I'll be honest. Of all the aspects of the Old Testament law, the sacrificial system has got to be one of the most uncomfortable when you stop and think about it.
Verse after verse about blood and slaughter and internal organs and fat and dung and burning flesh. It's visceral, literally.
On top of that, when you read the sacrificial laws, you get the sense that an enormous number of animals would have been slaughtered for this, day after day, year after year. Just an incredible amount of death.
All this ritual slaughter is foreign to most of us in modern America (even if you grew up on a farm and slaughtered animals, you weren't dipping your fingers in the blood to anoint an altar.)
However, it's important to understand animal sacrifice was commonplace in the ancient world. It was the way ancient people related to the gods. It was a part of their culture.
And we see in Scripture that God worked within that ancient culture, to reinterpret animal sacrifice, and to enact a grand story of redemption which we are still a part of today.
Let me show you what I mean. Turn to Leviticus 4.
Now, there are quite a few different kinds of sacrifices in the law: peace offerings and guilts offerings and offerings of thanksgiving.
But I want look specifically at offerings of what's called ""atonement,"" because they have a lot to do with a return to Eden.
""If any of the common people sin by violating one of the LORD's commands, but they don't realize it, they are still guilty. When they become aware of their sin, they must bring as an offering for their sin a female goat with no defects. They must lay a hand on the head of the sin offering and slaughter it at the place where burnt offerings are slaughtered. Then the priest will dip his finger in the blood and put it on the horns of the altar for burnt offerings. He will pour out the rest of the blood at the base of the altar. Then he must remove all the goat's fat, just as he does with the fat of the peace offering. He will burn the fat on the altar, and it will be a pleasing aroma to the LORD. Through this process, the priest will purify the people, making them right with the LORD, and they will be forgiven.
Alright, first of all, look at verse 31. I mentioned that God reinterprets animal sacrifice. Well, most cultures in the ancient world thought of burnt offerings as a way of feeding the gods.
But Yahweh makes it clear he doesn't depend on humans to survive. Instead, the offering is just a pleasing aroma.
Ok, but what does killing an animal have to do with sin?
This is when it's important to remember the bigger story that the law is a part of.
Adam and Eve ate from the second tree in the mountain garden of God's presence - Eden. Humanity has chosen self-sufficiency instead of trusting in God.
Because of this, humanity is banished from the garden of Eden, cast off the mountain of the Lord, and is forced to scratch out a living in the wilderness of a broken world.
But as we've said many times throughout this series, God longs to bring humanity back into his presence. Back into abundance and fullness of life.
So he calls out a people to lead the way - the Israelites. He begins to meet with them in the tabernacle - the tent of meeting - which, as I've said, is designed to be like a mini Eden.
And he gives them the law of Moses, which guides the people on how to live so they can return to God's presence - to ascend the mountain of the Lord and return to Eden.
How to be one with God again.
Atonement. Sacrificing an animal made that possible.
Remember, if God is the source of all life, then when we choose something other than him (when we sin, in other words), we're choosing death. Something has to die for us to be made right again - that's what we're bringing into this world through our self-sufficiency.
That's where the animal comes in.
Look at verse 28. When a person sins, ""they must bring as an offering, a female goat with no defects.""
A perfect animal represents a blameless soul. Life, health, order. On the other hand, the person bringing the animal has sinned. They are rebellious and disordered and tainted with death.
A living creature, a dying sinner. The sacrifice is a substitution between the two.
In verse 29, the law commands that the sinner must place their hand firmly on the animal's head. This is hugely significant. It's an act in which the person is saying ""This animal is me. This innocent creature will take my place and pay the price for what I've done.""
Note that it is the sinner, not the priest, who actually slaughters the animal. They've said ""this animal is me, and now I am dying to myself.""
Can you imagine the weight of this moment? To visibly, viscerally witness how your rebellion against the Creator of life brings death? It's an act of repentance.
The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit. You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God.
After this, verse 30, the priest spreads the blameless animal's blood on the altar as an act of purification. Leviticus 17 says,
The life of the body is in its blood, it is the blood, given in exchange for a life, that makes purification possible.
