Well, we survived all the scary monsters and bloody scenes of Halloween. That was followed the next day by ‘All Saints Day’ – a remembering of the saints who have prepared the way for the rest of us who are trying to be saints.
By the way, in the New Testament every Christian is considered to be a saint. Seriously! Has it ever occurred to you that we are each capable of being a saint too? Saint Brian. Hmm, I dunno – that doesn’t have a ring to it…
Most of you know that I am a Buffalo Bills football fan. Cheryl on the other hand is a long-time fan of the Hamilton Tiger Cats in the CFL but she patiently joins me to watch the Bills each Sunday. In spite of their recent history of successlessness (yeah, it’s a real word if you search hard enough), Bills football continues to be a favourite pastime for me.
There are many reasons I like football. For one, it is the ultimate team sport. For another, it is like a living game of chess: strategy, counter-strategy, counter-counter-strategy. Another reason I like it is because it provides a near guilt free excuse to eat Zesty Cheese Doritos and foods that benefit from dips and sauces.
As popular as football is in North America, statistics are showing that participation in youth football is steadily decreasing. This is likely due in part to its physicality and the higher risk of injury, especially concussions. But look at this: Sports Illustrated recently published an article showing that the decline is less in Republican-leaning U.S states (6.1%) than in Democrat-leaning states (15.7%). More than that, participation in youth football is up significantly in the four states that voted most strongly for Donald Trump!
It is a complex discussion and I don’t want to oversimplify it but I can’t help but wonder if there is something more here. Does this connect aggression with values and politics? And what does it say about evangelicals who continue to overwhelmingly support a particular brand of political push-back? I’m embarrassed to say that evangelicals are often people who love enforcement and payback and believe in a God who is like them.
People have all sorts of ideas about who God is and what he is like. Most of those ideas involve laws, punishment, guilt, payment for sins, and blood. Lots and lots of blood. Sacrifices and such.
But have you ever wondered when God first asked for those animal sacrifices? Well actually, there is no record of him introducing the idea. The first biblical record of a sacrifice is in the story of Cain and Abel and if you look closely, they were offering sacrifices that God hadn’t even asked for!
Why? Well, in the Genesis story of the first sin, we immediately see fear (opposite of love) and guilt (opposite of grace) entering humans. Offering sacrifices for those reasons became a common pagan practice in the world. Somehow, instinctively, people felt guilty and afraid for their sin and the human response is to assume an aggressive payment method to soothe their feelings. It was a culturally conditioned act because they couldn’t humanly imagine a God who would just forgive without an angry response.
Eventually God integrates their perceived need to offer sacrifices into the Law. It was a reluctant way to illustrate the death of sin as well as a way of guiding them away from activities that were worse (Leviticus 17:7).
In truth, most of our religious activities are formed in our own minds to make us feel better. Isn’t that an interesting thought? We are more hung up on aggression and punishment than God is.
God isn’t concerned with how hard we push spiritually. When we participate in religious pain or sacrifice we are accepting the ideas of the world around us.
Read it for yourself from a couple of today’s scheduled readings:
Hear the word of the Lord,
you rulers of Sodom;
listen to the instruction of our God,
you people of Gomorrah!
“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.
When you come to appear before me,
who has asked this of you,
this trampling of my courts?
Stop bringing meaningless offerings!
Your incense is detestable to me.
New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—
I cannot bear your worthless assemblies.
Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals
I hate with all my being.
They have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them.
When you spread out your hands in prayer,
I hide my eyes from you;
even when you offer many prayers,
I am not listening.
Your hands are full of blood!
Wash and make yourselves clean.
Take your evil deeds out of my sight;
stop doing wrong.
Learn to do right; seek justice.
Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
plead the case of the widow.
“Come now, let us settle the matter,”
says the Lord.
“Though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red as crimson,
they shall be like wool. – Isaiah 1:10-18 (NIV)
I don’t know about you but I can remember times earlier in my life when I couldn’t imagine that God was gracious and understanding. I mean, I knew he was, but there was some social instinct that I had to do something to make it right.
Is that you? Do you feel as if God has a list of rules for you to follow to keep him happy? Do you act like spiritual sacrifice and exhaustion are what God wants from his saints? Trying to keep God happy with sacrifice and human payback makes an idol of our fear and guilt.
How about this alternative to fear and guilt? Surrender your rebellion and stop trying to manufacture holiness – then ask God to help you walk with him. That’s what the Psalmist calls being ‘godly’.
Or to put it another way … you’ll be Saint (insert your name here).
Oh, what joy for those
whose disobedience is forgiven,
whose sin is put out of sight!
Yes, what joy for those
whose record the Lord has cleared of guilt,
whose lives are lived in complete honesty!
When I refused to confess my sin,
my body wasted away,
and I groaned all day long.
Day and night your hand of discipline was heavy on me.
My strength evaporated like water in the summer heat. Interlude
Finally, I confessed all my sins to you
and stopped trying to hide my guilt.
I said to myself, “I will confess my rebellion to the Lord.”
And you forgave me! All my guilt is gone. Interlude
Therefore, let all the godly pray to you while there is still time,
that they may not drown in the floodwaters of judgment.
For you are my hiding place;
you protect me from trouble.
You surround me with songs of victory. – Psalm 32:1-7 (NLT)