Atonement: Offering For Sin

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Isaiah 52:13-53:12

My fabulous Hebrew Bible professor in seminary, Dr. David Petersen, taught me great love for a great many things.  Among them are mutton-chop sideburns, fly fishing, liver divination, and last but certainly not least, reception history.

(He also taught me a great love for Hebrew Bible…don’t worry!)

Reception history is evidence of how a biblical text has been received over time and how it has been recreated or remembered throughout history.  Reception history spans the world of the arts – literature, music, sculpture, theatre, poetry, painting, film, and more.

I believe a biblical text can be helped as well as harmed by reception history.  Helped because it draws people back towards the biblical narrative and engenders feelings of curiosity and exploration.  Harmed because sometimes folks do not make it back to the biblical text and take what they read or view at face value as what the biblical text says…which is why I stay away from most of what debuts on a certain television station that thinks it explores “history” but there is a whole lot more of “opinion” and “creative storytelling” than actual “fact.”  But I digress…

In 1741 George Frideric Handel composed his masterwork oratorio,  Messiah.  The oratorio is an extended reflection on Jesus Christ as Messiah – and an excellent example of a text’s reception history – singing through birth prophecies, his nativity, his passion, his crucifixion, his resurrection, and his exaltation.  I had the privilege to sing selections from this masterwork while in concert chorale during undergraduate.  The enormity of the piece – both its length and its meaning – remain on my heart to this day.

Four musical reflections in Messiah come from our Scripture passage for this week, which through the lens of the prophet Isaiah, gazes upon the humble yet extremely powerful offering of the suffering servant.  I have included the links to watch and listen to this scripture sung by mass choir.  May it be for all of us a meditative practice as we draw near to our study of Scripture this week.

Surely He Hath Borne Our Griefs – Isaiah 53:4-5

And With His Stripes We Are Healed – Isaiah 53:5

All We Like Sheep – Isaiah 53:6

He Was Cut Off Out Of The Land Of The Living – Isaiah 53:8

Prayer: “Man of Sorrows! what a name for the Son of God, who came ruined sinners to reclaim.  Hallelujah!  What a Savior!  Bearing shame and scoffing rude, in my place condemned he stood; sealed my pardon with his blood.  Hallelujah!  What a Savior!  Guilty, vile, and helpless we; spotless Lamb of God was he; full atonement can it be?  Hallelujah!  What a Savior!  Lifted up was he to die; “It is finished” was his cry; now in heaven exalted high.  Hallelujah!  What a Savior!  When he comes, our glorious King, all his ransomed home to bring, then anew this song we’ll sing: Hallelujah!  What a Savior!”* Amen.

*”Hallelujah!  What a Savior,” The United Methodist Hymnal, 165.

Atonement: Perfect Sacrifice

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Hebrews 9:11-14

This morning I had the privilege to accompany the first grade class that I volunteer in to Sea World.  17 first graders…5 chaperones and 1 teacher…if we had 20 chaperones, the odds may have been in our favor.

Just kidding.

It was an amazing experience.  The children that attend this school are from some of the most impoverished neighborhoods in the metro-Orlando area; so, going to Sea World is big news…like bigger than french fries and chicken nuggets being served in the cafeteria on the same day.

If I had to summarize this Sea World experience for the children in one word, the word would be wonder.  Watching the children marvel at the sea creatures and squeal as the roller coasters zoomed overhead and point and smile and repeat.  They were in awe.  They were amazed.  Everything was new.  Everything was fresh.  And they were present in the moment absorbing all of it.  They were content to just be.  Excitement bubbled up from endless founts inside each of them.  Their grins were contagious.

Most of them slept on the ride back to the school…and I can only imagine the visions and dreams that were dancing in their heads.  I hope in their dreams they were sealing the memory of this day and I hope they continue to wonder in all they experienced.

I am amazed by how much these children continue to teach me each time I am with them.  Today’s lesson was that lesson of wonder – to be present, to simply be.  I (and I think many adults) are quick to observe and then we jump to analysis, inquiry, and yes, even judgment.  We are a qualitative and quantitative folk.  We are concerned about efficiency and cost-effectiveness.  We are time conscious and are quick to think about what is next rather than remain present in the moment.  We forget to wonder.  And when we do not wonder regularly, little by little, we lose that ability.

We need to slow down.  We need to see clearly.  We need to hear wholly.  We need to smell, feel, and taste.  We need to be.  And in doing so God will amaze us.

