Sometimes while doing mundane things, I am left thinking about parallels with everything from scripture, to theology, to my own spirituality. Yesterday was no exception. I have a Red Eared Slider turtle that I received during a visit to NYC on the first anniversary of September 11th.
(Image courtesy of salmonellablog.com)
He’s been growing steadily and currently resides in my home office in a 50 gallon tank. I don’t know if you are aware, but turtles are filthy animals. They make their water a terrible mess, thus they need a uber powerful filter to clean their water. Our turtle has an external canister filter that is made for a 100 gallon fish tank. Goldfish are notorious for being dirty fish, but my turtle has them beat. So I had the pleasure of cleaning out the tank and totally restocking the filter yesterday. When I opened it up, I found that it was the most disgusting ever, probably because the turtle recently had a growth spurt which led to extra shedding, eating, and you know. There was a sludge all over the insides of the filter. It permeated the sponges, the media, and the carbon bags. Every inch was coated with a thick, dark slime that was beyond gross. It made me think of the altars in the Tabernacle and the Temple in Jerusalem.
(Image courtesy of gleaningsfromtheword.com)
Perhaps this seems an odd train of thought, but I promise you that there is some sense here. The modern world, which would rather eat meat blissfully disconnected from the process that makes it available, does not appreciate the sacrificial system of Ancient Judaism, the religion from which Jesus came. The Tabernacle, a portable worship space, and its permanent descendant, the Temple in Jerusalem, were not the same as the artistic and architectural glories we now associate with Christian churches. The Tabernacle and the Temple were functional and for one purpose: to make offerings to God, sacrificial offerings. What kind of offerings? There were three main types: burnt, grain, and incense. The burnt offerings produced blood and came from the animals and birds that were brought by those who had committed sin.
Why blood? Blood functioned like a ritual detergent for the altar that was “covered” by the accumulation of the people’s sins. Think of all the germs that cover things; you cannot see them with the naked eye, but they coat the surfaces and make living conditions intolerable if they are left to grow and get out of hand, just like sin. Like my turtle, we don’t tend to notice just how toxic our sins make our lives until they start to accumulate. We can wallow in our sinful state in relative happiness for a while before it all begins to collapse around us. You know who else can’t stand to be around our sin? God. It must be like being allergic to cats and being confined inside a house made entirely of cat hair. God cannot stand to be in the presence of our sin; it pushes God out. The Book of Ezekiel recounts how the collective sins of the people of Israel became so numerous that they made the Temple too toxic for God to remain there. In Chapter 10, the prophet describes the Ark of the Covenant, God’s throne, rising from the Temple and leaving the people to wallow in their sin, which has driven God from their midst.
As I stood in my bathroom cleaning that filter and being utterly disgusted by the sludge on my hands, I thought about how our sin is the sludge on our souls. All that God created to be holy and pure has been polluted by our selfish and vain desire to have our will be done over God’s. We fool ourselves into thinking we aren’t that bad because we can all think of someone who is worse, but, in the meantime, our spirituality is getting a heavy coating. The worst part of sin is that it separates us from God. It is a wedge, a barrier that prevents God from working within us, and us from wanting to let God do so. So God demanded that we purify ourselves. Human sin was attracted to the altars like metal to a magnet. If all the sin consolidated in one spot, then it would be easier to clean it up. That blood of the sacrifices was splashed on the altar, cleansing the sin away like bleach. Thus God could stand to stay with us. Yet even with the sacrificial system, our sins out numbered the offerings, overriding the ability of the Temple structure to keep God’s presence undefiled. Only the perfect sacrifice could provide the necessary blood for, not only the plethora of sin already on the earth, but the sins that had yet to be: our sins. So Jesus the Christ came and offered himself for you, and me.
When I think of the disgusting sensation of that filth on my hands, and think about the spiritual sludge I carry as a consequence of my sins, I am ever more grateful for Christ’s cleansing. I read Matthew 8:2-3 with all new appreciation:
And there was a leper who came to him and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.” He stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I do choose. Be made clean!”