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  • Writer's pictureRev. Izzy Harbin

21 When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” 4 This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet:

5 “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7 they brought the donkey and the colt and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,

“Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

10 When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” 11 The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

12 Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. 13 He said to them, “It is written,

‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it a den of robbers.”

14 The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them. 15 But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did and heard the children crying out in the temple and saying, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became angry 16 and said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read,

‘Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise for yourself’?”

17 He left them, went out of the city to Bethany, and spent the night there.

Once again, it is Palm Sunday. In a sense, we are reaching the end of one journey and the beginning of another. Palm Sunday represents the final journey of Jesus into the city of Jerusalem, even knowing that he would be arrested and killed. This liturgical year we have been focusing on the concept of covenant with a particular look at how we violate covenant throughout the season of Lent. Technically, Palm Sunday is the last Sunday of Lent. So, I'd like to spend a little more time at talking about one of the ways in which we violate covenant that has become ubiquitous in the church. The way to get at this covenant violation is by reading the story carefully and paying attention to how Jesus holds sacred the Temple.

We typically think about Jesus' journey into the city as the key event. For some, his entrance through the back gate while Pilate entered through the front gate reveals Jesus' humility and desire to be a servant to all. But what stands out for me, even more than this, is his first activity after entering the city...He goes to the Temple.

This story is familiar, but maybe the context has been lost on us.

When Jesus entered the Temple, he started flipping the tables of the money changers and driving out the sellers and the buyers. It doesn't appear that he has anything against the sacrificial system of the Temple, what he was bothered by was where the sellers chose to set up their operation; in the courtyard, an area of the Temple reserved for foreigners and non-Jews to come in a pray.

As he drives out the merchants and their livestock, he is noticed by the authorities. We might even ask, "Why draw that kind of attention to yourself?" Clearly, Jesus was trying to make a point: There is a way to be in the Temple, and a way NOT to be in the Temple. Nothing, not even the money changers, merchants, and livestock should be inside the Temple. All commerce should happen outside the Temple. The temple, as Jesus describes it should be a "house of prayer".

After this dramatic scene, Jesus stays in the Temple and begins receiving all those who need healing. In the span of a couple of paragraphs, the purpose of the Temple begins to take better shape. 1. A house of prayer; 2. A place for healing.

So, what is our covenant violation? Turning our houses of worship into something other than houses of prayer and healing. What I keep asking myself, though, is where do you draw the line? When we think of what Jesus did in this moment, he was creating space for the people, rather than allowing the religious leaders and merchants to simply line their pockets. If we look at it from a people perspective, then we might say that all activities that support the coming together of the people would be okay.

Feeding people is a prayer of the soul, nurturing, and healing.

Providing safe space for people to gather is a prayer for the soul, nurturing, and healing.

But are their activities that should not take place in the church? The truth is, I don't really know the answer to this. I suppose this is a matter of discernment. When do we cross the line from being prayerful and healing to being ego-driven and destructive? I'm not even sure if I've captured the right words here. The more I've wrestled with this passage, it has made me ask some of these harder questions about how we use our "facility". What is an appropriate use of space? Does it really matter in this day and age? And most importantly, is this why we have empty buildings all throughout the week because we are afraid to use them inappropriately?

Jesus raises some interesting questions when he clears the temple and starts healing people within its walls. This is not something that we can simply write off as a "that was then, this is now," scenario. And, not to put to fine a point on it, is it the building itself that is "sacred" or is it the people who occupy the building? My gut tells me that it is the people.

After all, we talk about "sacred spaces" as being places where people gather for the purpose of having some sort of encounter with the divine. This doesn't just occur inside the walls of a church building. It is more a function of the activity than it is the actual space; although, the space can play a huge role in creating the atmosphere for certain kinds of activities - I'm thinking of hikes in the mountains, or even being out on the big water...these spaces are like thin veils between us and the divine.

What is at stake here? Ultimately, I think that Jesus is calling us to be mindful of how we serve, and that we are serving everyone who desires to be served. As he drove out the merchants and livestock, he was creating space for those who would normally not be allowed in the Temple. Jesus understood, in that moment, the necessity for space for all. Maybe his reaction was geared toward reclaiming space that was traditionally set aside for a specific purpose, but I think the lesson goes beyond this. I think Jesus is calling us to view all the spaces in which we occupy as potential sacred space open to all who desire to come in - especially for the purpose of prayer and healing.

