The Impossible Religion: Purpose

Straight-Road

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This reflection series,  “The Impossible Religion,” reveals five specific problems that people have with the gospel of Jesus. These impossibilities arise when Christianity is a religion to achieve, rather than simply the “good news” of grace and redemption that will naturally transform us. Christianity outside of Christ’s redemption is in fact impossible, but with God nothing is impossible. For the next five weeks, we’ll go through Scriptures from five different areas of the Bible in order to confront these impossibilities:

Impossible Purpose (Revelation 4)

The Book of Revelation is one of the most difficult books in the entire Bible to read and understand.  It is filled with symbolism that is not only hard for us to picture mentally, but hard for us to understand spiritually.  Amidst the creatures, events and objects found throughout John’s vision is one simple image repeated: a Lamb on a throne.

The lamb is actually absent from Chapter 4, appearing first in Chapter 5.  However, what we do see is that the throne in the vision is important and extremely valuable.  The throne is the centerpiece of heaven.  The throne is the reason for everything surrounding it.  Without the throne nothing else matters, and nothing else makes sense.

In the first section of this series we learned about the Nazirite vow, the vow of complete and unwavering devotion to the most-high God.  We also learned that the Nazirite, in a life of selfless sacrifice and devotion, was ever aware of the shortcomings of the human heart in the “Creator-Creation” relationship.  Although these individuals devoted themselves to living for God completely, they knew that regardless of all of the sacrifices, actions and words, they could never overcome sin through deeds of their own.  The presence of sin in a life of pure devotion is due to the broken original covenant between God and man. Something had to be done in order to reconcile the sin in each of us with the overwhelming presence and purity of God.

The way in which the ancient Israelites acknowledged this need was through animal sacrifices.

When I read the Bible for the first time I was caught up on certain issues that left me scratching my head in confusion and disbelief.  Certain things made sense and certain things were understandable, albeit foreign to me.  Animal sacrifices were one issue that I wrestled with, and I eventually resigned this area of scripture as a subject left in mystery.  I simply could not understand the need or purpose for such unthinkable amounts of animal death.

I love meat (and I actually love lamb). However, my animal-loving self sided with all of these helpless lambs being sacrificed for the sake of human sins.  It simply did not seem fair.

Imagine you pull out of a parking lot and scratch the car parked next to yours, causing visible damage.  As you evaluate the damage done to the other car, the owner of the damaged car arrives and sees that you are responsible for the damage. You have been caught as the responsible party, and prepare yourself for the repercussions.  But the owner spots a young child walking by and places the responsibility of paying for the damage on her (stay with me here). Now, the owner claims, it is the child’s responsibility to pay for the damage.

Naturally, we would protest and demand that the responsibility be placed back where it belongs, and to let the child go free.

This is how I viewed the lambs.  I felt that to put the mistakes of a man on the life of an innocent animal seemed cruel and unfair.  Until, that is, I found what awaited me on the hill called Golgotha.

There are many references to Jesus as a “lamb” in the Bible, whether directly or through implication.  John the Baptist referred to Jesus the first time he saw him as, the Lamb of God.  Isaiah referred to the Messiah as being, “led like a Lamb to the slaughter.” Also, Jesus hosted a Passover dinner with his disciples that distinctly required the presence of Lamb on the table to be served, however, at this particular Passover meal there was no Lamb to be found except Jesus saying that it was his duty to be “broken for them.”

The timing of Jesus’ execution was also interesting, given that on the Passover the Lamb was to be sacrificed by each family to remember the protective qualities of the Lamb’s blood on the doorframes during the Exodus that protected each Israelite from the plague of death and brought them into new life in the promised land.  Each sacrificed Lamb on Passover was to be sacrificed without defect or broken bones.  In an attempt to hasten the death of the criminals adorning the crosses on Golgotha, the knees of all but one were broken.  Jesus’ bones were left untouched. Not until I saw Jesus fulfill the role of the sacrificial Lamb did I gain perspective on the animal sacrifices of the Old Testament.

I reflected on my sympathy for the innocent lambs, and was confounded by the fact that hanging on the cross was not an animal, nothing in common with myself.  The sacrifice hanging on the cross was a human being.   This man understood the words of those who sacrificed him.   He understood the realities of the suffering and injustice he was facing.  Above all, he was slaughtered with love and prayers on his lips for those who deserved no such compassion.  He had no place being hung from a tree, and every right and reason to demand justice and freedom from such a responsibility.  Yet, the story unfolded differently: “the Lamb” remained silent.

In Revelation 4, we find a magnificent throne, adored and praised by all in its presence.  On the throne sits a Lamb who willfully gave his life for a creation that willfully chose to sacrifice him.  It is the throne toward which all Scripture points, and it is on the Lamb who occupies it that all creation rests.  Without the Lamb, without Jesus, Christianity is in fact an “impossible religion.”  Without Jesus we are instantly overburdened by the expectations of our faith.  Without Jesus, the standards are impossible to reflect in our daily lives.  Without Jesus, we will never trust this stranger God with our everything.  Without Jesus, we will never be changed by the claim of resurrection beyond momentary inspiration or habitual tradition.  Without Jesus, the purpose of our lives, why we are called to live the way we are, will ever remain unknown to us, and will collapse under doubt and distrust.

Christianity is not an impossible religion.  At its center is a God who came to us as Jesus Christ in order to share with us “the good news.”  This good news claims the power to transform a life that goes beyond our power to change ourselves.  Because of the slain Lamb, this “good news” claims things that no other religion dares to.  The God of creation lowered himself to be one with us.  He called himself Immanuel, God with us.

As the final hours of his life drew near, Jesus told Governor Pilate that “everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”  Christianity is impossible only if we refuse to listen to this truth.  If we choose to stop and listen to the message, Christianity has the power to achieve the impossible.

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