Compared with people who lived a hundred years ago, let alone in biblical times, we live our lives in extraordinary security and freedom from fear, cocooned to a greater or lesser extent in a welfare state, whatever political party is in power, and expecting to live into our seventies or eighties almost as a matter of right. Under such circumstances, it is easy to forget God; we get along well enough without him. Then out of the blue we have a minor heart attack, a warning stroke - nothing much really - or we are told that we have a small lump in a breast and ought to have a mammogram, even though the growth is probably benign; and the fragility of our boasted security is shattered. We remember God, and pray like mad. Corporately, too, when a war breaks out - or is even threatened - and we wait for the bombers to come, the churches are suddenly packed to overflowing with people who have remembered God, afraid and feeling guilty for their long forgetfulness, their lasting ingratitude for the gift of life and love and consciousness. We say we are sorry, and ask to be forgiven, and promise to do something to prove the reality of our penitence.
In Old Testament times, few people enjoyed such security; infant mortality was huge, and most adults died in their twenties or thirties; famine was common; wars and rumours of wars were frequent; plagues of various kinds were of regular occurrence; and the fragility and insecurity of life ever-present to the mind. Or so it should have been. In fact, astonishingly, even then people forgot about God, trusted in themselves to be able to cope with life, and - just like us - got on fine without him. ‘The Lord looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there were any that would understand and seek after God; but they are all gone out of the way.’ But not for long. Soon the spring rains would fail, and the land would wither like a leaf, or some other disaster would strike, and men’s hearts would begin to fail them for fear. ‘Then’ said the despairing - almost nihilistic - author of the Book of Ecclesiastes, ‘shall they be afraid of that which is high….and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper be a burden…because man goeth to his long home, and mourners go about the streets.’ And then, of course, just as today, the churches would fill to overflowing again, except that in Old Testament times they had no churches, only stone altars in the Sinai desert or sacred trees on the tops of little hills in the land of Judah, inherited from the heathen people of the land, and condemned by the prophets of Israel for their kinship to the old pagan gods of fertility, of the rain, of spring-time and harvest. But like us, in times of adversity those old desert people remembered God, and were deeply sorry for their past forgetfulness and their past unfaithfulness. Obviously, God was angry with them. What could they do to turn away his wrath?
They did very much what we do in similar - though much less important - circumstances. To give an imaginary example - I have gratuitously offended a close friend, to whom I owe much, and our consequent estrangement is entirely my own fault. He had done nothing to deserve my gross offensiveness. Eventually, when I have had time to simmer down, I begin to realise how wrong I have been, and I long to repair the damage I have done. What do I do? I ring him up - a bit like a prayer, when you come to think about it; getting in touch at a considerable distance - I ring him up, and say, “Look, I’m terribly sorry, truly I am. It was all my fault, Please forgive me. I really didn’t mean to offend you. Come and have a meal next Wednesday. I’ll kill the fatted calf, and open the best bottle of claret I’ve got, and let’s start again,” A shared meal is a way of making peace, a sacrament of friendship, the oldest and surest way of cementing a relationship that there is. We know that intuitively, and so did the men and women of the Old Testament. But their predicament was infinitely worse than estrangement from an old friend, for they were estranged from God, to whom they owed everything - life, health, children, and their flocks upon which, as nomadic desert people, they depended for virtually all their physical needs. They used their sheeps’ wool for clothing, carpets, and tents; their skins for leather shoes, saddles for their asses, water bottles, and other things; their milk both to drink and for cheese; and their flesh to eat. Thus, after their families, their flocks were their most precious possessions; and as I promised my estranged friend that, if only he would accept my apologies and would come to dinner, I would kill the fatted calf - itself an expression from the Bible - so they promised God that they would single out their most precious ewe lamb and share it with him in a reconciling meal. The blood was believed to be the life of the animal, for when a wounded animal’s blood ran out, its life ran out, and it died. The blood must therefore be its life, and this they gave back to God by sprinkling it on some stony desert altar. After all, God had given life to the lamb in the first place; it was only right that its life should be returned to him. They burnt some of the flesh on the altar, too, which was a sweet-smelling savour to God, while they themselves ate the rest, thus sharing a sacred meal with God and being reconciled to him in the process.
That may sound a rather primitive practice - not that there is anything wrong with primitive practices simply because they are primitive; falling in love, marrying, and breeding children is a pretty primitive practice, but none of us would be here if our parents had disapproved of it as too primitive for up-to-date creatures like them; but in fact the practice of sacrificing a lamb and offering its blood - its life - to God while sharing its body in a sacred meal of reconciliation was a replacement for a much more primitive practice with roots going down into the mists shrouding man’s earliest emergence from obscurity into the first light of the dawn of history - human sacrifice. In the beginning, man did not offer a lamb to God or a fatted calf, but something much more precious to them than that, their first-born son. The story of Abraham preparing to sacrifice Isaac, his first-born and only son, to God on a mountain in the land of Moriah, and of Isaac being reprieved at the last moment and replaced by a ram caught in the thicket of thorns enshrines a memory of that old primeval practice of human sacrifice and its passing.
Why bother to describe all these rather unpleasant primitive practices? Because the miracle of the gospel is that, ‘while we were yet sinners’, as St Paul put it - while we were still estranged from God, as we would put it - it was God who rang us up and asked us to dinner, not the other way round; and we shall not understand the gospel until we understand that. In fact, he did more than ring us up; he came to visit us. We did not even say we were sorry. It was God who was sorry, who hated being estranged from us, who missed us, who loved us, and who made the first move towards us in reconciliation. We did not promise to kill the fatted calf or offer a lamb to God in token of our sorrow for our forgetfulness and ingratitude, let alone offer him our first-born son; for once again it was God who took the initiative and provided the sacrificial lamb for a shared meal, a feast of reconciliation. “Behold the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world,” John the Baptist had cried on first seeing Jesus.
Later, after the lamb of God had been killed, not on a mountain in the land of Moriah but on a hill just outside Jerusalem, so that you and I and all mankind could be reconciled to God, another John said, “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that God loved us, and sent his son to be the propitiation for our sins.” Ever since then, men and women have shared in a meal of reconciliation with Christ as their host, shared in the life and the person of the Lamb of God, and having heard the words, ‘The Body of Christ which was given for you…the Blood of Christ, which was shed for you and for for many…’ have gone out into the world, Christ-bearers, at peace with God.