By mtaylor | Monday, August 8, 2016 | 11:17 AM
Isa. 1:1, 10-20; Luke 12:32-34
August 7, 2016
“What are We Offering?”
Rev. Rosemary McMahan
In a scene from Shakespeare’s masterpiece, Hamlet, the warped King Claudius is on his knees, struggling to utter a prayer of confession and true repentance when a very honest self-realization occurs. He remarks, “Words fly up, thoughts remain below. Words without thoughts never to heaven go.” And he continues on his tragic way, an unchanged man.
Those lines come to mind in reading the first chapter of the Book of Isaiah, one of the most beautifully scripted books in the Bible. The words from Handel’s great composition The Messiah are taken right out of this book. Yet this morning’s passage is intended to make us cringe, or at least squirm in our seats. Instead of hearing God proclaim, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine . . . you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you” (Is. 43: 1, 4), we hear him demand, “The multitude of your sacrifices—what are they to me?” and “When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you?” and “Your New Moons, Sabbaths, and convocations—I cannot bear your evil assemblies,” and finally, "If you resist and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword." It’s at this point that I am ready to turn back to Genesis and read about the loving Creator who made us in his image and called us “very good.” Yet when our liturgist acknowledged, “This is the Word of the Lord,” we responded, “Thanks be to God.” Truly? What can we be thankful for in these strong words tinged by the contempt of God? We can be thankful that we are given an opportunity to reflect on what it is we offer God and how we offer it.
If you’ve never read our Presbyterian Book of Order, I encourage you to pick it up. While parts of it are a bit dry, the majority of this book about how to “be church” together is very meaningful. The Directory for Worship, which is the third section of the Book of Order, defines worship this way: “Christian worship joyfully ascribes all praise and honor, glory and power to the triune God. In worship the people of God acknowledge God present in the world and in their lives. As they respond to God’s claim and redemptive action in Jesus Christ, believers are transformed and renewed. In worship, the faithful offer themselves to God and are equipped for God’s service in the world” (W-1.1001). Worship, then, is more than showing up on Sunday and dropping a check in the plate. Faithful and living worship results in offering not only time, talent, and money, but our very basic selves in order to be equipped for God’s service. We don’t worship in order to stamp our ticket to salvation. We worship in loving gratitude for God’s claim on us, we who are called to bring about God’s kingdom here and now.
In worship, today and every Sunday, we, the people of God, are called to acknowledge God as present in our lives. Our response to God’s grace and love is demonstrated by our transformation. True worship changes us. The Directory further states that “The life of the Church is one, and its worship, witness, and service are inseparable.” In other words, coming to worship isn’t enough if our worship isn’t helping us witness and serve. Witness—talking about God--without worship of him and service to him isn’t enough. Service without witness and worship is incomplete. All three, together, nourish and strengthen us in our lifelong offering of ourselves to God. While at different stages in our lives, we are able to do one more than the others, all three, together, are necessary in our transformation into people made in God’s image. No wonder God is so irritated with the Israelites, because while they are going through the motions of worship, decently and in order, that worship has no effect on their actions.
So God says through the prophet, “Stop bringing meaningless offerings to me” (13). God doesn’t want our offerings? No, God doesn’t say stop bringing offerings; the stinger is found in the word “meaningless,” which might cause us to wonder how much our own offerings are at times like those Israelites of long ago. God has had enough of outward sacrifices that are not from the heart and do not change a person. Isaiah shares a vision with people who say they love and worship God but who continue to practice corruption, injustice, and neglect. God intends their sacrifices to be an outward sign of their inward faith, but the outward signs are empty because no inward faith exists, and God, quite frankly, is fed up.
"Stop bringing meaningless offerings." The problem is not with the gifts but with the giver. Our sacrifices, rituals, and offerings, like Isaiah's people, are meaningless if they don’t touch and transform our hearts. When our hearts remain inwardly focused or hardened in response to the love of God, we aren’t likely to change, and our impact on the world around us is ineffective. Those who label Christians as hypocrites site the same reason: they do not see our worship changing the way we live our lives and serve others.
Jesus puts it another way: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” If our personal comfort, our convenience, our wants, our grudges, and our self-interest are our treasures, then we’ve failed to allow worship to transform us. We’ve let our treasures prevent us from serving others, within or without of this church. Words without thought, and worship without change, never to heaven go.
This tough, demanding passage, then, invites us to examine our own offerings and to be as honest as King Claudius was in regard to what we are giving and how we are giving it. It isn’t easy to sacrifice our treasures; not for me and maybe not for you. Jesus never claimed it would be. Paul understood that difficulty, too, when he wrote to the Romans: “I appeal to you (or urge you), brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1). If the people were willing to get on the altar of sacrifice, Paul wouldn’t have needed to be “appealing” to and “urging” them to do so. Sacrificing our time, talent, gifts, money, leisure, and comfort is indeed hard because it requires a readjustment of human nature and a deep trust in God. But we aren’t asked to do so on our own. God’s Spirit is always working with us. And that is Good News.
Let me leave you to ponder the root meaning of the word sacrifice, which, like sacrament, means “sacred.” If a sacrament is an outward sign of an inward grace, then when we give freely of our treasures, our giving is made holy and we are blessed as we bless others. Like Christ who sacrificed, who offered, himself for us, when we give ourselves, we are being transformed more and more into his image, not just for our own sake, but for the world’s.