This is my Palm Sunday Sermon on the Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross.
There are, arguably, two giant holidays of the Christian faith. One is Christmas, and the other is Easter. Between them they proclaim and celebrate the two most important facts of the Gospel: in Christmas, God became man; in Easter, Jesus conquered death through bodily resurrection. Other great holidays center around these two big events: the Annunciation of the Angel Gabriel to Mary (which we celebrated this past Wednesday) is the great precursor to Christmas, much like how Holy Week (which begins today) is the great precursor to Easter. Other great holidays are extensions of these celebrations, such as the Ascension of Jesus into heaven, the descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, the celebration of the Epiphany, and the communion of all God’s Saints.
When we put all these great Gospel moments together, we have a full summary of the Gospel – the Good News for this world of God in Jesus Christ. But rarely do we have the time and attention span to attend to all them at once. The Creeds give us that quick summary, but they’re hardly features of conversation when we’re trying to explain what we believe to people who aren’t Christian. The best we can do is to share them different parts of the Gospel story bit by bit. And some parts of the Gospel are easier to share than others. Today, Palm Sunday, we begin Holy Week, a series of days focusing on the suffering and death of Jesus. This is one of the trickiest things to explain to people. When I say “Jesus died for your sins,” you, who believe in him, rejoice. You hear words of pain and sadness, but you know in your heart that there is real power and meaning behind that message. But when someone who does not know Christ hears those words, their response is something like “so what?”
“Jesus died for your sins. So what?” It’s a difficult question, sometimes even for us to answer clearly. What does this horrific death on the Cross have to do with our sins? If he died because of our sins, wouldn’t it just add to our list of sins if we’re somehow guilty of crucifying him too? The answer to this question is rooted in the ancient concept of a sacrifice.
What is a sacrifice?
It is the act of making something holy, either by setting it aside to be used exclusively for God’s glory in a particular way, or by totally destroying it so it can’t be used by anyone on earth anymore. The very first sacrifice recorded in the Bible is in the Garden of Eden, even before sin entered the picture. God provided Adam and Eve with a garden. They were given free reign to cultivate it, and given only one rule: you may not eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. That one tree, out of goodness knows how many trees and plants in that garden, was to be their sacrifice to God. They could eat from anything except that one. By not eating from it, they were setting it aside for God as something special. Part of the original sin was violating that sacrifice and eating from it, taking away from God what was rightfully His.
After that original sin, the concept of sacrifice took on a new meaning. As Adam and Eve were driven out of the Garden, God gave them animal skins to wear as clothing. That meant that He had killed some animals to preserve the life of Adam and Eve. That became a new layer of meaning for sacrifices ever since: the death of one object or creature saves someone else from death.
Sometimes this is more symbolic than anything else. The Patriarchs like Abel and Noah and Abraham all offered sacrifices to God of various types simply as acts of worship. They were thanking God for providing them food and making promises to them, and gave back to God the best portion of what was given them. By doing this they were doing two things: they were acknowledging that their life was dependent upon God’s provision for them, and they were (in a way) restoring the Tree of Knowledge by setting aside a portion of their possessions or food.
Later on, when God instituted the Priesthood of Aaron and his descendants, a more vivid type of sacrifice was established. In addition to these sacrifices of thanksgiving and acknowledgment of God’s lordship, there were now also sacrifices for sin. Like the animals that God killed in order to clothe Adam and Eve, the Israelites were now taught to sacrifice certain spotless and clean animals to pay for their sins against God. In order to preserve life, something else must die. It sounds harsh, but if you look at the world around you, you’ll see it everywhere. Simply eating food is an example. Countless plants and animals have died so that we might eat them. The relationship of death and life is profound.
We could go on and examine in great detail the various types of sacrifices that the Law of Moses proscribed, but I think that’s enough background to apply this to the sacrifice of Jesus upon the Cross.
The Sacrifice of Jesus
All of these layers of meaning of a sacrifice apply to what Jesus did on the Cross: the original setting aside of our best for God, the acknowledgement of God’s lordship over us, and the payment for our sins.
First, we know from the Scriptures and from personal experience that we all sin. Sin holds us back from God; it creates a separation that needs to be bridged. In order to do that, we needed to restore a perfect act of worship and sacrifice to God, at least as good as the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Jesus is that sacrifice. In all of creation, there is no more worthy person or thing ever to have existed. By setting him aside and giving him back to God, all of creation gave of its best in a sacrificial offering. There is no greater act of worship than to proclaim the perfection of Christ above everyone and everything that has ever existed, or ever will exist.
Second, the sacrifice of Christ acknowledges God’s lordship over us. This seems a little strange to us until we consider what God’s plan was all along. In Revelation 13, St. John describes Jesus as the “lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” He reveals there that since the beginning of creation, God was planning on redeeming us through his Son. And you all know Jesus’ famous words, “nobody comes to the Father but through me.” Thus we find that Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross is just part of God’s plan that we simply need to trust in. Whether or not we fully understand it, we look to Christ on the Cross for our redemption and our hope.
Third, Christ’s sacrifice is also a payment for sins. The Old Testament sacrifice of animals was a symbol of this. Killing and eating animals only gives us life for a short time. The insufficiency of those old sacrifices was actually demonstrated in how they were carried out. For the animals’ blood was always to be poured out on the ground and on the altar – given to God. The Israelites were forbidden to drink the blood because the blood symbolized the life essence of the animal, and they could not receive eternal life from animals. But with the sacrifice of Jesus, we know that his death can bring about eternal life for us because of what he himself said: “this cup is my blood of the New Covenant; drink it!” So the basic rule of sacrifice – one death brings about life for another – is magnified in Christ to be something greater: one death brings about life for all!
The sacrifice of Christ, thus, fulfills every Old Testament expectation and puts into place everything we know about God, about mankind, and the sin that divides us. The response to his sacrifice, now, is what we need to pay attention to.
What comes next?
One thing we need to do in response is to follow his example. After all, if we really do believe that God deserves the best of everything, and that it is a right and good and joyful thing always and everywhere to give him thanks, then we should live accordingly. When we receive earthly blessings we pass on our tithes and offerings to God. When we enjoy all that is good and beautiful in this world, we enjoy them with an eye on Christ, the perfectly good and beautiful one of creation. Our very system of values is reshaped by this reality. If Christ is so worthy a sacrifice, and God is so worthy a God, then we need to tell the world. Everybody’s looking for something, everybody has a hungry heart, everybody needs somebody, everyone wants someone to love. If we’re so sure we’ve found it, we’ve got to tell people! This is what Jesus did both in life and death, after all. He preached of the coming Kingdom, and how to join it.
Beyond this proclamation of the Gospel, we’re also called to participate in the Gospel. As we order our outward lives according to the witness of Christ, so should we order our inward lives. We continue to meet together to worship God week by week. We gather together at other times, too, to encourage and instruct one another. This is what participation in the Body of Christ looks like. And the end result that we’re anticipating is to participate in Christ’s resurrection.
So, as we dwell on these dark moments of the Gospel story, surrounding the horrific death of Christ, I want you neither to shy away from the gory details nor to despair in your guilt. Yes, Jesus’ self-sacrifice on the Cross was horrible, painful, and a bleak moment in the history of creation. But to the eyes of faith, the glory and love and plan of God shines forth. Weep and mourn your sins, but rejoice in his grace and power even more heartily! For Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us; therefore let us keep the feast. Amen.