On thanksgiving Monday a few weeks ago, we looked at the biblical prescription for the approach to God from Psalm 100.
Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth.
2 Worship the Lord with gladness;
come before him with joyful songs.
4 Enter his gates with thanksgiving
and his courts with praise;
give thanks to him and praise his name.
We found that there is a right way to come into the presence of God, to come before his face, there is a right spirit that prepares us for his glory and that is to enter with thanksgiving a praise.
But what is next? When Old Testament believers desiring the presence and goodness of God came to worship - what was after that entrance of praise?
If you notice the picture behind me, they entered from the east and the first thing they noticed was a hot blazing altar.
In Exodus 27, we read about this altar...
27 “Build an altar of acacia wood, three cubits (4.5 feet) high; it is to be square, five cubits long and five cubits (7.5 feet) wide, 2 Make a horn at each of the four corners, so that the horns and the altar are of one piece, and overlay the altar with bronze. 3 Make all its utensils of bronze—its pots to remove the ashes, and its shovels, sprinkling bowls, meat forks and firepans. 4 Make a grating for it, a bronze network, and make a bronze ring at each of the four corners of the network. 5 Put it under the ledge of the altar so that it is halfway up the altar. 6 Make poles of acacia wood for the altar and overlay them with bronze. 7 The poles are to be inserted into the rings so they will be on two sides of the altar when it is carried. 8 Make the altar hollow, out of boards. It is to be made just as you were shown on the mountain.
We read further about the offerings to be given on that Altar in Leviticus 1
1 The Lord called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting. He said, 2 “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘When any of you brings an offering to the Lord, bring as your offering an animal from either the herd or the flock.
3 “ ‘If the offering is a burnt offering from the herd, he is to offer a male without defect. He must present it at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting so that it will be acceptable to the Lord. 4 He is to lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it will be accepted on his behalf to make atonement for him. 5 He is to slaughter the young bull before the Lord, and then Aaron’s sons the priests shall bring the blood and sprinkle it against the altar on all sides at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. 6 He is to skin the burnt offering and cut it into pieces. 7 The sons of Aaron the priest are to put fire on the altar and arrange wood on the fire. 8 Then Aaron’s sons the priests shall arrange the pieces, including the head and the fat, on the burning wood that is on the altar. 9 He is to wash the inner parts and the legs with water, and the priest is to burn all of it on the altar. It is a burnt offering, an offering made by fire, an aroma pleasing to the Lord.
10 “ ‘If the offering is a burnt offering from the flock, from either the sheep or the goats, he is to offer a male without defect
In order to understand why this altar was the first piece of furniture encountered in trying to come into the presence of God, we have to understand some very basic themes. The tabernacle and this altar only came into existence after the fall into sin. God who is Holy, Holy, Holy, before sin, simply lived and walked with his people, Adam and Eve. But after they fell into sin, separation occured. There were relationship requirements that humanity had been unfaithful too. There was betrayal, a dependence on a snake rather than on God, a choice to live without God taken. The offence was so deep that exclusion from the garden and from God was the only answer. But God, in his great love desired to be with his people. During the lives of Noah, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, he made the occasional visit, but God wanted to live with them. How could he, except that the issues that divide them be dealt with. How could he except justice be done.
Let’s be forthright. In our lives it is no different. If someone has offended us deeply, wounded us to the core of our being, the consequence is separation. The consequence is that we cannot be together. But if there is the yearning of love to be together, the only way that is possible is if there be some act that secures justice, an apology, a humble confession, an agreement with the wrong done. Where an offense has been committed, relational justice needs to be done, it in effect confronts us.
And so that God could be among his people, the first thing that he had them deal with was this altar. With its intense heat and large size, there was no avoiding it, it confronted the person who came to worship, it functioned as a barrier in the courtyard. Because it was so massive, a ledge was built around the outside so that the priests could manage the fire and the offerings. The issue of relational justice was the first and foremost issue when coming to worship. And so the worshiper faced the altar. And this not once in a while, this was continual, according to Leviticus 6:12, this fire which was started by the Lord was to continue burning at all times, this altar was always busy.
We are told in scripture that an offering was given on behalf of the nation of Israel every morning and every evening. On the Sabbath, and on feast days and holidays, that offering was doubled.
And if an individual from the Israelites wanted to come into the prescence of the Lord and seek his blessing, the only way that he would be able to do so was by bringing an offering. If he was rich, he would have to bring a bull, if he was middleclass, he would have to bring a male sheep or goat, if he was poor, a dove or a pigeon. What ever he brought was to be a male, without defect.
Now there was a procedure to follow.
