Christ, Our Meal With God

Christ, Our Meal With God
Exodus 24:3-11
Maundy Thursday
April 13, 2017
St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

The Temple in Jerusalem was a bustling place, especially during the high feast days like Passover. The priests who worked there filled their day by offering sacrifices on behalf of Israelite worshippers from sunrise to sunset. Every animal sacrifice had two significant parts: the flesh and the blood. The priests did different things with the flesh and the blood, depending on what kind of sacrifice was being offered. But the flesh and the blood were the key elements.

Each day began with a priest on duty offering a whole burnt offering, a sacrifice of an entire lamb. Since only one of these was offered each morning, a priest might only get to perform this sacrifice once in his life. The offering was called the whole burnt offering because the entire animal was sacrificed. The blood of the lamb was splashed against the base of the altar and flesh of the lamb was placed on the altar to be consumed by flame. None of it was eaten by the priest. None of it was eaten by the Israelite worshippers. None of it was used for anything. The whole offering was burnt on the altar.

This daily sacrifice was the divinely instituted means of grace that covered the sins of the people so that the holy God could dwell among them in the Temple. The burning of the meat on the altar would produce a pillar of smoke to remind the Israelites of the pillar of cloud that led them out of Egypt and across the Red Sea in the days of Moses. It served as a visual reminder that just as the Lord dwelt among his people in the pillar of cloud and fire during the Exodus, he was now dwelling among them in the Temple. It was the sacrifice of the whole burnt offering that allowed the people to live in the presence of God.

Once God was present among his people by virtue of this whole burnt offering, the priests would then offer the other sin offerings of the day. If a new mother needed purification after giving birth or if a soldier was returning from war with blood on his hands, their offerings would be offered at this point. Again, none of the flesh and blood would be eaten in these offerings. They were sacrifices that made atonement. They were sacrifices that covered the sins of the people. They were whole burnt offerings to the Lord. Day after day, year after year, lamb after lamb was sacrificed to cover the sins of the people, to reconcile God and man, to bring peace where there was division and hostility on account of sin.

Once all the whole offerings for sin had been made each day, once the entire congregation present had their sins covered in order that they could stand in the presence of the holy God, that’s when the peace offerings would happen. They were called peace offerings not because they established peace, but because they reflected the peace that had been brought about by that day’s sin offering. That’s when things really picked up at the Temple. That’s why there would be several priests on duty on any given day. While there may have been only one whole burnt offering each day, there were sometimes hundreds of peace offerings. Peace offerings were celebratory meals.  They were required for each family at the high feasts like Passover or Pentecost, but that’s like saying it is required that you have turkey and pie on Thanksgiving. Peace offerings could also be given throughout the year in thanksgiving for just about anything, like the safe return of a family member from war or the birth of a child.  Just like we celebrate significant events with a meal, the Israelites celebrated significant events with a peace offering.

As with the other sacrifices, the key elements to a peace offering were the flesh and the blood. The Lord’s institution of the peace offerings required that the blood of the animal be splashed against the altar, but the flesh would be consumed by the worshippers. Israelites rarely ate meat – it was expensive to buy an animal and if you killed an animal from your own flock you no longer had that animal for breeding, wool, or milk. Typically, the only time Israelites ate meat was as part of a peace offering. There, they ate the flesh of an animal, but they didn’t eat the whole thing. No, the priest got a small portion, and a small portion was left on the altar for God. God and the Israelite would consume the same animal. Just like your entire family eats one bird on Thanksgiving, God and his people would eat one lamb together. It was a holy meal, one that took place after a whole burnt offering had covered the sin of the people.

This holy meal at the Temple was foreshadowed by the holy meal described in today’s reading from Exodus. At Mount Sinai, God ate with his people. We are told that the there was pavement as sapphire stone under his feet, for Moses and the elders were truly in the presence of God. Yet even though they were in the presence of God, the elders of Israel were not struck down, for God covered their sin. They beheld God, and they ate and drank with him and with each other. In this meal with God on Sinai, like the meals with God in the Temple, the Lord first covered the sin of his guests. In the Temple, this was done through the daily whole burnt offering. At Sinai, we are told that Moses ordered burnt offerings to cover the sins of the people. Then he took half of the blood and threw it against the base of the altar, sprinkling the other half on the people, covering their sins with the blood of the lamb and bringing them into the covenant of God. Once God was present among them, they ate and drank with God.

