Wednesday 26 June 2024

Paul 12




Acts 14:8-15

And there sat a certain man at Lystra, impotent in his feet, being a cripple from his mother’s womb, who never had walked: the same heard Paul speak: who steadfastly beholding him, and perceiving that he had faith to be healed, said with a loud voice, Stand upright on thy feet. And he leaped and walked. And when the people saw what Paul had done, they lifted up their voices, saying in the speech of Lycaonia, ‘The gods are come down to us in the likeness of men.’ And they called Barnabas, Jupiter; and Paul, Mercurius, because he was the chief speaker. Then the priest of Jupiter, which was before their city, brought oxen and garlands unto the gates, and would have done sacrifice with the people. Which when the apostles, Barnabas, and Paul, heard of, they rent their clothes, and ran in among the people, crying out, and saying, Sirs, why do ye these things? We also are men of like passions with you, and preach unto you that ye should turn from these vanities unto the living God, which made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are therein.


The last time I preached on the Acts of the Apostles I mentioned that miracle of Paul’s as he preached in Lystra.  Lystra was a town in an area that today we would recognise as southern Turkey.  To place everything in context. we are talking today about a period of around AD 48-49, that accords with Paul’s first missionary journey, remembering again, how he and the apostle Barnabas had journeyed and preached through Cyprus, crossed over to the mainland of Asia Minor – that is Turkey, over the Taurus Mountains into Pisidian Antioch.  Proclaiming the gospel there – they were forced out of that city – to Iconium, where after a time, under real danger of death and persecution, they travelled 18 miles southwest to Lystra and once again, in spite of all that danger, they continued bravely to preach to that mostly pagan population – to preach the good news of Jesus Christ, to preach the Christian message so that there, it would be heard for the first time.


I think it is worthwhile, our hearing or re-hearing of that account of that miracle that accompanied the preaching of Paul did in Lystra as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles 14:7-10


And there sat a certain man at Lystra, impotent in his feet, being a cripple from his mother’s womb, who never had walked: the same heard Paul speak: who steadfastly beholding him, and perceiving that he had faith to be healed, said with a loud voice, Stand upright on thy feet. And he leaped and walked.


And I think at this point having heard this story we just pause to reflect.  How we might wonder, how do such things come about?  And I think we have to realise, and I remind you once again, that book, that scripture, the Acts of the Apostles could quite easily also be known as the Acts of the Holy Spirit – and we could say this with some conviction – because from the very beginning of this account the Acts of the Apostles this account of the early church – those beginnings of the early Church were infused with a spirit-led ministry.  We know this because Jesus in his last appearance before his disciples had said:


And now I will send the Holy Spirit, just as my Father promised, but stay here in the city until the Holy Spirit comes and fills you with power from heaven. (Luke 24:9)


And we know that this promise came to pass on the day of Pentecost in Jerusalem, when, as the Bible tells us, ‘All the believers were gathered in one place – everyone there as it is recorded in that second chapter of Acts, everyone there was filled with the Holy Spirit – we might remember that Saul (before he became Paul), blinded on the road to Damascus, after his blinding encounter with Christ, three days later received the gift of the Holy Spirit at the hands of Ananias.  Thus, the church in those days was granted the powers – the signs and wonders – that accompanied the preaching of the apostles.  Signs that God was with them. And so now we come to our text, in the aftermath of that miracle.


And when the people saw what Paul had done, they lifted up their voices, saying in the speech of Lycaonia, ‘The gods are come down to us in the likeness of men.’ (11)


When we hear those words ‘The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men’ it is quite apparent, that this incident did not take place in the Jewish synagogue because although Paul and Barnabas would always try to preach first in the Synagogues of each town or city they visited, in Lystra there was no synagogue. So, this preaching of Paul’s would have been at an open-air meeting, and this meeting by all accounts would have had a majority pagan audience.  These pagans in Lystra, in the audience would have no knowledge of the Jewish scriptures, they in fact, in one form or another, very much worshipped the ancient Greek or Roman gods.  We could say that their theology was polytheistic, which means they believed that there were many gods and goddesses and quite a number of other lesser types of supernatural beings too.  The king of all these gods was known as Zeus and the Roman name for Zeus would be Jupiter. The same gods.