Through death, the sinner has been forgiven. And now the blameless creature is burned on the altar - turned into smoke - where it can ascend unhindered into heaven.
""This animal is me. I've now died because of my rebellion. I've been made pure through blameless blood and now I can ascend the mountain of the Lord and enter again into God's presence as this smoke rises to heaven.""
Remember: All of this is done at the entrance to the holy place in the tabernacle - which represents the gates of Eden. The sacrifice makes a sinner pure, so their souls can enter again into the holy place of God's presence.
It's a powerfully symbolic moment which represents an act of the heart: repentance.
Now, I know this a lot. It's intense and bloody and gross and this is not at all the way we think about the world. So I'm positive that some of you are turned off by this whole thing and it may just seems barbaric.
Thank goodness we don't do this anymore.
But I want to give you one thing to think about before we move on.
So many people think of the law of Moses as a bunch of legalistic rules by an angry God. ""Cross me and I'll blast you.""
But what we see in the sacrificial system is a God of incredible grace. A God who says, ""I know you're going to mess up. I know you're going to choose death over life. I know you're going to spit in my face. But I want you to come home, so I'm going to provide a way how.""
These offerings were a way to be made right. A way to be at one with God again. Atonement.
Yahweh is a God not of legalism, but of grace and love.
Now we just scratched the surface of the sacrificial system. There's so much more we could talk about. Like thanksgiving offerings, or the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), in which the entire people of Israel are made right every year.
But what I want to do now is take this idea of sacrifice as a way back to Eden and follow that thread throughout the rest of scripture because it's a pretty major theme.
What we see in the biblical narrative is that the people of Israel often missed the point of sacrifices.
What was meant to be a solemn and somber moment of repentance had become a get out of jail free card. ""I can just do whatever I want and then just sacrifice an animal and I'm good to go.""
They were misunderstanding the point of the law. It was not about obeying a bunch of random rules, it was about restoring God's intentions for the world - returning humanity to Eden: life, goodness, abundance, holiness, justice.
We talked about justice a few weeks ago. Well, people would go around being unjust and then think a few sacrifices would make God happy. Listen to what he says to that idea through the prophet Isaiah:
""What makes you think I want all your sacrifices?""
says the LORD.
""I am sick of your burnt offerings of rams
and the fat of fattened cattle.
Stop bringing me your meaningless gifts.
When you lift up your hands in prayer, I will not look.
Though you offer many prayers, I will not listen,
for your hands are covered with the blood of innocent victims.
Learn to do good.
Help the oppressed.
Defend the cause of orphans.
Fight for the rights of widows.""
The law of Moses is an invitation to spread life, not a license to spread death. And the people were missing it.
It became clear that humanity was going to need something deeper than countless animal sacrifices to atone for human sin. Something lasting. Something that would not just save us from endless death, but would change us into sources of life.
We needed a greater sacrifice.
The same prophets who condemned the thoughtless injustice of the people of God began to tune into an idea that something new was coming:
A human who could live out the spirit of the law. A servant of God who didn't need animal sacrifices because he led a blameless life.
A spotless lamb who could become the ultimate substitute for humanity.
Isaiah 53:4-7, 11
Yet it was our weaknesses he carried;
it was our sorrows that weighed him down.
And we thought his troubles were a punishment from God,
a punishment for his own sins!
But he was pierced for our rebellion,
crushed for our sins.
He was beaten so we could be whole.
He was whipped so we could be healed.
All of us, like sheep, have strayed away.
We have left God's paths to follow our own.
Yet the LORD laid on him
the sins of us all.
He was oppressed and treated harshly,
yet he never said a word.
He was led like a lamb to the slaughter.
And as a sheep is silent before the shearers,
he did not open his mouth.
Because of his experience,
my righteous servant will make it possible
for many to be counted righteous,
for he will bear all their sins.
That prophecy was written hundreds of years before Jesus. And yet we know now that he was its perfect fulfillment.
Jesus is the Son of God. He's the divine in human form.
When he came to dwell among us, he lived a blameless life. He perfectly lived out the spirit of the law. Everywhere he went he spread life, joy, peace, justice, and abundance: an Eden life.
