Sunday, August 3, 2014

Phil Kniss: Giving God a ‘sacrifice of praise’ isn’t exactly what you think

Journey through Romans: We offer self in service of God
Romans 12:1-8; Mark 8:34-37

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I grew up in the church, literally.
From birth, until now, church has been a constant.
I don’t know what it would be like to leave church,
even for a season,
as many people do at some point in their lives.

I’m not boasting, because I know that for some people,
a hiatus from church life was transformative,
it deepened their faith.
I’m also not wishing I had taken a break.
Because I have come to realize the value
of being immersed in a community of practice,
a community of conviction,
a community of purpose and meaning.

To use an ocean and ship metaphor,
I can’t imagine navigating the stormy and rolling seas
that is life in our world today,
without the ballast of my formation in the church,
that keeps me upright, intact, riding the waves,
instead of capsizing, and losing myself in them.

I’m simply noting, as a personal observation,
that locating myself in the church has profoundly shaped
how I think,
how I pray,
how I read scripture,
how I live,
how I relate to the larger world.

Now, none of those comments are central to my sermon this morning,
but they lead me into it.
Because, despite what I just said,
there are some ideas and theological assumptions
that were formed in me by the church since my childhood,
that I have since, somewhere along the way,
decided to set aside,
or at least rethink, and reinterpret.
And one of those ideas was about worship.

Somewhere, probably beginning in childhood Bible stories
I picked up the idea that
Jesus completely changed what was important in worship.
Maybe you had this idea, too.
That in the Old Testament, before Jesus,
people had to bring sacrifices to worship—
a perfect lamb, or goat, or ox,
or grain, or a basket of vegetables,
or whatever the case may be.
That’s just how people had to worship, pre-Jesus.
That’s just what God required of them.
Because they hadn’t yet been enlightened
by the knowledge of God that Jesus would bring.

But now, since Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice on the cross,
sacrifices are no longer needed in worship.
That God’s previous demand for a blood sacrifice,
the offering up of a life,
in order for us to approach God in holiness,
was completely and forever done away with.
That’s why we don’t have a big altar
for animal sacrifice right outside the church doors.

Now, the only sacrifice God requires is our praise.
The language of our worship music demonstrates this.
How many songs talk about bringing God
a sacrifice of praise?
Because of Jesus, we sometimes say,
that’s the only sacrifice we need to bring—
a sacrifice of praise.
And that’s way easier than sacrificing a lamb or a cow.
and a lot less costly,
and a lot less bloody.
So we’re good with that.
Thank you, Jesus,
for being our sacrifice,
so we don’t have to sacrifice anymore.

Maybe it wasn’t said in exactly those words,
but that’s the general idea, I think,
that was formed in me over the years.
Which I have since repented of.

I no longer think,
“Thank you, Jesus,
for doing away with that horrible sacrificial system.”
Now, when I think about it,
I am almost wistful for those primitive days,
when people presented burnt offerings to God.
Almost wistful.
No, I don’t think we should
build a stone altar in the courtyard,
and go back to burning up animals in worship.
But I do wish we would once again,
always come to worship knowing that before it was over,
we would be expected to offer up to God,
something of great value to us.

Instead, many Christians enter into a worship space thinking,
“I wonder what the worship leaders and musicians and preacher
are serving up to us today,
that will bless me and inspire me and feed me?”

Just try to imagine early Israelite worshipers with that mindset.
Picture the crowd gathered in the courtyard,
watching the burnt offerings go up in smoke,
participating in the communal rituals of praise and confession,
chanting psalms of God’s deliverance,
praising God’s power and might.
And then picture an Israelite worshiper
walking out of the temple disappointed,
“You know, that service just didn’t do anything for me.
The trumpeters played too loud.
I couldn’t read the music.
The high priest’s voice was annoying.
And the seats weren’t comfortable.
Come to think of it, there were no seats!
I think I’ll look for some other temple to go to,
with more programming,
and a better band,
. . . and seats!”