This man, then, crippled from birth – publicly, miraculously healed by God, through Paul and through his own faith! And then the text says – ‘and the people saw what Paul had done’ We should be clear about that – not that they heard what Paul had done, but that they saw what Paul had done. 


Think about that:  the impact of seeing it for themselves.  With a Jewish or Christian congregation, the conclusion would simply be that they had witnessed the operation of the Holy Spirit – but the pagans of the ancient world had no such reference, but they did know something about their own gods, the Greek or Roman gods – and this miracle had such an impact on them that they became excited – they lift up their voices – shouting that the gods had come down to then in the likeness of men (11) in human form.


You will recall that on this missionary journey, Paul was accompanied by Barnabas and that he was there when this miracle occurred. We know also, from other sources, that Paul was not particularly tall – and so he was not therefore seen, if you like, as the senior partner – that perception is rather given to Barnabas. It was Barnabas – who was seen on the occasion of this miracle as the king of the gods, Zeus, or Jupiter, because of his taller stature and his dignified or perhaps more noble countenance.  Paul on the other hand they called Hermes (or the Roman Mercury) – the god who is the messenger of the Gods.


Now we come to verse 13-15 which reads:


When the priest of Jupiter which was before their city, brought oxen and garlands unto the gates and would have done sacrifice with the people which when the apostles, Barnabas and Paul heard of, they rent their clothes and ran in among the people crying out and saying “Sirs, why do you do these things?


This was quite an unexpected development – and it seems at first that Paul and Barnabas did not realise what was happening. But in Lystra or just outside the town gates was a temple dedicated to Zeus/Jupiter, and the priest of that temple, like everyone else had assumed Paul and Barnabas were indeed the gods come down to earth and had brought garlands, wreaths of flowers, and bulls to offer as sacrifices.  Barnabas, who had been seen as Zeus, king of the gods, was likely to have been expected to lead them in worship.


Then we have that expression at verse fourteen: when Paul and Barnabas heard this, ‘they rent their clothes’ – it means that they tore their clothes and renting or tearing one’s clothes in the Jewish tradition is seen as a ritual response to blasphemy. So, for example, when on trial before the high priest, Jesus was asked if he was indeed the Son of God – Jesus agreed and said that he was – in response the high priest tore his robe to show his revulsion and said ‘Blasphemy!’ Matthew 26.


What gave impetus to this peculiar happening in Lystra was a tradition – a well-known story, and that story was, that a long time ago Zeus and Hermes (Jupiter/Mercury) had come down into Lystra dressed as beggars – seeking alms, food, and shelter, but there, none could they find.  The whole town turned their back on these gods dressed as two beggars and that would have been the end of it, but two old peasants, Philemon, and his wife Baucis – took pity on them and took them and showed them kind hospitality.  But in judgement the gods destroyed the rest of the population because of their callous indifference, whilst Philemon and Baucis received their reward.  They were made the guardians of a great and beautiful temple, and at the end of their human lives they became two tall, entwining, magnificent trees.  This traditional story was also recorded by the Roman poet Ovid (d. AD 17).


We can see perhaps why now; the presence of Paul and Barnabas should attract such attention. Particularly in view of such a public spectacle of the miracle healing of a crippled man.  Indeed, in the minds of the Lycaonians, what further proof would be required that Paul and Barnabas were in fact the gods Zeus and Hermes. These people knew the legend of Philemon and Baucis. This time they wished to make certain that they would not be condemned to die by the gods for their lack of hospitality.


There is a song that some of wish us might remember – written and sung by James Taylor (1976); it begins:


You can play the games

You can act the part

Though you know

It wasn’t written for you.


