Not the Sacrifice God Wants

Hebrews 10:5-8 “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).”

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. The law of Moses required sacrifices to be made in response to all sorts of events in life, like child birth or recovery from disease. Sacrifices were to be offered after committing certain sins. Animal sacrifices were part of each national holiday. On a daily basis the priests offered morning and evening sacrifices at the temple. The blood of animals flowed like a river, all at God’s command. If God had commanded all this killing, how could he not desire it?

Perhaps there is something that seems stranger still. Why did God order all these sacrifices in the first place? They seem so strange and foreign to our clean and sanitary worship. At worship we hear God loves us, sing our thankfulness, ask for his help, grow in our understanding of his will. How about the commotion of sheep and calves and bird cages? Imagine the smell of farm animals and sweaty priests and worshipers butchering them. People like us 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. “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). It’s not as though God found some sort of morbid pleasure in seeing all these dear creatures 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.”

No, God demanded sacrifices he did not desire, offerings that did not please him. He did it not for himself but for the benefit of his people. The constant killing delivered an unmistakable message. It impressed upon 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.” We confess the words each Sunday, “For this I deserve your punishment both now and in eternity.” They had on their hands the blood of the animals that showed what should have happened to them. As the author of Hebrews tells us in the previous chapter, “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. I enjoy another day of God’s goodness and mercy, unlike this animal whose life has just ended at my hands.

Do you detect some relevant warnings for our life and worship? We don’t offer blood sacrifices anymore. I suspect that we are all happy about that. Our sacrifices take on a more spiritual nature. We set aside some of our hard earned dollars to offer God and support his work. We give up some of our time to serve God at church. We use the abilities God gave us to teach, sing, make things, fix things, clean things, and administrate as a part of our personal “offerings” to him.

For himself, God doesn’t need our money any more than he needed the sheep and bulls. There is no service we offer that he can’t perform infinitely better himself. Like the blood sacrifices, our opportunities to serve God are for our benefit, not his. He is looking for tokens of our affection and expressions of sincere love. We need such outlets to express our love and grow beyond small, selfish, stunted lives concerned only with what’s in it for me.

Straight Paths

Proverbs 3:6 “In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.”

The Hebrew for this proverb originally says, “in all your ways know him.” But what does it mean to know the Lord in all our ways? Knowing the Lord in all our ways means knowing what he wants us to do at every turn. But won’t we face some decisions, some crossroads, when we won’t know exactly what he wants? Should I accept this job? Should I move to this city? Should I buy this car? Many times there is nothing moral or immoral about either option.

What we do know is that he wants us to live a life of love in all we do. He doesn’t want us to be motivated by selfish concerns. He wants us to do everything for his glory. We acknowledge him, we know him, in all our ways when we follow the path of love for God and our neighbor.

In order to know that we are following him in all our ways, we need to be constantly getting to know him better. My wife knows me well. She can often finish my sentences. I know her well, too. I know just the things not to say if I don’t want to start a fight.  This doesn’t mean we would be happy if our understanding of each other never progressed. God willing, we will spend the rest of our lives getting to know each other better and better.

Even more, we need to spend our lives getting to know our Lord better and better. If we are going to know the Lord in all our ways, that means a life of Bible study and worship. Getting to know him helps us to see all of life more clearly, too.

Isn’t that his promise? “In all your ways acknowledge him and he will make your paths straight.” So long as we are working along the path our Lord wants us to go, he will be smoothing it for us. He will involve himself in our lives, taking out the obstacles, making it possible for us to do his will. In every area of life, he will be leading us in a life that serves his purposes, serves others, and serves our own souls.

God’s paths may not always be easy or fun. But a truly successful life serves God’s purpose as a tool by which he draws us closer to himself and leads us to serve others in love. Let’s know him better, so that we can follow where he leads.

Which Way Do You Lean?

Proverbs 3:5 “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.”

