Sunday, July 10, 2022

Sacrifices and Vows

It started out like any other day in Jerusalem. King Uzziah was meeting with his counselors in his palace. Just north of there, Azariah, the new high priest, was in the House of the LORD. But in the city below, confusion was spreading. A gaggle of a few dozen foreigners – the locals could tell they were foreigners, from their looks, their hair, their clothes – was marching through the city streets. A pair of Levite guards stopped them at the gates of the outermost temple court. This was so unusual that even Azariah crept close by to hear as the guards demanded an explanation. As he caught a glimpse, he could tell there were Tyrians, Sidonians, Carthaginians, Philistines... it might have been understandable had they sought business at the palace, but at the temple?

Eavesdroppers aplenty listened as the ragtag band unfolded their tale. They were the crew of a merchant vessel, and the last week or two had been more eventful than any in their lives. All because, they said, of a passenger they'd picked up at Yafo on the way to far-off Tarshish. They'd been on the sea when a mighty wind had picked up, had provoked the sea to raging (Jonah 1:4). Terrified of the swelling storm, they'd called out to all the gods they knew, but all had turned a deaf ear to their danger. They'd hurled a fortune in cargo into the abyss, thinking to save themselves (Jonah 1:5). Only in so doing had they found their passenger sound asleep in the cargo hold (Jonah 1:6-7). Questioning him fiercely, at last he'd broken and admitted to them that he was a slave of a divine master, but was on the run; that he was born in a village in Israel, north of Judah; that he worked in the city Samaria; that he was a prophet by trade; and as to his people, he was a Hebrew, he'd said. And he'd named the god from whom he was escaping, to whom he wouldn't pray, as the LORD, God of heaven, and declared him supreme as the Maker of both all the waters and all the dry lands of the world, with universal rule and unlimited power and untempered freedom to do as he pleases in all times and places and situations (Jonah 1:8-9).

“Don't take us for rubes,” their spokesman told the Levites – Azariah presumed him for the captain of this ship. “It's hardly the first time we heard your God's name! But this was the first time we'd realized that yours wasn't some local god bound up with your land, but a god of land and sky and sea, able to do all that he pleases? And to feel his storm, and to find that none of our gods could fight it off... There's something about your God. We were horrified to think that he was against us – that we were complicit in the escape of a runaway slave, not of any master, but of a heavenly god who rules the seas! How ridiculous of Jonah to think he could've escaped! We were in a serious bind now. Terror soaked our bones. The storm only grew worse (Jonah 1:10).”

The captain paused his tale. Azariah's curiosity was piqued. He'd heard the name 'Jonah' the last time northern diplomats had come to King Uzziah from Jeroboam. Azariah wondered what Jonah's purpose was. He might just have to use the urim and thummim later to ask the LORD if it was something important. But no time to imagine now; the captain was talking again. “We asked the prophet what we could do to fix it, to find our way out of this mess (Jonah 1:11). And he told us to sacrifice him into the sea (Jonah 1:12). It made sense to us – you might know it's our custom to do that kind of thing, for a sailor to throw himself from the prow to calm the waves. But something didn't sit right now. It was like a light from heaven was shining on our hearts. The thought seemed repulsive. Still, we were in a pickle. We'd heard that the Hebrew law, alone of the laws of all peoples, forbade returning an escaped slave back to his master's hand (cf. Deuteronomy 23:15-16). So it seemed as though a Hebrew God who gave that Law wouldn't want us to defy it by returning his slave. On the other hand, we'd heard that the Hebrew law has great taboos against guilt incurred by offenses against innocent blood (cf. Deuteronomy 19:10), and we were no court to judge the LORD's prophet guilty.”

