As we begin to make our way through Leviticus we need to remember the historical setting. The Tabernacle had just been built, as we read in the later chapters of Exodus. Public worship is about to begin there with the consecration of the priests, of which we will read in chapters 9 and 10. So what is needed is a manual of worship, a Book of Common Prayer if you will, a description of how things ought to be done in the public worship of Yahweh. The first seven chapters of Leviticus detail the regulations for the various types of sacrifices and offerings that will make up the meat of the Tabernacle liturgy. [Hartley, WBC, 7]
Now a few words about these various offerings before we consider the first. There were four different animal sacrifices: in the ESV they are called the burnt offering, the peace offering, the sin offering, and the guilt offering. All four had much in common. In each case the worshipper brought the animal to the temple — a bull, a male or female sheep or goat, or birds — laid his hands on the animal, killed it, skinned it, and cut it up. The priest then applied the animal’s blood to the altar and burned or cooked the meat on the altar. The differences between the various sacrifices had to do with how much of the meat could be eaten and by whom, how the blood was handled, and how the carcass was disposed of. As we will see momentarily, in the burnt offering the meat was entirely consumed in the altar fire and no one ate any part of it. We’ll notice the differences as we consider the offerings one by one.
As we noted last time, we may not be able fully to explain the liturgical principles that lie behind the distinctions between the four animal offerings. We can hazard pretty good guesses about the rationale for some of the differences between them, but no one knows for sure precisely how they were distinguished from one another in the Hebrew mind or why the seemingly subtle differences served the different purposes for which they were brought.
Another thing to notice is that we are given in these chapters only the directions for what is to be done, not what is to be said. One scholar has described these chapters as extracts from a prayer book, say the Book of Common Prayer, from which the prayers have been omitted, leaving only the rubrics. [Wenham, NICOT, 55] By “rubric” he means the rules or regulations of worship. For example, we will read of the practice of the worshipper laying his hands upon the animal he brought for sacrifice before it is killed. It is unlikely that this was done in silence.  The worshipper may have at that time either confessed his sins ex tempore or in some formulaic way, such as we do with printed prayers in our Lord’s Day morning worship, or explained for what reason he was bringing the sacrifice, for example, his wife has given birth (we will read that childbirth is one reason for a burnt offering in chapter 12) or he needs to complete his purification from some defilement, about which we will read in chapter 14.
In 2 Chronicles 29:28 we read that later in Israel’s history a choir might be singing during the burnt offering. There are also psalms that mention the burnt offering so perhaps the worshippers sang as well. None of this is mentioned in the regulations, nor do we know what else might have been done before and after the burnt offering in the way of making the sacrifice part of a larger service. The Israelite would know, of course; he or she would have been familiar with this routine, but we know only parts and pieces.
Chapter 1 prescribes the ritual of the burnt offering, the ‘olah, an offering that could consist of a male animal from the herd, the flock, or certain birds. ‘olah, by the way, is the term from which comes “holocaust,” through the Greek word derived from it, holokauston, meaning “burned entirely.” It is a word, therefore, with a deeper meaning for Hebrew speaking Jews than for those who do not know its origin, though the word “holocaust” was in use for genocide before the mass murder of the Jews during the Second World War. Jews themselves typically refer to the genocide of their people by the Nazis with the Hebrew word for catastrophe, Shoah.
v.1 Once the Tabernacle had been built and furnished, the glory of the Lord filled it, as we read on the previous page, the very end of Exodus. The Tabernacle is now the tent of the Lord’s presence and it is there, not the previous tent of meeting, to which Moses is summoned to hear what Yahweh had to say. It is the King summoning his servant to the palace to receive instructions. [Sklar, 37] The ornate decoration of the Tabernacle was made to look as if it were a palace fit for a king, the ark was later described as the Lord’s footstool (1 Chr. 28:2) and the cherubim on top of the ark were described as his throne (2 Sam. 6:2). Kings made covenants with people in those days and Yahweh was a king and he had made a covenant with his people and now he was giving them instructions by which to live in that covenant!