As a pastor and speaker of the Word I am always seeking an interpretation of a text that is studied in worship on Sundays.  Being a speaker of the Word is more than just saying what the story says – it is not just a paraphrase.  Being a speaker  of the Word is more than just saying what other people have said about the story – it is not just a book report.  Speakers of the Word seek – for ourselves and for the people we serve – an interpretation of the Word – otherwise known as the so what moment.  Given what the story says and what other people have said about it, so what?  What now?  Where do we go from here?  

I like to offer practical responses and practical challenges as the so what so that some sort of response is encouraged that will lead to greater spiritual formation and possibly behavior modification.  As I marinate on the text this week, I feel the response that I am led to is one of wonder.  Jesus is the high priest.  Jesus has given of himself – a perfect sacrifice – that our lives will be transformed and our dead works purified so that we will worship the living God.

What should characterize that worship?  Wonder – wonder of all our Lord has done, wonder that our God has acted on our behalf out of mercy and grace.

Yet how quick are we while in worship to skip out on presence.  We may be there in body, but are were their in mind?  And if we are there in mind, are we present in wonder or presently writing our grocery list or rolling our eyes because we are singing that hymn again instead of this hymn or thinking that our time would be better spent elsewhere?  If we do not practice wonder, then we are not practicing true presence, and we therefore limit how God desires to amaze us in those moments.

Our God is amazing and wants to amaze us.  Open yourself up to wondering.  I bet you will be wearing the great grin of a first grader at Sea World eating chicken nuggets and french fries when you do.

Prayer: “His name is wonderful, his name is wonderful, his name is wonderful, Jesus, my Lord.  He is the mighty King, Master of everything, is name is wonderful, Jesus, my Lord.  He’s the great Shepherd, the Rock of all ages, almighty God is he; bow down before him, love and adore him, his name is wonderful, Jesus, my Lord.”* Amen.

*”His Name Is Wonderful,” The United Methodist Hymnal, 174

Atonement: Out With The Goat and In With The New

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Leviticus 16:5, 7-10, 15-22

Football season ended the first week of February. Then I watched the Olympics. And now it’s Award Season. Let’s face it folks…I’m counting down to mid-August…get me back to football season – and Go Packers!

Everyone has been talking about the Academy Awards – and I admit that the only movie I have seen that won an Academy Award – also the only movie I’ve seen that was nominated for an Academy Award (thanks to Andrew being a youth director…we need to get out more…) is Disney’s Frozen.

And thanks to the Academy Awards I now have a super long list of movies that I need to see! But, as Hagrid would say, “we’ll get to that later.”

If you haven’t seen Frozen yet, I highly recommend it. And I applaud Disney for the many beautiful expressions of family celebrated in this film. The primary protagonists are a pair of sisters – Anna and Elsa. Both are princesses. Both love one another deeply, but Elsa has a unique gift that if uncontrolled can be damaging. So she is raised to suppress it – “to conceal, not feel.” Well…what was to be concealed is revealed on just about the biggest stage imaginable and Elsa flees. As she flees she sings “Let It Go.”

These lyrics speak directly to me – and I believe to our Scripture passage for this week:

I’m never going back,
The past is in the past

Let it go, let it go
And I’ll rise like the break of dawn
Let it go, let it go
That perfect girl is gone

Here I stand
In the light of day
Let the storm rage on,
The cold never bothered me anyway

I’m never going back, the past is in the past, let it go, let it go. In our Scripture passage for this week we learn about purification rituals enacted on the Day of Atonement – one of them being casting the sins of the community onto a goat and then releasing a goat into the wilderness. In this way the sins of the people literally ran away and were removed from their persons thereby making the people “at one” with God again. Once the sins were atoned for God’s people believed the act of sin, the blame of sin, and the shame of sin were all removed – were all forgiven. They “let it go” on the goat; they didn’t go back, the past is in the past. They looked forward. They moved on. They enjoyed the full measure of God’s forgiveness.

Sometimes I wish real life were as easy as a Disney movie – that every problem would be resolved in 90 minutes or less…and that there would be more singing…yeah…especially if I could sing like Idina Menzel! But then again, Disney movies aren’t always tied up in a nice little package. Elsa sings this song early on in the movie proclaiming that she has “let it go” – but she still has to work through her circumstances. She has to process what happened, integrate what she learned from the experience, strategize so it does not happen again, and apply the learnings and strategies in order to let it go, to let the past be in the past.

