“I’ll Take Your Place”

Keith McFarren

February 21, 2021

Romans 3:23-26


 


     Hanging in one of many museums in Amsterdam is a beautiful etching by the Dutch artist Rembrandt called The Three Crosses.  It is a beautiful yet sobering depiction of Jesus on the cross, with the two thieves hanging on either side of him.  The painting is composed of dark grays and blacks to show the sullenness of the moment, but there is also a beam of light coming down from heaven, signifying the coming of God’s holy kingdom into a world that is dominated by sin.


     It’s a beautiful picture, but what is most fascinating about it can be found off to the side of the etching.  One has to look very closely, but there he is.  There, in the dark shadows of the three crosses is a solitary figure…barely recognizable, with his face buried in his hands as though he is overcome with emotion.


     Scholars aren’t exactly sure who the person is, but most agree that this grieving person is none other than Rembrandt himself, a man overcome with emotion because of the role he played in Jesus’ crucifixion.  In the picture, Rembrandt wants the world to know that he, like each and every one of us, was responsible for the sins that ultimately put Jesus on the cross.  But at the same time, the world renowned artist was not just expressing grief and guilt…he was also expressing his gratitude.  He was expressing his gratitude because Jesus had taken his place on the cross.  Jesus was bearing the fate that Rembrandt deserved…Jesus was paying the price for a lifetime of sins that Rembrandt had committed.


     They called it The Day of Atonement.  It was a day set aside by God to forgive the people of Israel for all the sins they had committed during the past year.  The Day of Atonement was meant to be a reminder that all of one’s daily, weekly and monthly sacrifices and offerings that were made to God throughout the year weren’t good enough to permanently atone for all their sins.


     The word Atonement means “to cover.”   Thus, the purpose of the Day of Atonement was to repair the broken relationship between mankind and God that had occurred during the past year by having God cover all the sins of the people. 


 


     The Day of Atonement was the only time during the year that the high priest would enter the Holy of Holies, and area located in the innermost chamber of the Temple.  But before he could do that, he would have to remove all his priestly garments and bathe and then put on a pure white linen robe which was meant to symbolize repentance.  Then he would make a sin offering for himself and all the other priests by sacrificing a young bull and a ram for a burnt offering.  He would then enter the Holy of Holies by going through a thick, heavy veil that hung from the ceiling to the floor, a veil designed to separate the people from their God, and sprinkle the blood on the floor to cover the sins of all the priests.


     He would then cast lots between two live goats.  One goat was killed as a sin offering for the entire nation of Israel and his blood too would be sprinkled on the floor, inside the Holy of Holies.  Then in grandiose fashion, the priest would place his hands on the head of the live goat and confess the sins of the entire nation of Israel.  The goat was then taken outside the Temp and set free.  Symbolically, the freed goat, called the “scapegoat, would carry away all the sins that the people of Israel had committed in the past year.


 


     So, let me ask you this morning – what does it take or what do we have to do to get into a right relationship with God?  What do we have to do so that we can feel at peace with God?  How can we escape the feeling of estrangement and fear in the presence of God?  The answer offered by Judaism was: “You can attain a right relationship with God by meticulously keeping all of God’s laws.”   But that’s a pretty tall order.  In fact, it’s setting us up for failure because there is no way possible for any of us to keep every commandment of the law. 


     Live by the rules, and you’ll be okay.  That’ what we all learned growing up.  Break the rules and you’ll pay the price.  Break the rules and you will not only cause harm to yourself but perhaps to others as well.  If you stay within the guidelines, you’ll be fine…if you don’t, then things will go wrong.  It’s nothing more than a fundamental view of the world and an understanding of the way life is supposed to work.  Rules have to be followed…you just don’t make them up as you go along.  This is the idea that influences our concept of justice and fairness.  It’s the idea that if there is going to be order and decency in the world, then the guilty have to be punished…it’s the only way for their wrongs to be righted. 


    


     Most of the first five books of the Bible, which we know as the Torah, is what I am going to call The Rule Book.  Not so much Genesis, but the other four books Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy are all used to spell out in vivid detail the rules for maintaining a right relationship with God. 


