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Leviticus - When Fires Fail

jewish sacrifice

When Fires Fail Leviticus 1-7; Hebrews 13:9-16

If you are reading through the Bible with us this year, you have just wandered into the book we call Leviticus. Although we believe that the whole Bible is inspired by God, Leviticus’ density and concern with tabernacle sacrifices may lead you to the “I” word: irrelevant. There may not be another book in the Bible that you’ll find so hard to press through. By and large, this is because Leviticus is a rear-view mirror book. It is a long time ago and a long practice ago.

Take for example Leviticus 4:19-21, in your bulletin insert. The context is a sin offering for the community, when they discover they have sinned unintentionally against God. A young bull is to be brought before the Tent of Meeting in the wilderness or later in the Temple. The elders will lay hands on the bull to transfer their guilt, kill the bull, and sprinkle blood on the altar. Then, He shall remove all the fat from it and burn it on the altar, and do with this bull just as he did with the bull for the sin offering. In this way the priest will make atonement for them, and they will be forgiven. Then he shall take the bull outside the camp and burn it as he burned the first bull. This is the sin offering for the community.

When we read this, we sense a distant season of faith. This is faith that pulls from herds and flocks for worship of God. This is faith that offers ground flour and baked bread as offerings for God at tents in the wilderness and Temples in Jerusalem. This is a faith with unsettling details of animals slaughtered and fatty portions burned before God like incense. But it is also a reminder of an extinct worship-site and practice. In the Great Revolt of 66-70 AD, the Jewish Zealots failed in their great plan to throw off Rome’s yoke. At the end of the battle, nearly a million Jews were dead and the temple in Jerusalem was burned. That was the last time sacrifices were offered as we read in Leviticus. Were you to ask a modern Jew about the role of sacrifices in Jewish faith, he would tell you that there is no role. There hasn’t been since 70 AD. We don’t do this.

As we read these directions about animal sacrifices, however, we have our own objection: We don’t need this. There were many changes for the earliest Jewish Christians, but the most obvious was the abandonment of offering sacrifices to God through the Temple. In Christ we were given a new direction. If you would, turn to Hebrews 13: 9-12. Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings. It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace, not by ceremonial foods, which are of no value to those who eat them. We have an altar from which those who minister at the tabernacle have no right to eat. The high priest carries the blood of the 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.

The urge of first generation Christians was to hold on to the familiar practices of Temple sacrifice and food laws. These stood for evidence of the chosenness of Jews and peace with God. Now, however, we are to trust grace for strength, not food. In fact, the writer says, those who sacrifice animals at the Temple altar and share the food cannot eat at this altar because they have not come to Christ by faith. Our sacrifice for sin and union with God is Jesus who, like the bulls and lambs offered in the Temple, found his end outside the city gates. His end was crucifixion, of course, but the writer of Hebrews want us to make the connection between a sin sacrifice in the Temple and Jesus’ death on the cross.

We’re done. There is nothing we can add to Jesus’ work on the cross. There is no need for animal, flour, bread, money, or martyr’s sacrifices to make us right with God. Any sacrifice, pilgrimage, fast, prayers, or good works we add to the equation of our salvation simply dilutes the work of Christ. Jesus’ people have always fought this perpetual urge to reach back and add something to Jesus’ work. *A Saturday night’s penance.

So we’re done with Leviticus and sacrifices, right…? As a first step of faith, it is critical to say to God and yourself and the world, “I don’t need to give to God.” There is no pilgrimage long enough, no penance hard enough, no sacrifice great enough to usurp Jesus’ work on my behalf.

But there is another step of faith: “I want to give to God.” This is the second impulse of the life of faith, and it is a true one. God’s people have long wanted, needed, to give to God. Abraham is barely in the first steps of his walk of faith before he is building altars and sacrificing to God at Shechem and then Bethel.

What do we do with “I want to give?” If you would follow in your outline and Hebrews 13:13ff:

Share the disgrace of Jesus.

Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come (13-14). The cross only stood for shame in the ancient world, and disgrace was the crown of the crucified and their families. We are called to give our lives as an offering of the same disgrace—to share with Jesus the identity of a cross-bearer. It is to understand that grace, true grace, is a scandal, both as it applies to you and as it can be offered to others. Are you willing to share an identity with Jesus outside the city wall, outside popularity and everyone’s good opinion? And are you willing to make room for the redemptive work of Christ for sinners?

Offering a voice.

Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that confess his name (15). The simple idea here is to speak to God, speak of God, in the generosity that He deserves. Praise. It is the simple act of finding the good in God. Is there mystery? Sure. Might you have doubts? Sure. But do you know enough to know that he is good? Sure you do. Tell Him. Tell others.

Kindergarten advice: do good and share.

And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased (16). Simple, here. The measure of life is never in the abundance of possessions. Rather, it is in what we share. I see no way to follow Christ under grace and not hope to share this grace and what he has given with others. If you are looking for a way to share, there is always something to share.

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