Exodus 37:9b ~ “… The faces of the cherubim were toward the mercy seat. …”
This morning, let us think carefully about what we are doing here, right now, within holy worship. What I mean is: What do you think you are doing ~ for God? Let us consider some of the many activities which religious people have performed, in the supposed attempt to merit God’s favor, even though the design of each activity was to teach them of the necessity of God’s unmerited grace.
In Old Testament times, God’s people were highly engaged with sacrifices, feasts, and sacraments:
1. Sacrifices, like those offered on the annual Day of Atonement. How remarkable ~ if it ever happened (!) ~ that a Jew could stand near the Tabernacle or Temple, as the high priest would sprinkle a portion of the blood sacrifice onto him, symbolizing that worshiper’s need to have his own fresh sins covered through the death of another creature. And yet … even while the blood was being applied to him, that worshiper might have been imagining: “What a godly, spiritual person I am, for having bothered to show up at Jerusalem this year” … and counting up how many favors God owed to him for the coming farming season! We could extend this realistic possibility to what similar “worshipers” were thinking about as that same high priest laid his hands on the two goats …
2. Feasts, like the Passover. Again, each family was much involved with blood, this time slaying their own unblemished lamb, and spreading its covering blood onto their doorposts, so that the death this family deserved would be paid symbolically by another creature. And yet, pride of annual performance could often leak in.
3. Sacraments, like circumcision … the very act itself depicting and symbolizing the necessary cutting away of our sinful flesh ~ what we are as fallen humanity ~ a removal of that inborn offense, replaced with full dependence on spiritual help from God. And yet, we know that more racial and personal pride surrounded the circumcision ritual than any other aspect of Jewish life.
Are we New Testament Christians immune from this field of problems? Hardly! Professing believers are very busy about formal worship, Bible reading, the prayers, … and (again) sacraments (in our case, reduced to two ~ Baptism & the Lord’s Supper):
1. Our formal worship. Your presence at New Sabbath services (I trust?!) indicates your heart conviction that we very much need God, His favor, and His means of grace. Yet church attendance, famously, is often a point of personal, comparative pride.
2. Bible reading. How much we need a word from the Lord ~ even more than we need physical bread. And yet, it is way too easy for me to check off my DAILY BIBLE READING RECORD, and then imagine I have maneuvered God into my debt.
3. Prayer. What is genuine, spiritual petition ~ but a confession of faith, of sin, of trust, and of absolute neediness?! And yet this act (too often) is counted by nominal (in-name-only) and disobedient Christians as, somehow, meritorious.
4. Sacraments, like Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Baptism (akin to circumcision) is to symbolize my need to be washed clean of sin. Though it is properly performed one time on each believer, this cleansing picture applies to a lifetime of sin, all of it needing coverage by that liquid which is stronger than water. The Supper is the repeating sacrament; some of us will enjoy hundreds of celebrations. Each one is to remind us of our need for continuous feeding and life-power from outside the self. And yet, like our Old Covenant counterparts, New Testament saints are too quick to count up what our God owes to us for our sacramental observances.
How much better, my faithful (faith-filled), gracious (grace-bought), merciful (mercy-driven) brothers and sisters ~ to be taught by the Lord through all these means of His blessing and grace, concerning:
1. our personal unworthiness (even our counter-merit) as considered on our own, by ourselves.
2. the absolute and infinite worth of Jesus (the righteous, faithful, worthy One).
3. our inclusion in, union with, and dependence upon Jesus Christ, for any good thing. This is the gospel ~ and what it means to live by faith in the Son of God.
There are a few ways in which we can and should emulate the angels. God has given us this picture in His word about the construction of the wilderness Tabernacle and the design of the Ark of the Covenant within it (see the Exodus 37 reference above). On the top of the Ark, God instructed that the angelic figures should be fashioned to gaze intently at the mercy seat (also known as the atonement cover). This is where satisfaction for Israel’s sin was symbolically made, and where Yahweh said He would meet with His people through their appointed high priest. Jesus Christ, of course, is our Atonement, our Great High Priest, the effective Cause of God’s mercy toward us. Let us follow the angelic gaze, looking to Christ on the basis of blood-bought mercy, and not to any supposed worth in ourselves for ritual compliance or anything else.