     There are 613 commandments in the Bible with Jewish tradition claiming that 365 of them are “negative (Thou shall not…) commandments” and 248 of them are “positive (Thou shall…) commandments.”  But if we know that there is no way possible for us, as human beings, to keep all of these 613 commandments, what good is any of this going to do us? 


     These 613 commandments simply make people like you and me aware of our sins.  Knowing that we can’t possibly keep all 613 commandments makes us aware of our failures.  It’s only when we know the law and try to satisfy the law that we realize that we can never do it.  That’s the purpose of all this.  It was all designed by God for no other reason than to show us our own weaknesses and our own sinfulness.


     But at the same time, it doesn’t mean that we are shut out from God because we can’t keep 613 plus commandments.  We aren’t shut out from God because the way to God doesn’t go through the law.  The way to God is not through our works but through our faith.  The way to God is through his grace.


 


     Paul loved to use the word righteousness.  When he used it, he used it to mean one who has a right relationship with God.  The person who is righteous is someone who is not only in a right relationship with God, but it is someone whose way of living shows it.  Paul looked at the Gentile world around him and found that it was full of idol worshiping and corruption…and he knew that they hadn’t solved the problem of righteousness.  The Jews tried to be righteous by trying to follow all of God’s laws and commandments (all that we just talked about) and they found that it was impossible…no one on earth can do that.


     But Paul makes it so simple.  He says the way to God, the way to this righteousness that he talks about doesn’t come through good works.  The way to God comes only through our complete trust and submission to God.  The only way to a right relationship with God is to take him at his word and to cast ourselves, just as we are, with all our extra baggage and warts, to his love and mercy.  Paul wants us to know and to fully understand that the important thing is not what we can do for God…but what God has done for us. 


 


    If there is one thing Paul wants us to know, and he considers this to be the center of the Christian faith, is that we can never earn, much less deserve the favor of God.  There is no earning it, there is no buying it, there is no bargaining for it.  It makes no difference who you are or where you come from or what your background is.  The whole thing is a matter of grace.  It’s a gift…which means that all we can humbly do is accept what God has done for us with love and gratitude and trust.


     If a person is taken to court for some reason or another and the jury finds him innocent because he has done nothing wrong…we say that person has been acquitted; he has been found to be not guilty.  But when it comes to living non-perfect lives, the point about our relationship with God is that we are guilty as guilty can be.  We’ve screwed up and messed up our lives and we’ve done things that we’re not very proud of.  Yet God, with his mercy, treats us as if we were innocent.  He says we’re Justified…like we’ve never ever done anything bad at all!!


     God treats the ungodly as if they were good people.  That’s what shocked the Jews and that’s what shocks so many people today about God.  To treat bad people as if they were good doesn’t make any sense…that’s what it said throughout the Old Testament – “One who justifies the wicked is an abomination to the Lord” (Proverbs 17:15). 


 


     How do we know that God is really like this?  How do we know that he not only forgives us but he forgets about our sins as well?  Simple…because Jesus said so.  Jesus came to tell us that God loves us and if we come to him with a repentant heart, he is willing to forgive us…despite all the negative things we have done.  Knowing and accepting God’s grace allows us to live knowing that we no longer have to live a life filled with anxiety and doubt and fear because we can’t keep all of the six hundred plus commandments that God made.


    


     Back in the Old Testament, when a law was broken, a sacrifice was brought before God.  The aim was to use the sacrifice to get back in God’s good graces…to get back into a right relationship with God.


     What Jesus did on the cross for you and me was used to fulfill the ancient blood atonement system…to erase it from the books, so to speak.  What Jesus did on the cross for you and me was a self-sacrifice, a willingness to assume all the punishment that we deserve for all the sins we have committed.  And he did it so that we wouldn’t have to.


 


     Magrey DeVega tells the story of stopping at the local 7-11 to get something to drink.  The clerk rang up the giant sized Slurpee he got and then said, “You need to know that you drove off last week without paying for your gas.”


     “What?”  “You’ve got to be kidding!  I did that?”


