Hebrews 10:5 “Therefore, when Christ came into the world he said: ‘Sacrifice and offerings you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; with burnt offerings and sin offerings you were not pleased. Then I said, ‘Here I am– it is written about me in the scroll– I have come to do your will, O God.’ First he said, ‘Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them’ (although the law required them to be made).”
It has become one of the standard questions of the season. In fact, considering all the emphasis on presents and gift-giving, it captures the secular view of Christmas quite well: “What do you want for Christmas?” A few altruistic people may rise above their personal desires and answer something like, “World peace” or “An end to hunger.” A few well-to-do people will decline the offer and insist, “I don’t really need anything.” But most of us are happy to indulge the questioner with a list of some sort to make their holiday shopping a little less difficult.
What if we were to take that question and address it to the ultimate gift-giver? What if we were to ask God, “What do you want for Christmas?” The author of the book of Hebrews uses another Scripture text to explain one thing God explicitly doesn’t want for Christmas. He quotes the words of Psalm 40. “Therefore, when Christ came into the world (that’s Christmas, isn’t it) he said: ‘Sacrifice and offerings you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; with burnt offerings and sin offerings you were not pleased.”
Perhaps it seems strange that God wouldn’t want the very sacrifices he had commanded. Sacrifices occupied such a large part of Old Testament worship life. Cain killed his brother because he was jealous that God was pleased with Abel’s sacrifice of sheep. God commanded Abraham to offer his son Isaac, then he substituted a ram for the sacrifice to spare the boy. The law of Moses required sacrifices to be made in response to all sorts of events in life: child birth, harvests, healing from disease. Sacrifices had to be offered after people committed certain sins. Animal sacrifice belonged to each national holiday. On a daily basis priests presented morning and evening sacrifices at the temple. The blood of animals flowed like a river from the temple, all at God’s command. If God commanded all this killing, how could he not desire it?
For you and me, perhaps something seems stranger still. Why did God order all these sacrifices in the first place? They seem so foreign to the clean and sanitary worship we experience. We come to worship to hear God loves us, to sing our thankfulness, to ask for his help, to grow in our understanding of his will. You think the babies sometimes get noisy at church? How about the commotion of sheep and calves and bird cages? You think it can get a little stuffy if an air conditioner isn’t keeping up? Imagine the smell of farm animals butchered by sweaty priests. For people who demand worship that’s relevant, music we like, and a message we can understand, we might wonder what the Lord hoped to accomplish.
It’s not as though he needed the sacrifices for himself. “I have no need for a bull from your stall or goats from your pens…If I were hungry, I would not tell you….Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats?” (Psalm 50:9, 12, 13). It’s not as though God found some sort of morbid pleasure in seeing all these dear animals that he himself had created die. “The multitude of your sacrifices– what are they to me?” says the LORD. “I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.”
God demanded sacrifices he did not desire, and offerings that did not please him, not for himself but for the benefit of his people. The constant killing delivered an unmistakable message. It impressed on them the utter horror of sin. Think that sin is no big deal? Each sacrifice repeated the mantra: “The wages of sin is death. The wages of sin is death. The wages of sin is death.” They had on their hands the blood of the animals that showed them what should have happened to them. As the author of Hebrews says earlier, “Without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness.”
But in that same sacrifice, there was also an unmistakable message of God’s love and forgiveness. Every sacrifice was a reminder that I, the real sinner, have been spared. Every sacrifice was an example of God treating me better than I deserve. I can rejoice to be alive, and enjoying another day of God’s goodness and mercy, unlike this animal whose life has just ended at my hands.
The sacrifices didn’t serve God. They served his people. But he desired their end because Jesus came with a better sacrifice for us all.