Living Sacrifices – August 21, 2011
Micah 6:6-8, Romans 12:1-8
August 21, 2011
What does the Lord require of you? That’s the enduring question asked by the prophet Micah. “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?” he asks. “Shall I come before him with burnt offerings? With calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I give my first born for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
That’s an example of “hyperbole.” If you remember your High School English, hyperbole is (what?) “exaggeration for effect.” We used to say, “If I’ve told you once I’ve told you a thousand times! Don’t exaggerate!” (And how about this one! “Always use your adverbs correct.”)
Here the prophet is using a great exaggeration to make a point. But remember! In those days, their sacrifices were their worship. But when they brought animals for sacrifice, they kept the meat for their food. So the food they ate was tied directly to their worship of God. Just imagine how that might be for us. Imagine how our devotional life might be different if everything we ate was also tied into an act of worship!
So their “system” of worship was tied directly to their system of food production. And it still is today, if you think about kosher foods! We talked about that last week with Peter’s vision. (Anybody here keep kosher?) So when the prophet talks about bringing “a thousand rams,” that was not so much an exaggeration. There were great days of sacrifice where the people brought many animals! You can read about them in the Old Testament. And there is a sense here that this passage could be referring to the nation, even though it is written in the singular. But I think the power in this passage comes when it’s read at face value. This certainly would be an exaggeration if it were one man bringing all those sacrifices!
So the hyperbole stands. Because Micah is using this exaggeration to focus on a question that’s even more fundamental to faith. What is the true worship that God desires? In this passage, the people were being criticized. They were being described as keeping the appearance – the “trappings” – of “religion,” but they were not acting toward others the way God wanted them to. They were doing what Jesus accused the Pharisees of doing – obeying the letter of the law but forsaking the spirit of the law. And remember those Pharisees! Their physical worship was all encompassing in their lives. And it was impeccable. But Jesus said they were like whitewashed tombs. They looked holy on the outside, but inside, in their souls, they were like the bones of dead men. That’s what he told them. He knew that what God really wanted was for them “to seek justice, to love kindness, and walk humbly with their God.”
So. Are we ever like the people Micah was addressing? Are we ever in a spiritual state where we come to church, we do our “religious duty,” but we don’t live the life of faith God would want us to live? Do we ever find ourselves in a place where we’re seeking to learn, and to believe “all the right things,” but we give little thought to the state of our souls? I don’t think any of us can say we’ve never been there! In fact, it’s far too easy to fall into that trap.
If you think about the ministry of Jesus, you’ll see that this was something that hugely concerned him! In fact, it could be seen as the major focus of his ministry. People were always asking him about doctrine and practice. They often wanted to talk “religion” with him. But he was always much more concerned with their spirituality.
Do you remember the time he was dining with the “wrong people” – the tax collectors and sinners? The Pharisees weren’t happy about it! And when they asked him why he associated with such people, Jesus said, “Go and learn what this means. ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” That was a verse from Hosea 6. And that was a very confrontational moment. Because they knew that verse! And they knew what it meant! They were just not living it. And they knew that was what Jesus was implying!
I’d like you to think about those words for a moment. They come from one of the most tender and heartfelt passages in the Old Testament. God is lamenting about his people! “What shall I do with you, O Ephraim?” he said. “What shall I do with you, O Judah? Your love is like a morning cloud, like the dew that vanishes early…” and he ends with those words Jesus quoted. “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God, rather than burnt offerings.”
Remember that term “steadfast love.” It’s one I’ve talked about before. It’s translated from the Hebrew word “Hesed.” But Hesed – steadfast love – is usually used to describe God. In this passage, God desires it from his people! Notice also the word “knowledge.” Remember in the Bible that concept of “knowing” someone carried with it a much deeper intimacy than we usually think. It’s even used to describe the closest kind of intimacy between husband and wife!
God wants that kind of a close relationship with us. And that’s powerful! And in our lives of faith he wants our “steadfast love” – our Hesed – even more than our physical acts of worship. He doesn’t want a multitude of sacrifices or rivers of oil. He wants us “to seek justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with him.” But again, that’s too easy to forget. It’s too easy to fall back into that state where we forget the “soul” part.
Into all that mix, I’d like to add our New Testament passage for today. There Paul writes, “I appeal to you, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” That’s taking this a step further, isn’t it? Paul says our bodies – our very lives – are to be the sacrifices acceptable to God. In other words, living a holy and acceptable life is our worship.
Wow! Do you ever think of it that way? Is the way you live your life, every day, an act of worship to God? And if it truly was, how would your life be different? That’s an amazing challenge, isn’t it?! We could all go home right now and that would be enough to think about for the rest of the week! But it’s more than that. Because Paul takes it one step further and he adds the word “spiritual” here. The way we live our physical lives is not just our worship. It is our “spiritual worship.”
As he says this, Paul is tying the concept of our physical acts of worship to that of our spiritual worship. As people we have the tendency to separate them out, don’t we? It’s too easy for us to get into a place where we’re just “going through the motions.” We come. We stand. We sing. We sit. We bow our heads. We give our gifts. And those things are all good! But Paul tells us that what we do in the physical worship is our spiritual worship. We can’t separate those things out! And I think we’d all agree with him on that. And I know we would agree with him that our spiritual worship is the most important! With that in mind, I hope we then see that’s all tied to the way we live our lives. That’s where we find the greatest challenge, don’t we?
So, this has now come full circle. Paul would tell us, “Don’t be so singularly focused on the physical acts of worship. Be more concerned with spiritual worship – the worship of the soul. But remember, those things are not separate. The physical worship is an expression of the spiritual worship.”
I hope you see it that way! Ideally, our physical worship flows from the spiritual. The outward signs of worship flow from an inward love for God. The other way around is not as effective. It doesn’t move us the same way. And it’s what too many people do. “I want to be closer to God, so I come to church.” “I want to love God more, so I sing to him.” Again, that’s all well and good. And sometimes we need to do it that way. And that’s certainly better than nothing. Sometimes we need to make the physical expressions and strive to have those things move us within. But ideally it’s the other way around Ideally, it’s “I love God, so therefore I come to Church to worship him.” “I feel praise of God inside me, so therefore I’ll let it flow out of me.” Do you see that? Instead of, “I come to Church to worship God.” It’s “I love God, so I come to church to worship him.”
So, I hope you’ll go from this place asking “what does the Lord require of you?” I hope you’ll know it’s “To seek justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with him.” I hope you’ll think about those things. And I hope you’ll think about the way you live your life being your offering of spiritual worship.
Lord, we love you and we worship you. Help us to live our lives in a way that honors you and expresses our love for you. Help us to seek justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with you every day. For we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.