I am reminded of these words right now because, you know, potentially after all the stresses and strains, and the threats of death and violence in Antioch and Iconium – here in Lystra, using modern parlance we could say that Paul and Barnabas appeared to have gone from ‘zeroes to heroes.’  They found themselves holding sway over an adulating crowd, a crowd that had become convinced that Paul and Barnabas were divinity itself, even the priest from the local temple – the temple of Zeus, was worshiping them and preparing all the elements of a great celebration so that all due homage could be paid.


When we think about that sort of instant success, we might think how such success could be transformed in to a huge church congregation. How many times have congregations sat in churches, chapels and committee rooms and sought to uncover what it may take to restore their declining and dying numbers?  What is it we might ask that may restore the fortunes of the church?  How can we fill those empty seats with a large faithful and enthusiastic congregation?  You know what many of the churches say today?  They say to do this we must become part of the real world, move with the times – become relevant.  One response to our dying churches has been to employ media consultants, marketing experts or to embrace the secular agenda, or to embrace the current thing like climate emergency or the LGBT agenda – ‘calling our building ‘a chapel’ puts people off’, someone once said – let’s call it the One World Centre, let’s embrace ‘earth centred spirituality,’ paganism, atheism, and have ‘secular services’ and so on, to attract people, and all these ideas at some point have gained traction without much success.  And here we are in Lystra with Paul and Barnabas – it has got to be the media officer's dream, I mean, haven’t they got it made now?  It would surely be tempting, would it not, just to go along with this bonus, this unexpected turn of events, this sudden surge of popularity.


That’s why I mentioned those words of James Taylor ‘You can play the games, you can act the part, though you know it wasn’t written for you. This kind of stuff is just vanity, there’s a falsity to it, like all the rest of the religions of the world, an idolatry.


This kind of popularity, this desire for adulation, to fill the church at any price is a betrayal of the Christian faith, a betrayal of its churches that exist, that were built to glorify God.  It is not written for us to embrace the vanity of Godless atheism, the secular agenda, or the pagan gods. That is why Paul and Barnabas in this final verse of our text exclaim,


‘Sirs, why do you do these things?  We also are men of like persons with you, and preach unto you that you should turn from these vanities unto the living God which made heaven and earth and the sea and all things that are therein.


Turn from these vanities to the living God. Well, the language may be quaint, bit how true is that advice, how relevant today, that we too should turn from such vanities and turn to the living God. To turn from such vanities is to turn from the world, is to repent. The message of John the Baptist, the message of Jesus Christ remains today the same message, ‘Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near.’ Repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.


Wednesday 8 May 2024

Paul 11


And there they preached the gospel.  And there sat a certain man of Lystra impotent in his feet being a cripple from his mother’s womb, who never had walked.  The same heard Paul speak: who steadfastly beholding him and perceiving that he had faith to be healed said with a loud voice ‘Stand upright on thy feet.’  And he leapt and walked. (Acts 14:7:10)

‘And there they preached the gospel’ – so runs the first line of our opening verse.  There they preached the gospel.

Preaching the gospel is really the central thrust of the Church; it was then and it is now.  How important preaching is we can discern from the attitude of the apostles, who made preaching their absolute priority, the apostles who from the very start when faced with an organisational problem of the church said: ‘It is not reason that we should leave the word of God and serve tables.’

These days it’s all too common to hear church people insist that it is more important to open a food bank or to feed the hungry in their community than to go to church to hear the word of God.  But we have these words from the apostles, that statement, ‘It is not reason that we should leave the word of God and serve tables’, in other words: We should not give up preaching God’s message in order to serve at tables. (Acts 6:2) This statement arose from an organisational problem, from a specific controversy between the Palestinian and Hellenistic Jews of the early Church. It was claimed that the widows of the Hellenistic Jews were not being treated equally. From this problem, the primacy of preaching and prayer for the church going forward was established.  And it’s not that those in need were neglected.  It was always the case that those in need should be served and that was done, that was taken care of as an organisational question but those in the role of spiritual leadership said:

But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word (4)

The ministry of the word.  What a great expression – the ministry of the word. In his letter to the Romans (10: 17) Paul wrote:

 So faith cometh by hearing and hearing by the word of God.

