Well, as I was preparing for my sermon this morning, I was looking at the readings and I was struck by the sight on the front cover of our bulletin – a picture of two pristine white, perfect looking doves. We see this image and it makes us feel good. Why? Well, the answer is simple. We are lovers of beauty.
Vacation ads beckon us to see the beautiful beaches of the Florida coast. Designers entice us with beautiful makeovers or beautiful dresses or beautiful shoes. Marketers use pictures of beautiful women to attract the attention of men. Planners use flowers and plants to make beautiful weddings and beautiful occasions. We are lovers of beauty. It really just cannot be helped.
It's human nature really. We focus on the visual and we're attracted to what we see. And the way many view religion is no different. Most of the pictures of Jesus you see are beautiful; churches try to make their worship beautiful, their buildings, their facilities. You've heard that cleanliness is next to godliness, but beauty just might be closer still. At least, it seems that way.
The ancients appreciated beauty too, but their lives weren't so structured around it. As we see in our Gospel reading today, they were also observers of the Holy. The book of Leviticus was given to the Israelites to teach them about such a life with God. They learned that God was holy and that they could not approach Him directly because they were not. They had broken His Laws and His commandments and there would have to be payment for this. There would have to be death. Death was the payment for breaking the Law of God. But for a while God permitted offerings to be made by shedding the blood of an animal.
Now, the two birds you see on the front of the bulletin cover are a thing of beauty to us. They invite our protection as well as our hope. We are fascinated by them. Just this last week, Pope Francis was joined by two children on his balcony who released doves that were quickly chased by larger predatory birds. The world held its breath, hoping these two beautiful doves would get away – and they did. Beauty survives and we all feel better.
But the ancients looked at the doves you see on the bulletin cover quite differently. These animals were not meant to inspire coos and sentimental feelings; they were meant to be offered up to God in blood sacrifice and that's exactly what the priests of Israel did. This was how they went about their worship of God. This is how they approached Him.
The ancients understood that God could not be moved by what was pleasing to the eyes. Their approach was about offering up to God a life in place of their own. It was the only way God could be approached. The Law stated that the penalty for sin was death and so that's what the ancients offered. They gave the life of an animal to God in place of their own. And so these doves would not have been seen as objects of affection, but rather as offerings of atonement.
The thought of that is nearly intolerable to us – how can you sacrifice these beautiful little birds? They seem like pets to us. Most of us don't even want to know where our food comes from. We need to be removed from that process to maintain our palettes. And there are actually a lot of things about our world that we don't want to know about either -- like the poverty of how other people live or the suffering other people endure or the pain they feel. We don't want our world of beauty shattered by a reality that isn't so pretty. We want everything to look beautiful because beauty brings us comfort and peace.
But beauty also disconnects us from reality. Beauty can hide; it can conceal. It can at times mislead and it can provide us with a false sense of security—making us think everything is ok when it really isn't. Beauty can cause us to overlook needs that we shouldn't or not to see things that we should.
The ancient Israelites could live seeing a picture of sacrificed animals on the covers of their worship bulletins. We cannot. And so in a sense, we are also removed from the understanding of sacrifice and worship. To the Israelites, true worship of God involved nothing else. It was prescribed by Leviticus; it was done for the birth of a child, for an offering to God, for purification purposes. It was seen as far back as Genesis as Cain approached God with an offering of sweet smelling fruits while Abel approached Him through a sacrificed animal from his flock. Cain's offering was rejected, but Abel's accepted. Sacrifice was as natural as breathing to the ancients because it was a part of their everyday spiritual lives.
Of course, every year, they also went to Jerusalem for the Passover and every family bought a lamb to sacrifice to celebrate their deliverance from the Egyptians when God rescued them from slavery. The blood of the Lamb there too was given in place of the blood of the firstborn, whose lives the angel took when the Law was brought against all of Egypt.
And all of this is important to know because to know the meaning of sacrifice is to know the cost of sin. It is to know what the Law of God demands for payment and it is to know how you approach God. This is why our worship revolves around the death of Christ as payment. It was His sacrifice that gives us the right to approach God directly. At Calvary, the blood of the Lamb was shed again. But unlike the Old Testament, this offering would not need to be repeated. It would not need to be done again and again. Christ's one sacrifice would be sufficient to cover the sins of all people for all time.
And this sacrifice was no dove or goat or bull. It was God Himself in the flesh, who was born under the Law, lived a perfect life and died in our place. So once again, a life other than the sinner was given. This life was perfect and pleasing to God. It was devoid of all corruption. And this is why Jesus could give Himself for us, standing in our place and receiving the punishment that was meant for us.
And we partake of this sacrifice every time we receive the sacrament. The Lord's Supper is our Passover. It is our way of approaching God through sacrifice. If you would've been there to see Jesus crucified, you would not be moved by a sight of beauty. Crucifixion was gruesome. It would be far more unbearable for us to watch that than seeing two doves sacrificed.
Because sacrifice involves the taking of a life. It involves agony. It is not of thing of beauty. It is rather the ugliest of all realities. But at the same time, it helps us to understand the price that was paid for sin. It helps us to see the love of Jesus who was willing to endure such humiliation and pain for the sake of the world He wanted to save.
Beauty doesn't bring us salvation. It looks good; it feels good; it seems good and we can appreciate the beautiful things that God creates in this world. But Mary and Joseph bring these two doves to be sacrificed today in order that God's will would be followed and His holiness observed. Only through the shedding of blood could things be made right with God. Only through the shedding of blood could humanity be restored. Your eyes and heart might be moved by beauty, but your body and soul can only be saved by sacrifice.
The blood of Jesus makes you pure before a Just and Holy God. You can now stand before Him on the Day of Judgment without fear over the unchristian life that you have led or the horrible things that you have done. A sacrifice has been given in your place and that sacrifice exempts you from all punishment, death and eternal suffering. To gaze upon it might sicken you, but to ponder it, is to see how beautiful the love of God really is. In the Name of Jesus. Amen.
Pastor Chris Bramich