Golgotha. Calvary. The place where Jesus was crucified. In all the gospels, it’s referred to as the place of the skull. In not entirely clear whether or not this name is a product of the number of public executions that were conducted in this particular place, or if it’s because the topography resembled a skull. Either way, this locale, just outside the city of Jerusalem was no place for a picnic.
Death is messy. It’s ugly. And crucifixion is particularly heinous. In the annals of history, death on a cross regularly goes down as one of the worst ways to die. It wasn’t pretty, and it certainly wasn’t clean.
Yom Kippur. The day of atonement. Once a year, after following the necessary purification rights, the high priest would enter into the inner sanctum of the temple, into the holiest of holies, the space in which God was believed to dwell. Once there he would make sacrifices to God on behalf of all of God’s people and the world. Blood would be poured out onto the ark of the covenant and God would appear on the mercy seat, the cover of the ark of the covenant.
It was there in the midst of this ritually pure, heavenly prescribed moment that God could reliably be found, year after year, renewing the relationship between God and God’s people.
And oddly but beautifully, in today’s reading from Romans, these two places or events or moments have collided.
Today’s reading from the book of Romans is the standard selection for Reformation Sunday. And today we recognize the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. For dyed in the wool Lutherans, particularly those of you from the Scandinavian persuasion, today must feel like Christmas and Easter wrapped up with a big ole helping of Lutefisk. Or Swedish meatballs. Or beer, for my German brethren.
For years I’ve heard and read this as a core text that drives home Luther’s core doctrine that we are justified by faith through grace. Because it does.
For we consider that a person is declared righteous by faith apart from the works of the law.
But that’s not all it does.
Paul uses a word, the Greek word, hilasterion, that the NRSV translates as “sacrifice of atonement”. It’s the same word that gets used to describe the cover of the ark of the covenant, that lived in the holiest of holies. It’s the same word, that points to the place where God would reliably show up once a year to redeem God’s people.
Hilasterion is the Mercy Seat. The place where God shows up.
So what Paul is arguing is that the crucified Jesus is the hilasterion, the mercy seat, the place where we can most reliably find God. And Golgotha, this place of mass executions and torture, is the space where this all transpires. Golgotha functions quite literally as the holiest of holies.
So if God can transform something so evil, so vile, so ugly into a source of blessing and life. Well, then there is no limit to what God can change, transform, remake.
Why God can even remake you…and me…and the entirety of this broken world.
This morning we also have another story. Perhaps, an unusual story for this Reformation Sunday. It’s the story of Hagar and Ishmael. The story of Abraham’s first son, but not the chosen son. It’s Isaac who will be the bearer of the promises that God made to Abraham. It’s Isaac who will be the father of God’s chosen people, not Ishmael.
It’s a difficult story, it’s an offensive story, one that we think doesn’t easily connect with our modern world. Then again we don’t need to look too far to see that our society still has a pretty utilitarian approach to people. We still traffic human beings. We still use people for cheap labor. Around the globe and close to home people are used for sex and for work, for enjoyment and for profit and then disposed of when their time of utility is over, they are cast out into the wilderness and forgotten.
But not by God. God hears. God answers the cries of Hagar, and God is with Ishmael. It can be easy to overlook that detail, but God was with Ishmael. Through the difficult times and moving into the future, God was with him, God was with the outsider, the outcast, the son who was not chosen.
God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness and became an expert with the bow.
The world we live in. The world we built, is tyrannically ruled by a proposition that life is earned not given. It’s ruled by the proposition that what you earn determines your worth. This can be the money you earn, the prestige you earn, the network you develop, the social capital you cultivate. In our economy, the human economy life is earned, not given.
But in God’s economy, and this is the great (re)discovery of the Reformation, life is given not earned. All we have and all we are given to us because God is faithful to us. All we have and all we are is entrusted to us for God’s purposes because God has seen us, God has heard us, God has loved us. In Jesus Christ, God has poured out God’s own life for us on the mercy seat of Golgotha. God has made the ugly, the profane, and the violent the sphere of God’s life-changing work.
You, my friends, are loved and cherished by God. You have been bathed by God’s love in the waters of baptism. You taste the goodness of God’s presence in this holy meal. You have been given the gift of faith, which by the Spirit’s work enables you to trust that God is WITH YOU and FOR YOU.
This day and forevermore. Amen.