But even with Jesus walking among us, humanity seemed doomed to repeat the mistakes of our ancestors. Rebellion, self-sufficiency, sin.
Even when he taught us that the fruit of the second tree would lead to death, we just kept on eating, and the gates of Eden remained closed.
Until, Jesus became a new kind of sacrifice. A substitute for sinful humanity. He became the animal whose blood would make us pure and whose death would replace our own.
It's as if every one of us placed our hand down on Christ's head and said, ""this man is me"" as he was led off to be executed. The blameless one bled to death naked on a shameful cross as a substitute for us.
Because of his death, the curtain of the temple (which represented the gates of Eden) was torn in two. There was no longer a barrier between us and the presence of God.
Obedience to the law - to God's heart for the world - was no longer out of reach.
I'll show you what I mean. Turn to Hebrews 10 with me.
""This is the new covenant I will make with my people on that day, says the LORD: I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds."" Then he says, ""I will never again remember their sins and lawless deeds."" And when sins have been forgiven, there is no need to offer any more sacrifices. And so, dear brothers and sisters, we can boldly enter heaven's Most Holy Place because of the blood of Jesus. By his death, Jesus opened a new and life-giving way through the curtain into the Most Holy Place. And since we have a great High Priest who rules over God's house, let us go right into the presence of God with sincere hearts fully trusting him. For our guilty consciences have been sprinkled with Christ's blood to make us clean, and our bodies have been washed with pure water. Let us hold tightly without wavering to the hope we affirm, for God can be trusted to keep his promise.
""I will put my laws in their hearts, I will write them on their minds.""
Through Jesus, the law is no longer an unachievable ideal which requires the blood of thousands of innocent animals to maintain.
Because the Holy Spirit is within us, we have the power to live out the spirit of the law. We are the tabernacle now: the meeting-place of God on this earth.
We can now live out the law from within - spreading life and Eden in our world, and all of our rebellion and sin is washed away in the blood of Jesus. Permanently.
And if we mess up again? The price has already been paid!
1 John 1:9
If we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness.
It is done. Because of this, verse 22, we can go right into the presence of God. Back into the garden.
All it takes is us putting our trust in Jesus. Surrendering our self-sufficiency and recognizing our inability to return to Eden on our own.
And acknowledging that our savior experienced the death we deserved.
""He was pierced for our rebellion..""
Now, This is the part that really blows my mind. Because Jesus didn't stay dead. Still representing us - ""this man is me"" - God raised Christ's body to new life.
We are raised to new life. He is our substitute not just in death, but in new life. That's what we represent in baptism. Oh, but not just that.
Because after he rose Jesus ascended into heaven - just like the smoke from the sacrificial altar - and sat down in the presence of God to rule a New Creation at the right hand of his Father.
And that's where he is right now - the king overseeing the in-breaking of a kingdom of life into our broken world.
But wait, if Jesus is a substitute for us (""this man is me""), and he's in heaving ruling the New Creation right now, wouldn't that mean that we are there as well?
That's exactly what it means.
God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much, that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead. (It is only by God's grace that you have been saved!) For he raised us from the dead along with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ Jesus.
Because of Jesus, we're not just allowed back into Eden, we're given the responsibility to spread it.
In Christ we are the shepherds and gardeners and stewards of a New Creation.
A new world made from the resurrection of this one. And every one of us has a part to play. We are the hands and feet of our king.
Can you see it? A broken world being healed, and humanity loved back into Eden by the sacrifice of a God whose love knows no bounds.
Let me just close with this.
This series has been deep and complicated, but what it ultimately boils down to is super simple: God loves you and longs for you to dwell with him forever. That's it!
Despite the fact that you (and I, and everyone) continue to fall back to self-sufficiency, despite our sin, despite our rebellion, God gave his only son as a sacrifice to bring us home.
That's called grace. A freely-given gift. Your job is not to earn it. Your job is not to be good enough. Your job is simply to accept it. To say ""yes.""
When you do, when you surrender your life to this beautiful vision, that's when you will experience the kind of abundant life you were always meant to have.