Today we celebrate the Annunciation, which is the day that the Son of God took flesh in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This is the celebration of the moment of the incarnation, when God became Man.
The selection of Hebrews ten as a reading may be puzzling at first glance. But notice these words in verse five: “Consequently, when Christ came into the world . . .” There it is. If you blink, you missed it. This is a passage about the entrance of our Lord into our lives, our existence, our human flesh. This is all about the Annunciation.
Then the writer of Hebrews quotes Psalm 40. He says, “A body You have prepared for Me.” The writer of Hebrews is quoting from the Greek version of the Psalm. The Hebrew version for this phrase reads, “You have perfected My ears,” or “You have given Me an open ear.” There is no real contradiction here between the words “body” and “ear”. King David, the Psalm writer, apparently was emphasizing the ear, the physical part of the body concerned with listening to the Word. This ties in with what He goes on to say: “I have come to do Your will, O God.” That is, He obediently heeded the instruction of Scripture, and set out to fulfill it – all of it.
So, in the words of Hebrews ten and Psalm 40, we listen in to what Christ said as He was becoming incarnate. I am not sure if this means that David prophetically wrote actual words of the Son of God as He was about to become Man. Or perhaps even after He became Man, Jesus was able to declare to the Father what He had come to do, which fits the verb tense nicely in our text. But this is poetry, after all. These do not have to be words actually spoken as such. Instead, the Spirit, through David, may have been using a literary device to express the purpose of the Son of God in becoming flesh and dwelling among us.
So this is the purpose, and therefore the purpose of the Annunciation that we celebrate tonight: The Son of God came to do what sacrifices and offerings could not do.
What was wrong with offerings? Burnt offerings and sin offerings were commanded by God. They were not man-made religion. Yet God says that He was not pleased with them. He did not desire them.
The problem here is twofold. It was first of all that the sacrifices themselves were not good enough. Secondly, it was how the people offered them that made the offerings bad.
When people offered the sacrifices, God promised that forgiveness of sins came through the shedding of blood. Yet it was not the animals themselves that gave forgiveness. Bulls and goats and lambs and doves and so forth do not have mystical power which bestows forgiveness of sins. Only when the promise of God was attached to the sacrifice of these animals did they become effective for forgiveness. In other words, it was not the animals, but the promise added to the animals.
We can see a good analogy of this in our New Testament sacraments. By itself water is just plain water and gives no forgiveness. But when it is included in God’s command and combined with God’s Word, it becomes a life-giving water, rich in grace, and a washing of the new birth in the Holy Spirit.
In the same way, bread and wine by themselves are just bread and wine. But when administered according to God’s institution and promise, the bread is Christ’s Body, and the wine is His Blood, through which are given forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.
So also the sacrificial animals were just plain animals. But when included in God’s command and combined with His Word, they became life-giving sacrifices, rich in grace, effective for the forgiveness of sins.
Add to this the fact that the people did not always hold onto God’s promise. Whenever God promises forgiveness, faith is required. He does not give forgiveness through the act of sacrificing in itself. Those who did not trust the promises of God did not receive the spiritual gift, even though they went through the motions of offering the animals.
In the same way, we should not think that the bare acts of Baptism and eating and drinking the Sacrament of the Altar help anyone if there is no faith. This is why examination is important for the Sacrament. You should check yourself to make sure, among other things, that you still trust the promises of God that He has attached to the Sacrament. Weak faith is one thing, and I encourage those who are struggling in faith to receive and be strengthened. But those who completely lack faith must stay away, since they can only receive judgment here. So we are careful to whom we give the Sacrament.
Faith is necessary to receive the gifts. Since the people of Israel often offered sacrifices in a mechanical way, without faith in the promises, then they received no benefit. The smoke of those burnt offerings was a repulsive stench in the nostrils of God. Just going through the motions did not please Him. He did not care how many gallons of blood were spilled. He wanted hearts that trust Him and His Word. He wanted people with open ears, ready to listen, trust, and obey.
Not many of those are to be found. Even we who have been given the gift of faith still have ears that get clogged with the waxy stubbornness of the old Adam. Our hearts are not pure. Our lives are not fitting sacrifices to God, in themselves. The sinful nature stains them too deeply. Only in Christ could we be considered worthy priests to offer ourselves as living sacrifices.
But Christ came as the perfect One. He had ears open and ready to listen and obey. He had a body unstained by sin. He trusted His father as we could not.
He did not come simply to be the perfect example of obedience and faith. That would be like having a brother who always does things right, but you always fail. “Why can’t you be more like Jesus?” our parents would ask. That would be a special kind of torture.
Instead, imagine a Brother who always does the right thing, but always manages to give you the credit. That is our Brother Christ. His obedience and trust are counted for us, as if we are the perfect Son.
Then He went on to do more. He came to replace those defective sacrificial animals with the final, perfect sacrifice of His own body on the Tree. Of course, He had to have a body in order to do this. So He had to first become Man in the womb of the Blessed Virgin. He had to take flesh in order to be the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
This perfect sacrifice is what gave the Old Testament sacrifices their power. In other words, when the people trusted the promise of God that the blood of goats gave forgiveness, they were really trusting in the future Lamb of God. So with our New Testament sacrifices: Baptism and the Sacrament of the Altar do not give forgiveness to anyone who does not believe in the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. To properly receive the benefits of them, you must trust in the death of the Son of God.
To help us with this, the Holy Spirit gives and strengthens faith in us. Without Him, we would receive no benefit, and Christ would be displeased with our splashing of water and our eating and drinking. But since He has placed trust in our hearts, we cling to Christ as our only Savior, the one and only sacrifice for sin, who died so perfectly that no other sacrifice ever needs to be offered to get forgiveness.
In His Name alone, the Man who is God. Amen.
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