If our intentions are always focused on the prayer and the practice of healing, those who need both will find their way to what is important. If the people aren't coming, we might need to ask, "What kinds of barriers have we put in place, just like the merchants, livestock, and money changers, that keep people out?" Maybe this question is too simplistic - or the issue much more complicated, but it is worthy of our attention.

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  • Writer's pictureRev. Izzy Harbin

Jeremiah 31:33-34

33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 No longer shall they teach one another or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord, for I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more.

Matthew 22:34-40

34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35 and one of them, an expert in the law, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 He said to him, “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”

This Sunday is the last Sunday in Lent. We have been journeying through the book of Leviticus, but we now transition to a broader context in which the law applies. Our final service on how we violate covenant is derived from the Jeremiah and Matthew passages, that of failing to love.

When I first conceived of this series, I wasn’t certain how doing a series from Leviticus would land, especially since we weren’t discussing what are typically referred to as the clobber passages often used against the LGBT community. Putting all that aside, I concentrated on the kinds of behaviors that God instituted that would maintain covenant and aid in the people’s journey to be holy. What is remarkable is that there is this transition from following the letter of the law to following the spirit of the law, but there are those who never make the leap.

By the time we get to Jeremiah, we have this moment of intervention from God. They are living in the diaspora, having been hauled away from their homeland to Babylonia. Jeremiah, a prophet of God not held in Babylon, writes to the people to tell them that God will redeem them, but not right away. His letter to the Israelites is strange to be sure. He writes:

“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jeremiah 29:4-7).

It is out of this notion that they need to settle in for the long haul, they need to make an effort to prosper themselves, even in a foreign land, that God then says to them regarding his promise to restore them in their homeland, that everything has changed. Your time away from the promised land has changed you – as a people you are no longer the same group that I brought out of Egypt, you are generations beyond where we started. God, in this same moment needs to assure them that while they were given certain laws to follow previously, God now sees that these laws did not make things easier, but harder. So instead of giving them more laws, God is going to write the law into their hearts. We might pause at this point in the story and ask, “What kind of law can be written on the heart.”

This is where the Matthew text folds so neatly into the narrative. Jesus is being challenged by the religious leaders of his day who are still adhering to the letter of the law. In some sense, we can say that part of Jesus’ role in society was to demonstrate the Jeremiah passage; to remind the Sadducees and Pharisee’s that the letter of the law was no longer necessary, but rather an internal change was what God required – the whole “love kindness, show mercy, walk humbly” scenario.

In this moment where Jesus is tested, he gives us the next piece of this very important puzzle. We are to love. The whole of the law was always about learning to live in community with one another. It outlined how we are to treat one another, care for the least of these, including the resident aliens that live among us. Even the passages that talk about God cutting someone off from the community, we see that there was always a remedy, it was called the Day of Atonement. As long as the people were making an effort, God continued to show up. God remained faithful, even when the people didn’t know how.

As Jesus explains what the law actually requires: To Love God, love our neighbor, and to love ourselves; the religious leaders of his day were taken aback at the simplicity of his statement. They knew he was speaking the truth, but it also angered them because they knew they were failing on all counts. This should have been their forte, as priests and caretakers of the community, but they had become so legalistic that they could no longer see the people as their greatest asset, instead they were a liability.

We can make some interesting connections to our present-day circumstances. I’ve used this quote from Phillip Gulley many times, “You know that you have created God in your own image when God hates all the same people you do.” This quote sums up beautifully what we have become; what happens when we reduce God’s law to a legalistic way of living rather than living by the law of love.

While this may seem far off base, at first, I believe these two things are intimately connected. It is nearly impossible for us to love others when we are incapable of truly loving ourselves. For those of us raised in the church, we often received mixed messages as children – God loves you, but if you aren’t a Christian or if you don’t meet certain requirements, then you are going to hell for all eternity, because God said so. This message distorts the true meaning of love. Love is not narcissistic nor is it self-deprecating.