So here we are shown the importance of the ministry of the word – faith cometh by hearing and hearing by the word of God.  The preacher then, is merely the messenger and as Paul says in his letter to the Romans (10: 15):

And how shall they preach except they be sent?  As it is written, how beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace and bring glad tidings of good things.

I am reminded of the story from the Gospel of Luke (5: 11) where we find Jesus preaching by the lake of Galilee.

And it came to pass that, as the people pressed upon him to hear the word of God he stood by the lake of Gennesaret.

They pressed upon him to hear the word of God – the emphasis on the word is writ large, so the emphasis in the Church is on the preaching of the word.  Again, the preaching of the word!  And so now we come back to our text.  We have followed Paul and Barnabas so far from Antioch Syria to Cyprus to Antioch in Pisidia, then to Iconium and now fleeing persecution and certain death in both Antioch and Iconium Paul and Barnabas arrive in Lystra some eighteen miles down the road.

Not a great distance at all, considering the growing number of enemies who wanted to kill them as a means of silencing them, but would they be silenced?  Well, our text says not.  They escaped certain death by stoning in Iconium and came to Lystra and ‘And there they preached the gospel!’

I mean, it wasn’t anything different than what they had preached in the other cities, the same message, winning some to Christ to this new and growing Christian movement and gaining some deadly enemies at the same time.  But, they did not falter. And It’s not as though they went to a marketing company or a communications company in an attempt to dress up or soften the Christian message in order to make it more palatable to Jewish or Pagan ears.  Can you imagine that?  It wasn’t possible for them to do that because the Christian message is really a ‘my way or the high way’ kind of message. What did Jesus say? 

I am the way the truth and the life.  No man comes to the Father but by me. (John 14:6)

This makes Christianity an exclusive religion.  There is no other, there is no other way.  If you are in any doubt this you have only to go to Paul’s letter to the Galatians (8)

But though we or an angel from heaven preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.

When you think about those uncompromising words of Paul, you really do get that sense of Christianity as a ‘take it or leave it’ religion.  There really is no halfway house, these words of Jesus, these words of Paul are the scriptural foundation of the Christian faith.  But we never hear the churches reiterate the bedrock of its own teachings these days.  These days it is all about ‘moving with the times’ as they say - as these weak, pathetic church leaders put it.  They are not speaking for GOD, they are not preaching the gospel, they are speaking for the flesh, in no way are they speaking for Christ, they are speaking for the world.

As we know, these professing liberal Christians are really preaching a different gospel than Paul ever preached, that is why they, to use Paul’s words, 'they are accursed.'  So when Paul and Barnabas arrived in Lystra they preached the gospel not to make themselves popular but to preach the word of God, not to talk about ‘inclusivity' or to preach ’diversity’ in the way that the world and its governments and tame Church leaders proclaim it today.  But to preach that uncompromising message that offends so many people today as it did then. Jesus is Lord. I mean, who really wants to hear that and who really wants to hear the word of God?  It’s safer of course to compromise, to make friends with the world, to tell them what they want to hear, but in the letter of James (4: 4) there are these words that read:

Whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God.

 Or, as Paul in his preaching put it:

For do I now persuade men or God Or do I persuade to seek to please men?  For if I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ.     (Galatians 1:10)

We know that Paul and Barnabas in their preaching exerted a tremendous power not just through their spoken word, but because God was with them, because they were granted signs and wonders to be done by their hands.

Incredible though that might seem, it is much more believable when we consider that the Judaeo-Christian God is a God who is active in the lives of his people.  If God ordains that something will happen, then it will. Thy will be done, as we say in that perfect prayer, the Lord’s Prayer. Thy Will be done. And so, we have this amazing story, this healing by Paul of a crippled man.  It came about as a result of Paul’s preaching in Lystra.  Let’s look at our text again:

And there sat a certain man of Lystra impotent in his feet being a cripple from his mother’s womb, who never had walked. 

