A couple of weeks ago, I dropped and broke a glass while I was preaching at church!
Actually, it wasn’t real glass, and I dropped it on purpose to illustrate a point. Took me longer to make it then it did to write the rest of the sermon!! (Plus I spent the rest of the service sweeping up the fragments). But I digress…
I believe the Bible teaches that there is a cost to sin, which Jesus takes on (or “covers”) in our place, as a substitute. Now I greatly dislike the “cosmic child abuse” charicature set up regarding substitionary atonement – that there is an angry God who has to punish someone, and so decides to punish his own innocent son instead of us. I believe that is utter nonsense, and poor theology in almost every regard. But I’ve found Tim Keller’s book “The Reason for God” really helpful in shedding some light onto why sin has a cost, and it is his analogy which I adapted and developed in my sermon.
Suppose I was to drop a glass, and it shatters. There is now a cost to making this right. Firstly, someone has to “pay” the time and energy to sweep up all the bits of glass, to tidy up the mess. Secondly, a new glass has to be purchased (or donated) to replace the one that has broken. Anyone can pay these “costs”, but unless someone does, there will remain a dangerous mess on the floor, and we have one less glass. The cost is inherent and unavoidable. I may have deliberately broken it, I may have accidentally knocked it over, I may not even be aware that I broke it. None of this changes the fact there is a cost to making it right, to putting things back to how there were before.
And so sin is a bit like the dropping of a glass – there is an inherent and unavoidable cost which must be “paid” to put it right. Paul writes in Romans 6, “the wages of sin are death”, or in other words the unavoidable and inherent cost of sin is death. Somehow in Old Testament times, the blood of animals served the purpose of paying this price, of putting things right again. That the sacrifice of the animal is in way spiritually analogous to sweeping up bits of glass. I don’t claim to understand the mechanism for this, and it can seem offensive to modern Western ears. I utterly and absolutely do not believe there is a capricious or angry God demanding a blood-letting. I think rather that there is a deeper spiritual truth in play, and that part of the reason we struggle with this is because we are more put out by the fact we can’t sort ourselves out then we are by sin (to paraphrase John Stott).
So on the Day of Atonement (or “At-one-ment”, as it is more accurately written), the High Priest would offer sacrifices of animals for himself and the whole company of Israel, to “pay the price” of sin. But the Day of Atonement didn’t actually work. Glasses kept being broken. Israel kept on sinning. The cost of putting it right kept coming back. So each year more animals, more ritual, to try and deal with this sickness.
But the glass shattering brought to mind the title of another book, by Stanley Hauerwas, called “Cross-Shattered Christ”. Could it be that what happened (in part) on the cross was that Jesus took the ‘shattering’ once and for all? So that the glass no longer even breaks when it is dropped? That instead of the glass shattering, the one who takes its place shatters. That instead of the glass being broken, the body of the one who has taken its place is broken.
Was this what he foresaw at the Last Supper – his body being broken, his blood poured out? “This is my body, given for you”, and “this is my blood, shed for you”.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed. (Is 53:5)
As with any analogy or model, it only tells a small part of the story of course, and has limitations. I offer it only as one way of thinking about the miriacle of the cross, and as an invitation to wonder and worship. I am not for one second suggesting that sin no longer has any consequences, or “doesn’t matter” – just that we no longer have to bear the cost of being made right (or becoming “at one”) with God; the temple curtain has been torn, and the Most Holy Place is open.