Do you ever find what you think and what God says going in opposite directions? Sometimes we look at God’s way and think to ourselves, “That’s not going to work.”   Bible history is filled with examples: the people who lived in Noah’s neighborhood while he was building the ark; the children of Israel waiting on the shores of the Red Sea; the people of Jericho while the children of Israel were marching around their city walls each day; Jesus’ own disciples just before he took five little loaves of bread and two small fishes and started passing them out to over 5000 people. But God’s way does work, even when it seems to defy common sense.

Sometimes we want what we want so badly that we tell ourselves, “It won’t hurt anything,” even when God warns us not to. Again, the Bible is full of examples: Adam and Eve and the forbidden fruit; Lot’s wife turning around to take a look back at Sodom and Gomorrah; Israel worshiping the golden calf at the foot of Mount Sinai; David committing adultery with Bathsheba. But ignoring God’s warnings always has consequences. We lose his blessings and invite his judgment– not just now, but forever.

We are still tempted to question and test this “Trust in the Lord” approach to life. If a financial crisis strikes, do we lean on our own understanding and give in to worry? Or do we trust in the Lord and his promise to provide our daily bread?

As we arrange our priorities, do we lean on our own understanding and arrange our life to maximize our personal comfort and enjoyment? Or do we trust in the Lord and put him first in how we budget our time and resources?

As we raise our children do we lean on the understanding of so many others that the best thing we can give them is every toy and gadget that comes along? Do we arrange their participation in all the music or athletics they could ever want, as though these things were our religion? Or do we trust in the Lord and make sure they receive God’s word above all else, and loving, godly discipline next to that?

The Lord has earned our trust in all these little details of life by his handling of the one great issue. If we were to lean on our own understanding in dealing with sin, we would try to pay for it ourselves. We would try to earn God’s love and acceptance. And we would fail.

But the Lord has that covered for us, too. Who would have thought of asking him to save us from the sins we had committed against him? That is just what he has done. Who would have thought of asking God to sacrifice the only Son he had to pay for those sins? But that is what Jesus was doing when he died on the cross. Who would have thought of asking God to make forgiveness and eternal life a free gift? That is just the gift he has given to us.

It is that gift that inspires us to trust in the Lord with all our heart, even when our own understanding wants to take us in a different direction.

Family

Hebrews 2:11 “Both the one who makes men holy and those who are being made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers.”

God wanted to make us part of his family, and so God’s Son made himself a part of our family. He didn’t start over with a new lump of clay from some untainted world in another universe to fashion his human body and soul. He didn’t merely speak his human body into existence. He chose to be born of a human woman. He drew the genetic material for his flesh and bones from Mary’s. Maybe, when they stood next to each other, you could see her eyes in his. Maybe that chin or that nose was her father’s, his grandpa’s. The blood flowing through his veins was the blood of generations of Jewish kings, and patriarchs before them, and this world’s first citizens before them. Somewhere, his family tree intersects with ours. Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family.

Yet, he is not ashamed to call us brothers. There is an old saying that you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family. Jesus did. But this is what is even more amazing: he chose his family, in spite of all the baggage our human race has to offer.

Have you ever done genealogical work, put together a family tree? There is always the hope someone important is hiding back there on one of the branches. Maybe I am descended from some hero I can be proud to claim as my ancestor. Of course, the opposite is true as well. There is always the danger that some lowlife, criminal, or thug–maybe even a real monster of history–made a contribution to who you are today.

And we hope that no one in our own generation is going to do something to disgrace the family name. The family is a part of ourselves. We feel the shame when other members make a public spectacle of themselves.

Not Jesus. He knew what he was getting into when he joined humanity and became our sacred Sibling. He knew about the murderers, adulterers, and perverts. He knew about the liars, cheaters, and thieves. He knew about the self-righteous, the smug, and the snobs. He knew about the backstabbers, the unscrupulous, and the hypocrites. He knew about us all. He knew that he would be accused of the same shortcomings that ran in the family. He joined it just the same.

That is because he loved us too much to pity us from afar. He came close, he became our brother, so that he could be accused of all the family sins. Then he suffered not only their shame, but their punishment as well. At the cross, he cleared the family name forever. He has cleared your name forever, and he is not ashamed to be called your brother.

