Scripture: Levitcus 4:1-6:7
Our purpose today is to draw inspiration from Leviticus and imagine what Confession, Forgiveness and Reconciliation could look like. We read a representative part of chapter 4, but the full picture goes all the way to Lev6:7. These verses describe the Sin Offerings and Guilt Offerings.
Let me start with a confession: I have always struggled with Prayer. For some of you, it comes easily; you have a strong ability to talk and listen to God. I envy you; it has never been easy for me. So I was excited as a teen to hear about the acronym ACTS as a way to structure my personal prayers.
A stands for Adoration. This letter reminds us to include in our prayers an acknowledgement that God is amazing, powerful, loving, full of mercy and grace. Praise God for being God.
C stands for Confession. We’ll come back to this one.
T stands for Thanksgiving. This letter says to express our deep appreciation for something God has done for us or those around us.
S stands for Supplication, a fancy word meaning ask for things. Bring our cares and concerns to God. Name them, and ask God for something.
Imagine my surprise, when I became an Anglican in my late twenties, and discovered how saturated our services are with these four elements of prayer!
Almost every Collect is a combination of Adoration and Supplication.
The Greek word we get ‘Eucharist’ from literally means Thanksgiving, and in the Eucharist we give thanks for what God has done through Jesus Christ.
And there’s our Confessions. I especially struggled with this aspect of prayer. I thought I was a pretty decent person, and it was hard to assess my life and confess my sins. The written Confession in our services gave me the words to make my confession.
We confess that we have sinned against you – a pretty straight-forward beginning.
In thought, word and deed – sin is more than just our actions, it’s in our speech and even deeper, right in our minds, in how we think.
By what we have done, and … left undone – This sounds like Leviticus 5:1. Our inaction can do as much harm in our relationships with God and others, as our actions.
We have not loved you with our whole heart – this is the vertical relationship with God that needs reconciliation and healing.
We have not loved our neighbours as ourselves – this is the horizontal relationship, found especially in Lev 6, which urges us to make things right with others. Confession and forgiveness should lead to restoring our human relationships, too, not just our relationship with God.
It is all beautiful, simple and powerful. And general. Leviticus challenges us to move past generalities and get specific. Sacrifice for specific sins. Name what we did or did not do. Move beyond the general and get specific about our lives and relationships, our actions and failures to act. Leviticus calls us to be honest with ourselves, with one another and with God, about what we have done and not done.
An excellent example of the challenge and the power of confession, forgiveness and reconciliation is a little 1991 film, The Quarrel (Check out the movie here). It stars Canadian actors Saul Rubinek and R.H. Thomson as two Jewish men who survived the death camps of World War 2. Before the war, the two were best friends, studying in a Jewish school together. But they had a big falling-out; they said and did hurtful things.
The holocaust destroyed one man’s faith and strengthened the other’s. They meet by chance in Montreal a few years after the war and spend the day together.
In a key early scene, one man, Hersh, confesses to the other and asks for his forgiveness. Chaim, admits that they both said and did bad things.
Chaim gives a quick forgiveness and they seem to move on. But the rest of the movie shows that they are much more deeply hurt. The superficial forgiveness turns out to be meaningless. Over the film’s next hour, they talk, they laugh, they yell, they cry, they argue and re-open all manner of old wounds. The film ends with them making the tiniest beginning of true forgiveness and reconciliation, and it is such a beautiful scene that I cry every time.
What moves me about the climax is that it is real, whereas the earlier scene of forgiveness is superficial. It moves me because it shows me what reconciliation could look like. It’s hard. It’s painful. Getting there shakes them to their core. But it’s sweet, beautiful and filled with hope.
Confession is hard. Forgiveness is hard. Reconciliation is hard. They cost us something. In Leviticus, the cost is partly the sacrifices.
We often think of Confession, Forgiveness and Reconciliation as individuals. The verses chosen for this morning, however, describe the sacrifice when the whole community realizes their sin.
