(Silent) May the words of my mouth
and the meditations of my soul
be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
Today is a special day for four young people in our congregation. Ashley, Morgan, Allie, and James—you are about to receive an incredible gift. The value of this gift is beyond anything you can possibly imagine. And the amazing thing about this gift is that you’re going to be able to unwrap it time and time again during your lives; and every single time you do, it will be brand new. And as time goes on and you continue to unwrap this gift, I pray that you will gain an understanding that each time you unwrap it, it will continue to surprise you.
And I offer that same prayer for each of us today. I pray that each time we receive this gift and unwrap it, it will continue to surprise us.
Two thousand years ago a very special group of people came together with their teacher—a young rabbi named Yeshua bar Yusef. We know him better as Jesus son of Joseph—Jesus of Nazareth—Jesus Christ, the Son of God. These people—and it was probably men and women—came together for a meal that was in remembrance of a night unlike any other night. They came together for a Passover Seder. They were Jews—one and all, and it was the beginning of Passover, the Jewish festival celebrating an event that had taken place over 1200 years before that night, so 3200 years ago. They were celebrating the time when God had delivered the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt; a time when the Angel of Death had passed over the homes of Hebrew families; a time when they—as a people—had passed over from slavery into freedom.
What this special group of people didn’t know that night when they gathered for that meal, was that they were going to receive a wonderful gift from that young rabbi. From that night on, the people who had been gathered for that meal would never again view that meal in the same way. You see, that young rabbi was about to make a sacrifice—a sacrifice that was amazingly different from any other sacrifice those people had ever experienced or witnessed. It would be a sacrifice that would forever change their relationship with God. It would forever change OUR relationship with God.
When you think of a sacrifice, what do you think of? What do you picture? I wonder what we would consider a sacrifice to be today. Ashley, Morgan, Allie, and James—I wonder what “sacrifice” means to you? Does it mean giving up something that you enjoy? Does it mean doing without something that you’d really like to have? I think today—in the 21st century—we don’t have a real understanding of what sacrifice means.
But at the time of this particular Passover Seder—this meal that was being held two thousand years ago, the people knew what “sacrifice” meant—in its most literal sense. “Sacrifice” literally meant that some living creature—usually an animal—was going to die. The people of Israel very commonly sacrificed animals on the altar in their Temple. Very rich people might sacrifice a bull. People with less money might sacrifice a lamb or a young goat. The poor might sacrifice a pure white dove. The animals would be killed and their blood poured out on the altar. Of course, today we would consider such an act to be barbaric. We would be horrified by such an act.
But sacrifices of animals were considered to be necessary in order to please God. In earlier times than that, it was also common to sacrifice children in order to please a god. In fact, in the 22nd chapter of Genesis we read about God—our God—commanding Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac. But then at the last second, just before Abraham sacrifices Isaac, God stops him and gives Abraham a substitute for the sacrifice—a sheep caught by its horns in a bush.
So, for these people—the people of Israel—the concept of sacrificing something was not a symbolic act of simply giving up something they want; it was a very real, and a very dramatic act. It involved the shedding of blood to atone for the sins of the individual or the group making the sacrifice. But notice something here; notice something very important. The blood being shed was not that of the person making the sacrifice. It was the blood of an animal being shed to pay for the sins of the person making the sacrifice.
Again, to us—here in the 21st century—this may sound barbaric and primitive, but it was a crucial part of the belief system of that time. It was a crucial part of their faith. However, on that night two-thousand years ago—at that Passover Seder—all of that was about to change.
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Now, you’re going to hear these words again in a few minutes but I want you to listen right now to what that young Rabbi—Yeshua—Jesus—said at that dinner that night. Matthew, Mark, and Luke record this moment in their Gospels and Paul describes it in his first letter to the Corinthians. Listen to how Paul describes the moment:
“The Lord Jesus on the night in which he was betrayed took bread. When he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, ‘Take, eat. This is my body, which is broken for you. Do this in memory of me.’ In the same way he also took the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink, in memory of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:23-26).