Can we imagine a greater glory, this side of heaven, than to claim Jesus Christ as our own flesh and blood?

Love Is…

1 Corinthians 13:4 “Love is patient, love is kind.”

“Patient” is an interesting way to describe love. The word that Paul uses for patience pictures this virtue as a person who takes a long time before he or she gets angry, blows up, or lashes out. The frustrations, the insults, perhaps even the pains, pile high, yet the person maintains a sense of calm, an uncomplaining spirit, a happy disposition. Our old word “longsuffering” captures the thought. Love looks to suffer for a long time without retaliating in some way.

Isn’t that a useful virtue for life? There are little irritations which call for patience. Slow traffic tries my patience, as does waiting on hold for the customer service representative to take my call. There are also major issues which require patience. Spouses, parents, children, or friends may take a long time to change. Their habits may be irritating, or their behavior might be outright offensive and hurtful. Selfish choices can tear at the fabric of your relationship. Dishonesty may chip away at the foundations for a shared life. Jesus never suggests such treatment should be simply overlooked. But love doesn’t look to give up right away. It doesn’t jump ship when we discover that relationships take work, and people we love have far more flaws than we imagined. Love is patient.

This patience is a feature of love because it is a feature of how God has treated us. Think of how long he has been putting up with you and me. Our record of offenses against him stretches the entire length of our lives, from conception and birth to this very day. We continue to repeat many of the same blunders until the day we die. Every inconsiderate act we commit against friend or family member is a sin against his holiness.

Yet we are still standing here today, alive and well. We survive because he is patient with us. Through Jesus’ death on the cross he has forgiven the mound of sins we have piled up throughout our lives. He patiently continues to extend forgiveness for Jesus’ sake until we need no more forgiveness in heaven. God’s patience is more than a model. It is a gift to take to heart and treasure as long as God gives us breath.

For when we have taken God’s forgiving patience to heart, then he can change our hearts. Then he will live in our hearts and help us look for the next thing love does: “Love is kind.” A couple of features of Christian kindness help us see what love looks like more clearly. Kindness is really an action word. It suggests that we are finding ways to be useful to each other. It is more than doing affectionate things. It is a life of serving others.

 That itself is a gift of God for every area of our lives. Apply it to marriage. In giving us marriage our Lord has given us more than an interesting diversion, a little trinket to enjoy selfishly. No doubt we would soon become bored with it if that were the case, like a child who loses interest in his Christmas presents shortly after Christmas.

But God has injected marriage with purpose. It is a place where his people can practice kindness. Husband and wife make their time and abilities useful to each other and to the children they share. This is, in part, how love looks. Love looks for ways to do something with my life that takes care of someone else.

Apply kindness to people we hardly know. People often find unexpected help deeply moving. Stories about it make the evening news and fill the human interest columns of magazines. You have probably heard the proverb, “People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.” But once they know how much you care, they are all ears.

That makes kindness a useful bridge for the gospel. That makes kindness a useful tool for bringing others the greatest help they can receive: the peace of sins forgiven and heaven guaranteed.

Shakespeare wrote, “Love is a many-splendored thing.” Movies and song-writers have repeated the theme. They have romantic love chiefly in mind.

God’s love is even more worthy of the description. The Apostle Paul goes on to describe love fourteen different ways in this chapter of his letter to the Corinthians. It is no accident that patience and kindness lead the way.

One Thing I Ask

Psalm 27:4 “One thing I ask of the Lord, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple.”

Most of us are very concerned about the economy of our nation and our financial future. Many young adults struggle to find the kind of work that allows them to make ends meet and keep a roof over their heads. Still, most people alive today have lived through one of the longest and strongest rises in prosperity in the history of the world. Worldwide, fewer people (as a percentage of the population) live in poverty, fewer people are living on the edge of starvation, than ever before. Americans live in one of the wealthiest nation on earth, not only now but ever.