     “You sure did,” the clerk said.  “I stood right here and watched you.”


     You can imagine that DeVega was both shocked and embarrassed.  He was a United Methodist pastor.  He was a law abiding citizen.  But then again, we get our minds full of so many things that it’s very possible it did happen.  And besides, if the clerk saw him, why try to prove the guy wrong and get into a big argument.


     So DeVega started to pull out his wallet to pay for the gas when the clerk said, “I paid for it out of my own pocket.”


     He couldn’t believe what he had heard.  He thanked the clerk over and over again and offered to reimburse him.


     “It’s okay, the clerk said, “I knew you would be back here someday for me to tell you.  So I took care of it for you.”


     “I took care of it for you.”  “I covered for you.”  Imagine that.  DeVega said he walked away from the 7-11 filled with a feeling of immense gratitude for what the clerk did for him.  After all, the clerk could have called the police and caused all sorts of trouble.  When it came right down to it, DeVega didn’t get what he deserved.    “Don’t worry, it’s all taken care of.”  The clerk had given DeVega something he didn’t even earn…the clerk gave him a little bit of grace.


 


     Just as the judge acquits the prisoner, just as emancipation frees the slave, God has taken the initiative and has done for us what we could never do for ourselves.  Because of his grace, the chains have been removed.  We were all like condemned men who have been set free.


     Should we continue to try to follow God’s commandments?  Of course we should because they were meant to keep us mindful of our sins and to keep us on the path of righteousness…of having a good relationship with God.  But know that because you are human, you are going to fail.  Know also that you can come to God with a repentant heart and ask for forgiveness for your failures.


     In Christ, God gave us all something we don’t deserve.  Because of his love for us and because of his grace, Jesus went to the cross for us and took our punishment for us and God declares Jesus’ death to be the appropriate sacrifice for our sin.    Because of his love for us, Jesus took our place on the cross, he “took care of it,” he “covered for us.”  His death, on our behalf, brings pardon, it brings deliverance, and it brings freedom to sinful people like you and me who don’t deserve it at all.


 



 


“I’ll Take Your Place”

Keith McFarren

February 21, 2021

Romans 3:23-26


 


     Hanging in one of many museums in Amsterdam is a beautiful etching by the Dutch artist Rembrandt called The Three Crosses.  It is a beautiful yet sobering depiction of Jesus on the cross, with the two thieves hanging on either side of him.  The painting is composed of dark grays and blacks to show the sullenness of the moment, but there is also a beam of light coming down from heaven, signifying the coming of God’s holy kingdom into a world that is dominated by sin.


     It’s a beautiful picture, but what is most fascinating about it can be found off to the side of the etching.  One has to look very closely, but there he is.  There, in the dark shadows of the three crosses is a solitary figure…barely recognizable, with his face buried in his hands as though he is overcome with emotion.


     Scholars aren’t exactly sure who the person is, but most agree that this grieving person is none other than Rembrandt himself, a man overcome with emotion because of the role he played in Jesus’ crucifixion.  In the picture, Rembrandt wants the world to know that he, like each and every one of us, was responsible for the sins that ultimately put Jesus on the cross.  But at the same time, the world renowned artist was not just expressing grief and guilt…he was also expressing his gratitude.  He was expressing his gratitude because Jesus had taken his place on the cross.  Jesus was bearing the fate that Rembrandt deserved…Jesus was paying the price for a lifetime of sins that Rembrandt had committed.


     They called it The Day of Atonement.  It was a day set aside by God to forgive the people of Israel for all the sins they had committed during the past year.  The Day of Atonement was meant to be a reminder that all of one’s daily, weekly and monthly sacrifices and offerings that were made to God throughout the year weren’t good enough to permanently atone for all their sins.


     The word Atonement means “to cover.”   Thus, the purpose of the Day of Atonement was to repair the broken relationship between mankind and God that had occurred during the past year by having God cover all the sins of the people. 