First the worshipper would come, and lay his hands on the head of the animal. There was a twofold symbolism behind this act: First the laying on of hands symbolized the confering of guilt for sin to the animal, the second aspect symbolized identification with the animal in its death, the animal was dying in the sinners place. Once this had been done, the worshippers responsibility was to take the animal that he brought, to kill it before the Lord and the priests and then the priests would take the entire animal and burn it on the altar according to the given procedure. If things were done according to the right procedure, the offering was acceptable to God and it made atonement for the sins of the worshiper. By this means, relational justice would be done.
(Even the four horns of the altar depicted relational justice. There under the horns of the altar a person accused of a wrong could come and hide under the horns of the altar and appeal their case so that justice would be done.)
Today too, when we come to worship, the first order of business after we enter by praise is the issue of relational justice with God. Where we have offended, there is room for us to confess our sins, acknowledge our wrong, and seek forgiveness through the blood of Christ.
Now there is a second theme that we get from our Leviticus chapter 1 reading. Notice the repeated instruction that the offering given was to be without defect.
Why a sacrifice without defect?
There is a theme here that need our careful attention.
First, like us, if relational justice is to happen, we want apologies to be sincere, thorough, without hypocrisy. You see if there is anything more wounding than an original hurt, it is an apology given without sincerity. It is going through the motions of justice without a true heart felt sacrifice. Insincere apologies are de-worthing, they communicate that relationship with the one offended is hardly worth keeping, because they are not worth much to you. So wounds are reopened, re inflicted. Insult is added to injury.
How this is also true of God. God demanded that the sacrifice given would be sincere, without defect, expensive to make for those who came to bring it. But Israel communicated very clearly how much God was worth to them, when they went through the rites of worship, brought their sacrifices, but would not bring their best. Listen to the complaint that God has in the last book of the Old Testament, Malachi, 1.
When you bring blind animals for sacrifice, is that not wrong? When you sacrifice crippled or diseased animals, is that not wrong? Try offering them to your governor! Would he be pleased with you? Would he accept you?” says the Lord Almighty.
By the end of the Old Testament, people were bringing their leftovers, the sick and diseased animals, keeping the best for themselves, they were adding insult to injury, saying to God and he simply was not worth much to them.
You see, worship is measured by sacrifice. The worth of a relationship, the worth of an offended loved one was measured at the altar by the sincerity of the sacrifice. We recognize worship by the sacrifices given, we measure the worth of the one we seek relationship with by the value of the sacrifice offered. By their sub standard sacrifices, Israel told God he was not worth much to them.
Now I invite you to notice something.
Whereas in the Old Testament, there was a requirement that people bring their sacrifices without defect, and by the end of the Old testament, the insult has been added to injury, people have said that God is not worth much to them, when we come to the New Testament, we are shocked, not by what we do, but by what God does. For in the New Testament, God now brings the sacrifice - this time a lamb without defect, his one and only son, as John says the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. God, in bringing his own son to the altar is first of all telling us how much we are worth to him, we are worth his only son. We are worth everything to him. Worth is measured by sacrifice, even the sacrifice God brings for us.
Over the years of being a pastor, I have met many parents who quietly struggle with the choices their children make. I have met many parents who weep sometimes bitter tears and certainly earnest intercessory tears for their children. Their children simply don’t get it, don’t have a clue of the burden of love that parents carry for them. Their sacrifices, earnest emotions, sincere tears and unending prayers for their kids.
But God goes even further, beyond tears and emotions. God gives his own son!
This is the very argument of Romans 8.
If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? And Paul goes on to say, what can separate us from God’s love - absolutely nothin! If in God’s eyes we are worth his son, then we are secure in his love, we are worth everything to him.
And Paul goes on then in Romans 12 - because there is still a sacrifice to be made by us. A sacrifice in response to God’s mercy and love for us. A sacrifice which communicates to God how much he is worth to us. You know the verse.
Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship.
Every fiber of our being given, dedicated to, offered to God. That is our worth-ship, for our worship is still measured by sacrifice. How much God is worth is still measured by the best that we have to offer, ourselves. Our bodies, our minds, our emotions, our spirits dedicated to obedience, to practicing his will, to discovering the joys and benefits of obeying the one and only true God.
Let me as a tangent , before we offer ourselves to God in prayer, add a theme that is really wonderful. When we are by faith in Christ, washed clean by his blood, made new creations, because we are in Christ, when we offer ourselves to God, we offer ourselves as sacrifices without defect. Our sacrifice in Christ is completely pleasing to God. He is pleased with our worship as we offer everything we are to him. We are pleasing to God only because we are in his son, the perfect sacrifice.
(NIV) Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION. Copyright (C) 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.