Living in a land of plenty has its own temptations, though, doesn’t it. The more we have, the more we are tempted to think that having things is the meaning of life. The more we have, the more we are tempted to worry about keeping what we have. We fret and fear when life’s inevitable changes bring an end to a job, a threat to our health, damage to our property, or danger to our children. These cares and anxieties play on our inborn sinfulness. They gnaw at the faith God has given us. In this way they threaten not only our bodies, but our very souls!

David knew such changes and temptations, too. He went from being a poor shepherd boy, to a respected member of the royal court, to a hunted outlaw, to the King of Israel. How did he get through this roller coaster of changing fortunes? He did it by keeping one thing always before him, always at the top of his priorities: “…that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon his beauty and to seek him in his temple.”

David knew what it was to have money, to have family, to have fame, to have power. He also knew what it was to live without them. But what he always wanted, more than anything, was his Lord. He wanted to go to God’s house and stand in God’s presence. He wanted to see the beauty of his Lord in worship, not some visible appearance of his invisible God, not brightly colored fabrics of the tent in which God was worshiped at that time, not in the gold, silver, and bronze furnishings with which the tabernacle was equipped. He wanted to see the beauty of God’s love for him, the promise of forgiveness signified in the sacrifices, the promise of God’s faithfulness in the feasts and readings that recalled his great acts of deliverance from the past, the promise of a Savior foreshadowed by it all.

Dear Christian, God has given you your heart’s desire! David’s prayer is your possession–a life in God’s house. Some of you, perhaps, have felt at times as though you almost literally did “dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of your life.” What has drawn you to worship and service was not the belief that you were steadily working your own way up that ladder of goodness into heaven. In your worship in God’s house, the Lord is getting you through life. You get to “gaze upon the beauty of the Lord” as it can be seen in the face of only Jesus. His love for you on the cross, dying in your place for your sins, giving you heaven as his gift, satisfies your need for him.

In the annals of history, neither you nor I may enjoy a prominent place. But a life lived in God’s house is particularly blessed. There God richly weaves all the blessings of salvation into the fabric of your lives. By God’s grace it will someday see us on to the eternal blessings of heaven.

He Lifts You Up

James 4:8b-10 “Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.”

The first time I ever read these words in James I felt that maybe the apostle’s expressions were a little over the top. Maybe this was a bit much. But let’s take a closer look at what he has to say, and see if he isn’t right on the mark.

First, James gets that sin is more than bad behavior, but it isn’t less. It is a defect on the inside and the outside. It is a matter of actions and the heart. Sometimes we may be tempted to give ourselves a pass if we stop ourselves from doing what we were thinking. We congratulate ourselves if we don’t let our anger, lust, or envy boil over into doing something we are going to regret later. I’m not saying we should just let it go, but there is already plenty to repent and confess when our hearts are wrong. Isn’t it finally the heart that God wants? Do we feel warm and fuzzy about people who hate us but don’t hit us? Hands and hearts both need to be washed and purified.

Second, James gets how our sins should make us feel. “Grieve, mourn, and wail.” Yes, sin is this bad! It ruins everything! It hurts the people around us. It drives wedges into our relationships. It robs us personally of health, contentment, and peace. In the end it deprives every person on the planet of life and consigns many of them to hell. Has there ever been another catastrophe in history that wreaked such havoc on us? Nothing we experience is as sad as our own sin.

Third, James knows that often our reaction to sin is the opposite of what it should be. “Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom.” His point is not that laughter should be missing from the Christian life. Jesus promises that those who weep now will laugh. Psalm 126 celebrates the laughter of those Jews who came home from their exile in Babylon. God wants laughter to mark our lives, not be absent from them.

But you know that sometimes people find joy and laughter in their sin. That isn’t right. Drunk people laugh and carouse. The couple having an illicit affair may laugh over the thrill and danger of their trysts. The school bully may laugh at bloodying someone’s nose. Have we ever laughed when someone we considered our enemy–in politics, at work, in the neighborhood–suffered some of misfortune?

None of these things is defensible. Don’t celebrate sin. Mourning is the appropriate response to the damage it does to our lives.