So, we have this statement, it’s quite clear, straightforward, and unambiguous.  Here is a man who for some reason was born with some abnormality in his feet that would not allow him to walk.  We only have that information, we don’t know whether he could get about by leaning on someone else or on crutches or whether he just had to be carried about everywhere, but to be clear, as the text informs us, he had never walked.  And this man happened to be where Paul was preaching; and again, we don’t have the detail.  It appears that there was no synagogue in Lystra and it’s assumed that there was only a small Jewish population but there was a Temple just outside the city that was used for the worship of the Greek God Zeus.  We know for certain that Paul would not be preaching there.  We can be sure of that!

So, it’s very likely that the crippled man was basically attending an open-air meeting at which Paul was preaching, and if we look once more at the text, we have these words: 

The same heard Paul speak: who steadfastly beholding him and perceiving that he had faith to be healed


They say a picture is worth a thousand words and I think here we do get a very clear picture of the dynamics, of an interaction between the two men.  We have Paul preaching, a crowd, a crowd of listeners and the crippled man in close proximity to Paul, in his line of vision and essentially, we have Paul looking straight at the man.  Now we know that Paul, days after his experience of meeting the risen Christ at Damascus, chastened and humbled was anointed by the Holy Spirit. 

As to how it works Peter wrote these words:

Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God that he may exalt you in due time

Consider that phrase ‘that he may exalt you in due time.’  There is so much that depends on the grace of God.  Let us remember Paul and Barnabas at Iconium how giving on testimony to the word of God’s grace ‘that they were granted signs and wonders to be done by their hands (14: 3)

We might wonder what such signs and wonders what such occurrences may look like, or perhaps even wonder what they may feel like.  I would say that these signs and wonders are moments in time, as though a portal has suddenly opened in which God the Holy Spirit enters and brings all things together. They are moments of realisation.  Everything in one movement, one seamless transition, everything comes together, a holy moment of awe and majesty and the thing is done.  Paul preaching with the abandonment of humility totally given up to God and then that connection with the crippled man in the crowd who is somehow transmitting his own faith and openness who is then observed by Paul and then Paul saying with a loud voice

‘Stand upright on thy feet.’  And he leapt and walked.

Such were the powers, the miracles granted to the apostles of the early Church.  We have, you may know, the story of Peter and John (Acts 3: 3-11) in which again, a man, lame from birth, was begging for money at the Temple gate – the gate known as Beautiful.  Peter looked directly at the man and said ‘Look on us, and the man looked at Peter and John expecting to get some money, but Peter said:

‘Silver and gold have I none, but such as I have, I give to you – in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk’ Peter lifted him by the right arm and his feet and ankle bones received strength – he leapt up and walked into the Temple with them, And the people who saw that this man could walk were, ‘filled with wonder and amazement.’  We should not forget that it has often been argued that the book, this book from which we are taking our lesson, the Acts of the Apostles, could also be called the Acts of the Holy Spirit.  We should see this in the arrival of the Holy Spirit alighting upon the disciples at Jerusalem during Pentecost, perhaps more accurately we could say that the Acts of the Apostles describes a spirit filled ministry.  I said of the signs and wonders that they are moments in time when the Holy Spirit brings things together, brings them to completion.  We can think of that completion in the creation story, in the beginning ‘when darkness was upon the face of the deep and the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters’ Moving things on and bringing them to completion. The action of the Holy Spirit.

Now as we close, returning once again to Paul and Barnabas in Lystra to their preaching to the signs and wonders that have been granted particularly to Paul and to his ministry, we may get a sense of the unfolding of God’s plan when. Of how important in God’s plan Paul was. Before Paul became an apostle, God said of Paul ‘He is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles and Kings and the children of Israel.’ We cannot overestimate the power of God and the legacy of Paul’s ministry.

Tuesday 16 April 2024

The Scapegoat


Leviticus 16:20-23

And when he hath made an end of reconciling the holy place, and the tabernacle of the congregation, and the altar, he shall bring the live goat:

And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness:

And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land not inhabited: and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness.

 I will repeat that last verse that reads:

And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities into a land not inhabited; and he shall let the goat go into the wilderness.

