Leviticus 16:21-34; Hebrews 9:1-14; Matthew 21:1-17; 23:37-39
If you’ve turned on the news or read a newspaper in the last few years, you know that the temperature of the earth’s atmosphere and oceans has begun to rise due to human industry. This global warming, or climate change, is associated with an increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which creates a “greenhouse effect” by keeping more of the sun’s heat in our atmosphere and reducing the amount of heat that gets reflected back off the earth’s surface out into space. Now, my sermon this morning is not about stewardship of the environment or the care of creation as an aspect of discipleship (worthy as those subjects are), but about something entirely different that this phenomenon can help us to understand. So stay with me as we talk about something called a “carbon-sink.”
A “carbon-sink” is what they call something that collects and absorbs carbon dioxide like a sponge or reservoir, rather than producing carbon dioxide. The main natural carbon sinks are the oceans and plants that live by photosynthesis, like trees. Scientists have been developing models for various ways of increasing the oceans’ capacity to retain carbon dioxide, and have been focused a lot of attention on the importance of reducing deforestation and planting new forests. A single tree absorbs an average of about one ton of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere over its lifetime, and releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere when it is cut down.
So you see, carbon dioxide sinks collect and drain away carbon from the atmosphere, but now the drains are full and the carbon’s not flowing out of the atmosphere as quickly as it had. And the world’s middle class, the number of people in currently in the middle income rank in the world’s economy who have electricity and drive a motor vehicle (remember the U.S. stands among the richest), is projected to double by 2050. While this may be mitigated by new technologies, it will also take changes in the living standards and habits of those of us in the U.S. to stabilize. It’s a problem of limits and the way we use resources, it’s a problem of our relationships with our neighbors around the world, and it’s a problem of our appetites and faithless fears.
God gave the Temple sanctuary to ancient Israel as a “carbon-sink” for sin and impurity. It’s important to realize that the sanctuary and the sacrifices made there were for sin and moral impurity, but also about ritual impurity (things like contact with blood and other body fluids, contact with dead bodies, skin blemishes). Ritual impurity named things in creation disordered from their standard health, you might say creation “out of sorts,” which meant danger and the forces of chaos trying to overwhelm God’s created order. Ritual impurity also named coming too close to forces of life and death that could overwhelm us human creatures; in today’s world, for instance, things that might make us “impure” in the way understood by ancient Israel could be uranium (get too close to it, and this naturally destructive power will poison you) or genetically modifying a virus into a biological weapon (you might think you’re managing nature, but nature has its own boundaries which put you in danger when you cross them). Sin and disorder and death could pollute the community and the land and kill, if it were not removed. The Temple was the sink for collecting it, a magnet that could pull injury, wrongdoing, and disease from the land and the people, and sacrifice was the conduit for draining such impurity out of the Temple “sin-sink”.
While the Temple sacrifices drew in sin, death, and chaos, the Temple radiated out healing and peace, because the eternal God, who is the source of all good and life, chose to dwell there among his mission people. God sought to be at home in that place with that people, as his home. And for the good God of life, God’s home would be free from sin, death, and chaos, even among such broken, faithless, failing people as his turned out often to be. Through the priestly rituals and sacrifices, the drain in the sink kept working to purge the sanctuary of its impurities, so God would continue to be at home and not abandon the Temple and people to their doom. Evil and chaos would never go unaccounted, even when individual sin was not immediately punished, but it would accumulate and fill up in the sanctuary until either it was made right with repentance and reparations in the sacrifices God prescribed, or the basin would overflow with chaos and death, and the community would be destroyed. The planet gets hot, there’s droughts, floods, millions die.
There have been various attempts to explain how that drain of sacrifice “works,” why it’s done and how it accomplishes atonement with God. In some ancient societies, sacrifice was about providing food for the god, or about gaining some of the life force of the sacrificed animal. In some, it was a way to achieve union with the god, or to entice and persuade the deity to give the offerer help. In the Old Testament, much sacrifice (first-fruits offerings, tithes etc.) are gifts to God that signify God as creator and owner of all one’s property, or of joyful gratitude for God’s generosity. In sacrifices of which meals are part, it is a sealing of communion and fellowship. Some sacrifice averts God’s wrath and intolerance of sin, as it covers death-dealing works with blood, the substance of life. Since the life of the sacrificed animal is represented and embodied in the blood (in the way that today one’s life it is represented and embodied in one’s DNA), the life in that blood can cleanse and wash away death and sin from the Temple. Thus the smearing and sprinkling of blood on the altar. To deal with something as serious as death, there is a cost, and the price is life. So for bringing death or impurity into the house of God and endangering the community, a peace-offering or guilt-offering sacrifice is a reparative payment. You might see this as a kind of carbon-tax like some folks pay; they use a calculator to figure out how much carbon per month they’re putting in the atmosphere with their driving and electricity and other fossil energy consumption, and then they pay a group to plant enough trees or build enough windmills to make up for that amount of carbon dioxide release. It’s a tax to repair the damage done, a sacrifice to cover death with life, and acknowledging that all life comes from and is valued by God.
The goat who is not killed for blood for cleansing, but who receives as a transfer from the priest the sins of the people and is sent into the desert, carries the sin away to the realm of chaos away from God’s people – like the people who propose piping carbon dioxide into the bottom of the ocean or into seams of coal deep underground, creating more carbon sinks. While inadvertent and careless sins by individuals and the community were addressed as they occurred by sacrifices at the outer altar and shrine, sending them down the sink drain, the accumulated deliberate and persistent sins of the people contaminated the Holy of Holies, the very Ark of the covenant, the throne-seat of God. And on the Day of Atonement, once per year both the sanctuary (the Holy of Holies) and the people were purified and the sink scoured of the grime that accumulated and festered at the bottom of the sink.
That ark (or box) containing God’s covenant with Israel, was covered by a lid called the “mercy-seat,” representing the throne of God. Israel came out of the wilderness carrying an empty throne, a throne only for God, declaring to all the world they had no king but God, and centering its life on that empty throne as God’s gift of his own presence. This “seat” for God’s redeeming, life-giving presence in the midst of his people, could be threatened by the accumulation of sin’s pollution if not cleansed. This might sound like superstitious magic to modern people, but Old Testament scholar Jacob Milgrom gives a good illustration of the way sin and corruption on the part of people accumulates and pollutes widely. Both indirect sin and deliberate disobedience contribute toward that pollution that drives off God’s presence. He asks, “What of the silent majority of every generation – the Germans to tolerated the Nazi rise to power and territorial aggression, and the peoples of the free world who acquiesced in silence?” He cites a 2001 news report that during the years of World War 2, IBM inadvertently aided Nazi Germany by selling it advanced technological equipment that compiled and sorted information, and he says, “Those who aid, abet, or unconsciously participate in the furtherance of crimes against humanity have their own responsibility.” Milgrom characterizes the moral pollution of our world in our abuse of the creation, our turning away from the carnage of murder that we know is happening around the world, our deliberate choice to ignore what it demands of us. (Leviticus).
Jump ahead 1300 years after the exodus, a thousand years after Solomon’s Temple, to the time of Jesus. On Palm Sunday, Jesus comes as Israel’s king unlike the kings of this world’s order, coming humbly without an army or even a security detail. All his ministry in Galilee, forgiving sins, cleansing lepers and the sinful, healing the wounded, he had served as a walking, talking Temple, radiating the grace and goodness of God apart from the Jerusalem sanctuary. Jesus had come as God’s replacement Temple, God’s new avenue for bringing peace and life, to extend it as God’s kingdom breaking in on the whole world. And after arriving in Jerusalem, he continues his healing work, but confronts the temple directly, disrupting the business being done and denouncing it as a den of violence and dishonesty instead of a home for God where God could be met in prayer. Shortly after this, in fact, he would declare the imminent destruction of the temple and Jerusalem, lamenting that it had become a place of murder instead of peace. He declared, “See, your house is left to you, desolate!” The drain had backed up, the sink had overflowed, and God had left the house. By the authorities’ rejection of him and his ways, they showed it was too late. The Temple leadership rejected the peace and restoration that he offered with healing, as the Lord of the Temple. By Friday, the Temple leaders who had been entrusted with the symbol of God’s kingship, would be telling the Roman governor “We have no king but Caesar” in order to kill Jesus.
As the preacher of Hebrews tells us, Jesus willingly and courageously accepted that death as God’s way to offer cleansing to all the world. As both high priest and faithful sacrifice, Jesus brought purification for all death-dealing works. In his suffering and death, he became the ark, the visible sign of God’s presence and rule. He became the sacrifice that could wash and bear away all our resentment, ambition, and lust for more. Why did it have to be his blood, to make what Hebrews calls “an eternal redemption”? That’s a mystery in part, much as 25 years ago the first warning I read about global warming acknowledged that it was unknown and incalculable just how much carbon dioxide the oceans could absorb, and unknown how close we were to the limit. But I think in part it’s because all the death and sin at work in our lives – our pride and pushback against others, our indifference and hardness toward others’, our excessive hungers and desires for pleasure and security and recognition, our possessive anxieties and lies that we tell ourselves and others – all this wretched damage that keeps backing up the drains of our lives and turning our world into an open sewer – it all finally wants to drive God out, to kill God. Every act to injure another or rule by our own power is finally oriented toward putting God on a cross and being done with him.
When the preacher who wrote Hebrews composed this, he was seeking not only to explain to his church what Jesus had done, but to assure and comfort this people who wanted to live in communion with God, to know peace with God, to feel free from all obstructions between themselves and God’s love, that Jesus had done that for them. In our society today, and in our churches, many would just want God to go away, many try to reduce God to an expression of our own priorities and values. So even those good priorities and values, such as the worthwhile safety concerns of the Temple leadership and their commitment to the spiritual drain-maintenance of the Temple system, if unable to respond to the voice of God overturning those priorities, will put God on a cross rather than change.
Our acculturation to and acceptance of the suffering and lies in the world around us as business-as-usual condemns us, and one can still hear Jesus lament, “How I would gather you to myself and embrace you, but see, God has abandoned your house and left you desolate.” We must come to see our complicity in the brokenness of the world, how our petty pollutions and weaknesses spread and poison the lives of others and poison God’s purposes in the world. And then we can see that it was not just the Temple authorities or Pilate that killed Jesus, or even the crowds crying “Crucify him,” or the soldiers that nailed him to the cross. It was us. And when we allow ourselves to be touched by that, to be touched by that blood, then because it was HIS blood that brings only life to any sin and death, we are brought by Jesus into his own communion with God. Because it was finally God’s blood that was needed to overcome death and sin, there is no sin or death that it cannot overcome. There is no pollution, no failing that must keep us from fellowship and communion with God. For unlike our earthly ocean, in which there is a limit for our pollution at which we will reap judgment, there is no bound to the depth of the eternal ocean of God’s love. Jesus has taken the judgment, the polluting consequences of our sins and failures, upon himself and sunk them into the grave with his own life, and brought us freedom and hope, in his own life. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Amen.