Random Blog Clay Feet: January 08, 2008
Feel free to leave your own comments or questions. If you would like to be in contact with me without having it published let me know in your comment and leave your email address and I will not publish that comment.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

A Living Sacrifice

I appeal to you therefore, 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 NRSV)

What I have been learning recently comes as a surprise to many as well as to myself, but also makes sense given the real nature of God's desire for His relationship with His people. Even though the whole system of sacrifices and related rules and ceremonies surrounding it represented the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, it was not God's first choice for His people. God is not one who delights in seeing the slaughter of the very creatures He created. And God never intended for people to think that it is God who is the author of death and wished to impose pain and death on the disobedient.

Death is the wages of sin, not the imposition or punishment of God. And along the same line God was not looking for lots of death and blood to appease His anger throughout the Old Testament times despite what people believed, both then and now. There were points in time when God's real desires were expressed more plainly as in this quote from Jeremiah.

Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, “Add your burnt offerings to your sacrifices and eat flesh. For I did not speak to your fathers, or command them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. But this is what I commanded them, saying, 'Obey My voice, and I will be your God, and you will be My people; and you will walk in all the way which I command you, that it may be well with you.' Yet they did not obey or incline their ear, but walked in their own counsels and in the stubbornness of their evil heart, and went backward and not forward.” (Jeremiah 7:21-24)

The notion that God craved killing and sacrifices of blood was deeply embedded in the minds of nearly everyone in the ancient world and very often that involved the sacrifice of their children to the gods. It was a very common practice based on the concepts they held of their gods as ones of anger, selfishness and power. Humans were created, according to their thinking, to be slaves of the gods and so treated their slaves very much like humans abusively treated their own slaves. In turn most people were living in constant fear of what the gods might be about to do to them next and so they came up with all sorts of ideas that they hoped would keep the gods happy enough to not take out their fits of wrath on their human subjects.

This type of thinking was the environment from which the children of Israel emerged when they were brought out of Egypt. Mostly all they knew about the supernatural was these notions of angry and selfish gods who wanted dictatorial control over the lives of their subjects. But God makes it clear here in this passage in Jeremiah that His original desire for His children was very different, in fact the opposite of the ideas that the rest of the world had about God. He did not bring them out of slavery only to become their new slave master. He brought them out to be His loved children and to live in honor as a family of royalty. He wanted them to learn obedience as healthy children so that life would be well for them.

But their response to His invitation was to build a golden calf reminiscent of the enslaving gods of power they were familiar with in Egypt and worship that in the spirit of self-serving revelry. Then when God had to deal with that disaster the following years were filled with animal sacrifices and lots of blood as God was compelled to institute plan B. Because they insisted on believing only in a God who required blood sacrifices, God introduced guidelines for that system that at least would not carry most of the negative messages about God found in the systems of the rest of the surrounding nations. If they had to live under those ideas about worship then at least He could make that system instructive until they matured enough to graduate to living like grown-up, free children instead of groveling slaves.

I see this invitation from Jeremiah repeated in the first verse of Romans 12. Paul is reiterating God's desire that He wants us to be the real sacrifice instead of offering Him substitutes in vain attempts to appease an angry God based on our distorted picture of Him. God's wants our lives fully alive and thriving, not bloody sacrifices of fear, pain and death. God desires us to give our bodies, minds, and hearts to Him in an act of devotion and worship in response to the riches of His grace, His wisdom and knowledge and a revelation of the greatness of His ways. This is what real worship is about, not about inflicting various forms of death on ourselves or on animal substitutes.

There is another word here that is often misunderstood. God wants us to present ourselves as a holy sacrifice. Most people have assumed that holy means religious, pious, externally perfect behavior etc. This has been the fuel for most of the legalistic attempts at worship throughout the ages and is a cause of great confusion about what God really wants from us.

Holy, in its original form, simply means a total dedication for one purpose only. Holy always has to have an object, it cannot stand alone. So to say that someone is holy or some thing is holy has to be connected with identifying the object or person it is devoted to. Most of the references to holy in the Bible refer to God as the object of holiness. When an object was dedicated as holy, it was usually “holy unto the Lord”. That meant that that object was not to be used for anyone else but for God. The priests were likewise dedicated as holy and as such were devoted to exclusive service for God. That is the real meaning of the word holy.

With that understanding, it becomes more clear what Paul is really asking us to do here in Romans 12:1. He is not asking us to achieve some level of religious piety or strive for some sort of religiosity, hardly! That is the very thing he has spent most of his time in this book trying to unmask for its uselessness and futility. What God really wants from His children is what was described there in Jeremiah. He wants people who are willing to be totally and exclusively devoted to God alone as their source of life, people who are more devoted to listening and staying connected with their loving Creator more than any other object of affection. This is what is meant by a living and holy sacrifice. And this is what is truly acceptable to God.

For it is our hearts that God desires far more than any external performances or acts of piety. Real worship only originates in the heart, and we will always be worshiping something or someone. What God desires is for a relationship of devotion to Him in response to His love for us where we can be transformed, healed and restored to our original design as happy, joy-filled children of the great Leader of the universe.

It is in this view of a proper relationship with God that we will be able to demonstrate, to prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect. We can never come into the real will of God for us by trying to achieve righteousness by conformance. That is the method of the world. The worlds system is to squeeze people into a mold through the use of force and fear and enslavement. God's method is to appeal to the mind and the heart by attraction and gently mold the character and the life through softening influences and healing transformations.

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2)

(next in series)