Finding Christ in Leviticus

by Elizabeth

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This image. It captured my attention last weekend, and I couldn’t look away. I was supposed to be listening to Sherry Lile speak on Leviticus 14, but by the time she got to this part of the story, I heard no more words. I saw only this picture.

Leviticus 14 might seem like a strange place to begin a ladies conference entitled “My Heart, Christ’s Home.” The event theme sounds warm and cuddly, but the Levitical chapter is anything but. It begins with the proper way to diagnose and treat skin diseases (yuck) and ends with the instructions for identifying and treating houses with mold (also yuck).

First we talked about how sin is like leprosy — how it can start small and then spread to a much larger area of our lives. And if it’s like the traditionally understood form of leprosy (Hansen’s disease), it causes us not to feel pain.

The problem then, is that we can get hurt even worse. I know for myself, most of the time when I sin, it’s a feeble attempt to protect my heart from further pain. But I only harden it harder and sin ever greater and pull farther and farther away from the Great Physician — even if I can’t, temporarily, feel the pain.

In Leviticus the sufferer of the skin disease must go to the Priest for healing. He can’t do it on his own. He needs help. There’s a parallel here, of course.

Then we moved into the second half of the chapter, the part about the houses. Again the priest must be called in. He is given very specific instructions about removing the contents of the house and checking for spreading mold. Contaminated stones must be removed, too, and taken to a designated place outside town. Sometimes the entire house must be torn down.

Other times the house may be saved from destruction, but it must still be purified. This is where the picture comes in. The priest takes two birds, some cedar wood, scarlet yarn, and some hyssop. One of the birds he kills over fresh water in a clay pot (strange, I know).

He takes the cedar wood, the hyssop, the yarn, and the live bird, dips them in the blood/water mixture, and sprinkles the house seven times. Almost like he’s sweeping away the impurities with a broom.

And then — oh then — he releases the live bird in the fields outside the town, and the house is finally cleansed from its defilement. That’s when this picture popped up on the screen and when I couldn’t take my eyes off it. You know when that happens, right? When words are no longer the best language, when art communicates truth more clearly?

So I went home and told my husband all about it, but without the context of the entire lesson, it’s hard to explain to someone why you’re so excited about a picture of a bloody bird. You just sound like a crazy person.

But here’s the reason I love this picture: these two birds represent the work of Christ for us. Both the sacrificed bird AND the free bird find their fulfillment in Him — in the Cross and in the Resurrection. Because of Christ, we get to go free. Like the bird in the picture, we’re released from the grip of death and given the gift of life.

But that gift did not come without a sacrifice.

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Originally shared on Facebook.

Image used with permission.

What Forgiveness Really Means

by Elizabeth

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Timothy Sanford wrote about forgiveness in his book “I Have To Be Perfect” (And Other Parsonage Heresies). It’s a book for Pastors’ Kids and Missionary Kids (PKs and MKs) that I blogged through a couple years ago. In the book, Sanford teaches that when you forgive someone, you have to “absorb the damages.”

I didn’t exactly know what he meant by “absorb the damages.” For me it was a completely novel way of looking at forgiveness. I had always thought forgiveness meant releasing my anger and desire for justice. I never thought about having to absorb the damages.

According to this definition, forgiveness means paying. You take on the punishment. You walk through the suffering. You pay the price that no one else is willing to pay.  It is not just releasing a person from their debt. It involves accepting your own suffering. And this has certainly been my experience. Willingly or unwillingly, there have been times in my life that I have paid the price that no one else would pay.

Sanford’s explanation of forgiveness also helps me to understand the Cross on a deeper level. It’s easy to understand the mercy of a God who releases us from punishment. It’s much harder to comprehend why that same God had to suffer because of His choice to forgive. After all, He’s God. Why couldn’t He release us without suffering?

I have in fact heard people voice this very complaint, claiming that a violent, bloody cross was unnecessary for salvation. That if we, as humans, can “just decide” to forgive someone, then why wouldn’t the God of the universe be able to just decide to forgive us, too? He’s GOD. Can’t He just declare our debt null and void? Give us heaven free and clear?

I must confess, this postmodern recasting of God sounds really nice. It’s pleasant to the ears and inoffensive to the mind. But as I’ve processed through the ideas of mercy and forgiveness, the words of Timothy Sanford keep returning to me. They illuminate for me what the forgiveness of Jesus really means.

It is most certainly true that God wanted to forgive, so He decided to forgive. But in order to forgive, someone was going to have to pay the price. And in this case, the Person who paid the price was God Himself.

