The Sacrifice That Is (Not) Required

Second Sunday of Epiphany Exodus 12:21-28, Psalm 40:1-11, 1 Corinthians 1:1-9, John 1:29-42

“Sacrifice and offering you do not desire” says the Psalm we read this morning.

“Burnt offerings and sin offerings you have not required;”

Which is quite an odd thing to read in the Old Testament, especially when our other Old Testament reading today is the detailed instructions for the yearly remembrance of a sacrifice:

“You shall observe this rite as a statute for you and for your sons forever.”

“And when your children say to you, ‘What do you mean by this service?’ you shall say, ‘It is the sacrifice of the Lord’s Passover”

This passage comes from the story that we call the Exodus, where saved his people from slavery in Egypt. It is the climactic story of the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. In the first chapter of Exodus we read that the Pharaoh, the King of Egypt, felt threatened by the presence of an ethnic minority in his country. He oppressed them by making them slaves, tasked with making bricks, and brutally abusing them with ever increasing quotas and by taking and killing all the sons who were born to the Hebrews. Pharaoh had begun a scheme by which he would attempt to eradicate the people of God by hard labor and by systematic murder.

The people of Israel cry out to God to be delivered from this slavery, and God hears their cry. He doesn’t sit by, unmoved by this misery. God is attentive to the suffering of his people.

God raises up Moses to be the one to lead his people out of slavery and into God’s promised rest. Nine dreadful plagues are sent against Pharaoh and the people of Egypt but Pharaoh refuses to let God’s people go. He refuses to acknowledge that he has done evil. He refuses to look with compassion upon these slaves who are languishing in terrible suffering. He resists the call of God to relent from his oppression. But God has purposed to bring his people out of slavery so that they may serve him and flourish in peace.

So on a day of dreadful judgement, God wins the victory against Pharaoh, against all his evil and wickedness, against his cruelty and oppression. The tenth and final plague: The death of the first born of all the land.

This plague is unlike the others, for in all nine other plagues Moses spoke directly to Pharaoh announcing the plague, and Pharaoh refuses to let the people go. The plague comes and Pharaoh begs Moses to make it stop, and he does so. But this tenth and final plague, the one which will cause the people of God to finally be free from their oppression, is different.

This wonder includes all the people of God.

God will send forth an angel, the angel of death, to strike down all the first born of Egypt. But there must be a sign to warn off the angel from harming the people of God, and this is what our Old Testament reading today recounts.

For to be saved from destruction and to be a part of God’s deliverance from the cruelty of Egypt each household must slaughter a lamb and eat it. They must take the blood of the lamb and put it on their doorposts and lintels. And they must be ready to leave, for the Egyptians will see that it is the oppression of the Israelites that has caused this disaster to come upon them, for they will know that this great evil will not go unanswered. The Egyptians, in this tenth sign, will know that there is a God who hears the cries of the oppressed and delivers them from the hands of their captors.

In this dark and dreadful night, the world shall see that God hears his people who call upon him from their misery, and he will save them from destruction. And the means by which they shall be saved is the blood of a lamb.

(Pause)

It is curious to me, and perhaps a question that this story invites us to ask, is why the lamb’s blood and not the circumcision is the thing the angel of destruction will take note of. For when God called Abraham he commanded that he circumcise the foreskins of all males as a sign of the covenant between God and the children of Abraham. Yet in this night where the oppressed are saved from slavery, we find no reference to circumcision.

No, the only thing that matters is the blood.

Could it be that a shrewd neighbor came over to share the lamb? Did someone overhear what Moses commanded? What if one of the Hebrews told their friends about what was to come? Would they have been saved too?

That is a digression for another sermon.

The Passover becomes not only a one-time event in history, but a perpetual remembrance to be made each and every year. God commands through Moses the sacrifice of the Passover, wherein the children would be caused to ask , as i suppose the people of Egypt also asked, what does this mean?

And in that moment the people of God will answer: I once was lost, but now am found. Was blind but now I see.

Or something like that.