Think about what Jesus said in that moment. He wasn’t talking about the body and blood of some animal that was going to be sacrificed to make things right with God. He was talking about HIS body and HIS blood. There was no animal going to be sacrificed. HE himself was going to be the sacrifice.
There’s a really special word that Jesus uses at that moment. He talks about HIS blood being the newcovenant.
Do you understand what that means? A covenant is an agreement—a contract if you will. A contract or a covenant is an agreement between two people or between a person and a group of people or between groups of people. It’s an agreement that binds the people or groups together in order to accomplish something.
I’ve heard people joke about signing important contracts in blood. When somebody says that they’ve signed a contract in blood, they don’t mean it literally, but they do mean to emphasize the special importance of that contract. Well, Jesus is not saying that he is signing this contract—this covenant—with his blood; he’s saying that his blood IS the covenant. And who is this covenant—this contract—with? It’s with God. It’s an agreement with God. But the next important question should be—”What is this agreement all about?”
And that’s where the gift and the surprise come in.
Before this night, people had had other covenants with God. Abraham had had a covenant with God and had sealed the agreement with a sacrifice of animals. The sacrificed animals were a symbol of the agreement between God and Abraham. But Abraham himself was not the sacrifice; the sacrifice was the animals.
But on this night, at that meal, Jesus was saying crazy things. He was talking about HIS body and HIS blood. He was talking being the sacrifice himself. His friends who were with him that night must have looked at each other with confusion and probably with fear. What was Jesus talking about? He was giving them bread and saying it was his body. He was giving them wine and saying it was his blood. What was he TALKING about?
The next day they knew. The next day Jesus was killed—he WAS the sacrifice that he had been talking about. And his friends were stunned; they were in shock. Their world seemed to come crashing down around them. The teacher that they loved was dead and they were in fear for their own lives. But while they were stunned and in shock his death was only the beginning of the surprise. On Sunday morning, they got the rest of the surprise. Jesus came back to them. He rose from the dead. He had defeated death and sin and was once again alive. Then they began to understand what had happened at that Seder meal. They began to understand what Jesus was talking about at that meal.
So, let me try to explain it to the four of you today—Ashley, Morgan, Allie, and James. And perhaps we can all have a better understanding of what Jesus was saying that night and what Jesus did for us the next day.
The purpose of a sacrifice is to make thing right with God; to gain forgiveness for our sins. But as humans all we have to sacrifice is the few things that we have—our possessions. And after we sacrifice something, we sin again. So, we would have to keep on sacrificing time after time after time. And we could never sacrifice enough. We could never become right with God. So God, understanding that, came down to earth as Jesus. And Jesus became one of us; he became human. But he was also God at the very same time—both human and God.
So, when Jesus died on that cross, it was God dying on that cross. It was God sacrificing himself for us. It was God who became the ultimate sacrifice in order to make things right with God. That’s the gift you’re receiving—that’s the incredible sacrifice. But here’s the surprise. In the 15th Chapter of John, Jesus says:
“This is my commandment, that you love one another,
even as I have loved you.
Greater love has no one than this,
that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:12-13).
Jesus loved us so much that he was willing to die for us. If he had been just a man, just a human, it would have been an incredible sacrifice of love. But Jesus is more than just a man; he is God. It was God who sacrificed himself for us. And in that sacrifice—that single, one time only—never to be repeated sacrifice—Jesus died for all our sins for all time. And that’s what Jesus was talking about at that meal when he said, “This bread is my body; this wine is my blood; the new covenant.” His body and blood are the agreement, the covenant between God and all people that all our sins have been forgiven. Nobody on earth could have made that covenant with God. Only the Son of God—Jesus—could have made that covenant.
So, when you come up here today—when each of us comes up here today—to join in this Eucharistic meal—know that you are receiving; just as those friends of his did 2,000 years ago; know that you are receiving the body and blood of Jesus, the covenant between God and you that your sins—all of them—are forgiven. Know that, just as in Baptism, you have been claimed by Jesus Christ for all time, and that he loves you so much that he was willing to die for you. That’s the surprising gift that Jesus has given you.
Let us pray.
May the love of God, which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus; God incarnate, our savior and our redeemer who saved our lives with his life.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2010 Daniel Brettell. Used by permission.