v.3 The “if his offering…” form of these instructions is that of “case law,” a form common to ancient near eastern law codes. This is what is to be done if such and such is the case. [Levine, 4-5] In this case, this is what to be done if the offering 1) is a burnt offering, not some other kind and 2) if the animal is of the herd, that is cattle. A male from the herd and particularly one without blemish would be the most valuable of animals and so the regulations begin there. Animals from the flock were both smaller and more numerous than from the herd and so less costly. By the way, the general term for offering — that is, whatever might be presented to God at the sanctuary — is here korban, a term you will recognize from the Gospels. In the case of the burnt offering the entire animal, excepting the hide, was consumed on the altar; burned to ashes in other words. No one ate the considerable amount of meat.
Now, as we proceed through the description of the burnt office, take note of the careful delineation of role. Every time you encounter the pronoun “he” you are reading about what the worshipper himself must do; his role is to be distinguished from the priest’s. The distinction of roles was very important and is carefully described.
v.4 The rite of laying the hand on the animal indicates that the animal is connected to that particular worshipper, standing in for him as it were, his substitute. This is indicated as well by the term atonement that we will return to subsequently. At this point it is enough to say that the Hebrew term kipper (here translated “to make atonement”) can mean either to ransom or propitiate , to deliver from punishment in other words, or to purify, that is, to remove defilement. It is used in the rituals of sacrifice in both ways as we will see. Atonement is a fabulously important concept in the Bible, as you know, because that is what Christ did on the cross, he made atonement. In doing so he both removed our guilt, or liability to punishment for our sins, and purified us from the power and corrupting influence of sin. The Lord’s death is said in the New Testament to have had both effects (Mark 10:45; Titus 2:14).
v.5 The Tabernacle, as you remember, was a rectangular structure that enclosed a courtyard open to the sky, at the west end of which courtyard was located the tent of meeting itself, the sanctuary proper. Between the entrance (which was on its east wall, one of the shorter sides of the rectangle) and the tent of meeting itself was the altar. Only priests could attend the altar because it was holy to the Lord and they had been consecrated for this work. But at this point it is enough to remember that the worshipper brought his offering to the tent of meeting and did what he did within the courtyard where the laity could go, but not up to or beyond the altar (v. 11). [Hartley, 19] The worshipper did not approach the altar himself. He never touched it, he never laid anything on it.
When the animal was killed, the blood was collected by the priests in bowls who threw it or dashed it against the altar. The altar was a large frame of acacia wood, filled with dirt to give it stability and then covered with bronze and large enough to support a fire sufficient to cook large amounts of meat, entire animals at once. The significance of the blood we will get to later, especially when we come to chapter 17, but for now simply note that the blood was applied to the altar to make atonement for the sinner who brought the sacrifice.
v.6 The skin or hide was not burned on the altar. We read in 7:8 that the hide became the property of the officiating priest. It was one of his sources of income.
v.9 After the animal was killed and the blood drained, it was butchered. Still today this draining of the blood is part of what makes meat kosher. The priests were responsible for the altar fires and for arranging the cuts of meat on the altar to be sure they would be properly burned to ashes in the burnt offering or cooked in the other offerings. It takes some practice to build a good fire and keep it burning hot. I mention this only because I forever have to remake or rearrange the fires that others make in our fireplace in Colorado. It should be no surprise that I’m the best fire-maker, being a priest as I am!
The parts of the animal that contained or would have been soiled by excrement were washed. The offering had to be clean before being put on the altar.
