My uncle Orville was a mechanic. If he wasn’t reaching down into, or up into, a car or truck at work, he was restoring an old tractor at home. Because of his passion for all things mechanical, Orville’s hands were always dirty. They were black around the fingernails and black in the creases and whorls of his fingers and palms. As often and as hard as he washed his hands, he could never get them clean. The grease was ground in too deep.
In the Broadway version of “South Pacific,” Mary Martin sings, “I’m gonna wash that man right outa my hair.” You feel so refreshed stepping out of the shower. It’s like making a new start in life. Don’t you wish you could take care of problems, and problem people, so easily?
When Lady Macbeth shrieks, “Out, damned spot!” she’s not talking about a ketchup stain. She’s talking about blood she has shed. The Roman governor Pilate thinks he can wash his hands of the blood of Jesus, but no whitewashing of history can erase his treachery.
We’ve all got stains that we’d like to wash away, and no amount of soap or scrubbing can remove them. Scripture tells us that only the blood of Jesus can wash us clean.
Friends, we’re in the fifth week of Lent and nearing the end of our study based on the book “Savior,” by Magrey deVega. We’re exploring various ways of understanding just how it is that “Christ died for our sins” (1 Corinthians 15:3). Today we’re talking about being made clean.
In Jesus’ day, it is assumed that disease is a sign of sin and alienation from God. In the gospel of Mark, we read about a man who has a skin disease similar to leprosy. He falls to his knees before Jesus and begs him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Moved with compassion, Jesus reaches out and touches him, and says, “I do choose. Be made clean!” And immediately, we’re told, the man is cured of his disease and made clean. (Mark 1:40-42)
We don’t all suffer from a dread skin disease, but we all sin because of our alienation from God. Our sin stains everything we do, and we all need to be made clean. In the book of Revelation, people wear robes with colors that are symbolic of their spiritual state. Unrepentant sinners wear dirty robes, while Christian believers wear robes that are sparkling white. Why are they so white? Because they’ve been washed in the blood of the Lamb (Revelation 7:14).
It is very much a paradoxical image. Just about everybody knows how hard it is to get a bloodstain out of clothing. So how is it that robes washed in the blood of the Lamb are so pure white?
The gospel of John proclaims Jesus to be the Lamb of God (John 1:29, 36). Revelation pictures him as a suckling Lamb that has been slaughtered (Revelation 5:6). That image, of course, comes from Temple sacrifice. John’s gospel makes the association clear. According to John, Jesus is crucified at the same time that Passover lambs are sacrificed in the Temple.
The Passover lamb was not sacrificed for anyone’s sin, but as a means of obtaining the freedom of enslaved Israel. Nevertheless, the Apostle Paul calls Christ “our Passover lamb” (1 Corinthians 5:7). The book of Hebrews, meantime, says the one-time sacrifice of Christ does what the death of no amount of other lambs could ever do. It is a one-time sacrifice for all sins (Hebrews 10:12).
So it is we can say that “the blood of Jesus, God’s Son, cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:7).
So far, so good. But how exactly does that happen? Now we have to briefly drop deep into the weeds to undo several centuries of Bible abuse.
If you have an ear trained in traditional versions of the Bible, some of the Bible quotes you are hearing today will sound strikingly different from what you’re used to hearing. You may especially note the absence of two key words: “propitiation” and “expiation.” These are not words you hear in normal everyday conversation. They are the weasel words that some Bible translations use to promote a certain vile interpretation of scripture.
First up is “propitiation.” It is all about the pacification of an angry deity. Remember the movie “King Kong”? Kong is this giant gorilla, and the local population has learned that the only way to satisfy the blood lust of this monster is to sacrifice a virgin to him every now and again.
In some segments of Christian thought, Jesus is sacrificed to satisfy the wrath of his Heavenly Father against sinners. We deserve to die, Jesus takes our place, and God’s blood lust is satisfied. I think King Kong theology is despicable. God is not angry with you or eager to do you in because of your sin.
We’ve talked about this before. God’s wrath is not about zapping you with thunderbolts or flaming arrows. It is letting you go your own way and suffering the consequences of your sins. In other words, Christ sacrificing himself for you is not saving you from God’s anger. It’s saving you from your own folly.
The second weasel word you’ll often hear in these verses is “expiation.” “Expiation” is basically “propitiation” lite. It is sometimes translated as “atoning sacrifice.” What it really means is to cleanse, to forgive, to wipe out, to remove. It’s about how God deals with our sins.
It goes back to the long and complicated specifications in the book of Leviticus about how animals are to be slaughtered and their blood spattered on the altar and on the Ark of the Covenant. (By the way, cleaning those things must have been a really tough job – especially cleaning the Ark, because if you touched it, you died.) Anyway, the point is that these sacrifices remove sin. They wipe it out. And so it is with the sacrifice of Jesus.
One quick example, and we’ll move on. 1 John 2:2, from the New International Version: “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” Now from the Common English Bible: “He is God’s way of dealing with our sins, not only ours but the sins of the whole world.”
Hear the difference? The key word, sometimes translated as “expiation” or “propitiation,” actually means “to be gracious to,” “to show mercy to.” That’s how God deals with our sins – by graciously showing us mercy and cleansing us from all unrighteousness.
Let’s turn to Psalm 51, the Psalm we often recite on Ash Wednesday as we begin our Lenten journey.
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love.
According to your abundant mercy, blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean.
Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. (Psalm 51: 1-2, 7, 9)
Sound familiar? That’s how God deals with our sins.
One more obscure point, for those of you reading the book by Magrey deVega. He wants to make Jesus a scapegoat, as described in Leviticus 16. The New Testament frequently refers to Jesus as the Lamb, but never as a scapegoat. There is a modern theory of atonement, taught by Rene Girard, that does make Jesus a scapegoat. We may return to it at another time. But for our purposes right now, Jesus is not a scapegoat. He is the Lamb of God, sacrificed for the sins of the whole world.
For all the Sundays of Lent, I have introduced our “theme song” of “Lift High the Cross” by showing you a painting of the crucifixion. It shows Jesus in grotesque suffering, but there is something even more striking about it that you really can’t see unless you get really close to it.
The painting was done in 1513 by the German artist Mathias Grunewald. He was commissioned to paint an altarpiece for the chapel at a hospital. This hospital served destitute victims of the Black Death. The disease was noted for its oozing black sores. Grunewald painted Jesus covered with sores of the black death. He wanted those in the hospital to know that Jesus shared everything with them. Dying for their sins, he even shared the plague that was killing them.
We are all dying of a plague called sin. We all are covered with sores that will not heal. We all have stains that we cannot wash away. But there is a truth greater than these. Let’s claim this truth by owning it for ourselves and putting ourselves into these phrases from scripture.
Ownership: If I confess my sins, the Lord who is faithful and just will forgive my sins and cleanse me from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).
This message was delivered March 21, 2021 at Edgerton United Methodist Church in Edgerton, Kansas, from 1 John 1:5-2:2.