 


     The Day of Atonement was the only time during the year that the high priest would enter the Holy of Holies, and area located in the innermost chamber of the Temple.  But before he could do that, he would have to remove all his priestly garments and bathe and then put on a pure white linen robe which was meant to symbolize repentance.  Then he would make a sin offering for himself and all the other priests by sacrificing a young bull and a ram for a burnt offering.  He would then enter the Holy of Holies by going through a thick, heavy veil that hung from the ceiling to the floor, a veil designed to separate the people from their God, and sprinkle the blood on the floor to cover the sins of all the priests.


     He would then cast lots between two live goats.  One goat was killed as a sin offering for the entire nation of Israel and his blood too would be sprinkled on the floor, inside the Holy of Holies.  Then in grandiose fashion, the priest would place his hands on the head of the live goat and confess the sins of the entire nation of Israel.  The goat was then taken outside the Temp and set free.  Symbolically, the freed goat, called the “scapegoat, would carry away all the sins that the people of Israel had committed in the past year.


 


     So, let me ask you this morning – what does it take or what do we have to do to get into a right relationship with God?  What do we have to do so that we can feel at peace with God?  How can we escape the feeling of estrangement and fear in the presence of God?  The answer offered by Judaism was: “You can attain a right relationship with God by meticulously keeping all of God’s laws.”   But that’s a pretty tall order.  In fact, it’s setting us up for failure because there is no way possible for any of us to keep every commandment of the law. 


     Live by the rules, and you’ll be okay.  That’ what we all learned growing up.  Break the rules and you’ll pay the price.  Break the rules and you will not only cause harm to yourself but perhaps to others as well.  If you stay within the guidelines, you’ll be fine…if you don’t, then things will go wrong.  It’s nothing more than a fundamental view of the world and an understanding of the way life is supposed to work.  Rules have to be followed…you just don’t make them up as you go along.  This is the idea that influences our concept of justice and fairness.  It’s the idea that if there is going to be order and decency in the world, then the guilty have to be punished…it’s the only way for their wrongs to be righted. 


    


     Most of the first five books of the Bible, which we know as the Torah, is what I am going to call The Rule Book.  Not so much Genesis, but the other four books Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy are all used to spell out in vivid detail the rules for maintaining a right relationship with God. 


     There are 613 commandments in the Bible with Jewish tradition claiming that 365 of them are “negative (Thou shall not…) commandments” and 248 of them are “positive (Thou shall…) commandments.”  But if we know that there is no way possible for us, as human beings, to keep all of these 613 commandments, what good is any of this going to do us? 


     These 613 commandments simply make people like you and me aware of our sins.  Knowing that we can’t possibly keep all 613 commandments makes us aware of our failures.  It’s only when we know the law and try to satisfy the law that we realize that we can never do it.  That’s the purpose of all this.  It was all designed by God for no other reason than to show us our own weaknesses and our own sinfulness.


     But at the same time, it doesn’t mean that we are shut out from God because we can’t keep 613 plus commandments.  We aren’t shut out from God because the way to God doesn’t go through the law.  The way to God is not through our works but through our faith.  The way to God is through his grace.


 


     Paul loved to use the word righteousness.  When he used it, he used it to mean one who has a right relationship with God.  The person who is righteous is someone who is not only in a right relationship with God, but it is someone whose way of living shows it.  Paul looked at the Gentile world around him and found that it was full of idol worshiping and corruption…and he knew that they hadn’t solved the problem of righteousness.  The Jews tried to be righteous by trying to follow all of God’s laws and commandments (all that we just talked about) and they found that it was impossible…no one on earth can do that.


     But Paul makes it so simple.  He says the way to God, the way to this righteousness that he talks about doesn’t come through good works.  The way to God comes only through our complete trust and submission to God.  The only way to a right relationship with God is to take him at his word and to cast ourselves, just as we are, with all our extra baggage and warts, to his love and mercy.  Paul wants us to know and to fully understand that the important thing is not what we can do for God…but what God has done for us. 


 


    If there is one thing Paul wants us to know, and he considers this to be the center of the Christian faith, is that we can never earn, much less deserve the favor of God.  There is no earning it, there is no buying it, there is no bargaining for it.  It makes no difference who you are or where you come from or what your background is.  The whole thing is a matter of grace.  It’s a gift…which means that all we can humbly do is accept what God has done for us with love and gratitude and trust.