All of this paved the way for the events we remember today. On the night when he was betrayed, our Lord Jesus instituted a new covenant. And the disciples ate with God. Like the sacrifices of the first covenant, flesh and blood are the key ingredients in this new covenant. Our Lord Jesus Christ took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples and said, “Take and eat. This is the flesh of the new covenant. It is my flesh. I give it for you to cover your sins. I give it to you as your meal with God.” This flesh was sacrificed on the cross as the whole burnt offering to cover the sins of the world. In that one offering, sin was covered once for all. The Temple curtain was torn in two. The earth shook. Graves were opened. God and man were reconciled.

And then he took the cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them saying, “Drink of it all of you – this is the blood of the New Covenant. My blood. I give it for you to cover your sins. I give it to you as your meal with God.” This blood was poured out on the cross. It dripped down our Savior’s back as he was whipped within an inch of his life, down our Savior’s brow as thorns cut into his scalp, down our Savior’s arms as nails were driven into his wrists. The blood was shed once for all. The Temple curtain was torn in two. The earth shook. Graves were opened. God and man were reconciled.

At the Temple, once the whole burnt offering had been made for sin, it was time for the peace offering. Now that God and man are reconciled by the sacrifice of the cross, we enjoy a meal with God. It is a meal of thanksgiving, which is why we call it a Eucharist. It is a meal hosted by God himself, which is why we call it the Lord’s Supper. It is a meal shared with God and with each other, which is why we call it a Holy Communion. It has gone by many names through the history of the church, but the dynamic remains the same: once God and man are reconciled, they share a meal. The did it at Sinai. They did it at the Temple. We do it tonight.

And it’s all because of Jesus. He is the fulfillment of the sacrifices of the old covenant. He is the true sin offering, the one who gave himself entirely, the whole burnt offering that covers our sin. On the cross, he offered himself as the sacrifice to forgive all your sin. The lying and lust and anger and bitterness that would separate you from God have been covered by the blood of Jesus. There is no longer any need for sin offerings or whole burnt offerings. God made him who knew no sin to be the sin offering for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God. The suffering and death of Jesus in our place put us right with God. There is no longer any sacrifice for sin. Jesus has done it. It is finished.

But not only is Jesus the true sin offering, he is the true peace offering, the Lamb of God who gives himself as the feast which we eat with God. The Israelites celebrated being reconciled to God by eating with him. So also, in this meal, because we have been reconciled to God by the blood of Christ, we now eat with him. We gather at the Lord’s table as if we were gathered around Easter dinner. The blood of Jesus and water of baptism has brought us into God’s family, and families eat together. We eat with God as part of his family. And as the family of God, we eat with each other.

So let us repent of our bitterness. Let us repent of our grudge holding. Let us repent of our gossip. Let us repent of the ways we drive wedges into the family of God. Let us repent of the ways we bring selfish division.  And let us rejoice in Christ, the whole burnt offering, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. Let us rejoice in Christ, the peace offering, the Lamb of God, who is the main course in this our meal with God. The sin offering is done. The peace offering in prepared. The feast is ready. Come to the feast.

+INJ+

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Finding Joy in Work – Sermon for Labor Day Weekend

Finding Joy in Work

Ephesians 2:8-10

Eleventh Sunday After Trinity

August 31, 2014

St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

 

LaborDayCard1            It’s Labor Day Weekend, one of my favorite long weekends of the year.  I went fly fishing on Friday, to the Michigan Game yesterday, and don’t have to get up early for work tomorrow.  It’s one last taste of summer before the school and church calendars get really busy.  Of course, even when the calendar gets crazy, there’s still the weekend.  For many, weekends in the fall will mean trips to the cider mill, hay rides, and corn mazes.  They mean Friday Night Lights and College Football Saturdays and NFL Sundays.  So much of our lives feel like we’re living weekend to weekend.  The atmosphere in the school hallways on Fridays is noticeably different than it is on Mondays.  On Fridays, the students and parents alike walk down the hall just a little quicker, excited at the prospect of a few days off.  Mondays, on the other hand, generally find the students dragging their backpacks instead of carrying them, tired days where the students and parents alike are a little worn out from the weekend’s activities.  But I don’t think that experience is confined to the hallways of a school – I bet you see the same dynamic in your workplace, and in office buildings across the country.

For me, it makes me contemplate the nature of work, a topic especially appropriate this Labor Day Weekend.  As we know, Labor Day is not just an excuse to barbecue one last time before summer ends, it is a holiday set aside to honor the contributions of the American work force in the development and ongoing support of this nation.  It is a holiday to honor all that is accomplished by those who work.  But reality seems to be that we are living for the weekends, for the vacations, for the times where we are not at work.  If that’s really what we think of work, then why honor it?  Aristotle believed that “we work to have leisure, on which happiness depends.”  He believed that we work in relaxingbeachorder not to work.  He believed that happiness was to be found not in the tasks we accomplish, but in the time we spend relaxing.  For Aristotle, and I think, if we’re beinghonest, for most of us, work is a means to an end.  We work for money so that we can buy food, home, clothing, and the other necessities of life.  We work so that we can afford to go on vacation.  We work so that we can retire in comfort.  We treat work as a necessary evil, working primarily so that we don’t have to work anymore.  And many of us, if we had our own way, would stop working altogether if we could afford it.

