This is my homily for the first Sunday of Lent, 2019.
Step One: the Proposition itself
The idea that sacrifice is at the heart of worship is demonstrated all the way back in Genesis 2, in the Garden of Eden. The tree of knowledge is planted in the garden, but Adam and Eve are commanded not to eat the fruit of that tree. They have dominion over the Earth, they are the caretakers of the garden, God has put them in charge; but that tree is set aside, it is their sacrifice, their token gesture that God is the true owner of the Garden. This is sacrifice in one of its most basic forms: setting aside something you have in recognition that it’s not really yours, but God’s. Even before sin enters the picture, sacrifice is at the heart of worshiping God. It is a visible gesture that has an impact on your lifestyle which reminds you and others that you have a Lord over you.
As the books of the Torah describe in great detail thereafter, the Israelite religion was also centered on the concept of sacrifice. Indeed, pretty much all religions zero in on the idea of sacrifice of one sort or another – the key difference is always what is sacrificed, why, and to whom. In the Law of Moses, proper sacrifices were bread, wine, oil, certain animals, to be poured out or burned or consumed. People could also offer themselves or their children to a special kind of service to God or his Temple. Some of the animal sacrifices were for the atonement of their sins; other sacrifices were for acknowledging and thanking God for his blessings.
In Deuteronomy 26 we hear about the first-fruit offerings, which were a type of thanksgiving offering. In the first eleven verses of that chapter we get a succinct explanation of why, what, and how this offering was to be made. It is a once-and-future command: when the Israelites have settled into their land, and every harvest thereafter, they are to prepare this sacrifice for the Lord. The language of inheritance was to remind them that God gave them this land of his own provision, so, like the Garden of Eden, the people are really just stewards of that little piece of God’s creation. It’s a little bit like divine property taxes: these sacrifices are reminders that God is the true landowner, and the people thank him for providing them with that land and the fruit it bears.
Specifically they are commanded to gather their offering food in a basket, bring it to a priest at the Temple, and make a verbal confession of faith. The first part, in verse 3, simply acknowledges God’s provision, but the longer part in verses 5-10 is essentially a Creed: it summarizes the history of God’s people from the wanderings of the Patriarchs to the crisis and crying out in Egypt and God’s deliverance of Israel with signs and wonders out of slavery and into the Promised Land. That confession of faith, paired with the offering, is to be an occasion of joy which will not only express a personal faith, but that of an entire community: the offerer, his family, the Levites (or clergy), and the sojourners or foreigners among them.
Now the Church is not yoked to the Law of Moses, so this command concerning this offering is not a rule for Christian worship. But its principles still do apply. In Romans 10:4-13 Saint Paul points out that all Christians have an inheritance for which to give thanks. Putting this together, we realize, as our liturgy puts it, that “it is right to give him thanks and praise.”
Step Two: Jesus’ Sacrifice & Ours
But before we look to ourselves too quickly, we should be first be sure to look to Jesus. All the Scriptures, after all, point to him. Today’s Gospel lesson is about the temptation Jesus faced in the wilderness following his baptism, before his public ministry began. Fighting the Devil, Jesus is abstaining from things that are his due in order to glorify God. In other words, he had made a sacrifice by fasting 40 days, he had made a sacrifice by becoming man in the first place, and the Devil was trying to get Jesus to take those sacrifices back for himself, and thus repeat that first sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden.
Further on in the Gospel books, we know that Jesus would go on to die on the Cross. His self-offering there was the culmination and completion of all the Old Covenant animal sacrifices that were meant to atone for the sin of God’s people. Jesus himself has become our sin-offering to God. That is exactly and explicitly what Holy Communion is all about: turning to Christ on the Cross as our atonement, joining with Christ’s self-offering and making his death also our own offering to God the Father.
Step Three: Spiritual Discipline of Alms-giving
Although Jesus is our sin-offering, or propitiatory sacrifice, we can still offer other kinds of sacrifices in further acts of worship. Part of the Ash Wednesday Gospel, Matthew 6:19-21, teaches us how to go about that. “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” With that principle in mind, you can offer first-fruits (like the first paycheck at your new job), or regular tithes, or spontaneous gifts with the same attitude: I am investing my priorities in heaven by acknowledging God’s provision of all the things that I have in this simple act of giving.
As this is the season of Lent, the discipline of alms-giving is particularly brought to our attention. We’re reminded that a spiritual discipline such as this can and should help us fight against the sin of coveting. By setting aside and giving away some of the things we have, we paradoxically gain more control over ourselves and our relationship with our worldly wealth than if we focus on finding or maintaining financial stability. Jesus had to remind people that, for much of his ministry life, he had “nowhere to lay his head.” Paul wrote that he, too, had learned how to be content with whatever his situation – scarcity or abundance. When we are able to sacrifice and give, we are exercising a responsible and godly stewardship of our earthly possessions that will help us mature in our relationship with the world around us and our relationship with God.
Our preaching theme this season is “relationship counseling,” and I think by this point you can see how this lesson about sacrifice, giving, and worship contributes to our relationship with God. To say that we live in a busy world is an understatement. There are myriads of things vying for our attention daily, and the advent of the internet has only intensified the opportunities for distraction. There are so many things that you could be doing with your life, there are so many ways you could be spending your money, investing your funds, managing your resources, cultivating your public image on social media, reading books and articles and watching movies and television programs and YouTube channels and Netflix… Even if you stick with things that are good and up-building, or at least not-sinful, there is still an easy threat of drowning God out of your life. It is when you sacrifice, abstain, set aside, reduce, or give up some of what you have that you truly “take charge” of that part of your life. It is an act of self-control, it is saying “No!” to the covetous tendency to want more things, and it is a big opportunity to say “Thank you” to God for those things.
Being able to say “thank you” to God, being ready to acknowledge God’s provision to you and his continued ownership of you and yours and all of creation, is one of the foundations of a healthy relationship with God. If Jesus is just your boss – telling you what to do and simply making demands of your time on the church clock, so to speak – then you’re on a path toward a very unhealthy relationship, not knowing the love of God. If Jesus is just your friend – making no demands and encouraging you to be true to yourself no matter what – then you’re on a different path of unhealthy relationship, not knowing the Lordship of God. So I encourage you to take some time this week to evaluate your relationship with your wealth, possessions, your usage of time, the desires you have for things you lack, and consider what sort of sacrifices you make, or need to make, in order to keep those things from interfering with your relationship with God.