Today we have turned to the Old Testament, to Leviticus, that book that deals with the old Jewish religious laws. 

What we have read deals with the ritual of that law, its description and how it was meant to be carried out.  The most obvious thing about this religion was that it was a sacrificial religion.  At one stage, we might say in the early development of Judaism as it arose from a pagan world, that it engaged not only in the sacrifice of animals but potentially, engaged in that of human sacrifice too.  In the book of Genesis 22 we have God’s initial instructions to Abraham to offer up his son Isaac to offer him up, to sacrifice his only son, as a burnt offering to God.  We know though that it was God’s intention that in the event this should not come to pass, because God uttered these words saying:

Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou anything unto him. for now I know that thou fearest God seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me (22:12)

Thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me. There’s a resonance here with a text from the New Testament a text that readily springs to mind, which are these words from the Gospel of John (3:16)

For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.

But there the similarity ends because Jesus’ death on the cross took place and was an act of sacrificial love.  We see this in the words of Jesus when he says:

Greater love hath no man than this, that a man may lay down his life for his friends (15:13)

Or, I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd giveth his life for his sheep.  10:11

What can we say about Abraham, Abraham who loved or feared God enough to offer up his beloved son as a sacrifice?  I think we can say that in the context of the story of Abraham and Isaac, that Abraham had a particular relationship with God, a relationship that I think would have evaded most of us, so perhaps we cannot make a judgement.  But we can say that that relationship of Abraham to God led to God’s judgement, a judgement as always, a judgement of infinite wisdom and love.  I think before we go any further it has to be said, though perhaps it hardly needs saying that Abraham’s sacrifice of his son Isaac did not take place, and secondly the death of Christ on the cross was a once and for all sacrifice and as Paul said in his letter to the Hebrews (12:2)

Jesus endured the cross, despised the cross and is now set down at the right hand of the throne of God.

So, having alluded to the story of Abraham and Isaac and the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ we stay with the theme of sacrifice, and we return to our reading from Leviticus - the story of the goat.

In fact, that particular ordinance described in the Mosaic law in Leviticus, is about the ritual slaughter and sacrifice of animals it was thus ordained that the priest, Aaron could only enter into the holy places of the tabernacle (the holy tent) after he had offered a young bullock as a sin offering and a ram as a burnt offering.

Later in that same ritual, at the same event, two goats would be presented before the Lord at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation (7).  Then lots would be cast to decide which of the two goats would be ritually slaughtered as a sin offering. 

What we may ask now, becomes of the second goat? The goat on which the lot did not fall.  And herein lies the story of the scapegoat.  In modern life, of course, we have all heard that expression, ‘the scapegoat’, and we know what it means when it is said in day-to-day conversation, or on the news, we know what it means when they say that a particular person, a certain individual is being scapegoated for political or corporate failure.  In American slang that person becomes the “fall guy” for a failure, a failure that’s really integral to the organisation, or a failure caused by someone else’s poor decision making at the most powerful level or levels of the organization or the company or even the government. A fall guy, a scapegoat to take the blame.

 So, for those two poor goats waiting outside the tent of the Tabernacle there is no good news, one is going to be slaughtered and offered up as a sin offering before being eaten and the other is going to become the ‘fall guy’; the scapegoat. Now we come to a curious bit.

We know, don’t we, that William Tyndale (1494- 1536) was the first to translate the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into English?  Well, it was Tyndale who invented that word, the ‘scapegoat’, bringing it for the first time into the English language because actually there was no equivalent for the word in Hebrew.

So how does this scapegoat thing work out?  Well in Tyndale's, I suppose more humane reasoning, the goat who wins the lottery so to speak, (doesn’t get selected for immediate slaughter) becomes the scapegoat – it means the goat gets to escape, hence the term scapegoat.  But of course, the poor old goat doesn’t get off Scot free, because as we have seen the sins of Israel at that yearly event would be symbolically placed on a goat’s head by the priest and that goat would then be driven into the wilderness. 