The captain continued his telling. “We decided to dig in our oars and try to make it for the nearest dry land, for the storm was intolerable. We couldn't bear the thought of sentencing a prophet to die, lest we be held guilty of his blood. But as the stormy seas resisted us all the more, we surrendered to his advice (Jonah 1:13). Deeply distressed, even though we hadn't heard the prophet pray, we cried out: 'LORD, please don't let us perish for this man's life, and charge us not with innocent blood! For you, LORD – as it has pleased you, so have you done' (Jonah 1:14). And each of us shouted vows to the LORD, saying that if he revoked the storm and held us innocent and saw us safely back to harbor, we'd bring this or that gift to him in grateful return.”

Another sailor chimed in. “All of us took part in lifting the man's body up toward the windy skies. Then – with a tear in my eye, I tell you – we shoved with all our might over the edge of the ship. I was looking as the waves surged to catch him; how hungrily the deep devoured him. I saw the smirk on his face fade, his eyes grow with horror as he realized what it meant to die. I heard the first words as he began to call out to your God, the LORD; then I listened as his prayer quickly became a drowning gurgle. But in that moment, the winds withdrew. The waves ceased their rocking. The boat stopped swaying and became level.”

A third spoke. “Captain Ashtar-rom ordered me below decks, to check what was left in our hold. Scarcely three days' rations and just two amphorae of the wine we'd aimed to sell in Tarshish. He had me bring up one amphora to the prow, where he dumped it into the sea as a libation to the LORD – whom by this point we'd come to fear in reverent awe more than we'd feared the storm in abject terror. The captain asked the LORD to have mercy on his drowned prophet, and on our ship as we rowed for shore, and vowed we'd bring sacrifices to his temple. In that moment, as I glanced over the starboard side, I spotted a vast shadow under the sea – I don't know what that was. A Philistine crew-member recommended we return to our last harbor. I doubted we could make it – I thought for sure we'd run out of food – but then the winds gently reversed. At the captain's order, we unfurled our sail, and it drove us there just in time. I can't help but think it was your God pardoning us.”

The captain took over the telling. “It was a couple days ago that we docked at Yafo. We asked my crewman's family to watch the ship. We thought about hiking for Samaria – after all, the prophet was from up that way, and surely there was a shrine to the LORD there. But one of your countrymen we met by surprise in the street told us that the true House of the LORD was here, in Jerusalem. So we loaded up carts and set out. It took a few days, but here we are, to make good our vows. A few of us brought anchors to chisel our praises into and leave as memorials. Some have silver. One of my men has nothing at hand but a promise that, once we make our next voyage to Tarshish, he'll come back in a few years with all the gold he can carry. And many of us have animals – sheep, bulls, goats – for this God of yours who saved us. May his name be forever blessed!”

Azariah the high priest stepped out from the shadows and bade the Levite guards welcome the strangers through the gates into the outer court. He called other priests to help examine the animals. A few were fit for sacrifice. Some of the others weren't, though – one was female; a few were blemished; one had an ear too long, which would be fine for a free-will offering but not to fulfill a vow (cf. Leviticus 22:18-25). Azariah priced the ineligible beasts and said they could fulfill their vows by buying the unfit animals back with money equivalent to his appraisal (Leviticus 27:11-12), and the Levites would go get suitable replacements. Well, far be it for the thankful merchant mariners to question how the LORD runs his house! So they did just that.

The priests explained, too, that loaves of bread and oil were part of the sacrifice (Leviticus 7:11-13), that each offering had to involve grain and wine (Numbers 15:3-10). The captain turned over the last amphora of wine saved from the ship. They hadn't known to bring bread, so Azariah tasked a Levite to bake some. The sailors watched from the outer court as the priests slew the sacrifices and, carrying the fat and kidneys through the gates to the inner court, laid them on the altar and burned them into smoke for the LORD, all while priests splattered the blood on its sides (Leviticus 3:6-11). It wasn't pretty, but it was part of life. It was worship.

