Awhile back, I posted my thoughts on John 6, where Jesus calls Himself the Bread of Life. You can read that post here. A couple of days ago, the reading passage for my fixed hour prayer time was from Isaiah chapter 1:
11 “The multitude of your sacrifices—
what are they to me?” says the LORD.
“I have more than enough of burnt offerings,
of rams and the fat of fattened animals;
I have no pleasure
in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.12 When you come to appear before me,
who has asked this of you,
this trampling of my courts?
13 Stop bringing meaningless offerings!
Your incense is detestable to me.
New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—
I cannot bear your evil assemblies.
14 Your New Moon festivals and your appointed feasts
my soul hates.
They have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them.”
Huh? God appointed all these sacrifices, didn’t He? They were encoded in Mosaic law, the prescribed penalties for sin, and the required offerings for holy days. How can He say now that He’s sick of these things? Like a spoiled, petulant child who demands treats and then turns up his nose, God says that the very things He ordained now weary Him.
Why had God demanded blood sacrifice, anyway? Was it because He was a bloodthirsty being? Was it just the priest’s way of getting free meals? Or was it because they were a nation of shepherds, whose wealth, whose greatest stock in trade, was its livestock? In order to give them a picture of the gravity of sin, He asked them to totally surrender something of great value: the best of the flock, the animal without blemish. Bloodshed, graphic and messy, was a profound picture of what sin did to their relationships with Him and with each other, to their community’s health.
But over and over, they forgot the point, and it became a relatively easy but meaningless ritual: bring the cow, get it approved, slaughter it and say a perfunctory prayer, dash off to the next party. “There, God, hope You’re happy.”
No. He’s not happy. Not with empty words or thoughtless actions. We tend to look only at the superficial, the appearance, the facade…but God looks at the heart. He weighs our motives in the balance and finds them wanting. So Israel, going through the motions of piety, was sold into slavery over and over. So the Jewish people of Jesus’ day made a show of wanting to please God, but they really just wanted more magic bread (John 6).
The sacrifices of the Old Testament, like the sacraments of the New, are outward symbols of inward realities. But it’s so much easier to only focus on what is tangible, what can be touched and tasted and seen. “Dear God,” we plead, “bless my actions today…and don’t look too closely at my thoughts or my motives. I sent a card to Aunt Helen, didn’t I? I gave a gift to my neighbor. I sent in a check to the church. Done. Off my list. I deserve to have fun now, right?”
So are habits and rituals and traditions no good? Well…only as good as our heartfelt intentions in acting them out. Am I doing good because I’m sold-out to God and committed to walking with Him? Or do I just want to get Him off my back for awhile and walk my own road?