We don’t need to look far to see how a whole society can sin and later realize it. 21st-century Canada has recognized at last many of the wrongs we did to our Indigenous peoples, including the residential schools. Our society has moved to a point where we realize at last some of the sin and the tragedy of our dealings with our First Nations.
We’ve apologized. Prime Minster Stephen Harper did. Anglican Primate Michael Peers did. We seek their forgiveness, and we may even mean it, more or less.
Some say, why should I suffer for the sins of the past? I did not do it. Maybe my ancestors were not even in Canada back then.
But that’s individual-thinking. We live in a society that still fails to do right by them, still puts them at tremendous disadvantages. Just one example: the cheaper power we get from flooding land still under treaty land claims. Like in The Quarrel, some of our apology is superficial, and we have much to do to truly reconcile with our Indigenous peoples.
A few weeks ago Graham described the voluntary nature of our offerings to God. The Burnt, Grain and Fellowship offerings of Leviticus are voluntary acts of worship of God, responses we make to the ways God has blessed us.
The Sin and Guilt offerings, however, are not voluntary. WHEN we have sinned, even unintentionally, these offerings are mandatory. If the sin has happened, the offering is expected.
Because sin is serious business! It makes us ‘unclean’ or ‘unholy’. One of the big themes of Leviticus is Holiness. God is the holy one, and God makes us holy.
When sin is present, individual or community sins, it makes us incompatible with the holy God. When the holy comes in contact with the impurity of sin, we are destroyed.
I sometimes make pancakes for Saturday brunch. They cook best when the griddle is the right temperature. The test I use to see if it’s ready is to drip one drop of water on the hot plate. If the surface is hot enough, the drop will dance and fizz, barely touching the surface, until it evaporates. That’s an image of our sins being incompatible with the holy God. Like the drop of water on the griddle, we cannot bear to come into contact with God’s holiness without confession, forgiveness and reconciliation.
God’s holy glory overwhelms people in the Bible. In Exodus 40:34-5 we read: “Moses could not enter … because … the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.” My favourite is 1 Kings 8:11, when Solomon dedicates the new temple of God, and God shows up! “And the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled his temple.”
Something about God’s glory, God’s holiness, is too intense for sinful us to handle. So God creates these sacrifices. They are both symbolic and real actions that purify us so that God may dwell in us and among us.
At the heart of these sin and guilt offerings is the idea that, individually and as a larger society, we recognize where we have messed up; then we do something to express our regret for our actions or inactions and our desire to move forward; then we receive God’s forgiveness; and then our relationships with God and with one another are renewed.
The point is not the bulls, rams, blood, or the ritualistic actions. The Old Testament prophets are very clear about that. Listen to Isaiah 1: “I have more than enough, says the Lord, of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. … Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me.” A few verses later, he says, “Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.” This theme of God’s hatred for empty sacrifices comes up again in Jeremiah, in Hosea, Amos and Micah.
Jesus, of course, fulfills all the symbolism and sacrament of these sacrifices. The book of Hebrews draws a direct line from the Levitical sacrifices to Jesus Christ. “The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!” (Heb 9:13-14)
More than just the sacrifices, Jesus fulfills the whole Law. He says in Matthew 5:17 “I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Then, for the rest of Matthew 5, Jesus challenges us about our hearts and minds. “You have heard it said,” he begins, and highlights some part of the ancient Law of God. “But I tell you,” he continues, and makes it bigger. One example: “You have heard it said,” don’t commit adultery. Sure, Jesus says, but anyone who looks lustfully at a woman has already committed adultery in his heart.
The point is not a checklist; it’s a pattern of life. It’s about how we act on the outside, AND who we are, what our thoughts and motives are on the inside.
The sacrifices of Sin and Guilt offerings are not about animals and sprinkling and burning. Rather, they set out to shape the lives of individual people and the whole society. They call us to a life pattern of self reflection, and group reflection and examination; a pattern of confession to God and to one another; of forgiveness, from God to us, and from us to each other; and of renewed and stronger relationships in our families, friends, and all society, and with Almighty God himself.
May we be inspired to let God shape us all, through the testimony of the Bible, including Leviticus, and especially through our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.