As the meat cooked, a few priests taught the sailors a bit about the works of the LORD in redeeming Israel from slavery, in settling them in the land, in blessing them with the Law. That Law said that the sailors had to purify themselves before the feast, for anyone who eats the flesh from the LORD's sacrifices while in an unclean state – even a Hebrew who does so – profanes them and is cut off from the people (Leviticus 7:20-21). The sailors went about their washings as they heard the Levites singing songs of the LORD's saving mercies, and the priests declared to them the good news that, through Abraham and his offspring, the LORD aims that all the families of the earth should be blessed – be they Tyrian, Sidonian, Carthaginian, Philistine, or anyone else (Genesis 12:3).

By supper time that day, a grander feast than usual was cooked. The sailors sat down at table with Jerusalemites invited to share the meal, and even the priests reclined nearby to eat and drink. The more, the merrier – no more than one day of leftovers could remain (Leviticus 7:6-8). But while the priests had their holy portions, what was left of the peace-offerings was for everyone to eat, and the bread and the wine (Leviticus 7:28-36). And so, with Azariah leading prayers of thanksgiving, in the temple precincts they ate of the sacrifice, a feast shared between Gentile and Jew, and between man and God, bringing all together in a festive communion. And so the sailors, telling and retelling the story of their salvation, rendered thanks to God whom they now feared and worshipped. Having sacrificed their sacrifice, each made good the vows he'd vowed to the LORD (Jonah 1:16).

And we are their successors. You knew where this story was headed, didn't you? For we, like the pagan sailors on that ship, have been saved. Our Lord Jesus Christ, One greater than the prophet Jonah, plunged overboard into the abyss of death to stop the storm of wrath that was breaking over our sinful heads. Because we've been saved on the seas of life, we – like that crew so long ago – have vows to make good on, the vows of our baptism when we pledged our lives to be lived for Christ. And part of making good on those vows is that we've gathered into the House of the LORD for a feast. And now the Levite songs ring in our ears. Now the priest has declared God's word in your hearing. But it's not a party without a sacrifice.

Together, there's only one sacrifice we can put forward: “Christ..., a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Peter 1:19). Though “Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins” (Hebrews 10:12), we “offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5). And we do that – as the priests did of old – with bread and wine. But this visible form of bread, he now proclaims is really his body; and this visible form of wine, he now proclaims is really his blood. This is our sacrifice, which he himself offers as both High Priest and Sacrificial Victim. He makes his own offering, slain once for all on the cross and presented in heaven, tangibly real here and now on the altar we've dedicated to him, so his life can be really poured into our lives.

And just as in Jerusalem's temple, so also here: what's been made a sacrifice is holy. It isn't to be treated with inattentive disrespect, or thrown away as garbage, or mingled with common food and drink by being poured back into a bottle or dumped into a bag. That would profane it. Nor is it to be shared in by those who remain unclean, who haven't been purged from sin through repentance and restoration. If that's you – if there's anything that hinders you from being spiritually ready – then abstain today, for “whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 11:27). Go take care of that uncleanness first, repent and be restored, and then share later in the feast once you're clean. For “since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God” (2 Corinthians 7:1), just as those sailors had to.

As we together present this sacrifice, each of us turns our attention to his or her own vows, as the sailors did. From our hearts, each of us lays our own life on the altar with Christ, giving ourselves to God in conjunction with Jesus' own infinite gift, offering whatever in ourselves we've been holding back. In this way we “present [our] bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (Romans 12:1). For we've vowed to do no less: “So will I ever sing praises to [God's] name, that I may make good my vows day after day” (Psalm 61:8).

Only as we do – only as we sacrifice our sacrifice (which is Christ's) and as we make good and complete our vows in offering ourselves to God with him – are we then prepared, in cleanness, to eat and drink. And in this meal, in this feast, the sacrifice can establish peaceful communion between God and man – it is that communion (and that's why we call it Communion). Our communion, between a holy God and us his holy people, reaches its reality in the feasting of spiritual food and drink (1 Corinthians 10:3-4). Through their sacrifices and vows, the sailors found their unexpected communion with a God they'd never known. How dare we not follow? Let us rejoice, let us sing, let us sacrifice, let us each make good our vows, let us all keep the feast. Amen.

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