The of God Substitutions
Genesis 22:1-14; Hebrews 9:11-15; John 8:42-59
April 6th/7th, 2014
St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI
I don’t know what you’re planning on doing tonight after church, but for those of you who know me, it should come as no surprise that I’m going to go home to watch the NCAA Basketball Championship Game. I’m not as excited for it this year as I was last year when my Wolverines were playing, but I still love to watch college basketball. If you watch the game tonight, or any basketball game for that matter, one of the stats that the announcers consistently track is “bench production.” They want to see which team gets more points from the guys who didn’t start the game. The idea is that because both teams probably put their best 5 players out on the floor to start the game, whatever contributions either team gets from the guys who didn’t start could wind up being the deciding factor in who wins the game. The implication is that the substitutes are not as good as the starters. In fact, in sports in general, with the exception of perhaps hockey, there is a clear distinction between the starters and the subs, between the court and the bench. And almost no basketball player wants to be pulled out of the game when it counts. Almost no athlete wants to be replaced by a substitute. In the sports world, you want to be the guy who’s subbed in, not the guy who’s taken out.
There’s a fair amount of substitution in the Scriptures as well, although in the Scriptures, it’s generally better to be the one subbed out. Take the account of Abraham and Isaac that we heard a few moments ago. Abraham had been told by God some 30 years earlier that all nations on earth would be blessed through his descendants. God had eventually revealed to Abraham that Isaac would be the son through whom this promise would be fulfilled. God identified Isaac by name as the one through whom Abraham would have descendants as numerous as the stars, but in today’s reading that same God tells Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Genesis tells us God did this to test Abraham. The test was to see whether or not Abraham trusted God to keep his promise. Isaac did not yet have kids, so if God was going to keep his promise to Abraham that Isaac’s descendants would be as numerous as the sand on the sea shore, then he would either have to stop Abraham from sacrificing Isaac or he would have to raise Isaac back from the dead. Either way, Abraham trusted God’s Word of promise concerning Isaac.
But it’s the end of the story where the substitute comes in. Once the Angel of the Lord had stopped Abraham from sacrificing Isaac, Abraham noticed a ram caught in the thicket by its horns. Abraham sacrificed that ram instead of sacrificing his son. God provided a substitute for Isaac, and Abraham recognized it as such. That’s why he named the place “the Lord will provide.” That’s why even unto the day of Moses, when the book of Genesis was written down, it was still said that on the mountain of the Lord it shall be provided.” God provides substitutes on a mountain in the land of Moriah. Fast forward a few hundred years to the days of David and Solomon, and a very interesting thing happens. In the second month of the fourth year of Solomon’s reign, he began to build the Temple. He built the Temple in the place where the Angel of the Lord had appeared to his father David. He built the Temple on Mount Moriah. The Temple of the Lord, the city of Jerusalem itself, was built in the same place where Abraham had almost sacrificed Isaac all those years ago. The descendants as numerous as the stars that were born to Isaac through the promise of the Lord now worshiped that very same Lord in the very same place where Abraham’s faith in that promise was tested. On that mountain, the Lord provided substitutes.
And provide he did. Day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, sacrifices were made on the altar of the Lord in the Temple in Jerusalem. While the specific animal may have varied from bull to goat to bird, or while the specific motivation for any particular sacrifice might have varied from covering up an intentional violation of God’s Law to covering for an unintentional violation of God’s Law to the general spring cleaning that took place on the Day of Atonement, what remained consistent through it all was the substitution. The animal sacrificed stood in as substitute for the Israelite sacrificing it. You see, unlike in a college basketball games where he players generally don’t want to have a substitute take their place, in the Temple that’s exactly what you wanted. And that’s exactly what you got: substitution after substitution. The blood of goats shed in place of human blood. The blood of bulls shed in place of human blood. The flesh of a heifer burnt to ash so that the flesh of the Israelites could be spared. On that mountain in the land of Moriah, the Lord provided substitutes.