I believe the same holds for us. When we sin – when we abuse God’s good gift of free will and choose something other than God as the priority in our lives – we want to let it go. We want to experience God’s forgiveness. We want to be at one with God again…but if we fail to process the sin, integrate what we have learned from the experience, strategize so it does not happen again, and apply the learnings and strategies, then we may fall as a casualty to sin yet again. We cannot only hope to not fall into sin again because hope is not a strategy. We must work out our faith – work out our salvation – so that with God’s guidance we rise from sin, released from its blame and shame, and live in the peace of letting it go.

During the season of Lent we are invited to become more aware of our sins – to process, integrate, strategize, and apply as we seek to go and sin no more. During this season I believe God wants us to examine ourselves and let sins go.

What sins are you retaining? What sins, what pasts, are God calling you to let go?

Reflect. Confess. Let them go. Experience peace.

Prayer: “O God, just as we look into a mirror to see any soiled spots on our face, so let us look to you in order to understand the things that we have done amiss.  We are like a reed shaken in the wind; we are inexpressibly weak.  Leave us not to ourselves, but dwell in our hearts and guide our thoughts and actions.  Amen.”*

*”For Guidance,” The United Methodist Hymnal, 366.

Atonement: Family Transaction

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Genesis 22:1-19

This Sunday is the first Sunday of Lent!  We also “spring ahead” at 2am on Sunday morning.  Three cheers for more sunlight…and being to worship on time!  Woot-Woot-Woohoo!

This week I find it rather fitting to study the almost child sacrifice of Isaac alongside the beginning of Lent, which is a season of sacrifice.  Both occasions – the pericope from Genesis and the liturgical season – are opportunities for obedience.

God gave Abraham instructions and he obeyed.  He started and – at the right time – God stopped him!  God provided another sacrifice – a gift of a ram so that Abraham could retain his greatest gift, his son.

The season of Lent presents us with an invitation to reflect and fast – reflect – on who we are and what we do; fast – that who we are and what we do make us more into who God desires.  We are not called to mandatory obedience in this reflecting and fasting…but I have to question why we would shy away from it?  Is it because we are too proud?  Is it because we are scared of what might be revealed?  Or is it because we are resigned in thinking that no change can come our way?

This past weekend I had the opportunity to lead enrichment sessions at a conference women’s retreat.  My session, Letters of Treasure, was a time for retreat participants to write letters to women currently incarcerated in our local area.  Our mission was to remind these ladies that they are women of worth; that they are treasured, beloved, and special; that they belong to God.  We wanted to affirm in these ladies that change is possible, that God is already at work in their lives, and that God is inviting their participation to continue their change to lead more healthy and whole lives.

In the letters we asked the ladies to consider who they were, who they are now, and who they wanted to be.  We encouraged the ladies to (1) identify their healthy behaviors and then (2) either transform unhealthy behaviors or leave them aside completely.  We invited them to reflect and and fast.  Why?  Because we believe change is possible.  Because we are affirmed that we bear the change of Christ in our bodies.  Because we believe reflecting and fasting are signs of our obedient faith.

It’s not about who these ladies have been or what they have done.  It’s about who God will lead them to be and what God will lead them to do.

The same is true for each one of us.

During this Lent I will take pause to reflect upon who I have been and ask God to lead me, break me, craft me into who God wants me to be.  Tonight I will starkly remember that all that I have is because of all that God has given and continues to give with the sign of the cross upon my brow.

Ashes to ashes.  Dust to dust.

During this Lent I will fast from all bread related products as a way of standing in solidarity with my neighbors worldwide who hunger and ache for daily bread.  My prayer is that in these 40 days God will lead my heart and my body to God’s true and everlasting nourishment that as God’s vessel I will be able to nourish others.

What will be your reflection this Lent?  Where will God lead you to fast?  How will God encourage, challenge, and increase your obedience?

Believe in change.  Be prepared for change.

Obey and change.

Prayer: “O God, maker of every thing and judge of all that you have made, from the dust of the earth you have formed us and from the dust of the earth you would raise us up.  By the redemptive power of the cross, create in us clean hearts and put within us a new spirit, that we may repent of our sins and lead lives worthy of your calling; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.”*

*”Ash Wednesday,” The United Methodist Hymnal, 353.