|"The Crucifixion with the Converted Centurion" |
Wednesday, March 6, 2013
Come to Calvary's Holy Mountain
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Our hymn of the day invites us to “Come to Calvary’s Holy Mountain,” and we shall a little later in this sermon. But in order to truly appreciate Mount Calvary, we must first travel to two other holy mountains—Mount Sinai and Mount Zion, for without knowledge and experience of those two other mountains it is difficult, if not impossible, to know and understand Mount Calvary.
It is about 1446 B.C., the third new moon after the people of Israel had gone out of the land of Egypt. The Lord God has led His people to safety through the Red Sea. Pharaoh and his army have been wiped out by the collapsing walls of the sea. The Lord provides bread from heaven and water from the rock. By pillar of cloud and fire, He leads the people to the foot of Mount Sinai, a large, rugged, full-fledged mountain in the desert badlands of the Sinai Peninsula.
The Lord instructs Moses: “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments and be ready for the third day. For on the third day [I] will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. And you shall set limits for the people all around, saying, ‘Take care not to go up into the mountain or touch the edge of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall be put to death.’” Sinners cannot approach a holy God without being destroyed.
On the morning of the third day there are thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast. Moses brings the people out of the camp to meet God at the foot of the mountain. Mount Sinai is enveloped in smoke because the Lord has descended on it in fire. The smoke of it goes up like that of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembles greatly. And as the sound of the trumpet grows louder and louder, Moses speaks and God answers him in thunder, speaking the Word we know as the Ten Commandments.
The people are afraid and tremble, and they stand far off and say to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.” Moses says in response, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of Him may be before you, that you may not sin.” The people stand far off, while Moses draws near to the thick darkness where God is.
God graciously gives the Israelites a tangible experience of His presence so they will take His commands seriously. Luther comments: “God deals with us this way that we may be able to bear His presence. If He were to come to deal with us in His true person and majesty, we would be lost. No one would believe it if He were to utter a word strong enough to resound from heaven to earth. No one would be able to endure a voice as great and powerful as the one on Mount Sinai, when He spoke with trumpet blasts amid a great display of thunder, with the entire mountain on fire and enveloped in smoke” (AE 22:308).
Speaking through His servant, Moses, God reminds His people how He had graciously rescued them in the exodus. He impresses them with His majesty and presence. He gives them His holy Law under which they are to live as His holy people. And He establishes a holy covenant with them to guide their service as “a kingdom of priests” and seals it by sprinkling the blood of bulls on them.
Yet, there is, in this old covenant, an inadequacy. Oh, not on the part of the covenant, not from God’s side, but from ours. God’s Law, like God Himself, is holy and just. Therein, lays the problem. We are not. We are not holy and just. As we just sang, we are “sinners, ruined by the fall.” We are “wounded,” “impotent,” “blind,” “guilty,” “troubled,” polluted,” “soiled,” and “unclean.” We are poor, miserable sinners who justly deserve God’s temporal and eternal punishment. Human sin means that the Law, a reflection of God’s own righteousness, always condemns us. The only way we will ever be able to come into God’s holy presence is if He provides a new covenant with a New Mediator.
Fast forward five centuries to Mount Zion. It is the fifteenth of Ethanim, the seventh month of the Jewish calendar. King Solomon has assembled the elders of Israel, all the heads of the tribes, and the leaders of each household to Jerusalem. The priests bring up the ark of the Lord, the tent of meeting, and the holy vessels that were in the tent, to the newly built temple. They sacrifice innumerable sheep and oxen. The priests bring the ark of the covenant to the inner sanctuary of the temple, the Most Holy Place. There is nothing in the ark except the two tablets of stone that Moses put there at Mount Sinai, where the Lord made a covenant with the people of Israel, when they come out of the land of Egypt.
As the priests come out of the Holy Place, a cloud fills the house of the Lord, so that the priests cannot stand to minister because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord fills the house of the Lord. Then Solomon says, “The Lord has said that He would dwell in thick darkness. I have indeed built You an exalted house, a place for You to dwell in forever.”
Standing before the altar of the Lord in the presence of all the assembly of Israel, Solomon spreads out his hands toward heaven, and says, “O Lord, God of Israel, there is no God like You, in heaven above or on earth beneath, keeping covenant and showing steadfast love to Your servants who walk before You with all their heart, who have kept with Your servant David my father what You declared to him. You spoke with Your mouth, and with Your hand have fulfilled it this day. Now therefore, O Lord, God of Israel, keep for Your servant David my father what You have promised him, saying, ‘You shall not lack a man to sit before Me on the throne of Israel, if only your sons pay close attention to their way, to walk before Me as you have walked before Me.’”
Solomon goes on to pray for mercy for God’s people throughout history, with a remarkable emphasis on original sin and depravity, repentance and forgiveness, exile and restoration (1 Kings 8:46-50).
Following his prayer and benediction, the king and all Israel with him, offers sacrifice before the Lord. Solomon offers as peace offerings to the Lord 22,000 oxen and 120,000 sheep, and then holds an eight-day feast for all the people.
Still as spectacular as was the temple with the presence of the Lord, and as impressive as was the massive amount of blood shed by cattle and sheep that day and in the days and years to come, it is not enough. Just a Solomon prophesied, God’s people reject Him time and again. Finally, the Lord leads them into captivity in Babylon. By God’s grace, and for the sake of His holy name, some repent, and God brings them back. Even when we are faithless, He remains faithful. He will once again dwell among His people on His holy Mount Zion.