As a people, we are not very good at loving ourselves or others. Our ability to love is often tied up with our ability to trust. Perhaps, what we can learn from the concept of atonement and our need to love is that love is a state of mind, a way of being. Whether I trust you or not, I can still love you, if for no other reason than you, too, are a child of God, created in God’s image and likeness. Loving others is a ways of seeing the world. It is a way of orienting ourselves toward a God who is loving.

The life of Jesus becomes the example of what a new covenant looks like – a community builder who peddles love. Keeping God’s covenant is all about following in Jesus’ footsteps – to love God, love neighbor, and love self. That is the greatest commandment and the best covenant of all.

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  • Writer's pictureRev. Izzy Harbin

My apologies - this is a long post, but hopefully a deeply informative one. There is much more I could say about Atonement, but hopefully this will spark some new ideas for you.

Leviticus 23:26-32

26 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 27 “Now, the tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement; it shall be a holy convocation for you: you shall humble yourselves and present the Lord’s offering by fire, 28 and you shall do no work during that entire day, for it is a Day of Atonement, to make atonement on your behalf before the Lord your God. 29 For those who do not humble themselves during that entire day shall be cut off from the people. 30 And anyone who does any work during that entire day, such a one I will destroy from the midst of the people. 31 You shall do no work. This is a statute forever throughout your generations in all your settlements. 32 It shall be to you a Sabbath of complete rest, and you shall humble yourselves; on the ninth day of the month at evening, from evening to evening you shall keep your Sabbath.”

The Day of Atonement! This is another part of God’s Covenant with the people of Israel, a day that is set aside for spiritual practice. Atonement is an interesting concept – to restore that which is broken, to cover over, to repair, to return or turn toward God - these are but a few ways of thinking about the act of atonement as practiced by the Israelite people.

In our modern-day context, Protestant Churches often talk about the atonement as the saving work of Christ through Jesus’ death on the cross. As we quickly approach Good Friday and Easter, this is a perfect time to reflect on what atonement means for us in the 21st century.

From a theological perspective, the church has inherited roughly seven Atonement Theories, each with their own spin on how it works and what they accomplish in Jesus’ death. Here they are in brief:

1. The Moral Influence Theory – this theory is one of the oldest and seeks to view Jesus’ death as the catalyst to a positive moral change in society, encouraging humanity to follow Jesus’ lived example. Central to this theory is the power of the Holy Spirit operating in the lives of people in order to facilitate this moral change. A primary focus of this theory is the crucifixion coupled with his life; recognizing that both are necessary to comprehend the completeness of God’s love.

2. Ransom Theory – this theory reflects more prominently on Jesus’ death and sees his death as a ransom paid in order to settle our debt. This theory requires that one believe in the fall of humankind through the sin of Adam which made us captive to Satan, and that in order for God to release us from captivity, a ransom must be paid. In this theory, the act of redemption is thought of as a buy back. For its detractors, this theory is unliked because it involves paying off Satan.

3. Christus Victor – this theory states that Jesus’ death on the cross acts as a decisive blow against Satan, sin, and death, thus freeing all humanity from our bondage to these powers. It is imagined that while Jesus was held in his grave for three days that he did battle with Satan, ultimately defeating his rule over humanity and setting us all free. This is often referred to as the Classical view of Atonement.

4. Satisfaction Theory – this theory was authored by Anselm in the 12th century and seeks to define Jesus’ death as the necessary satisfaction paid to God, as in Jesus pays restitution to God thus mending what was broken. This theory was developed in contrast to the Ransom Theory which paid off Satan, and instead, pays God what is just and owed for our all of our injustices.

5. The Penal Substitutionary Theory – this theory builds on Anselm’s theory of satisfaction and states that Jesus was a substitute for us, meaning we did not have to pay God back for our sin, but rather Jesus paid the debt for us. Jesus’ death satisfies the wrath of God kindled against humanity for their sins, and stands between God and humanity so that God no longer sins the sinful nature of humans. In this theory, God can only be satisfied through the death of Jesus who covers all our sins.

6. The Governmental Theory – this theory is similar to Penal Substitutionary Theory, but differs in a huge way; Jesus is unable to satisfy our debt. What Jesus’ death actually accomplishes on the cross is to demonstrate the severity of God’s displeasure with humankind’s sin, revealing the high price that must be paid, but does not actually pay it. Jesus died only for the church, not for the whole of humanity. If you are apart of the church, then you receive the benefit of Jesus’ death.

