getting rid of the goat

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A fragment of papyrus has recently been found in the Sinai Desert. It appears to be part of a Hebrew Priest’s diary…

Day 3874 Still not made it to the Promised Land. Moses has told us that God has given us a new way of dealing with our sin: a Scapegoat. After he’d made himself pure Aaron placed his hands on a goat’s head and confessed all our sin, transferring it to the goat. The goat was then sent off into the wilderness as an atonement sacrifice and we were back in favour with God. Good news.

Day 3875 Still not made it to the Promised Land. Rather alarmingly the goat came back to the camp during the night. Clearly it was hungry and thirsty and as we’d looked after it all its life it decided that being with us was better than the wilderness. Aaron was not sure what to do as God didn’t give him any instructions for what to do if the scapegoat came back. He commissioned me to drive the goat away again so I shooed it far away.

Day 3876 Still not made it to the Promised Land. That pesky goat came back during the night again. I was rather relieved that Aaron didn’t notice so this time I took it a long way away from the camp and tied it to a bush. Glad to have got away with that one.

Day 3877 Still not made it to the Promised Land. Guess what. The goat came back again last night, dragging a half-eaten bush behind it. It must be part homing-pigeon as it keeps coming back home. This time I took it off to the middle of the wilderness and tied it to a rock. I made the mistake of looking it in the eyes as I left – I feel really sorry for it.

Day 3878 Still not made it to the Promised Land. Unbelievably the goat came back again last night. It chewed its way through the rope. I think we have bonded so I have decided to keep it. I will hide it in my tent and try to disguise it so that Aaron doesn’t find out. If anyone asks me about the bleating sounds and I will tell them that I have allergy issues that are making me sneeze.

[The next part of the parchment is missing and looks like it has been chewed by a goat]

Day 3891 Still not made it to the Promised Land. Scapey (the goat) has been chewing everything in my tent. It’s becoming really difficult to keep him hidden and he won’t stop bleating, even when I’m not in the tent. I find it difficult to do my priestly duties while hiding my guilty secret. Every time I see Aaron I can feel my face reddening and I am sure he suspects something. Got to stop writing now as someone is coming.

[The fragment of parchment ends here].

I wrote this parable following my morning bible study on the subject of ‘scapegoat’ from Leviticus. I wondered why the goats didn’t come back to the place where they were fed and given water, and what would happen if they did… the rest is in my imagination! It’s a parable we have shared with our churches to help them think missionally, but it also made me reflect personally…

  • The idea of a scapegoat is one with which many people (especially Christians are familiar). The Bible says that the scapegoat atonement has now been fulfilled in Jesus. Why do you think God wanted the scapegoat to take the sin away into the wilderness?
  • What could the priest have done differently? Why do you think he decided to try to deal with the goat on his own?When we confess to God what we need to be forgiven do we do so with the hope that we will be set free from them or are we just glad that we can be continually forgiven as we continue to do the same things?
  • How often do we seek forgiveness for our sins and then find that they have made their way back into our life? Is there an alternative to trying to deal with them on our own? Do we sometimes try to keep them secret instead of dealing with them?How does our attitude to forgiveness, failure and finding freedom affect our participation in God’s mission?
  • New Christians often make the most enthusiastic evangelists. Is it time for us to seek to rediscover the joy of our salvation?

Be blessed, be a blessing

at last ment

Before I start to finish let me say that this has not been intended to be an exhaustive list of the images the Bible uses to describe what Jesus’ death on the cross means. It’s a sample of some of the more significant ones. But there is so much more to explore. One of the reasons I have written this miniseries is to encourage you to think and explore more widely about what it means when we say that Jesus died for us. So, to the ‘parable’:

Alison was an Olympic-standard swimmer. She specialised in open water swimming – swimming up to 10km in events that would still take the fastest swimmers almost 2 hours to complete. Every day Alison go to a nearby lake to train, regardless of the weather. She was determined, she was committed, she was talented. Alison had the potential to be a gold medal winner: she was that good. Everyone agreed that she could be the best in the world.

The only thing was that she had some chains wrapped around her that rather restricted her swimming ability. They prevented her arms from rotating and her legs from kicking. And more than that, they weighed her down. Every day when she jumped in the water to train she sank to the bottom of and had to be dragged out. She was never going to realise her potential…

…until one day her coach suggested that he knew a man who had some bolt cutters who could cut the chains and set Alison free. All Alison had to do was ask.