About 1,000 years later, the people are gathered in Jerusalem for another feast—the Feast of Passover. A procession leads out of Jerusalem to a place called in Greek, Golgotha, or as we would translate it in English, ‘The Skull,” or in Latin, Calvary. The sinless Son of God, a descendant of kings David and Solomon, is led like a Lamb to slaughter. The King of the Jews is nailed to a cross-shaped altar and throne. And He is taunted by those who pass by: “You who would destroy the temple and rebuilt it in three days, save yourself!” “He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him.”
And darkness settles over all the land from the sixth hour until the ninth hour. And Jesus cries out in a loud voice, but the people are not near as afraid as they were when God’s voice thunders on Mount Sinai. Perhaps it is because God is not here as Jesus cries, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?”
He says, “It is finished,” and yields up His spirit. And behold, the curtain of the temple on Mount Zion is torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shakes, and the rocks split. The tombs are opened and the bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep are raised, and coming out of tombs after His resurrection they will go into the holy city and appear to many.
Ironically, it is not God’s people, but the centurion and the other Gentiles with him, keeping watch over Jesus, who see all that takes place, and are appropriately filled with awe. “Truly this was the Son of God!” they say.
Mount Sinai was a holy mountain. For that is where God made His presence known to the people of Israel. That’s where God established His holy covenant and the sacrificial system. That’s where God spoke His holy Law through Moses.
Mount Zion was holy as well. For it is on that mountain, in His holy city Jerusalem, that God established His presence in the temple, His holy house, where the priests served as mediators between God and the people in their role of offering sacrifices and prayers to God on behalf of the people.
Both Sinai and Zion point to Mount Calvary—the holiest mountain of all. To be sure, there was nothing impressive about Calvary itself. To call it a mountain, is to be generous. It was really little more than a hill. What makes it holy is what happens there: the sinless Son of God gives up Himself into death and suffers hell for the sins of the world. The only Man to perfectly keep the Law trades His obedience and righteousness for our sin and rebellion. Jesus pours out His holy blood to wash away our sins. Here is a Word better than the Law. Here is a sacrifice better than burnt offerings. Here is blood better than bulls.’
The Old Testament Law and the sacrificial system were only a shadow of things to come. Those animal sacrifices only hinted at the “good things” of salvation that Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice would bring. The Law only served to show us our sin and our need for a Savior. To turn back now from Christ and the Gospel to the shadow would be like preferring a photo to the real person!
Because those sacrifices were only shadows, they needed to be “repeated endlessly year after year.” For centuries the ritual on the Day of Atonement was the same. Yet repetition did not bring remission of sin. Animal sacrifices made no one “perfect.” They could not take away sins.
“To take away” means to remove something so completely that it is no longer in the picture. That’s what man needed done with his sins, what animal blood is incapable of doing. To try removing sin with animal blood is a futile as attempting to build a mountain to the moon with teaspoonfuls of sand. No, don’t look back at those Old Testament sacrifices. They couldn’t remove even a speck of sin’s guilt, but only pointed ahead to Christ, whose perfect sacrifice would remove it all. Look at Him! Don’t try to climb your way up to God by Mount Sinai or Mount Zion. Come to Calvary’s holy mountain!
The author of Hebrews uses the Old Testament Scriptures to prove his point. We have to marvel at how he, under the Spirit’s guidance, sees Christ, David’s greater Son, speaking to the Father in that psalm. “Sacrifices and offerings You have not desired, but a body have You prepared for Me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings You have taken no pleasure. Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come to do Your will, O God, as it is written of Me in the scroll of the book.’”
Sacrifices of any kind—whether animal sacrifices or meat and drink offerings, whether voluntary “burnt offerings” that thankful people brought to the temple or the required “sin offerings”—were not what the Father desired. Rivers of animal blood and mountains of animal carcasses were not either—though God had commanded them in the Law. Also, God could not be pleased with just the outward repetition of such sacrifices if willing, obedient hearts were not behind them. What God desired was that to which all those Old Testament sacrifices pointed: the willing, obedient sacrifice of His Incarnate Son.
“A body You have prepared for Me” refers to this willing sacrifice. The author favors the Septuagint translation of Psalm 40:6. In the Hebrew it reads, “My ears You have pierced,” referring to ears opened and made responsive to God’s will, while the Septuagint paraphrases the thought to a body prepared to follow God’s will. However we translate, the thought is the same—a Messiah, lovingly, obediently, perfectly following the Father’s will, a Messiah who says, “Behold, I have come to do Your will, O God, as it is written of Me in the scroll of the book.” God’s will was that His Son would make full and final sacrifice for sin, and the Son’s will perfectly agreed. He delighted in carrying out His will.
Could those Hebrew Christians miss the point? More importantly, do we miss the point? This quotation from David’s psalm with the heavenly conversation it contains emphatically shows that Christ “does away with the first in order to establish the second.” The Levitical sacrifices have been abolished. Christ’s sacrifice, willed by the Father and agreed to by the Son, has taken their place. To go back to what has been abolished or even to claim equal place for work would be eternal folly. It is Christ’s sacrifice for sin or nothing.
Come to Calvary’s holy mountain, all of you sinners ruined by the fall. Come in sorrow and contrition. Come with sickness and hurts and guilty consciences. Come with restless hearts and troubled minds. Come as beggars who have nothing to offer. Come to the cross of Jesus Christ!
For that’s where your sins are paid for by Christ’s once-for-all perfect sacrifice. That’s where you’ll find the full perpetual tide that flows for you from Jesus’ open side, in the water and the blood. Christ has washed away your sin with His holy, precious blood in your baptism. He has clothed you in the white robe of His righteousness. He feeds you His covenant of blood under the bread and the wine, His very body and blood given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith. Here, you will find true health of body and soul unto life everlasting. Here, you will find life that lasts forever. Here you will find your Savior Jesus Christ, died and risen for you.Here, you may come into the Lord’s holy presence, and hear Him speak this glorious Good News: I forgive you for all of your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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