     If a person is taken to court for some reason or another and the jury finds him innocent because he has done nothing wrong…we say that person has been acquitted; he has been found to be not guilty.  But when it comes to living non-perfect lives, the point about our relationship with God is that we are guilty as guilty can be.  We’ve screwed up and messed up our lives and we’ve done things that we’re not very proud of.  Yet God, with his mercy, treats us as if we were innocent.  He says we’re Justified…like we’ve never ever done anything bad at all!!


     God treats the ungodly as if they were good people.  That’s what shocked the Jews and that’s what shocks so many people today about God.  To treat bad people as if they were good doesn’t make any sense…that’s what it said throughout the Old Testament – “One who justifies the wicked is an abomination to the Lord” (Proverbs 17:15). 


 


     How do we know that God is really like this?  How do we know that he not only forgives us but he forgets about our sins as well?  Simple…because Jesus said so.  Jesus came to tell us that God loves us and if we come to him with a repentant heart, he is willing to forgive us…despite all the negative things we have done.  Knowing and accepting God’s grace allows us to live knowing that we no longer have to live a life filled with anxiety and doubt and fear because we can’t keep all of the six hundred plus commandments that God made.


    


     Back in the Old Testament, when a law was broken, a sacrifice was brought before God.  The aim was to use the sacrifice to get back in God’s good graces…to get back into a right relationship with God.


     What Jesus did on the cross for you and me was used to fulfill the ancient blood atonement system…to erase it from the books, so to speak.  What Jesus did on the cross for you and me was a self-sacrifice, a willingness to assume all the punishment that we deserve for all the sins we have committed.  And he did it so that we wouldn’t have to.


 


     Magrey DeVega tells the story of stopping at the local 7-11 to get something to drink.  The clerk rang up the giant sized Slurpee he got and then said, “You need to know that you drove off last week without paying for your gas.”


     “What?”  “You’ve got to be kidding!  I did that?”


     “You sure did,” the clerk said.  “I stood right here and watched you.”


     You can imagine that DeVega was both shocked and embarrassed.  He was a United Methodist pastor.  He was a law abiding citizen.  But then again, we get our minds full of so many things that it’s very possible it did happen.  And besides, if the clerk saw him, why try to prove the guy wrong and get into a big argument.


     So DeVega started to pull out his wallet to pay for the gas when the clerk said, “I paid for it out of my own pocket.”


     He couldn’t believe what he had heard.  He thanked the clerk over and over again and offered to reimburse him.


     “It’s okay, the clerk said, “I knew you would be back here someday for me to tell you.  So I took care of it for you.”


     “I took care of it for you.”  “I covered for you.”  Imagine that.  DeVega said he walked away from the 7-11 filled with a feeling of immense gratitude for what the clerk did for him.  After all, the clerk could have called the police and caused all sorts of trouble.  When it came right down to it, DeVega didn’t get what he deserved.    “Don’t worry, it’s all taken care of.”  The clerk had given DeVega something he didn’t even earn…the clerk gave him a little bit of grace.


 


     Just as the judge acquits the prisoner, just as emancipation frees the slave, God has taken the initiative and has done for us what we could never do for ourselves.  Because of his grace, the chains have been removed.  We were all like condemned men who have been set free.


     Should we continue to try to follow God’s commandments?  Of course we should because they were meant to keep us mindful of our sins and to keep us on the path of righteousness…of having a good relationship with God.  But know that because you are human, you are going to fail.  Know also that you can come to God with a repentant heart and ask for forgiveness for your failures.


     In Christ, God gave us all something we don’t deserve.  Because of his love for us and because of his grace, Jesus went to the cross for us and took our punishment for us and God declares Jesus’ death to be the appropriate sacrifice for our sin.    Because of his love for us, Jesus took our place on the cross, he “took care of it,” he “covered for us.”  His death, on our behalf, brings pardon, it brings deliverance, and it brings freedom to sinful people like you and me who don’t deserve it at all.