“An aroma pleasing to the Lord,” a vigorous anthropomorphism characteristic of the Old Testament, reminds us that the offering was given to the Lord, not as food of course, but in other respects. He would be pleased that the offering had been given for the right purpose, in the right spirit, and particularly for the purposes for which it had been appointed. It is a beautiful way of expressing the thought of the Lord’s pleasure in what the worshipper had done.
v.10 Vv. 10-13 describe the same offering if it is an animal from the flock and assumes the more elaborate description in vv. 3-9. All the steps are not repeated. Sheep are the most frequently named sacrificial animals in the OT, which is why, I think, John the Baptist said, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Not behold the cow or bull of God. [Hartley, 23]
v.11 The slaughtering was done on the north side of the altar. West was the sanctuary itself toward which the worshipper could not go, and we read in v. 16 that the ashes were piled to the east. So north and south of the altar were the only available spaces for the slaughtering of the animals, but the ascent to the altar was from the south; so that left the north side for this activity. The other offerings were also slaughtered there (cf. 4:24, 29, 33). [Hartley, 23; Sklar, 92-93]
v.14 Vv. 14-17 describe the same offering if birds were used. This was a concession to those too poor to afford an animal from the flock or herd (5:7). The birds that were allowed were the birds that were easiest to obtain. You could raise them yourself or you could buy them in the market.
v.16 Probably the crop was too dirty to be offered to the Lord. The ashes would eventually be carried from the sanctuary to a ritually pure place as we read in 4:12 and 6:11.
v.17 The particular rationale for the different treatment of the bird, while probably clear to the Israelites, is hard to explain.
One thing is clear; going to church in ancient Israel made our church services seem dull in comparison! [Wenham, 55] Squealing, recalcitrant animals; blood flowing everywhere (when the temple was built they had gutters to carry the blood away and needed immense amounts of water to keep washing it away); the smell of meat cooking, and all of that under the hot near eastern sun; not your typical service at any American evangelical church! I’ve often wondered about all those smells. There must have been a smell to the tabernacle that was memorable for anyone who had been there. Incense was burning in the sanctuary, enough probably to be smelled outside. And that would mix with the smell of meat cooking on the altar, always a strong smell. In addition there was frankincense burning on the altar as we will read next time. It is one of the pleasures of barbequing in your backyard that you can smell the meat cooking. We remember smells either as pleasant or repellent. Our sense of smell is powerful, but smell is the sense we have virtually eliminated from our worship. You might smell the wine before you drink or slightly the bread before you eat it at the Supper, but otherwise our sense of smell is unused in worship. That wasn’t the case in ancient Israel. I wonder if we are right to have eliminated smell so completely. Not a subject for tonight, but one to think about.
To be sure, we are probably put off more by imagining the scene painted for us in Leviticus 1 than most people in the world would be. As in most agricultural economies, in Israel the slaughter of animals was a normal part of life. In our culture cows are slaughtered out of sight and we don’t see the meat until it is wrapped in plastic in the grocery store’s meat counter. But throughout the ages and still today many if not most people were used to seeing animals killed and butchered. I’ve been in homes where small animals were kept in cages or in the back yard (rabbits, chickens, and geese) and then were killed to eat, sometimes by the children of the house. In that sense they would not have found the ritual of the burnt offering gruesome at all. Nor would some of our hunters, who kill deer or elk, though usually from a distance. Some of them are so modern, however, that they drop the dead animal off at the butcher on the way home, to have him cut it up and wrap the steaks and roasts. What wimps! But whatever else you say about Hebrew worship it was not a spectator sport. The man would come to the house of God to honor the Lord and a few minutes later he would be pouring sweat and up to his elbows in blood and gore. He was involved in a very messy affair!
Now what we have here are the regulations; you will have noticed that there is precious little explanation. There is even less theological explanation. [Hartley, 3; Wenham 55] There are a few hints, but we are not told why this thing should be done or that. Nowhere is it explained how this sacrifice makes atonement for the one who brings it.
Sacrificial worship was universal in the ancient near east. We said last time that God employed the forms of ancient near eastern worship in the worship he required of his own people but invested in them a very different theological rationale. As we noted last Lord’s Day evening Israel’s theology of sacrifice was very different from that of the Egyptians or Mesopotamians or the Canaanites even if many of the forms were familiar. Ancient near eastern temples, for example, were very like the tabernacle and later the temple in architecture and function. This accommodation to form together with a thorough re-interpretation of the forms underlies the practice of worship in Israel. As we will see in coming weeks there were various types of sacrifices offered in Israel (at least some of them were also found in other religions). Different sacrifices were offered for different reasons, though there was a considerable amount of overlap. But the principle sacrifice, the primary one, if we may put it that way, was the burnt offering. That’s why it comes first.
It was the burnt offering that was offered morning and evening at the tabernacle every day including the Sabbath Day and then later at the temple. It was the burnt offering that was offered on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. It was the burnt offering that was a regular feature of the other great festivals of the calendar. It was the burnt offering that the king offered on special occasions. And it appears to have been the offering most regularly made by Israelite individuals as well. [Hartley, 17-18] It had a variety of purposes. Obviously it was made to secure atonement or peace with God, but it was also used to heighten prayer, to make a special consecration of oneself to God, or as a means of offering God special thanksgiving and praise for some blessing received.
But the purpose of the sacrifice highlighted here in Leviticus 1 is atonement, or, as it is put in verse 3, acceptance with God. “The most important question that anyone can ask is: how can an impure, sinful, and mortal creature such as myself find access into the presence and the favor of God — both now and in the world to come?” [Ross, 85] Many people, of course, don’t think that is the most important question of all; they don’t think it is important at all. But that is because they know neither themselves — how sinful and unworthy they really are — nor God — how holy and pure he really is. But from the beginning of the Bible, from the time man was driven from the Garden of Eden because of his sin, to the moment the Lord Jesus will appear in the heavens to bring history to a close, this is the great question and the great issue of human life? Another way of putting the question is: “what must I do to be saved?” The fact that so many human beings never ask that question, of themselves or others, is the true index of their condition. They are so lost that they don’t even know themselves to be lost! Joseph Hart asked the obvious question in one of his hymns:
“What comfort can a savior bring to those who never felt their woe?”
Now, by this time Israel was already the people of God. God had made a covenant with the people of Israel and had redeemed them from bondage in Egypt. But her sacrificial worship, as our worship today, was part of the way that relationship was preserved. In other words, the principles enshrined in the liturgy of sacrifice describe the way a person both enters a living, saving relationship with God and continues in that relationship for the rest of his or her life. Indeed, the Lord himself had given Israel these sacrifices. They would be their sacrifices, of course, the sacrifice of the man or woman who brought the bull or the ram or the birds, but the provision was the Lord’s. He told them how they could be reconciled with him. He told them what to do and promised that if they did it with sincere hearts, he would be pleased to forgive and accept them. The devising was the Lord’s; the promise of reconciliation was the Lord’s. The power invested in these sacrifices was from the Lord. There was no manipulation of God in these rites as there was in the animal sacrifices of the ancient near east. These sacrifices were his provision for his people first, only then were they Israel’s offerings to God.
So what were the theological principles enshrined in the sacrificial ritual? The liturgy of the burnt offering expresses them very well.
- First, acceptance and peace with God requires a costly sacrifice.
In ways we probably recognize and in ways we might not, there is a tremendous emphasis here on the cost of the burnt offering. It had to be a male. We are not sure precisely why, but in the ancient near east the male animal was valued above the female. Whether the reason was of any practical importance, the fact that the male was valued above the female, whether cattle, sheep, or goats, meant that the worshipper had to bring the most valuable animal of his herd or flock. [Hartley, 18] In the first instance, cattle, the animals served a variety of purposes. They were work animals, immensely important for that reason, for plowing the fields and so on, and eventually they provided meat and hide. Such animals were the foundation of a farmer’s wealth and he had to part with the best one he had.
What is more, such animals were not in as abundant supply as they are for us today. For most Israelites, meat was a luxury rather than a staple. To give up an animal, particularly one of the best a farmer had, all the more to be completely destroyed on the altar was not a small sacrifice.
But we are not finished. The male animal had to be without defect. It could not be blind or injured; it could not be deformed in any way. It could not have an open sore or wound, nor could it have warts. It couldn’t have damaged testicles. For all the reasons a farmer might be tempted to choose such an animal for sacrifice (that is, to choose one he’d have to get rid of anyway or that wouldn’t be as much use to him) — for all the reasons why an Israelite farmer would succumb to the temptation to offer such an animal for sacrifice, as Malachi reminds us Israelite farmers sometimes did (1:8) — for those same reasons such an animal was unfit to offer to God. It had to be among the best he had.
And, finally, the fact that this sacrifice was a great expense for Israelites is emphasized by the fact that there were and would always be Israelites who couldn’t afford a bull or a ram. They simply hadn’t the means to offer a sacrifice so expensive. Provision was carefully made for them as well. They could bring the little birds that they could either catch or breed themselves or buy for very little. If you remember, we learn in Luke 2 that Joseph and Mary were not people of means from the fact that they made their sacrifice in the temple using just such birds. A bull or a ram was beyond their means. But the fact that the ideal burnt offering was a bull teaches us that peace with God costs a lot!
- Second, acceptance of God cannot be secured on one’s own; a priest is required.
The worshipper was active in this ritual of the burnt offering. Make no mistake about that. He had to want to come; he had to be willing to make such an expensive sacrifice that would be inspected when he got to the tabernacle and was rejected if it were not good enough; he had to come and, when he did, much of the ritual was his to perform. It was work. But he couldn’t do it all. He couldn’t approach the altar, he couldn’t apply the blood to the altar, he couldn’t put the meat on the fire, and so on. Indeed, the acts that made the real difference, that made for atonement and acceptance with God were the acts the priest alone performed.
We will deal with this in greater detail another time, but this distinction between priest and layman was fundamental to the principles and practices of Israelite worship and to the atonement and peace with God that was the result of right worship. A king, Uzziah you remember, would later be cursed with leprosy because he violated this separation of powers and undertook as a layman work that only priests were permitted to perform.
The priesthood was of great importance in Israel not only for what it was responsible to do, but for what work it withheld from everyone else. This clergy/laity distinction is deeply unpopular in the American church, but it was founded on a fundamental principle, as important today as ever in the ancient epoch, viz. that of the separation of God from man, his distance from us on account of his holiness. It was the daily reminder to God’s people that they were not holy enough for God and had to have intermediaries or mediators. There is something to that distinction between layman and ministers still today, but for our purposes tonight, the point is simply this: a person, even an ardent, devout believer cannot offer an acceptable sacrifice to God, one that effects atonement and makes for peace with God. He or she must have a priest.
- Third, atonement is necessary because of sin.
It is not explained here that the presenting cause for a burnt offering is the worshipper’s sin, but it is obviously implied that this is the case when the effect of the sacrifice is said to be atonement and acceptance with God. The problem the sacrifice is designed to solve is that the worshipper is estranged from God in some way that can be overcome only by kipper, redemption or propitiation. The situations that require such redemption in the Bible are always those caused by sin or by impurity of some kind. We will see that in the case of the sin offering and the guilt offering, which make the connection between sin and the need for atonement even more explicit, but it is obviously so, if more generally, in the burnt offering as well.
In the case of the burnt offering no particular sin or kind of sin is mentioned as its rationale and so it appears that the sin that the burnt offering was designed to deal with was the general sinfulness of a man or a woman, our sin in general. [Levine, 7; Sklar 94; Hartley, 19] That is perhaps why the burnt offering was the primary sacrifice of the sacrificial ritual: it dealt, or at least could deal, with the general sinfulness of everyone, not more specific situations of guilt or impurity. The worshipper came thinking and saying, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” Perhaps this is part of the reason why the entire sacrifice was consumed on the altar and none of it was eaten by anyone as was the case with the other meat sacrifices. Our sinfulness, taken together, requires the total destruction of the sacrifice before God. That leads us to the next point.