But the more I see this attitude in myself and in our culture, the more I think it robs us of the joy that our Lord would give us in our work. The more I study what our Lord’s Word has to say about work, the more I see this necessary evil mentality is really a gross perversion of what our Lord intended our work to be.  If working is truly a necessary evil, then it must somehow be an obstacle to who we truly are.  But that contradicts what our Lord says about work in the Scriptures.  Remember the story of creation as recorded for us in the book of Genesis: “Then the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.  And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed. [. . .] The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and keep it.”[1]  God created Adam for work.  God told Adam to work in the garden before sin corrupted the creation.  Work can’t be just a necessary evil that is yet another burden we must bear as a consequence of sin’s corruption.  God instituted work before the fall, so it is part of his design for who we are as humans.

God’s attitude toward work is exactly opposite that of Aristotle.  In the words of Luther, “Man was created not for leisure, but for work, even in the state of innocence.”[2]  Work was created before the fall, before corruption, which means it was created to give us joy.  Certainly work has been corrupted by sin, just like everything else in creation.  Again from Genesis: “And to Adam [God] said, “Because you have . . . eaten of the tree . . . cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you . . . By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, until you return to the ground.”[3] Work was not tiresome or frustrating until after sin corrupted it, but it was there.  Adam and Eve were put in a perfect creation, and part of that perfection included working.

This has tremendous significance for how we approach the tasks that face us happy_workerseach day.  It is encouraging and uplifting to remember that work is part of our Lord’s design for us.  It’s not just a burden we bear so that we can have money for food or clothing or shelter.  Those things are important and necessary, but there’s more significance to our life of work than that.  It’s not intended to be something we must tolerate just so that we can go on vacation.  It’s not merely something we do just so that we can retire.  Work is an essential part of being human, a basic part of who we are.  The attitudes toward work that permeate our culture are a perversion of a once perfect gift, and they rob us of the joy found in a job well done.  In the book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon wrote that He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income, for these things are vanity.[4]  Perhaps this is why so many people in our world find their work unsatisfying.  Solomon makes the problem clear.  If we work only for the money and live only for the weekend, we will never find fulfillment.  We will never be satisfied, for we’re chasing after vanity.  As another pastor put it, “Chasing after vanity [will give you] no rest.  The soul grows weary and uncertainty increases because in the depths of our hearts we know that temporal things have a habit of disappearing.  Stock markets crash.  Cars break down.  Banks go under. Economies suffer recession and depression.  Jobs are lost.  With them goes the certainty we once hoped for.  Despair overcomes us.”[5]

So what are we to do?  How do we find joy in our work?  The answer is to remember first and foremost that our identity is rooted not in our life’s work or accomplishments, but in God’s completed work for us. The work he completed for us, when he cried out on the cross, “It is finished” supplies us with perfect righteousness, pays off all our debts to God, and opens up the door to everlasting life, where we will enjoy perfect health with glorified bodies in a restored creation. But if that creation is really a restoration of this creation as it was before the fall, we won’t be sitting around playing harps all day.  We will be praising God through work, through using the talents and abilities he has given us in service of him and those around us.  That’s the way to find joy in our work today.  The work our Lord did in us when he gave us new life in the water of holy baptism, giving us a new creation to live and work before him in righteousness and blessedness, the work he will do in us yet again in a few moments when he will feed us with the body and blood of Jesus Christ to strengthen our souls not only gives us the promise of joyful work in a paradise of the future, it also redeems our work for today, tomorrow, and every day on this earth.

We will find no fulfillment in our world’s understanding of work because this is not work as our Lord designed it. We need to repent of viewing work as a means to an end and return instead to Eden, and to the proper understanding of vocation.  God gave us talents and abilities not so that we can make money to buy stuff for ourselves, but to love and serve our neighbors.  Think back to Eden once again.  Not only did our Lord create work before the Fall, he created it before he created Eve.  He put Adam to work the garden by himself, stressed-out-workerbut then looked and saw that it was not good for man to be alone.  It wasn’t good for man to be alone because then there was no one for Adam to love and serve with his work.  If Adam was in the garden by himself, then all his work would be for himself.  But this is not who our Lord created us to be, so he gave Adam Eve.  So also we tend to feel frustrated in our work when we are overly concerned with our own personal fulfillment or recognition.  We feel frustrated because there is no end to that journey.  There is always another promotion to chase, always another raise to pursue, and always another challenger nipping at our heels.  However, when we realize that we are not truly working for ourselves, but for the people around us, we will begin to experience the fulfillment of life as our Lord designed it, a life of community and mutual concern.

