift of forgiveness is entirely yours. From John 19:
After this, knowing that everything had now been finished, and to fulfill the Scripture, Jesus said, “I thirst.”
A jar full of sour wine was sitting there. So they put a sponge soaked in sour wine on a hyssop branch and held it to his mouth.
When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished!” Then, bowing his head, he gave up his spirit.
V. God's Gift: Eternal Life
God’s gifts: giving himself through Jesus, the perfect life lived on your behalf, the sacrifice on the cross to pay the debt for your sins are all leading up to this final gift that we now look forward to. Because of the baby we celebrate today, we have the confidence and peace of knowing our end.
This section from Revelation 7 stands on its own. Know that this is what belongs to you as a gift from God. Without further introduction:
After these things I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing in front of the throne and of the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and with palm branches in their hands. They called out with a loud voice and said:
Salvation comes from our God, who sits on the throne, and from the Lamb.
All the angels stood around the throne, the elders, and the four living creatures. They fell on their faces before the throne and worshipped God, saying:
Amen. Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and might belong to our God forever and ever. Amen.
One of the elders spoke to me and said, “These people dressed in white robes, who are they and where did they come from?”
And I answered him, “Sir, you know.”
And he said to me:
These are the ones who are coming out of the great tribulation.
They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
Because of this they are in front of the throne of God,
and they serve him day and night in his temple.
He who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them.
They will never be hungry or thirsty ever again.
The sun will never beat upon them, nor will any scorching heat,
for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd.
He will lead them to springs of living water.
And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
Last we left Paul, he was sharing the Gospel of Jesus in the city of Philippi. A time in his mission work that is filled with amazing stories: