The Cross 3
The idea of being clean through and through. Body and soul and mind. Pure, white as snow is very appealing isn’t it. To be clean, fresh, light and clear. That’s what we’re thinking about today.
As we’re approaching Holy week and Easter in this season of Lent we are thinking about the Cross; the death of Jesus and what it achieves;
It Rescues us from Judgement
Redeems us from Slavery
and today we’ll see that the Cross removes our Dirt and Shame
Cleanses us through and through.
The Bible has a radical way of describing this.
It talks about the BLOOD of jesus - which is another way of speaking about his death - cleansing us. Cleansed by blood!
It’s a Strange image..
Blood leaves one of the hardest stains to remove. We forget that, living in the era of daz ultra and ariel automatic. But in an age that knew little if anything about detergents blood would mark the end of a cherished garment - ruined. This idea then ..Revelation 7:14 ‘they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb’”must have been doubly startling for their original readers.
The cross, the death of Jesus, his blood - cleanses..
Now, the OT book of Leviticus, from which our reading came, is the Bible preparing us to understand the cleansing of the cross through the laws and instructions given to Israel about the problem and the removal of uncleanness.
The people of God, Israel, redeemed from slavery in Egypt, are living in the desert and God teaches them how to be his people and one of the strange things you notice is that there is almost an obsession with the idea of cleanness and purity ..
certain animals are clean and can be eaten, others are unclean and so were not to be eaten. contact with a dead body, human or animal, makes you unclean for a period of time.
if you’re a woman who is menstruating, or who has given birth, or if you’ve just had sex, or if you have other bodily discharges - you are unclean for a time. It’s not necessarily a moral thing you’re just unclean.
if you have a skin disease -you are unclean and have to announce your presence when you’re out and about with the words ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ !!!
and it’s not just people.. places and objects could be made unclean - homes, clothes, utensils and would either need to be destroyed or made clean again..
what’s this all about?
some have argued that what we have here are primitive hygiene laws.. some may have been helpful others we now know were utterly unnecessary and in fact unnacceptable..
worse still, it’s priests who are given the crucial role in assessing what is clean and what is not! this seems to reinforce the primitive nature of things. In the days before doctors and other medical personel, clergymen often acted as principle advisers on health matters. Today, mercifully, things are different..
But I don’t think that the Bible implies that these laws on cleanness and purity were first and foremost about health. The reason the priests were involved was because these laws and behaviours in the community were pointing to an uncleanness more serious than being unwell or physically less than whole.. God is teaching us here about an inner, spiritual, heart uncleanness..
Listen to the words of Jesus in Mark 7 . He’s speaking to his disciples:
18 “…nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them.19 For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.) 20 He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. 21 For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, 22 adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. 23 All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”
Jesus says there is a spiritual uncleanness within the human heart which spews out thoughts and attitudes and behaviours that are evil - that is they fail to love God and others, they are self serving and destructive. These things defile us. They pollute our lives..
Existentially - the way these things defile us is through deep seated feelings of shame and fear and dislocation..
Right at the beginning of the Bible in Genesis 3 when our human parents, Adam and Eve, reject God’s authority and eat the forbidden fruit.. choosing to do life their way… they experience fear.. they hide from God when he comes for his daily walk with them in the garden; where before there was trust now there is fear.. they experience overwhelming shame .. before their sin, we’re told that the man and woman were naked and felt no shame.. now they cover up with fig leaves. They’ve taken God’s place - decided to run their lives and immediately they feel totally out of their depth and out of place - a psychological dislocation - shame. and they are alienated from one another - they shift blame. before they had perfect fellowship but community is now wrecked..
so sin defiles with shame and fear and dislocation
these things of course are complex just as in leviticus sometimes the things that defile are not things of our own doing so in part it will not be our sin that defiles us but the sins of others.. wrongs that have been done to us.. or the good that was withheld us.. sin, whether our own or someone elses defiles us..
and it is very difficult to remove this sense of defilement of dirtiness..
Trevor Nunn the veteran theatre director famously said that Shakespeare had ‘more wisdom and insight about our lives’ than any religious tract. I would argue that the two are not mutually exclusive. Wasn’t Shakespeare reflecting on the Bible’s teaching of the stain of sin as Lady Macbeth scrubs and scrubs her hands to remove spots of murderous blood that she can still see? ‘What, will these hands ne’er be clean’
But the book of Leviticus goes further still. The defilement of sin results not just in debilitating feelings of shame but in separation from God..
When Israel camped in the wilderness they pitched their tents with a clear boundary around the campsite and at the very centre of the camp was God’s tent - the tabernacle: God present among his people. The tabernacle itself had clear boundaries, an outer court, that gave way to an inner court, from which could be entered the holy sancturay and then at the centre the holy of holies. Now no one could enter the holy of holies where the ark of the covenant, God’s throne was - a great thick NO ENTRY curtain hung at the entrance. Well, one man on one day of the year could enter but we’ll come to that.. Priests who worked in the inner court and holy sanctuary could only enter there after ritual washings and bathings and putting on clean clean clothes.. People who, according to those instructions we talked about earlier, were temporarily unclean could not come into the outer court at all. And people and things who were very unclean were put outside the camp completely! The place of shame.. This exact set up was repeated when Israel later settled in the promised land and God’s tabernacle became the Temple at the centre of the walled city of Jerusalem.
You see what it was teaching?
