Tuesday, December 8, 2009

He Came To Die

I am taking a break from the First Corinthians series until the other side of Advent and Christmas. In the meantime I am posting some of my Advent-Christmas sermons written over a decade ago.

He Came To Die
Luke 13:31-35

In Advent we begin to think especially about the way God came into our world in the life of Jesus. Advent is a time to celebrate the hope of Life. It is a time of forgiveness and hope and peace. It is a time of wonder and excitement and joy.

There is another dimension, though, to the Advent – Christmas season that is often overlooked. Along with a message of life, the coming of Jesus was a promise of death. More than anything else, Jesus Christ came into our world to die.

Among other things, the Bible is a book about life and death. It speaks plainly about physical life and death, and of course it speaks directly about spiritual life and death. Those themes are not absent in the unfolding life of the One whose coming we are about to celebrate.

At first there was only life. There was God, and He is Life. With creation, we are told that from the beginning everything was good. The human creation was very good. It knew only life, physical and spiritual. God was in His beautiful world in a special way. The man and woman walked with Him and talked with Him. There was no death.

All of that changed when the man and woman disobeyed God. They sinned, and with sin death entered the world. Writing about that event Paul would later say, Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned... (Rom.5:12). The story of our world had become one of life and death instead of only life.

The drama began to unfold immediately. First there was a provision for life. God gave the man and woman animal skins for a clothing, and some see in that a shedding of blood for their sins. God also gave a promise: A seed from the woman would come to crush the head of the serpent who had tempted the man and woman in their disobedience.

Eve might have thought God's promise was coming quickly when the two boys were born. Instead of life, though, they gave a disturbing picture of death which follows us yet today. Cain, in his anger, killed Abel, and people are still killing people. We need the peace that Advent promises.

Cain killed Abel because Abel told the truth about God. God does not accept just any kind of worship; His worshippers must come His way. Cain did not like that, and he was the first of many people to kill one of God's prophets. Abel was, in a sense, the first prophet to be killed for standing for God's ways. The story of life and death was well under way.

How were people to understand this story of life and death? The tendency is for most people to act like Cain, thinking any sincere approach to God is good enough and resisting –– and even hating –– anyone who would say anything differently. How could God's ways be understood by people in whom God's life had been extinguished by spiritual death?

The Scriptures are a record of the steps God took both to teach people His ways and bring them to new life. And throughout all that God said and did, themes and patterns of life and death continued to recur. The theme of life and death was foundational to Israel's worship and salvation in the Old Testament. The symbolic death of a lamb was Israel's salvation when God brought them out of Egypt. That Passover theme continued throughout the Old Testament into the New Testament.

The entire book of Leviticus is based on blood sacrifice. In one place God told the people, The life of the creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one's life (Lev. 17:11).

Hundreds of years went by and Israel continued the blood sacrifice. When the Temple was built in Jerusalem which replaced the Tabernacle, they celebrated the day with sacrifices of 22,000 cattle and 120,000 sheep and goats (1 Kings 8:63).

But sacrificial blood on the altar was not the only blood shed in the Old Testament. The reaction of sinful people to God's truth brought the same pattern begun by Cain and Abel. By the time the kingdom was divided and in its final stages, Jerusalem was getting the reputation as a prophet killer.

Of the evil king Manasseh it was said, he shed so much innocent blood that he filled Jerusalem from end to end (2 Kings 21:16). Josephus, the Jewish historian of almost 2000 years ago, said of Manasseh, "He spared not even the prophets, some of whom he slaughtered daily, so that Jerusalem ran with blood" (Antiquities 10.3,1&38). Zechariah the prophet was killed in Jerusalem (2 Chron. 24:20ff). Then there are the tales from the prophet Jeremiah –– of Uriah killed by King Jehoiakim (26:20-23) and of the attempt on Jeremiah himself (38:4-6). Legend has it that Isaiah was also killed in Jerusalem. So Jerusalem was the place of blood sacrifice –– legitimate and illegitimate.

The New Testament did not change that. The writer to the Hebrews uses the Old Testament sacrificial system to show what God had done once for all through the death of Christ, and how it was in continuity with all that God had done in the Old Testament. In fact, the ninth chapter of Hebrews is like a New Testament Leviticus when it says, without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.

The theme recurs in the New Testament over and over again. Peter explicitly said it in his first letter: For you know it was not with perishable things such as silver and gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect (1:18,19).

And John, in his Revelation, says the Lamb is a central focus of worship in heaven (5:9):

And they sang a new song:

You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
and with your blood
you purchased men for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation

The book of Revelation also clearly says that God's faithful people will continue to physically suffer and die right up to the end. And at the end, God will consign those who have continued in their spiritual death to that state forever. So from beginning to end, the Bible is a book about life and death both physically and spiritually.

Christian faith is built on the belief that Jesus Christ is at the center of everything connected with life and death. In our preparation of Advent and with the coming of the Christmas message of life and hope and peace, we do not forget that Jesus came to die.

It was something Jesus never forgot. John tells us in the first chapter of his gospel that John the baptizer spoke of Jesus as the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world (1:29). Jesus was baptized under that shadow. It was at the heart of His temptation in the wilderness. He struggled with it in the garden on the night of His betrayal.

The previous four chapters of Luke are in the overall context of Jesus going to His death. Back in 9:51 Luke said, As the time approached for Him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. All that happens from that point is, for Jesus, under the larger shadow of death.

In this passage Luke reports that some people came to Jesus with the news that Herod was wanting to kill Him. Three things come through in what Jesus said. It should not surprise us that what He says falls within the parameters of everything else the Bible says about life and death.

First of all, a threat is not going to stop Jesus from His work. He came to die, and He knows it. He had been doing His ministry under the shadow of death from the beginning. The New Testament language of sacrifice is not just flowery speech. When God promised Eve a Deliverer it was not purely mythological. When God gave the Israelites the Passover, He was acting within character; the true Lamb was yet to come. And when John tells of the Lamb being worshipped in heaven, he is telling of something that is real.

If there was any doubt of that, the second thing should erase it. The language disguises all that Jesus meant, although it is easier for us now that we can look back and see the significance of the third day (v.32). That phrase, along with the words, I will reach my goal, combine to speak of the culmination of all that God had been doing for thousands of years to bring the perfect sacrifice for sin. Jesus knows that Herod will not kill him; He must die in Jerusalem. Jerusalem was where the symbolic sacrifices had always been done. The drama that God had been building in that city for all those years had to be resolved there.

The third thing is the interplay between Jesus and Jerusalem. Jesus was not only to be killed in Jerusalem, He was to be killed through Jerusalem. What had been true for all the years would happen again: Jerusalem would turn on the One God had sent to save her. As she had killed other prophets, she would cry out for Jesus to be crucified.

Still, knowing those very people would cry for His death, Jesus affirms His love. He wanted to "mother" the ones who would yet kill Him, and He looked to the day when the effect of His death would be known. The passage ends on what sounds very much like an Advent saying: Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.

Such is the hope that is ours. The Lamb has been slain. The blood has been shed. The debt of sin has been canceled. God's justice has been fulfilled. All of this... because Jesus went to Jerusalem.

The one reason we can give ourselves to this time of Advent is because Jesus came into our world to go to Jerusalem. As we prepare to rejoice in the birth of God's Son, let's not forget that more than any other thing, He came to die.

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