Monday, December 27, 2010

From Advent To Atonement

It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, saying, "I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters, in the midst of the congregation I will praise you." And again, "I will put my trust in him." And again, "Here am I and the children whom God has given me." Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989
The cradle of Bethlehem often gets in the way of us seeing the cross on a skull-shaped hill. Throughout Advent we explore the expectation and birth of our Savior. Sometimes, despite our most disciplined efforts to remain balanced during all this concentration on the sweet babe in a picturesque manger, the cross of Golgotha almost disappears.
It happens innocently enough; the cross becomes camouflaged in the wrapping paper, lights and tinsel. Unwittingly we rush through the malls and online gift-getting, all the while not suspecting the insidious capture of our focus; we are turned away from the violence of the sacrifice to the sweet caresses of Away in a Manger and Little Drummer Boy. Turned to the dark side, Skywalker!
For some of us in the “Grinch category” (and I can be that way without provocation), our trip away from Christmas’ true meaning means becoming worn-out and testy, grumping our way through the buffet lines of cookies and fruitcake.
But, for all of us, sentimentalists and grumps alike, Advent and Christmas can become a test of endurance – almost an Iron Man Triathlon event; we may wobble a bit, but if we’re still standing, physically, emotionally and financially on December 26th, we claim victory and vow it will be different next year! Sure it will!
We can be like the small boy whose family had just come home from another endless gift-hunt; it was way-past dinner time The little guy was instructed to say the grace over a micro-waved plate of leftovers; he prayed, thank you, God, for this...stuff, and forgive us our Christmases as we forgive those who Christmas against us.
Personally, I am more likely to wind-up frazzled than enamored with the crush of holiday activities. But, either way…whether you’re partied and pumped, or over-amped and pooped, this time of year calls for a course correction.
The writer of Hebrews uses a word (v.17) that calls us back to the genuine focus of Christmas – hilaskomai is translated as “atonement” (ἱλάσκομαι - to conciliate, that is, (transitively) to atone for (sin), or (intransitively) be propitious:—be merciful, make reconciliation for.[1]). With that word we move from the Christmas tree to the cross. Atonement is what happened to our sin problem on the cross; it is what blotted-out the stain of original sin. God was merciful towards all human beings in doing something which was impossible for us to do – forgive our sin. To be forgiven is not something anyone can do for himself; it has to come from the outside.
The “simple” definition (if there is to be anything simple with so complex an issue) is that we are all guilty of sin – God knows it and, because of His righteousness, must judge it – but God chooses to forgive us by grace. The “debt” of sin is still a reality – someone must “atone” or pay the price; God decided to do just that by coming to us and dying for us.
That’s what the manger was about; that’s the reason for the cross! God came in grace and mercy to do something about our sin. He didn’t come so we could sing about the sweet little baby, born in a stable – he came to die a violent sacrificial atoning death…so we could live!
The Difference
Two true stories illustrate the difference between life with or without the forgiveness Jesus came to bring with his Advent and Atonement:
Life without Forgiveness
In Bristol, England nearly 20 years ago… 10 ten year-old boys led a little toddler down a railway embankment and smashed his head in, leaving his body on the railway line. The story of the killing of Jamie Bulger was one of those events which made everyone look again at what it means to be human. These were just children, yet they were capable of this. Neither were they psychotic. Nor were they any more disturbed than many other children. The anger and desire for vengeance that came up against them was almost tangible…. Now there is a chance that they may be released. They were children at the time of the murder. They have spent the rest of their childhood away from their families in an institution, locked away from the rest of society. Jamie Bulger’s mother wants them to be locked up for the rest of their lives — arguing that her child cannot walk free back into her arms. They took her son’s life, they should not have their lives. Even if they are released, there is a strong risk that they might get killed by vigilantes, so in one respect they will never be truly free.[2]
Our sin is just as “first-degree” as that group of boys who snuffed out the life of a toddler. And, we are just as captive by the penalty of our sin as they are of their prison made with iron bars. Without forgiveness, we are slaves to sin and death; no chance of parole from eternal death! Forgiveness requires atonement.
The Forgiven Life
The second true story is from Dr. Maxwell Maltz, a famous plastic surgeon:
One day, a woman came to see Dr. Maltz about her husband. She told the doctor that her husband had been injured while attempting to save his parents from a burning house. He couldn't get to them. They both were killed, and his face was burned and disfigured. He had given up on life and gone into hiding. He wouldn't let anyone see him - not even his wife. Dr. Maltz told the woman not to worry. With the great advances we've made in plastic surgery in recent years, he said, I can restore his face.
She explained that he wouldn't let anyone help him because he believed God disfigured his face to punish him for not saving his parents. Then she made a shocking request: I want you to disfigure my face so I can be like him! If I can share in his pain, then maybe he will let me back into his life. I love him so much; I want to be with him. And if that is what it takes; then that is what I want to do.
Of course, Dr. Maltz would not agree, but he was moved deeply by that wife's determined and total love. He got her permission to try to talk to her husband. He went to the man's room and knocked, but there was no answer. He called loudly through the door, I know you are in there, and I know you can hear me, so I've come to tell you that my name is Dr. Maxwell Maltz. I'm a plastic surgeon, and I want you to know that I can restore your face.
There was no response. Again, he called loudly, Please come out and let me help restore your face. But again, there was no answer. Still speaking through the door, Dr. Maltz told the man what his wife was asking him to do. She wants me to disfigure her face, to make her face like yours in the hope that you will let her back into your life. That's how much she loves you. That's how much she wants to help you!
There was a brief moment of silence, and then ever so slowly, the doorknob began to turn. The disfigured man came out to make a new beginning and to find a new life. He was set free, brought out of hiding, given a new start by his wife's love. It's a dramatic expression of human love that gives us a picture, however faint, of the saving love of Jesus Christ, what we call the Atonement.[3]
That’s what this table is for…atonement, because of the great love Jesus has for you; it brings forgiveness and freedom…for you! So, come and dine…In the name of the Father, because of the Son, cooperating with the Spirit. Amen.
[1] Strong’s Hebrew and Greek Dictionaries ©2003, QuickVerse
[2] quoting Paul Roberts, “Sacrifice of blood and lives,” November 19, 2000, Cothan Parish Church Web Site, Reprinted with permission.
[3], quoting Maxie Dunnam, This Is Christianity (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 60-61.

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