To the assembled watching congregation, we can easily see that this very visual ritual, this powerful symbolic act, could help to unite people in their faith and to ease them, in the short term at least, from their perceived burden of sin, it could help to alleviate their troubled consciences.

That scapegoat carrying all their sins away.  A bit like standing at the window watching your wheelie bin being emptied and that dust cart carrying all your rubbish away – till next week.

But, back to the scapegoat, the fall guy in this scenario – the innocent animal that carries the sins of Israel, far away into the wilderness.  Now, there are other interpretations of this story, for example in Jewish legend a there’s tradition that says that the scapegoat did not get to be released into the wilderness but was thrown from a cliff and killed as a sacrifice to the demon Azazel the idea being that the sins committed are thus returned to Satan.  But I suppose, whichever way we look at this question, the blood of an innocent animal is still used to expiate the sins of the guilty.

The scapegoating mechanism is really fundamental to the human condition.  It exists in all times and places.  I once read a story of a country where when things went wrong, as they would, from time to time – that the common response would be then to blame the devil saying, “the devil’s in it”.  In that country, one day a farmer was driving a cart full of produce to market, when a wheel fell off the cart.  Without thinking the farmer shouted ‘the devil’s in it’ Later that day the farmer arrived at the market only to be met by the devil who asked him “Why did you blame me when the wheel came off your cart?  I’ve been told what you said, but I was nowhere near you at the time!” 

That simple story may give us pause for thought and to reflect on those words of William Shakespeare who wrote, and I paraphrase “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves”.

What do I mean? Well, I’m sure you’ve worked it out. When I say to you that when we cannot find an external solution to an inner problem when really the sin, the deficit, the mistake, call it what you will, belongs to and resides within each one of us, it’s always easier and more convenient to blame external forces or outside of our control. We conveniently forget that in some way we too need to look closer to home, to find the source of the problem, to look to ourselves and to shoulder the blame or responsibility. 

This blaming and looking down on others is really part of the hypocrisy of religion that Jesus confronted, but we are not done with the theme of sacrifice yet.  We do not forget that recurring Christian symbol, the holy lamb of God is the lamb who is sacrificed on the cross for our sins.  In the Gospel of John, verse 1:29, John the Baptist greeted Jesus’ arrival on the scene with these words:

Behold the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world!

If we examine that statement, we realise that the Lamb of God takes away not the sins of the world but the sin of the world and the sin of the world is to project our own sins or shortcomings onto others.  It’s called hypocrisy and it means when we blame others or point the finger at others we remain in the shadows of our own darkness and imperfection.  In other words, this is what Jesus meant when he said (8:12) 

I am the light of the world; he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness but shall have the light of life.

The purpose of the light of the world was to reveal the glory of God to us, to see in that light, his perfect holiness and then see our own imperfections, in that pure light, see our own sins, and to repent.  Not sin that we can project on to the head of a sacrificial animal, or lay on someone else rather than ourselves, but rather our own sin which we need to own and to see that, through confession, through repentance, through believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, we may truly be reconciled to God and by His grace be forgiven.

That saying, “the lamb of God who taketh away the sin of the world”.   I know, you might be sitting there trying to work it all out.  And Jesus knew that his disciples, ordinary people like you and me might have some difficulty in understanding so he summed up the blindness and hypocrisy, the sin of the world when he said:

They shall put you out of the synagogue yea the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service.

And we can see that’s true, there are religious killings taking place today and everyday throughout the world by men who think that they are doing God’s work, killing others in the name of God because they too are in darkness.  You might say well, I’m not responsible for that, or well, I wasn’t there when they crucified the messenger, crucified the Lord Jesus Christ, I wasn’t there with the mob crying for his blood, but the question is where are you today, where are we today, as we look back at Easter now and remember Jesus’ cry from the cross:

Father, forgive them for they know not what they do (Luke 23:34) 

The question is this: have we turned to the light of Christ, have we been convicted of our own sin or are we still in the darkness? One word: repent!  Let us give thanks to God for Christ, the light of the world.

Photograph: William Holman Hunt, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons