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The scene that we heard described in our first reading from Exodus 24 took place in the desert at the base of Mt. Sinai where was Israel was encamped on their journey to the Promised Land. Moses had been on top of Mt. Sinai for 40 days and nights, and there God gave Him the 10 Commandments – rules for holy living. God’s people were to be a ‘holy people’ and ‘holy people’ live ‘holy lives.’ Sounds obvious I know, but you’d never get that idea just from watching the way God’s people actually live their lives.
When Moses came down from the Mountain, he told the people what God had told to him, ‘all of the words and all the rules.’ What Moses heard from God over the course of 40 days, he told to the people. It had to have been a pretty long sermon.
But by the end of it, ‘all the people answered with one voice, ‘all the words that the Lord has spoken we will do.” But words are cheap.
Let me rephrase that. God’s words are not cheap. God’s words are true. What God says, He does. You can trust God’s words with all of your heart and soul and mind.
But OUR WORDS are cheap. We say, ‘Talk is cheap.’ And then we set out to prove that THOSE WORDS may be the only true words we ever really speak.
And so, in order to bind both parties to their word, God to His, the people to theirs, Moses collects the blood of the animals that have been sacrificed at the altar in bowls. And half of the blood he throws against the altar. The altar is where God is present. By throwing the blood onto God, Moses is binding God to His word. Keep in mind, Moses is not doing this to keep God honest. This is what God has instructed Moses to do. This is God’s way of demonstrating to the people that He is bound to keep His word.
And then Moses throws the other half of the blood onto the people. (Just imagine if we still did that today.) By throwing the blood of the slaughtered animals onto the people, Moses was binding them to their word. ‘All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do.’
And then, after everyone is a blood mess, including God, Moses and his brother Aaron, who is the high priest who oversaw the sacrifices, and Aaron’s two sons, Nadab and Abihu, who actually carried out the sacrifices, and the seventy elders who represent the whole congregation, participate in this very strange and mysterious meal, which takes place in what looks like heaven, where they ‘See the God of Israel,’ and where they eat and drink in the presence of God.
It is the author of the Letter to the Hebrews who tells us what all this means. This is the way that two parties enter into a covenant together. Boys have been known to seal their promise to be lifelong friends by pricking the end of their thumbs and pressing them together, thus becoming ‘blood brothers.’
The shedding of the blood of animals to seal a covenant between two parties hardly seems fair to the poor, innocent animal, I know. But what is being said here, in a very vivid and graphic way is, if either of the parties involved in this covenant were to break their word and not do what they have said, then let them be as these animals who have been slaughtered.
So, the author to the Hebrews writes, ‘Therefore not even the first covenant was inaugurated without blood.’
Of course, as we all know, it was not God but the people of Israel did not keep their word. They gave their word to God, ‘All of the words that the Lord has spoken we will do.’ But their word was just talk. And we know that by the reading of history as it is recorded for us in the Old Testament.
And we also know, that we are no better. In fact, we are probably even worse than they were. And we know that by the reading of our own conscience that tells us that is so, by the guilt that it produces in us.
And it is right here where we see just how faithful God is to His Word and just how gracious and loving God is towards His people. For rather than requiring us to be slaughtered for our unfaithfulness to the Covenant, He gives Himself to be slaughtered on in our place.
The blood that is shed on the cross, is not your blood or mine. The blood that is shed on the cross is God’s blood that He sheds FOR YOU. God in Christ has shed HIS blood in fulfillment of the Covenant that was inaugurated with blood. This hardly seems fair that the poor, innocent, Son of God, should be slaughtered for poor, miserable sinners, I know. But the terms of the covenant are what they are. And God is who He is. His Word is true and He keeps His Word in perfect justice and in perfect mercy.
But there is more to the slaughter of Christ on the cross than the keeping of an ancient covenant. At the cross of Christ crucified, we see the inauguration of the New and Greater Covenant that the slaughter of animals in the Old Covenant pointed to.