But all of those substitutes were incomplete. While they certainly covered the sin of the Israelites, they did not remove it. They did not take it away. They were a spritz of perfume on a sweaty shirt. They were a scented candle in a room filled with garbage. The smell of the candle might cover the smell of decaying garbage for a time, but when that candle burns out you need to replace it, over and over and over again. The smell keeps coming back. To truly be rid of the problem you don’t just need an unending supply of candles, you need to clean out the room. You need to take the trash out, to wash the floors and the walls, to remove what is causing the stink. Then, not only will the garbage be gone, but the smell of the candles will flourish all the more, no longer merely covering up a rotten odor, but filling the clean air with sweet smelling aromas. The substitution of goats and bulls and heifers, while important, was ultimately in need of a substitute itself.
But this is Mount Moriah. This is the mountain on which the Lord provides substitutes.
So God provided yet another substitute, this time not in the Temple itself, but somewhere else on Mount Moriah, just outside the city walls of Jerusalem. There was sacrificed the Lamb of God who not merely covers up, but who takes away the sin of the world. There was the ultimate substitute, where God himself became human so that he could take the place of humans, subbing himself into our mess, sending us to the sidelines while he finished what we had started. “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am,” said Jesus. He is the great I AM, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The God who appeared to David and told the king to build him a Temple in this place. The God of Solomon who filled the Temple with holy smoke and fire when the building was completed. The God of the Israelites who provided and accepted the sacrifices of substitution offered on that mountain for generations. Now, this very same God came to this very same mountain to be the sacrifice himself, to be the substitution.
Because he is man, he was able to stand in our place. Because he is God, his sacrifice counts not only here on earth, but also in the heavenly places. For when Christ appeared, he entered once for all the holy places by means of his own blood. He needed no substitute. He entered himself, and in so doing he secured for us an eternal redemption. For if the blood of animal substitutes purifies the flesh, purifies the surface, if the blood of animal substitutes acts as an air freshener in a smelly room, how much more will the blood of Christ purify us from the inside, moving past the surface problem to the conscience itself. How much more will the blood of Christ, which is not sprinkled on your skin, but is poured over your lips, taken into your body, digested so that it literally becomes part of you, how much more will that blood cleanse the inside of you. It doesn’t simply cover the stench, it cleans out the garbage in our hearts and in our lives. It takes it away so that the source of the smell is removed, not simply masked.
Because the blood of Jesus is inside you, now you are clean. Sure, sin will come back. As long as we are in this body and life, there will always be more garbage dumped into our hearts. Sometimes we dump it there ourselves by speaking hurtful words to another, or by indulging in hateful thoughts, or by filling our eyes with lustful images or our ears with lustful lyrics. Sometimes the garbage is put in there by others who dump the filth of their sin onto us, speaking hurtful words that cut to our own hearts, manipulating or abusing us physically or emotionally. There is still a lot of garbage in this life. But the garbage does not need to just pile up. The world tells you to ignore the stench and soldier on. The world tells you that the stench isn’t really a stench at all, that it’s natural because that’s what garbage is supposed to smell like. The world tells you to dull your senses with alcohol or drugs or spa days or some other form of self-indulgence so that the smell doesn’t bother you as much. But all the while, the pile of garbage continues to grow deeper and deeper. Well, today is trash day. It’s time to stop ignoring or justifying the trash; it’s time to take it out. Come to the altar of our Lord, drink the blood of Jesus, that purifies your conscience to serve the living God.
Jesus is your substitute. He stood in your place and took the judgment for the sins you’ve committed. But don’t forget the conversation from today’s Gospel reading, or any of Jesus’s other conversations where the Jews – his own people! – called him names and insulted him and hurled false accusations against him. He is your substitute there too. When the world insults you, remember that it insulted him first. The world’s insults cannot speak a louder or truer word than the one spoken by Jesus. Jesus speaks the truth, and he has declared you cleansed and forgiven. When the world insults or attacks you, remember that those insults and attacks are absorbed by Jesus, your substitute, and in their place he speaks to you words of acceptance and forgiveness.
Rejoice in your substitute. Rejoice because the Lord has heard your pleas for mercy and deliverance. He has inclined his ear to you, and his answer is Jesus. Come to that altar of our Lord and receive your substitute. Come, and have your conscience cleansed.
 Genesis 22:1
 Genesis 22:14
 2 Chronicles 3
 1 Chronicles 21
 John 8:58
 Hebrews 9:11-14
 Hebrews 9:14