Our readings today emphasize our inability to save ourselves.  Cain’s sacrifice was unacceptable because it was not offered in faith, trusting in God’s promise.[6]  The Pharisee trumpeted his own accomplishments to God, who was unimpressed, while the tax collector who humbled himself in repentance went away justified.[7]  Paul does not mince words when he tells us we were saved by grace through faith, apart from works, so that no one can boast.  But don’t forget verse 10 at the end of that reading: “We are [God’s] workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”[8]  What does it mean that God prepared good works in advance for us to walk in them?  Does that make us like characters in a cosmic video game who are being controlled and moved to the places God programmed us to be?  Does God have some master checklist of divinely orchestrated opportunities to perform good deeds he expects us to do each day?  No.  Paul is talking about vocation here.  He is talking about our everyday life.  He is talking about our work.  For as insignificant as our efforts are when it comes to accomplishing our own salvation, our Lord has placed us in a startlingly high position when it comes to our practical, everyday life.[9]

eph2_10Think about it.  God upholds this creation from generation to generation, but he has chosen to give people a large role to play in that process.  Children aren’t spawned from the dust of the ground, they’re born from parents whose vocation it is to raise those children who will one day become parents themselves.  No man is an island; we live in a community of interdependence, and that’s exactly the way God designed it to be.  Those are the good works he has created in advance – the work that needs to happen for life to continue, and not only our personal lives, but also the life of the community.  He created a world that needs parents and farmers and doctors and engineers and mechanics and garbage collectors and politicians and a whole host of other people to function.  He prepared those good works in advance, and then created people like you and me to fill those needs.  It works the same in the body of Christ.  Our Lord has created his church to be a place that needs pastors and music directors, but that also needs ushers and acolytes and trustees and elders and evangelism boards and stewardship boards and assimilation teams and treasurers.  He prepared those good works in advance, and now he has created you in Christ Jesus as his workmanship to do them!  He has created us to be a community not of mutually independent people, but of mutually dependent people who rely on each other to get things done.  We rely on those people sitting in around us as the members of this congregation with us today.  We rely on the people we never met who kept St. John open and running for the last 150 years so that it could be here for us today.  And we do our work humbly acknowledging that, Lord willing, there will be people here in another 50 years who are reaping the fruit of what we sow today.

Each of us can find joy in whatever work we contribute to the whole, for “God ordained that human beings be bound together in love, in relationships and communities existing in a state of interdependence.  In this context, God is providentially at work caring for his people, each of whom contributes according to his or her God-given talents, gifts, opportunities, and stations.”[10]  Each of us becomes a mask of God, for behind our work God is hidden, upholding and sustaining his church, indeed, his entire creation.  We find no joy in our work when our primary concern is whether or not we have received enough recognition.  We find no joy in our work when we are only concerned with the immediate results here and now.  We find joy in your work when we realize that because we are now redeemed and set right with God, because we are his workmanship, He is now using our efforts not only to sustain our lives and the lives of the people around us, he is sustaining those in the future who will one day benefit from our efforts without our ever knowing.

Embracing this work won’t get you a better seat in heaven, but it is the life God intended for you on earth.  It is the path to joy in your work because you’re not primarily concerned with how much money you can make, but rather you embrace using your talents and abilities, the ones God himself personally gave you.  They are yours on purpose; they are no accident.  Find joy in accomplishing the tasks that need to get done daily in order for life happyemployee-370x229to continue – in cutting the lawn or washing the dishes.  Find joy in putting effort into other things that needs to happen, like family picnics or trips to the park.  Find joy in doing what needs to be done for future generations, rejoicing in all that was done for you by generations since past.  Find joy in all your work, for in all your work, God is at work in you, using you to bless those around you.  Our work may not be for our salvation, but it is still important, and that fills our work with joy.  May God grant such joy in your work this Labor Day, and for all the days ahead.

+INJ+

[1] Genesis 2:7-8,15

[2] Commentary on Genesis 2:15 (AE 1.103)

[3] Genesis 3:17-19

[4] Ecclesiastes 5:10

[5] Pastor Tony Sikora – Sermon on Mark 10 (http://steadfastlutherans.org/?p=23816)

[6] Genesis 4:4-5; Hebrews 11:4

[7] Luke 18:9-14

[8] Ephesians 2:10

[9] Veith, Gene. Spirituality of the Cross p. 72

[10] Veith, 74