Now that we have established what is going on with the yearly sacrifice of the Passover, and have firmly established that God did in fact command it to be kept through the words of Moses, let’s discuss why the Psalmist says the opposite:

Sacrifice and offering you do not desire, * but my ears you have opened.
Burnt offerings and sin offerings you have not required; * and so I said, “Behold, I come

Psalm 40 is instantly compelling to me. It might be entirely because of the absolutely fantastic version of it recorded by U2 in 1983. But I suspect there might be something more too…

I don’t know about you, but something about it gives me a new way of thinking about my own history, and indeed the history of our world, which does not leave me suspended in a series of separate moments, but rather a part of a story of salvation, where once we were trapped in a dark pit, but God heard our pain and came to our rescue. God’s salvation has given us a new joy, a new song to sing, a desire to tell others all the good he has done for us.

The Psalmist is insistent that the power and presence of God, his help and deliverance, is not something we need to pay for. In so many of our relationships, we might think in economic terms that any goodness or benevolence is something we must work to achieve. And indeed many times we may tend to withhold our love from those who have not demonstrated a worthiness to receive it. This is not so with the love of God, for he hears the misery of those trapped in darkness, and is compassionate toward those who are downtrodden. It was not for the sake of sacrifices that God delivered the Israelites from the cruelty of the Egyptians, but for the sake of their calling upon him and casting their hope on his mercy.

This is what lies behind the seemingly bold and contradictory statement that God has not desired sacrifices or offerings. I at least am quick to assume that God will withhold his blessing from me if I do not do enough, give enough, try enough, or pray enough. But if that is the God in whom I have put my faith, that is not the God revealed in the Bible. For we saw that God acted to save the downtrodden moved by pity, and not by some kind of metaphysical arm-twisting, a cosmic ATM into which goes burnt lambs and out comes salvation.

No sacrifice is required for God to have compassion. It is his character always to have mercy.

The annual sacrifice of the Passover is not for the sake of securing God’s benevolence for another year. The annual festival is for the people of God to remember who they are, and to encounter a truth about who God is. It is a moment where the knowledge of God, not as an abstract Universal or Prime Mover, or as a logical necessity or muse of deep thinkers, but as the one who acts in pity to save those who call out for help, a moment where that story can be told in its fullness.

We paused our telling of the Exodus story at that passover night, but in many ways the Exodus is a beginning, not an end.

For after the people of God leave Egypt they begin a journey where they will be formed by God’s word and God’s acts to be a people ready to live as his witnesses in the land of rest in which they will live. The people of God are saved from slavery and sin to live in the light of God’s word. The part of the Psalm we read today echoes this way of understanding how we respond to God’s actions:

My ears you have opened

Behold I come

Your law is within my heart

It may be that when we first discovered our faith and came to claim it as our own, that there was some circumstance or particular despair from which God saved us in ways that are truly real and life-changing. I know for myself that my faith came alive when I was quite young. I was bullied in ways that have meant that I still feel a great deal of anxiety and pain when I see people from my high school. And so encountering God and coming to know him as I did then, I experienced a kind of deliverance from the despair and hopelessness of that situation. He truly inclined to me and heard my call. He brought me up out of the pit and placed me on the solid rock of the church.

These moments where we really see or feel the wonder of God’s power at work in us can sometimes be like feeling the wheels of our car making contact with the asphalt after hydroplaning on I-97: We are glad it’s over but we’re not changing direction. But this isn’t quite the fullness of salvation to which we have been called.

A better picture of this comes from what we read this morning in John’s Gospel. John the Baptist, who was the cousin of Jesus, was preaching a message of repentance so that the people of God would be ready for what God was going to do next. He announces “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”

And those who are with John do not sit by and admire from a distance, unmoved but grateful for the help. They get up and follow. They get up and follow the one who will be sacrificed for our sins. This is quite a curious thing to do, for in our Old Testaments the sacrifices for sins are variously burned, cast out, or eaten. But these disciples of John upon hearing that this Jesus of Nazareth is the Lamb of God, follow him and become his disciples.

For in John’s day, as perhaps in ours, many were calling out for a change, for salvation, for deliverance. John tells us that the purpose of his ministry was to reveal that savior to all people. Yet as in the Exodus it is true with Christ, that knowing him is not a passive exercise in gladly receiving back the lives we wanted all along, just now with the bad bits removed, but rather it is a judgement on the things that have been, a rejection of them, so that we may lay hold of an eternal reward, an everlasting rest, and an indwelling presence of God’s Spirit who will now and hereafter abide with us.

Today in our prayers, may our hearts echo that question of the first disciples who desired to know where Jesus was, that they may stay with him. And let us have open ears and eyes for whatever he may show when he says “come and see”

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