August 11, 2019
Sophomore year of college a spiritual advisor asked me to make a sacrifice. Give up going to church for a month, he said. I was surprised by the advice, as it came from a man supposedly helping me reckon with religion. For some time, I had been experiencing a spiritual crisis. The faith of my youth no longer fit me. I was asking better questions; I wanted better answers. All the while I did as I had always done: Sunday worship service, said the same prayers, sang the same songs, stood up, sat down, somewhat listened to sermons, and set out for lunch. So little difference did this solemn affair make. Still, I was convinced that God was satisfied with this Sunday morning sacrifice. That is why the advisor told me to give it up for a time.
Similar advice was given through the Hebrew prophets. Enough of those offerings on the altar, all the incense, routine liturgies, seasonal services, verbose prayers, and solemn assemblies, said Isaiah. Hosea, Micah, and Amos echoed the same. This was surprising advice from religious leaders. Yet, for some time, the people of Israel had been experiencing a spiritual crisis. The nation had been torn in two. Other nations threatened to undo them altogether. That is, if they did not undo themselves. Evil, avaricious leaders plagued the people, causing harm to the already oppressed, the orphan, and the widow. All the while the people did as they had always done: same rites, rituals, festivals, prayers, and offerings. So little difference did these solemn assemblies and festivals make, the prophets said. Still, the people thought that their sacrifices satisfied the Lord. That is why the prophets told the people that God would rather them give it all up.
Sacrifice was central to worship. In ancient Israel, animal sacrifices were brought to worship—to the tent, tabernacle, and temple. A layperson would bring an animal, slaughter it and hand it over to a priest who presented it at the altar. Such sacrifices served to invoke the divine presence, give thanks to God, and purify people of their sin. Before we dismiss all this as primitive cult practice, it is worth seeing some of the merit in it. Here are people giving up something precious to God who gives all things precious. They give because God gives. Their worship offerings made them more generous people in the world. Each sacrifice made them more sacrificial, more willing to give to God and others. Worship should lead the worshipping community to give more of what is good—give more of themselves—to the world. Worship should have an impact beyond the confines of the sanctuary. It should make a difference. It should change the world. It should.
Isaiah saw that it so often did not. Apparently, the sacrifices became self-serving. People gave to God to get something in return. Sacrifices were made to gain God’s favor. The whole sacrificial system turned into divine lobbying—an attempt to influence God to serve one’s own interests.[i] People bent the knee in worship in an effort to bend God’s will to their wishes.[ii] All the while, the people were unwilling to make sacrifices to serve God’s will. Outside the sanctuary injustice was ignored, oppression overlooked, orphan unnoticed, and widow flouted. Worship was drained of its potency. It [was] as if the worshipping community [had] taken a stick of dynamite and thrown it into a bucket of water.[iii] All the sacrifices, gifts, prayers, services, and celebrations made no difference. They changed neither worshipper nor world. For that reason, Isaiah said, enough.
The prophets did not tell people to give up worship. They challenged the people to make the kind of sacrifices that mattered to God. Micah raised the question: With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He gave an answer: God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?[iv] God does not require people to give up their goods to gain favor. God requires that when people come to worship they give up themselves for the sake of the world. For Isaiah, this meant giving oneself for the sake of the oppressed, the orphan, and the widow—those who are most vulnerable.
Paul only repeats the prophets when he makes this appeal, present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your reasonable worship.[v] Sacrifice remains central to worship. It is not that people are bidden to bring sacrifices to God in order to be made holy and acceptable before God. On account of Jesus Christ, they already are that. The necessary sacrifice is the self. If there is anything to give up to God in the sanctuary, it is the drive to save, satisfy, and serve only oneself. The one who worships bends their will to, as Paul says, the good and acceptable and perfect will of God. Paul advises the Romans to give up their bodies for the greater body, honor for others, what they have to serve another’s needs, and house and home to stranger. These are the sacrifices proper to worship.
One oft-cited reason people give up going to a certain church is that they are not being fed or nourished. They complain that they are not getting much out of worship. There are many very good reasons to leave a church, but this is not one of them. The primary problem with this complaint is that it assumes worship is a commodity, a product one receives for a benefit. This is one of the reasons the Hebrew prophets criticized certain worship practices. Many were showing up only to get something out of it. Worship, however, is not about gaining anything. It is not a concert, even if there is exquisite music. It is not a TED Talk, even if the sermons are insightful. At the risk of stating the obvious, worship is about God. It is time and space to encounter the One who is good beyond measure and giving without restraint. We don’t necessarily get anything in or out of worship because God is always in the act of giving. That is simply who God is. Worship, then, is time and space to give of ourselves to God. Here we hand over our time and talents, our guilt and greed, our gifts and gratitude, our hurts and hope, our will and ways, our heads and hearts to God in faith that in doing so something will be made of them. Worship is sacrifice. In and through it, we give ourselves over to the flow of God’s goodness in and beyond sanctuary. We do not make sacrifices because God needs them. The prophets teach us this. God needs nothing from us. God requires justice and righteousness, but these things are required for our sake not God’s. God needs nothing from us. Still, God gives all for us. True worship arises in knowing just this. It is most potent when we do as God and give all for others.
My feminist friends remind me that whenever we talk of sacrifice we must remember that women have always been asked to make sacrifices men have been unwilling to make. Women have been made to give up their lives for men, all in the name of Christian duty. The sacrifices God desires ought not to be in this way. A sacrifice is not a duty endowed on another. It is an offering, a gift. A sacrifice cannot be compelled without losing its meaning. People rightly and truly give up and of themselves out of a sense of excess and abundance, when everything is understood as gift and grace. Real and necessary sacrifices are made when people know they have been given more than enough—when they know that they benefit from enormous sacrifice. This is what ought to be known in worship: that God gives all, that God is given over in Jesus Christ for us each and all the world. Faith that this is in fact the case has moved many to make incredible sacrifices for others.
If memory serves me right, I made it only a week before I returned to worship. The point of my spiritual advisor was made. I did not owe God the sacrifice of sitting in a pew on Sunday. God did not want that sacrifice after all. That month, I joined a worshipping community called The Mercy House. They were sacrificial in every sense. Sunday services were held in an abandoned middle school in a community robbed of resources. The congregation gave up every pretention: preaching in whatever manner fit, baptizing in kids pools, and sharing communion with simple, humble gestures. They gave up their denominational ties when their denomination said women can’t preach and they knew otherwise. College students gave up their summers to live in the old school, throw block parties in the neighborhood, and study Scripture.
Members of the congregation gave themselves over to endless ideas and opportunities to seek God’s justice in the city. Some started after-school programs for the neighborhood kids to learn and play in a safe environment. Others went about planting trees in the surrounding depressed industrial city. Some started a thrift store for people to purchase necessary goods and also the crafts of the community. Others started a bike collective, which gave away bicycles to people without a means of transportation. They also taught classes to build and repair bikes. Some invested in the local homeless shelters. Others started a halfway home. Members of The Mercy House were involved in almost every effort to rebuild a city deeply damaged. They learned to do good, sought justice, rescued the oppressed, defended the orphan, and pled for the widow. Sacrifices were made. All of it done in the spirit of worship.
The Mercy House taught me what it means to be part of a sacrificial worshipping community. I am pleased to serve in one today.
[i] Terry Eagleton, Radical Sacrifice, Yale University Press (2018), 22.
[ii] Indebted to Eagleton for this turn of phrase, 22.
[iii] Adam Hearlson, The Holy No: Worship as a Subversive Act, Eerdmans (2018), 10.