- Fourth atonement requires a substitute.
“Atonement” is a made up English word. It is supposed to have been coined by Thomas More, the English archbishop who was executed by Henry VIII because he wouldn’t approve of Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon. He coined “at-one-ment,” to refer to what makes peace or unity between man and God. The biblical terms are such terms as redemption, propitiation, and reconciliation, in Hebrew the kipper word group, such as appears in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. “Atonement” is the English word that summarizes the meaning of them all. But in every case, the acceptance with God is brought to pass by the death of a substitute.
This may be why the animals used in sacrifice were domesticated animals, not wildlife such as deer or wild goats. Livestock were part of a man’s life and, in the ancient near east, were housed not in barns but in a part of the man’s house. They were near to a man’s life and so made a better substitute for him than would a wild animal.
That is also why blood figures so largely in the biblical sacrificial ritual. As we will learn when we get to chapter 17, blood, literally the life-blood of an animal killed in sacrifice, was significant precisely because when the body is emptied of blood it dies. Shed blood means death in the Bible. But in these sacrifices, it isn’t the worshipper who dies, it is the sacrificial animal who dies in his place. The ritual begins with the worshipper laying his hand or hands on the animal, signifying that the animal is representing him, it is his substitute. The object is to achieve peace with God and for that to happen there had to be a death, but not the worshipper’s death. We are not told why here, to be sure, but certainly one reason why the worshipper couldn’t die was that he is not without blemish. This is not made a point here, but it seems obvious: if he were without blemish, he wouldn’t have had to come to the tabernacle to offer a sacrifice in the first place. We might say that “the main point of Leviticus 1[is that] the Lord accepts with pleasure whoever comes into his presence by substitutionary atonement through the shedding of blood.” [Ross, 95]
- And, fifth and finally, whosoever will may come.
A point is made of the fact that this burnt offering may be offered by anyone and everyone. Those who couldn’t afford a bull could offer a ram. Those who couldn’t afford a ram could offer little birds, even if they had so little blood it had to be squeezed out over the altar rather than thrown from a bowl. The problem of sin is universal and so the provision of atonement was as well. Indeed, it is quite likely that there were more pious Israelites through history who offered birds for their burnt offerings than those who could afford bulls or rams.
It is not a point made here, but even in those long ago days provision was made for non-Israelites, for men and women who realized that it was Israel’s God, the one living and true God, to whom they needed to be reconciled. Already we have the free offer; already we have “whosoever will may come.” We will content ourselves this evening with those five principles.
Now I don’t need to remind you how thoroughly this pattern or paradigm of the burnt offering is woven into the presentation of the work of Christ on the cross in the NT. Peter explicitly reminds us that we were redeemed with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. [1 Pet. 1:18-19] This is the significance of Christ’s sinlessness according to the NT: it qualified him to be the lamb who takes away the sin of the world. But those words “precious blood” also remind us of the cost of our peace with God, nothing less than the death of the creator of heaven and earth! Not the most expensive animal in a man’s herd, but the most valuable person in the universe!
But Christ is also the priest. He is not only the sacrifice, he is the one who offered it, a point that is made with emphasis in Hebrews. As we read in Hebrews 9:26:
“…he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.”
That is, he both made the sacrifice and was the sacrifice!
In a number of ways the NT also rings the changes on Christ’s substitutionary atonement, that he died for us, in our place, on our behalf. “Substitution” is not a Biblical word but it is the foundation of all of the metaphors of atonement in the NT (propitiation, redemption, and reconciliation). He redeemed us (there is the idea of kipper) from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us; he gave himself for us the just for the unjust to bring us to God, he came to give himself a ransom for many (there is kipper again); he who knew no sin became sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in him, and on and on.