Then the Lord lifts us up. “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.” Have you ever noticed that this is a theme that runs through the whole Bible? We could even say that it is the theme of the Bible. God doesn’t lift up the high and mighty. He lifts up the low. He heals those who have tried every remedy and have nowhere else to turn. He feeds the hungry. He gives victory to those on the brink of defeat. He makes kings out of sheep farmers. Find a character in the Bible who is at the absolute end of all help, and you have a person in the perfect position for God to come and lift him up.

So it is when we are crushed by our guilt. That is the perfect position for us, because then God can come and cleanse us in his grace. Then we are just the kind of people he claims as his own children, the kind of people he describes in 1 Peter 2, “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God.”

That is not because we have such impressive qualifications. It’s because God gives grace to the humble. He lifts up the lowly people who are not too proud to repent.

Near to God

James 4:8a “Come near to God, and he will come near to you.”

I suppose that an invitation like this could sound scary, like being “invited” into the principal’s office at school. It’s not a place a student usually goes unless he’s in some kind of trouble. He knows it’s not going to be pleasant in there. When God invited Israel to gather around Mount Sinai to hear the 10 commandments, they were terrified by the smoke, the darkness, the lightning, and the booming voice of God. They were all too aware of their failure to keep the commandments the Lord was handing down.

But the invitation here is not like that. We can come near to God with confidence because we are living under his grace. The blood of Jesus opens up a way to God without fear because it cleanses us from our sins. When we come near to God, he comes rushing to us with his gifts, like the Father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son: “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him, and kissed him” (Luke 15:20).

When we come near to God in baptism, God comes near with his Spirit to cleanse our hearts and claim us as his own children. When we come near to God in the words of Scripture, preached or taught or read, God comes near in promises that give peace, and hope, and love, and faith, and courage, and power. When we come near to God in the Savior’s supper, God comes near in the same body and blood that redeemed us to say again that all is forgiven. There is no sin that keeps us part.

You know that a frightened child wants nothing more than to have its parent near. Lovers want nothing more than their beloved near. And penitent believers want nothing more than to have their Savior near. He always has good things for us in hand when he comes.

Resist

James 4:7b “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.”

When Christians see God and his grace clearly, they see the opposing side more clearly, too. The difference between right and wrong comes into clearer focus. But that doesn’t mean we have completely lost our taste for sin. A diabetic may understand that sweets are bad for him. That doesn’t mean his taste buds have stopped craving them.

God may be a gentleman in the way he deals with us, but the devil is anything but a gentleman. He doesn’t fight fair. He always attacks at our weakest points. If a short temper trips you up, expect the devil to litter your path with all kinds of irritations. If controlling your sexual passions has been a challenge, expect the devil to double the opportunities for everything from lust to extramarital affairs. If you have always been a little insecure about having enough money, the devil will be whispering in your ear, “You can’t afford to be giving anything away,” when someone needs your help, or “See, God isn’t going to take care of all your needs,” when the water heater gives out or the transmission dies on your car.

James wants us to know that when we give God the proper place over our lives and resist the devil, we are going to have a fight on our hands. But here’s a promise: “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” If the fight were just between you or me and the devil, then we would get KO’d in the opening seconds of the first round every time.

But we don’t face this fight alone. The God who left heaven to become one of us, and died on a cross to deliver us, now stands with us. There is a scene in the movie version of Prince Caspian (part of The Chronicles of Narnia, the series of children’s books by C.S. Lewis) in which the armies of the enemy are charging across a bridge. Suddenly, one of the little heroes of the book, a little girl named Lucy, appears at the other end of the bridge. As she stands there she draws a cute dagger out of its sheath, little bigger than a steak knife. The oncoming army stops dead in its tracks. They are not afraid of a little girl. Behind Lucy stands Aslan, the all-powerful lion who stands for Christ in this fantasy world. No army in heaven or on earth is a match for him.

When the God of all grace stands with you, no army in heaven or on earth is a match for you. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you, because he has no choice. You are living in the power of God’s grace.