Our rebellion against God / falling short of his standards / sin are like chains that bind us and restrict us from reaching out to God. Jesus’ death was such a powerful event that it broke the chains and set us free to be with God. All we have to do is ask.

Be blessed, be a blessing

at six ment

The last email should have finished with the Eastenders ‘duff duffs’ (the dramatic drums that play at the cliffhanger ending of each episode of the soap opera). That’s because there has been a longer than intended gap between that one and this one and some of you may have been on tenterhooks anticipating what happens next. Is there going to be a next instalment? What will it be?

(Yes, I know I am over-dramatising it rather a lot, but do patronise me by playing along).

So, here goes: another story based on an image from the Bible to explain the atonement – what Jesus’ death means for us.

It was a dark and stormy Eighteenth Century night. The ship had crossed the Atlantic Ocean and was nearing the English coast. Dark clouds covered the sky so that the moon was hidden and no stars were visible so the ship’s navigator could not use any of his instruments to establish exactly where they were. The rain was lashing down so hard that nobody could see more than a few yards ahead of the ship. They were almost literally sailing blind.

The captain knew, from the length of the voyage, that they ought to be near the coast. He knew, from the compass, that they were heading in the right direction. But he also knew that there were dangerous rocks and shoals in the approach to the destination. He had planned to drop anchor and ride out the storm in the open sea rather than attempt a night-time docking but the wind and waves were relentlessly driving them towards where the land ought to be and the anchor was dragging.

Then, through the howling gale and raging sea, the sailors heard a new, terrifying sound. It was the sound of waves breaking on the shore. They could not be far away from land now, and unless they could work out which way to go they would be driven onto the rocks and the ship would be dashed to pieces – with the probable loss of all hands. All eyes strained and scanned the horizon for even a glimpse of a landmark.

“Land ho!” came a shout from the rigging. One of the sharp-eyed sailors had spotted something!

The captain shouted for more information.

“There’s a light, captain, off the starboard bow!”

The captain looked in that direction and, as the ship pitched and rolled, he saw a glimpse of a light. He hoped that it was on the land and not another ship floundering, but he gave orders for the anchor to be raised, the sails to be set and the ship to steer in the direction of the light. The ship heeled as the wind caught the sails and slowly but surely the light moved from the starboard bow to directly in front of them.

They sailed in hope, hardly daring to breathe. As they got nearer the light got brighter and then they realised that it was a ship. It was the harbour pilot. Illuminated by a flash of lightning out at sea he had seen the ship through the storm and had set out to guide them safely back to the harbour. The pilot’s rig came clearly into view and he signalled to the ship to follow him.

“Follow that ship!” ordered the captain and the sailors gladly did so into the safety of the harbour.

stormThey were saved. On the harbourside the captain rushed to find the pilot and embraced him. He knew that unless the pilot had risked his life to find them they would have perished on the rocks.

Jesus is like that pilot – he has come to show us the way to God. His death is the light in the darkness that we follow to safety.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

(This series is a bit like the Harry Potter books: seven instalments of the same story. Next time, the final instalment – escapology (probably not until next week, sorry)). Duff, duff, duff, duff

at two ment

Last time I considered one of the Bible metaphors that tries to explain what happened when Jesus died on the cross – the courtroom.

Today, we look at another one:

The Money TrapIn order to buy a new car you have borrowed £1000 from a payday lender. You thought you would be able to repay it very quickly but you have been unable to make any payments and the interest at 4670% APR (yes, they really do charge that much!) means that the sum just keeps getting bigger and bigger. You tried paying some of it off with your credit cards, but they soon maxed out and now you are paying interest on those too.

There’s no way you will be able to repay what you owe and you just keep sinking further and further into debt. You cannot see any way out of the money trap. You feel helpless, ashamed and desperate.You are really embarrassed about having got yourself into this situation and try not to let anyone know, but eventually it becomes obvious to your family that you are up to your neck in debt and will soon go under completely.

Your father hears about the situation. Because he is your father and he loves you he cashes in his pension early and uses all of that money to pay off all of your debts. They have been paid in full. You no longer owe anything. You are free from debt.

How do you feel?

This image of the atonement takes seriously the helplessness of each one of us to deal with the consequences of our rebellion against God / falling short of his standards / sin. We can’t sort ourselves out. We owe a debt we can’t repay. But God has paid the debt for us: when Jesus died on the cross the debt was paid in full. It cost God, our Father, but the price is paid.

Variations on that story might include us owing the money and the lender writing off (or forgiving) the debt but the main point is the same – we can’t pay what we owe, but God has done it for us.