Many of you are familiar with the commentaries of the late William Hendrickson on the books of the New Testament, very fine commentaries. Hendrickson did his doctoral dissertation in Holland on the prepositions of atonement in the NT and established, I think, to almost everyone’s satisfaction that they present the work of Christ as a substitution. He died in our place, in our stead, on our behalf.
But his salvation must be embraced by faith, by those who acknowledge and confess their sin and come to him. The worshipper in the description of the burnt offering in Leviticus 1 is so obviously the believer in the New Testament. He or she is the person who realizes what Christ has done, why it had to be done, and, in Paul’s words, presents himself or herself to God as a living sacrifice.
And then how universal the problem and how equally universal the solution according to the NT. Everyone needs acceptance with God because everyone is a sinner — all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God — and the salvation is suited to anyone and everyone who will avail himself or herself of it. The Lord made a point of extending himself to the poor, to those who could only afford birds. He wasn’t in it for the meat; he didn’t need the offering, but we needed it if we were to be right with God. Our sins had made a separation between us and God and Christ’s sacrifice healed the breach for anyone and everyone who would take the offered remedy.
It is an analogy to be sure, we understand that, but as a Christian you cannot read Leviticus 1 and fail to see why the thought world and language of this ritual was so crucial to the NT’s explanation of the cross of Christ, not see how powerfully and beautifully this ritual of the burnt offering reveals to us the nature of Christ’s work and its effect upon God and upon ourselves. No wonder that the father was well-pleased with his Son for giving himself for the redemption of his people and no wonder that by that substitutionary death offered by the divine high priest we are forever reconciled to God.
We may be tempted to think that we know all this already, but brothers and sisters no one has ever got to the bottom of this. It is too wonderful for words. And if you could peer into hell for just a moment, just a moment, you would realize that the fact that such a sacrifice had been made for you was the most impossibly stupendous fact of all.
Florence and I have been going through old pictures from my father’s albums of black and white snapshots from the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. Seeing him as a boy, then a young man, then a college student — I not only didn’t know I still can’t believe that he was a cheerleader during his one year at Bethel College in Newton, Kansas — then a college student at Wheaton, then a seminarian beginning his ministry, then his first pictures with my mother, their marriage, photos from wartime, and on and on through the years of his life. How swiftly it all passes and how quickly our lives fall behind us, out of the memory of almost everyone besides ourselves and then out of our own memory. Had it not been for those pictures, I wouldn’t have even known, much less remembered his cheerleading career! All his immediate family is long since gone, most of the friends who shared the various chapters of his life, now his wife, already one of his children, and not long from now the rest of them.
And what will tell the tale? The cheerleading, the wartime service, the piano playing, the institution building, the life’s work? No, every Christian knows, no matter how often he or she may forget this, every Christian knows that what will make that life into something eternally wonderful, and the only thing, is the lamb that was sacrificed for us, by which sacrifice we were reconciled to God. Leviticus begins with the cross of Jesus Christ. It is going to be one of its principle themes to the end of the book. Israel in those early days would not have understood that as well as we do, of course, but its fundamental principles are all there and very clearly. Someone who made those sacrifices for those reasons was in substance, if not yet in name, nothing but a Christion. The sacrifice of the cross changes everything. It teaches us the truth about ourselves — we are sinners needing to be saved — it teaches us about God, about his love, his justice, and his wisdom, and it teaches us about life, what life ought to be: sacrificial love returned for sacrificial love.
Do you get this fundamental fact about youas that fundamental fact we considered this morning: that you are a creature made in the image and likeness of God? God couldn’t love you unless first he loved the sacrifice given for you! God didn’t want you to forget this, ever to forget this; so he made the burnt offering the daily liturgy of his people’s lives!