7. The Scapegoat Theory – this is a relatively new theory whereby Jesus becomes the scapegoat for the sins of humanity. Jesus isn’t a sacrifice, but rather a victim. How does this work exactly – those who would have Jesus killed believe that he is guilty of the crime for which he has been condemned (crime that is often buried in obscurity), Jesus is later determined to be the true son of God, therefor the people who elected to kill Jesus assume the guilt for Jesus’ death. This theory also aligns with the concept of the incarnation – that God came in the flesh as manifested in Jesus; that God is the one crucified on the cross; and that through this act, we are able to enter into the fullness of life.

These theories ask us to examine the death of Christ and what it means for humanity through a careful reading of scripture. Sadly, the New Testament is slim on atonement details, thus the development of seven different theories over a period of 1000 years or more. The Hebrew text talks far more explicitly of atonement, especially at the time of the Israelites wandering in the desert when the Law was supposedly given to Moses.

Leviticus 16 talks about the Day of Atonement, and it is later reiterated in Leviticus 23. In chapter 16, though, there is a curious passage about sin –

“20 “When he has finished atoning for the holy place and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall present the live goat. 21 Then Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the iniquities of the Israelites, and all their transgressions, all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat and sending it away into the wilderness by means of someone designated for the task.[a] 22 The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a barren region, and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness.”

The live goat is used to receive the sins of the people, but the goat is set free to wander in the wilderness. The sins of the people are not washed away by the shedding of blood, but in the Priest’s laying on of hands on the goats head.

What is offered prior to the mitigation of sins is a purification offering of a bull where blood is spilled and showered all over the tent and the curtain that separates the Altar from the Holy of Holies. This offering of blood is more to purify the temple and the offeror than the people as a whole.

There is another provision, though, that the Rabbi’s latched onto that changed their entire system when the temple fell in 70CE. In Leviticus chapter 5, there are provisions made for those who cannot afford an animal sacrifice. In the place of blood, an ephah of choice flour may be used (Lev. 5:11).

What this tells us is that God made a provision for the people and set the sin offering according to what the people could afford. This means that everyone was able to participate in asking for their sins to be forgiven. No one was left out of this process. Furthermore, when the temple was no longer available to the people for animal sacrifices, there was a way to continue to atone for one’s behavior.

The Rabbinic system teaches us that perhaps it isn’t the sacrifice itself that matters, but rather, a contrite heart and a willingness to return to God. When we look at the death of Jesus via crucifixion, we cannot help but make up fantastical stories about the purpose of his death. If we have a particular understanding of sacrifice as a necessary means of mitigating sin; that blood must be shed, then it becomes easy to see Jesus’ death as the ultimate sacrifice.

Seeing Jesus’ death as necessary for the forgiveness of sins, though, has, in many ways, relieved us from the physical act of seeking atonement. We don’t learn how to forgive or be forgiven, nor do we offer grace and mercy to ourselves or others. If for no other reason, the act of seeking atonement calls us to examine our own lives to the degree that we get honest about our behavior. We must make right that which is wrong. It is imperative that we understand our patterns of behavior, otherwise we are destined to repeat those patterns. What the various Atonement Theories do, however, is shift the burden relief onto Jesus, rather than leaving it with the people; the very individuals who need to change and be transformed.

Another way of looking at Jesus’ death is to see his self-sacrifice as a model for our own. Jesus is asking us to continue the work of atonement by assessing and reassessing our own lives. As he hangs on the cross between the two thieves, the thief that grabs Jesus’ attention is the one who admits he was wrong. The courage that it takes for us to acknowledge when we violate relationships is enormous. This is what God expresses in the law and it is what Jesus teaches us as he dies on the cross.

God’s grace is always sufficient for even the most heinous of sins. But if we want to change and be transformed, it is up to us to do a little bit of work to own our part and make right, to the best of our ability, what is wrong. In this we become co-creators of our lives with God. By owning our stuff, we become malleable clay for God to mold. When we remain intractable, God cannot bend us, move us, or shape us into anything new.

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