getting rid of the goat


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 five ment*

June 6th 1944. D Day. The decisive moment in the Second World War. Nazi Germany had overrun mainland Europe but (despite continued bombing raids) had not been able to invade Britain as planned in 1940. Since then WW2 continued on many fronts, but the decisive moment in the war would be whether or not a foothold could be established in Western Europe.

Intense secrecy surrounded the allied invasion plans. Countless subterfuges led the Nazi Commanders to believe that it would take place in the Pas de Calais region, whereas in reality it was planned for Normandy. Those subterfuges (including on the night of June 5th a fleet of bombers flying precision formations across the channel dropping aluminium foil to look (on radar) like an invasion fleet) meant that opposition to the landings was not as heavy as it could have been and by the end of the day a toehold had been established which meant that the liberation of Europe from the West could begin. Many died that day in the name of freedom.

American Cemetery Normandy 6The War continued for another year, and there would be a lot of fighting until the final surrender, but D-Day was the decisive battle. The outcome of the war swung on that decisive victory. If you know The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe you will remember how CS Lewis portrayed Aslan’s death and resurrection and how that spelt the beginning of the end for the White Witch. It’s the same metaphor.

You could say that Jesus’ death on the cross was D-Day in the battle against evil. His death appeared to be a defeat for God but instead it proved, because of the resurrection, to be the decisive victory over evil and death. We have not yet reached the end. Evil still has the capacity to strike, to wound, to hurt, to be destructive, but the outcome is now certain. God wins.

Writing to an early church (1 Corinthians 15) Paul put it like this:

54 When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’[h]

55 ‘Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?’[i]

56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

58 Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain.

It’s important not to miss the ‘therefore’ at the end. Knowing that death and evil have lost the decisive battle makes a difference to us and how we react and respond (even to evil). God wins and that gives us confidence.

Be blessed, be a blessing

*This contains a very simplistic historical analysis of WW2. I recognise that it’s a lot more complex than I have described!

at four ment

(If you are fresh to this blog you may be somewhat confused by the title of this bloggage: if so I suggest you look at the preceding three entries and you should get the idea!)

[To get the best out of this bloggage you may need to have some music in the background such as The Love Theme from Romeo and Juliet (played behind ‘Our Tune’ on Radio 1 in the 1980s and 1990s). And there may also be a cheesy story alert!]

They had been inseparable almost since the day they were born. Their birthdays were only a couple of days apart and their mothers had met at ante-natal classes. Once Julia and Brad (named after … Roberts and … Pitt respectively) had been born their mothers would meet up most weeks and the children soon got to know each other. They went to the same parent and toddler group, same pre-school, same classes at school and even to the same University. They were almost like brother and sister – to borrow a line from Forrest Gump they were like peas and carrots.

The problem came when Brad got his first girlfriend when they were at University. There had never been any romantic feelings between Brad and Julia, but when Brad started spending time with Sarah Julia got jealous. She felt like Sarah was stealing Brad away from her and Julia started to criticise her to all their mutual friends. Sarah was too clingy or too needy or lacked commitment or was too talkative or was too quiet…

Sarah tried to get on with Julia, but Julia was having none of it. Nothing Sarah did was acceptable. Brad was aware of some tension between them but didn’t realise the extent of Julia’s hatred for Sarah. One evening he told Julia that he was going to propose to Sarah the next day. Julia was overcome with jealousy and, in a desperate attempt to stop him, she told Brad that she had heard that Sarah was sleeping with one of her tutors to get good grades.

Brad had always trusted Julia. He had no reason to doubt her. He could not face seeing Sarah. Instead he wrote a long, bitter email to her telling her how much he had loved her and how betrayed he felt by her deception and unfaithfulness. He clicked ‘send’ with a heavy heart and went around to see Julia.

Julia was delighted to see him and thought that things would go back to the way they had always been between them. Instead, as they talked, she realised how miserable she had made her best friend with her lie and how she had shattered his relationship with Sarah. Suddenly she knew that she could not hurt Brad any more and told him what she had done. She asked him to forgive her but Brad left without saying a word.

Over the next 48 hours Brad refused to speak to Julia. He blocked her phone number on his mobile, redirected her emails direct to the ‘deleted items’ folder, refused to answer the door to her and ignored her if he saw her around the campus. Through their friends Julia heard that Sarah had been heartbroken when she received Brad’s email and that the relationship was over.

Julia tried everything she could to mend the relationship between Sarah and Brad, but her lie had broken the trust between them. She tried everything she could to mend the relationship between herself and Brad but to no avail She realised that she had hurt him so badly that there was nothing she could do to mend the relationship.

On the morning of the third day Julia was surprised to receive a bouquet of flowers from Brad, with a card asking her to meet him. She rushed to meet him, her heart beating so loudly that she was sure everyone around her could hear it – even above the music in the restaurant where Brad was waiting for her. She walked slowly to the table where he was sitting, feeling awkward and embarrassed, but Brad leapt to his feet, rushed towards her and embraced her.

They sat down and Brad looked at Julia. “You hurt me really badly,” he said. “Your lie wrecked our friendship as well as my relationship with Sarah. I have spent the last couple of days thinking about nothing else – that’s why I wouldn’t talk to you or respond to your emails. But your friendship is more important to me than anything else. I forgive you… I want you to know that my love for you as my closest friend is stronger than the pain of the hurt. I don’t hold anything against you. Please can we be best friends again?”

Jesus’ death on the cross is how God has absorbed the pain and hurt of our rebellion against him / falling short of his standards / sin. Through his death he shows us how much God loves us. We broke the relationship but he wants to restore it, starting with offering complete forgiveness and freedom from guilt. Through Jesus we are reconciled to God. If you want a Bible passage to consider, try:

Romans 5:10-11 New International Version – UK

10 For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! 11 Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

Or have a look at Jesus’ parable of the two sons in Luke 15 and see how the Father takes the initiative with both of them.

Next time, the epic battle.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

at three ment

When I was about seven or eight an uncle of mine came to visit. He is the sort of uncle who teaches you rhymes that have slightly naughty endings so you can recite them at inopportune moments. I loved playing football and somehow persuaded my uncle to come into the back garden and kick a football around with me on the lawn.

My uncle told me that good footballers never come off the pitch clean, and indeed the muddier you are, the better you are. I decided that I would be awesome.

Embed from Getty Images

I can’t remember exactly what my mother said when her mud-caked came happily back into the house but I don’t think she was impressed with how awesome I was at football. There was mud everywhere. I was covered head to toe and my clothes were filthy. I was sent upstairs to have a bath, my clothes went straight in the washing machine and this may be my imagination as I recall the event but it wouldn’t have surprised me if I heard a mischievous chuckle from my uncle as I went upstairs.

In the bath I was washed clean until I almost sparkled. My mud-stained clothes were washed with one of those ‘whiter than white’ washing powders. By the time the process was finished all of the mud was gone. Not a trace remained.

Our rebellion against God / falling short of his standards / sin is like mud and stains that need to be washed away by a thorough scrubbing process. We can’t do that ourselves, but Jesus’ death is like a washing process that makes us cleaner than we have ever been – whiter than white.

There’s a passage in Revelation 7 where in John’s vision he saw a multitude in white robes in heaven. He asked who they are and was told, “They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” Lamb’s blood is not a natural detergent (don’t try it, you’ll ruin your clothes and get a visit from the RSPCA). The image is telling us that we are made clean by Jesus’ death (Jesus is ‘the Lamb who was slain’ in the metaphors of Revelation).

Next time, restoration

Be blessed, be a blessing

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