Sends a shiver down your spine when you think about it, doesn’t it?

Next time, washing day

Be blessed, be a blessing

at one ment

About ten years ago some Christians got rather hot under the collar about a book written by Steve Chalke: The Lost Message of Jesus. They particularly got very upset about one small phrase in the book relating to one of the metaphors the Bible has to try to illustrate and explain what Jesus’ death on the cross means for us. I am not going to revisit that controversy save to say that I was disappointed that the focus was on that one issue rather than the significant and that people seemed to have missed the important purpose of the book, which was to expand our understanding of who Jesus is and what following him is like and expand our understanding of what his death on the cross means.

For a long time I was taught that what happened when Jesus died on the cross was like a courtroom, and that is the only story I was told…

Imagine for a moment that you have committed a heinous crime: treason! You have been (rightly) found guilty. And the problem is that the only possible sentence for this crime is death. The judge (God) sternly looks you in the eye and passes sentence. And then he says that instead of you being executed he is going to execute his son in your place. You can go free because the death sentence has been carried out. All you have to do is accept it.

GavelThis forensic metaphor carries with it the seriousness of our rebellion against God / failure to live up to his standards / sin (whichever phrase / word you want to use). It contains the astonishing truth that in Jesus the penalty of that rebellion / failure / sin has been paid. But it is rather a brutal metaphor isn’t it? If it is the only story we have about what happened when Jesus died on the cross then God only looks like a stern judge and carrying out justice is his primary purpose. It’s not the only story to be told.

Don’t get me wrong. It is an amazing story and a profound truth: God’s justice is tempered with astonishing mercy. It is astounding that Jesus would be willing to die in my place. It is absolutely wonderful that I am set free (if I choose to be).

But if that’s our only metaphor / image of what happened on the cross we have a grossly distorted view of what happened (which is what Steve Chalke was trying to say in the phrase that caused all the hot-under-the-collarness). It’s not only distorted it’s unbiblical – the Bible has a lot more to say about it than that. So, for the next few bloggages I am going to tell you some stories that hopefully might illustrate some other images and metaphors about the cross of Christ which, when taken together, give us a much richer understanding of what it means.

Today we learnt about ‘substitutionary atonement’ to give it its correct title. Next time, debt-cancelling.

Be blessed, be a blessing

getting in a stew about the cross (or getting cross about a stew)

Stew the Rabbit and I are about to visit another school this morning. It will be his first visit there and I hope he is well-behaved. He is going to try a magic trick which may or may not come off…

The theme will be exploring crosses. an ‘x’ can be a sign that you got something wrong as well as a sign that someone loves you. Which seems like a helpful way to explain the Easter cross to Key Stage 1 and 2 children.

Last night at Alpha we looked at ‘Why did Jesus die’, and I was pleased that the Alpha material offers four different models of the atonement. I think we seriously underplay the significance of the cross of Jesus if we only concentrate on penal substitution – even in a less aggressive form. It means so much more than that, and if we only focus on that we may also exclude people for whom that model of the atonement does not resonate. Why do we think God inspired people to come up with other models?

I think I may be turning into Steve Chalke! (Except he has hair, runs marathons and Oasis, is much cooler than me and… [insert lots of other differences here]). If in doubt, read ‘The Lost Message of Jesus‘.

I wonder if this is part of what Paul meant when he wrote that he became all things to all people in order to win some for the kingdom of God. To the Jews he used a temple metaphor, to the Greeks he used philosophy… So how are we packaging the gospel today? Which model of the atonement will bless the people you meet today?

I think in some ways it requires us to see things differently – to look at the same gospel through lenses tinted by our culture.

An elderly lady was well-known for her faith and for her boldness in talking about it. She would stand on her front porch and shout “PRAISE THE LORD!” 

Next door to her lived an atheist who would get so angry at her proclamations he would shout, “There ain’t no Lord!!” 

Hard times set in on the elderly lady, and she prayed for GOD to send her some assistance. She stood on her porch and shouted “PRAISE THE LORD. GOD I NEED FOOD!! I AM HAVING A HARD TIME. PLEASE LORD, SEND ME SOME GROCERIES!!” 

The next morning the lady went out on her porch and noted a large bag of groceries and shouted, “PRAISE THE LORD.” 

The neighbour jumped from behind a bush and said, “Aha! I told you there was no Lord. I bought those groceries, God didn’t.” 

The lady started jumping up and down and clapping her hands and said, “PRAISE THE LORD. He not only sent me groceries, but He made a non-believer pay for them. Praise the Lord!”