The writer to the Hebrews puts it like this, ‘If the sprinkling of defiled persons with the blood of goats and bulls and with the ashes of a heifer sanctifies for the purification of the flesh, HOW MUCH MORE will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purifying our consciences from dead works to serve the living God.’
It is a simple case of logic that begins with the lesser and moves to the greater. If God accepted the use of the blood of animals for the inauguration of this covenant, how much more will He gladly accept the blood of Christ for the fulfillment of this covenant.
‘Now, as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’ and He took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink of it, all of you, for THIS IS MY BLOOD OF THE COVENANT poured out for the forgiveness of sins.’
Just as God sealed the covenant at Sinai with Israel by inviting Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu and the 70 Elders to a meal where they ate and drank in the presence of God, now Jesus seals the New Covenant made by the shedding of His blood over a meal. He invites His disciples to an Upper Room, and they ate and drank and beheld God.
By giving them His very body and blood in and under the bread and the wine, Jesus was giving them Himself. And by eating and drinking this holy food, they were united to this covenant that He was about to establish for them by the shedding of His blood on the cross.
What He was about to do for them, He gives to them in this meal, and through the eating and the drinking they participate in His death FOR THE FORGIVENESS OF THEIR SINS.
Like I said, our word is not to be trusted. We say one thing and mean something else. When it comes from us, talk is cheap. But the Word of the Lord is unfailing and unchanging. His Word never changes. It is the same word in the past, present and future. His Words that instituted this Supper then, do the same thing when ever the same Words of Institution are spoken over bread and wine for the purpose of participating in this same covenant.
Whenever we receive the Lord’s Supper, we are receiving from Christ all of the benefits and gifts that come with being a part of this covenant, namely, the FORGIVENESS OF SINS. And where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.
The forgiveness and life and salvation that we receive in this meal is the same forgiveness that we receive in the waters of baptism and the preaching of the gospel. But here, Jesus gives us this gift of divine grace by giving us the same body and blood by which our forgiveness and life and salvation has been won.
When I hear the preaching of the gospel that announces the forgiveness of our sins for the sake of Christ crucified, I may not always associate that Word in particular with MY SINS in particular. We may believe the gospel ‘in principle,’ but find it difficult to believe that is meant FOR ME. Or, we may simply be daydreaming and thinking about other things and miss the message altogether. But in the Supper, Jesus gives His forgiveness, life and salvation to us INDIVIDUALLY, ONE PERSON AT A TIME, pressing it into my hands, placing it on my two lips, and it is impossible to escape the fact that this is truly FOR ME, FOR YOU.
Jesus is physically and bodily present in the bread and the wine. It is only His REAL PRESENCE in this meal that gives REAL FORGIVENESS, REAL LIFE AND REAL SALVATION. Symbolic presence can only, at best, give symbolic forgiveness, life and salvation.
What this means is that the REAL PRESENCE of Christ’s true body and true blood in the bread and the wine, is just the foundation upon which this meal is built. Who lays a foundation but never builds a house on it? Only faith that believes that Christ here gives us His true body and true blood FOR THE FORGIVENESS OF SINS receives this gift properly and for it’s holy purpose.
The Lord Supper is strong medicine that cures what makes us ill. But only those who believe that they are actually sick and who believe that the medicine will make them well, actually take it. Likewise, only those who believe that they are sinners in need of forgiveness, dead men in need of life, lost souls in need of salvation, receive the Lord’s Supper as the medicine of immortality that it truly is.
The mysterious meal that Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu and the 70 Elders of Israel attended was a foretaste of the meal that we attend here this evening. Like them, we too eat and drink in the presence of God. And just as certainly, this mysterious meal is a foretaste of the meal that we will all one day attend in heaven itself. There we will see God, as He is, unhidden in bread and wine. There, we will continue to eat in the presence of God.