Of course, that’s unthinkable. Laughable.
So . . . maybe we shouldn’t be too quick to criticize the old ways.
Maybe the Israelites had a good thing going,
with all those sacrifices and burnt offerings.
At least there was never any doubt,
that worship wasn’t about them.
Maybe we should look again at what it really means for our worship,
for Jesus to have given the ultimate sacrifice,
his life, for the sake of ours.

I’m quite sure that God, in offering up his son Jesus,
never intended to turn our worship from sacrifice into entertainment.

You might say, “Oh, but the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross
did change things.
The blood of God’s own unblemished lamb,
did do away with the old sacrificial system.”
That’s true enough, and I’m not trying to argue that point.

But—without getting into deep theological conversation
about the various theories of atonement—
I would say this.
I don’t think that the physical act of drawing blood from animals,
or humans, for that matter,
was ever really the point of the sacrificial system.
I don’t think God got some thrill out of seeing blood flow,
seeing the offering up of red and white blood cells,
plasma, and hemoglobin.
I think what God was after,
was the state of the human heart,
that is required for an act of true sacrifice.

In Old Testament worship,
blood of animals was not only a powerful symbol of sacrifice,
it was a real, tangible sacrifice.
These animals were life itself for primitive peoples.
The lives of animals sustained the lives of people.
Their meat was eaten—every part.
Their milk was drunk, or turned to cheese and eaten.
Their hair was woven, and spun, and turned to clothing.
Their hide was made into tents and shoes and bags.
Animals were central to their livelihood and economy.
Wealth was measured in numbers of sheep and cattle.

When a family put their unblemished animal on the altar,
and its lifeblood was drained from it,
the loss to that family was real and tangible.
To sacrifice a burnt offering,
was to lose what that animal could have been.
They sacrificed food, drink, clothing, shelter, and more.
And they did so willingly,
out of gratitude to God
for what God had already done for them as a people,
and as an act of profound trust in God,
that God would provide in abundance,
even more than what they had given up in worship.

The reason people went to worship,
was in order to offer up a real sacrifice.
They showed God how grateful they were for past faithfulness.
And they showed their deep trust in God for their future,
by burning up what could have provided for their needs.

And usually, these gifts were not offered up with tears and heaviness.
They were overjoyed to participate in these rituals of sacrifice.
In Numbers 10, the people are told to “blow the silver trumpets”
over their burnt offering.
2 Chronicles 23 says,
“offer burnt offerings to the Lord . . . with rejoicing and singing.”
In 2 Samuel 6, when the Ark of the Covenant is returned,
David literally goes wild with delight and dancing,
and then offers a burnt offering to the Lord,
and passes out cake and meat and raisins to all the people,
and they all feast and sing and dance.

If you had only the Old Testament to understand what worship was,
you would come to two conclusions.
First, worship is sacrifice.
It’s giving up something costly in honor of God.
And second, that sacrifice produces joy.
It makes glad the worshiper.
It fills the heart.
Giving up self to God results in a fuller self.
Jesus changed a lot of things.
But worship, as joyful sacrifice, was not one of those things.

That’s not really the narrative I grew up with.
I was told the Bible stories about the old sacrificial system,
and given to believe it was all about law and duty and drudgery
and earning God’s favor.
And then Jesus changed all that.
Now, we worship the God of grace and love and freedom,
that we know in the risen Christ.

Today, I can’t help but see some irony,
when I read Old Testament worship stories on one hand,
and observe trends in modern Christian worship on the other.

In the biblical stories of worship, under this heavy yoke of the law,
those who go into worship to offer an old-fashioned burnt offering,
are often depicted leaving with full hearts,
singing and dancing and rejoicing in a generous God.
And we who engage in Christian worship today, in an age of grace,
often enter worship looking to receive
good entertainment, good music, good preaching,
a personal emotional boost,
and we leave critiquing our experience:
was it good for us?
was it worth the effort to get here?
did we receive what we came for?

Maybe it should be no surprise that those who enter looking to give,
leave fuller and more joyful than those who enter looking to receive.

