The Christian Faith, One Word at a Time: Atonement
2nd Sunday after Pentecost
June 18, 2017
Lincoln Heights Lutheran Church
The Christian Faith, One Word at a Time: Atonement
Dear friends in Christ,
Almost four feet long and over 2 feet wide. Pure gold. A flat piece of gold that large would be beautiful itself. But this one included two cherubs, one on each end. These are not the made up cherubs that look like babies. These are God's mighty angels with their wings stretched out over the large slab of gold. In fact, these two cherubim are made of the same gold as the flat part. The angels look toward the center of the beautiful piece of art. It would have been a sight to behold. But almost no one saw the cover for the ark of the covenant in the tabernacle of the Lord. This beautiful object was covered during transport so no one would look on it and die. The high priest Aaron could only go near this object once a year. Even then, he had to burn incense so the smoke would conceal this beautiful golden cover from his eyes. Some call it the mercy seat. Others call it the atonement cover.
This is where God would dwell with his people in the wilderness and later in the temple in Jerusalem. The Lord would speak to Moses from between the cherubim on the atonement cover. This is the place where the holy and unapproachable God chose to reveal himself to his people. It is where atonement was made for sin so that unrighteous people could be near the holy God. Though most never saw the beauty of the golden cover with the angels, we can see the beauty of what God has done through the atonement then and now.
This summer, we are going to make our way through the book of Romans. Other letters of Paul address specific situations and problems in specific congregations. Romans is more of a general discussion of the Christian faith. We consider our Christian faith one word at a time through the book of Romans. Today's word is atonement. Hear the inspired words of the apostle Paul:
Romans 3:21–25a, 27-28 (NIV84)
But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25 God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood.
Paul literally says that God presented Jesus as the cover of the ark of the covenant. Our translation does a good job with “sacrifice of atonement.” Paul is drawing his readers back to to the Old Testament so that we remember the lesson God taught his people at that very beautiful place, at the atonement cover of the ark. Atonement was the lesson. Before we remind ourselves of that lesson, we consider how things work in the world.
Everyone here today is or once was a child. At one time you had parents, grandparents, guardians, or teachers tell you to do things. “Clean your room. Do the dishes. Mow the yard. Watch your baby sister.” You were given instructions and my educated guess is that you did not always follow those instructions. What happened next? The room is not clean and there is a lecture. The dishes are not done and you get to do dishes for a week. The grass is a foot tall and not only do you still have to mow it but you also get grounded. You watch TV instead of your baby sister and you lose TV privileges for a month. You are selfish or lazy or disobedient or rebellious and what happens? Some kind of punishment. A bit of discipline. After the punishment is over, you can get back to doing what you want.
We would like this to work with God too. When we are lazy, selfish, disobedient and rebellious, we would like to just take the punishment and go on with our lives. Give me a little lecture about work ethic and sharing. Take away something from my life for a little while to remind me not to disobey you. Give me a little pain because I rebelled. But let me take it and go on with life. This is not how atonement works with the Lord.
Remember that beautiful atonement cover. No one could even look at it. That is where the holy God sits. Only those with hands and hearts cleansed from every sin could dare to approach the holy God. We cannot approach him and ask for our little lecture or punishment to pay for our own sins. Not even the high priest could approach the atonement cover where the Lord dwells. We cannot approach God on the basis of the law for all have sinned against the law.
The word atone means to cover. The high priest needed to have his sins against the Ten Commandments that were in the ark covered before he could approach God. The high priest could not offer anything of his own, not even his own life, to atone for his sin. No human payment is ever enough. So God provided a substitute. The Lord told the high priest to bring the blood of a bull into the Most Holy Place of the tabernacle. He was to sprinkle the blood of the bull on the atonement cover and this would atone for his sins. The blood would cover his sins against the Lord's commands. Then he would bring in the blood of a goat and sprinkle it on the atonement cover. This would atone for the sins of the people.
This is the lesson of the great Day of Atonement. Once a year, the people heard and saw this message clearly. The holy and unapproachable Lord is not handing out individual punishments for your sins. He is not giving you lectures, withholding privileges or giving you a time out. Instead, the Lord provides a substitute to atone for your sins. The bull dies. The goat dies. The blood of the bull and the goat covers over your sins. This forgiveness is a free gift of God.
We no longer celebrate the annual Day of Atonement. We have no temple or tabernacle to attend. The beautiful golden atonement cover with the cherubim was lost millenia ago. We have what is better than the blood of bulls and goats. These were shadows. We have the reality in Christ.
The Lord was hidden behind the curtain of the Most Holy Place and the smoke of incense as he took his place between the cherubim on the atonement cover. No sinner could look on him and live. Christ came and everyone could look on him. The true Son of God hid in plain sight as the babe born to Mary. He hid in plain sight as the twelve year old who knew so much of the Bible in the temple courts. He mingled with religious leaders as well as with sinners and outcasts. He looked just like another Jewish man. Christ took on our humanity completely so that he could be our substitute.
When we talk about the doctrine of atonement we often talk about the vicarious atonement. The word vicar means substitute. Vicarious is another way of saying substitutionary. Instead of taking the punishment for our own sin, Christ is our substitute under the wrath of God. In our text today, Paul is focusing us in on who does the atonement. It is our Vicar, Christ Jesus himself.
The atonement he accomplished was not at a beautiful golden piece of art inside a beautiful building inside a city. His blood was shed on a dirty hill outside of Jerusalem reserved for the execution of criminals. It was not between two golden cherubim that Christ made atonement for the sin of the world but between two condemned criminals gasping for their last breath as they died on crosses. His blood was not ceremonially sprinkled seven times on the golden cover of the ark but as the Isaac Watts wrote in “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”:
See, from his head, his hands, his feet, Sorrow and love flow mingled down.
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
It was at the cross that Christ made full atonement for the sins of the world. I can confidently say to everyone here today and everyone in the entire world, “The blood of Jesus Christ has covered your sins.” The blood of bulls and goats cannot do that. No punishment you can endure will cover your sins. Only the blood of Christ, true God and true Man makes atonement for the sin of the world. Besides, Paul makes it abundantly clear that this is for all people. This is for those who have sinned and fallen short of God's glory. That is all people. It is given by God's grace, his undeserved love. Christ gives himself freely. Christ's atonement is a beautiful thing.
We could not have seen the original atonement cover shining with golden cherubim on it. We did not get to see Christ himself as he atoned for our sins. But because he did, all who believe in him, who trust his atonement for their sin, will see greater things that the golden atonement cover. We will see the One who sat between the cherubim. We will see our God and Savior face to face in heaven. It will be the most beautiful thing you have ever seen.
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