The “I can just decide to forgive” narrative works better with people we actually care about. When we are in relationship with someone, it is much easier to pay the price, to release the debt, and to forgive. The process is more akin to overlooking than releasing. So we delude ourselves into thinking that forgiveness means “just deciding” to forgive, apart from anyone’s suffering.

But I don’t want to worship a god made in my own image, a god whose ideas of justice and forgiveness are modeled after my own.

Forgiveness, whether it is God’s or ours, always means absorbing the damages. When we humans “just decide” to forgive someone here on earth, it is never a simple act of the will the way I’ve heard some describe it. There is always suffering involved. We suffer at the hands of another and choose not to repay evil for evil. Forgiveness means accepting that suffering. There is always a cost to forgiveness.

And that is the role of Jesus in our lives. The truth is, the cross is offensive. It is violent. It is God himself paying the price of our wrongdoing. Taking on the pain of our sin — a pain so massive we have a hard time comprehending it. Such a hard time comprehending it, in fact, that we are sometimes tempted to wave it all away.

But forgiveness is never free. The cost can’t be waved away. The forgiver always pays. Forgiving means acknowledging that there was pain and suffering and that nothing the perpetrator will ever do could ever make it right. The Forgiver Himself has to make it right.

Linking up with Velvet Ashes.

But I’ve done all these good things . . .

by Elizabeth

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The question came as Jesus was beginning His last journey to Jerusalem. It came as He was heading toward His most heart-rending task, as He was starting the long descent toward death: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

We all know the story. A young, rich, religious man calls Jesus good and then asks Him how to achieve eternal life. Jesus first scolds him for calling anyone “good” but God. Then, feeling genuine love for the man, Jesus tells him to follow the commandments and proceeds to list several of them.

The man defends himself. “I’ve obeyed all these commandments since I was young,” he says. But Jesus informs him that there is still something he hasn’t done – namely, to sell all his possessions, give the money to the poor, and follow Jesus. The man’s face falls when he hears this, and he goes away sad, for he was a very wealthy man.

I’d always glossed over this incident, thinking it might not apply to me. (I’d also neglected to notice until now that it occurred just before Jesus enters Jerusalem for the last time.) But this month as I again worked my way through the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry, it suddenly struck me: the story of the rich, young ruler is my story.

“I’ve obeyed all these commandments since I was young” — once upon a time I said those words out loud, too. I’d just been confronted by my own sin, and I was shocked. I remember protesting, “But I’ve spent my whole life trying to follow God!” My statement was just another version of the rich, young man’s statement; it was just another version of pride.

And like the man, my face fell too. When I saw my attitude for what it was — sin — I did an abrupt U-turn. I interpreted my sin as the worst of all sins and became very depressed. My sin wasn’t a sin that could be forgiven, you see. A sin like mine didn’t deserve God’s grace and forgiveness. Where before I had thought I was better than others, I now thought I was worse.

I rolled around in my sorrow and self-pity until a friend gently pointed out that I was exhibiting reverse pride: the kind of pride that says my sins are so bad they can’t be forgiven. I had flipped from the regular old pride of thinking I was a good person to the insidious, upside-down version of pride that said I could never deserve God’s forgiveness.

But my goodness was never good enough anyway, and reverse pride is a sin to repent of, too. So Jesus basically said the same thing to me that He said to the young man: “There is something you still lack.” That something was a humble awareness of grace. Because in the end, Jesus didn’t ask me to give up all my possessions. (Moving to Asia isn’t the same thing.)

What Jesus has asked me to give up is the idea of myself as someone who has done good things. He’s asked me to give up the idea that I’ve followed the commands well. Because I haven’t. And He’s asked me to give up the idea that any sin is beyond His reach, including the prideful belief that I have no (or very small) sins.

As Jesus watched the man in this story walk away, He explained to His disciples how difficult it is for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of heaven. His announcement left the disciples wondering who in the world could be saved – because to a certain extent, we all trust in both riches and our own good works.

But here is where the story gets good, because Jesus told His disciples that “What is impossible for people is possible with God.” And He kept walking toward Jerusalem to make the impossible, possible. He kept walking toward Jerusalem to make the man’s question irrelevant. He kept walking toward Jerusalem to demonstrate His genuine love for us and to give a very un-good humanity the goodness that belongs to God alone.

Whether we’ve done “all these things” since our youth or not.

(Originally published at A Life Overseas.)