And just in case you think I am giving too much importance
to the act of sacrifice in worship,
in this new age of grace and freedom that Jesus brought,
then we only need to look at the book of Romans,
this great theological essay on grace by the apostle Paul,
the theologian most known for emphasizing grace.

In our text for today, Paul sets forth what worship is, at its core.
“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters,
in view of God’s mercy,
to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice,
holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.”

So, the age of grace does not diminish the role of sacrifice in worship.
It actually ups the ante.
Instead of only being asked to offer unblemished animals,
as a suitable substitute for our own lives,
we are now being asked to be the sacrificial lamb ourselves.
We are urged by Paul, strongly encouraged, beseeched,
to offer our very bodies, as living sacrifices.
Because to do so, is “true and proper worship.”

Worship, by definition, is laying down, as sacrifice,
our individual agendas,
our personal preferences,
our self-oriented desires,
our egocentric will—
and in an act of public submission to a greater good,
give ourselves wholly to the mission and purposes of God,
the only one worthy of such an act of devotion.

True worship, is living life as a sacrifice,
it’s offering up self,
not as a burnt offering, but a living sacrifice.
Putting ourselves on the altar—
relinquishing self for good of the other—
results not in a diminished life,
but a fuller, more joyful life,
a life more authentic to our created purpose,
and thus more fulfilling.
That, to God, is a sweet-smelling sacrifice.
It gladdens God’s heart.

And lest we think that Paul is overstating things,
we need only to look to the words of Jesus himself,
which we heard in today’s Gospel reading from Mark 8.

So is a life of self-sacrifice
one of drudgery and duty and the heavy yoke of law?
Not according to Jesus [as I read from Mark 8:34]
who called the crowd together with his disciples, and said to them,
“If any want to become my followers,
let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
For those who want to save their life will lose it,
and those who lose their life for my sake,
and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Our culture has turned things around, exactly backwards.
We have convinced ourselves
that the path to personal pleasure, is seeking personal pleasure;
that the way to a full life, is to fill our lives with whatever we want;
that the fullest expression of the human self, is to focus on the self,
our agenda, our needs, our desires.

We may not actually say it so boldly,
but our actions speak loudly.
We can tell what our culture values,
by observing what our culture spends its time and resources on.
And whatever it is, it’s not sacrifice.

Regular corporate worship, in the body of Christ,
is the best way I know to counter the false narrative of our culture.
Every time we enter this space,
we are reminded that God’s way is different.
We are reminded that offering up self, as a living sacrifice,
is what produces authentic joy,
and leads to a flourishing, fully human life
pleasing to our Creator.

Now, I hasten to add,
some people enter this worship space,
so wounded, and broken, and disoriented,
that they are not able to find in themselves
any identifiable, cohesive, healthy self, to sacrifice.
Some have had the boundaries of their inner self,
violated so often,
that they can neither see, nor own, a well-defined self.
And one cannot sacrifice something
one does not already have in their possession.

So part of the reason for worshiping together, as a body,
is that we can be a community of healing,
a place which calls forth from each individual
a stronger and healthier self-identity,
so we actually have something of value,
that we can voluntarily offer up to our Creator,
in sacrifice and worship.
Sometimes, what we cannot sacrifice alone, the body enables,
through its collective sacrifice of worship and praise.

But the bottom-line is that authentic worship of God has always been,
since Old Testament burnt offerings, until today,
an act of self-giving sacrifice, that produces deep joy.

God is not asking for our attendance at entertaining church services,
for which we offer up a token gift to pay for these services.
No, God is asking for our very bodies as living sacrifices.
God is asking for it all.

And that’s not easy, as hymn writer Thomas Troeger put it so well:
If all you want, Lord, is my heart, my heart is yours alone 
providing I may set apart my mind to be my own.
If all you want, Lord, is my mind, my mind belongs to you,
but let my heart remain inclined to do what it would do.
If heart and mind would both suffice, while I kept strength and soul,
at least I would not sacrifice completely my control.
But since, O God, you want them all to shape with your own hand,
I pray for grace to heed your call to live your first command.

Let’s sing together, HWB 512.

—Phil Kniss, August 3, 2014

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