That God is clean.. Pure.. Holy. That people are unclean, impure, not holy. we cannot come into God’s presence as we are. His holiness would consume our impurity like Fire consumes hay!
So here’s the problem - defiling feelings of shame, fear, dislocation point to a deeper problem of alienation from God. That if unchecked will go on and on forever..
We desperately need to be cleansed, to be washed clean.. Well thank God that he is the God who removes our shame.
It would be an interesting exercise to do a word search of the Bible and search for all references to dirt and uncleanness. A Biblical theology of dirt.. the Problem of sin. Then do a word search for ‘cleanse’ or ‘water’ or ‘fountain’ and what you’d see as the OT story unfolds are promises of cleansing begin to come. The OT forsees a day when, as the prohoet Zechariah puts it, a fountain will be opened to cleanse people from their sins..
And the fore-taste of that promise is here in Leviticus 16. The sacrificial system of the temple and the day of atonement. How could sinful people approach a holy God? How could the offence of their sin be taken away so they could come to God? Answer: Through sacrifice - an animal dies in my place. The goat/lamb - same thing- It bears the wrath of God against my sin for me. And I am therefore free to approach God. Do you see? In a real sense - Everything is cleansed by the blood of the lamb..
Did you notice in the reading the second lamb/goat? The scapegoat. The scapegoat, the second lamb illustrates the effect of the first lamb. lamb number one pays for my sins which means - lamb no2 - that my sins, my defilement has been removed from me far away - as far as the east is from the west that’s how far he has removed our sins from us. And removed from God my sins no longer stand in the way of knowing God.
Jesus Christ in his death on the cross he is the lamb whose blood cleanses
The NT book of Hebrews shows us how Jesus is the fulfilment of the OT sacrifices. Hebrews 13v11. ‘The high priest carries the blood of animals into the most holy place as a sin offering there’s the idea of sacrifice - the blood of the lamb is payment in my place. But look at what the payment is for - uncleanness. the verse continues but the bodies are burned outside the camp. And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood.’
What’s it saying? It’s saying that God himself, Jesus Christ is the sacrificial lamb and scapegoat, paying the penalty for all our uncleannesses and bearing them away. This is the wonder of the gospel. That Jesus, the perfect, pure, clean eternal son of God.. became the most filthy, defiled, polluted being that the world has ever seen as he hung on the cross bearing our uncleannesses in order to pay their price and remove them. He was sent outside the camp. He did it for us. It is his death, his blood that makes us clean. He is the fountain opened to cleanse us from our sins. And when he breathed his last on the cross the gospel writers tell us that the curtain in the temple barring the way to the holy of holies that great ‘keep out’ sign - was torn in two from top to bottom.
There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Immanuel’s veins. And sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains.
So 2 crucially applications
First. Be cleansed. Jesus shed his blood for your cleansing. To remove the stain that separates you from God. Have you thrown your life upon Jesus Christ - The faith that unites you with his saving death? Do that. be cleansed.
Second. Be deeply cleansed. Cleansing has been accomplished at the cross for all who would trust in christ. Accomplished. Objectively - in Christ you are clean. But cleansing then needs to be applied to our hearts - to our fear, our shame, our sense of alienation from God and one another.
All of us, to a greater or lesser degree, still carry shame in our bodies. The shame that comes from our sin or from the sin of others. For example if, for whatever reason, we didn’t really recieve the love from our parents that we needed we can be left in a place of shame about ourselves and our presence on earth. ‘something’s wrong with me, i’m unwanted, i’m just a burden’ The thought of further burdening people by asking for help fills us with shame so we’re Isolated and Independent having to create an unassailable place of safety within ourselves. Avoiding rejection, disappointment, challenge, detection is exhausting and impossible and we may end up seeking relief in addictions which only add to our shame!
And worst of all we struggle to grasp God’s grace or even need it. We can’t believe that grace includes us - in fact we can usually make a very strong case for it not applying in our case. We may feel ambivalent, we don’t really want God - we keep him at arms length. And yet if we can stop this inner protest for a moment, quieten our hearts, we realise how barren our souls are, how much we need God’s blessing.
So Shame needs to be renounced. It is not ours to carry. It belongs to Christ on the cross. We need to intentionally name shame for what is is and pass it over to God to take for us. In exchange we can make room and receive our inheritance of honour and blessing and security from God.
Maybe try this, try writing a letter to God outlining your shame - naming the things. And then leave it at the cross. allow Jesus to bear it for you and wait to receive back your true honour and comfort and peace right into your whole being replacing your shame. It’s something we may need to repeat as more surfaces.
The book of Hebrews 12v15 written to the whole church says: “See to it that no-one misses out on the grace of God.” See we are here for each other. I’ve said to you before that if we can share our hidden struggles with a trusted friend shame cannot survive. the opposite of addiction is not sobriety but connection, community. We need one another.
Let me end with this:
In the parable of the prodigal son, one of the reasons the father is looking for the son is so that he can run to meet him. This is regardless of the humiliation of a stately gentleman lifting his robes and quickening his step that society would have felt at the time. The scene would have played out in front of the whole community, who knew of the son’s disresepect to his father, they would have been ready to lynch the son should he ever dare to show his face there again. But the father made sure that he reached him first and so dictated very clearly the terms of his return - the father took on the humiliation so that the son could come home with dignity.
Jesus has taken the path of total shame to secure our return to the father’s house. And he will be with us as we make our way to the cross and he will meet us there with his resurrection and healing. He makes me clean.