Our Living Sacrifice
If you talk much about Lent, you’re likely to be posed this question: “What are you giving up for Lent?”
The act of “giving up” something for Lent can be beneficial, if it makes room for or focuses our attention on God. But, phrased another way, we can look at these small acts of “giving up something for Lent” as sacrifices we make to God.
These are by no means our only sacrifices to God. We tithe. We make offerings. We volunteer. We offer daily prayer. Or, at least, we should do these things. And these are sacrifices.
But what, really, is the nature of sacrifice? And what sacrifice does God want us to make?
Our readings today frame this question within the Jewish tradition of offering animal sacrifice, for atonement and worship of God.
Animal sacrifice was, in many ways, the currency of faith in ancient Judaism — both literally and figuratively. We see faith expressed in this currency throughout the Old Testament. Our faith story as Children of the Book in many ways begins with Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac. The consecration of the priesthood in Exodus 29 begins with a literal bloodbath — the altar, Aaron and his sons marked with the blood of a bull and two rams.
This tradition carries over into the New Testament. When Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to present him at the Temple in Luke 2, to consecrate him as a living sacrifice to God, the blood offered is of “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.” In the Cleansing of the Temple Jesus overturned the money changers’ tables and set loose the sacrificial animals, overturning the faith currency of the Temple. And, Jesus, at the cross, became the ultimate sacrifice, atoning for our sins and putting away our need for such atonement sacrifices. He made the final payment, cancelled all debts, in the old faith currency.
But does sacrifice end there? As we follow Jesus, who called us to take up our cross if we want to follow him, are we not called to offer ourselves as a form of sacrifice?
No, don’t go nailing yourself or anyone else to a tree. But, to understand the nature of our sacrifice, it’s instructive to dig back into our Old Testament reading for today, from the prophet Isaiah.
Isaiah uses animals to illustrate how blind we are to following the path of God.
“The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.” Animals may be offered as sacrifice. But, when it comes to finding their way home, they do better than we do in finding our way back to God. In other words, Isaiah says, when it comes to following The Way, we’re outsmarted by the common ass.
Later in our reading, Isaiah foretells Jesus’ atoning sacrifice, of how Christ washes us clean of our sins: “though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.”
In between those two passages, Isaiah gives us a crucial hinge, a pivot point that explains how we not only benefit from Christ’s sacrifice, but how we truly follow, emulate and live it.
Isaiah tells us: “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil…”
Find the bad things in your life and stop doing them. Just stop it. OK, this is an important part of our Lenten journey. Search out that which is drawing you away from God, i.e. sin, and knock it off. That’s good and necessary, and requires our constant and honest attention.
But, it’s only the first half of the hinge.
To really turn the corner, from knowing and benefiting from Christ’s sacrifice, to living it and becoming Christ’s hands and feet in the world, we need the second half: “learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”
This is the active half of Isaiah’s message. This is the ministry of action to which Christ calls us when we’re told to take up our cross and follow him. Do good. Seek justice. Rescue the oppressed. Defend the orphan. Plead for the widow. Act. Act the gospel into the world. First, Isaiah tells us we’re acting no smarter than an ass. Then, he tells us to get off our ass.
We’re called to act. But what, then, do we sacrifice? In our psalm today, God tells us it’s not just about giving our stuff, or in Old Testament parlance, making animal sacrifice: “If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the whole world is mine and all that is in it.” In other words, if God wanted all our stuff, God would take it. But, what God wants, the sacrifice we’re called to make, is that which only we can truly and freely give: ourselves.
Do we need to examine ourselves and set aside sinful ways? Yes, of course. Is it good to make external sacrifice, in our tithes and offerings? Yes it is.
But, the true nature of sacrifice to which we are called in Lent is to truly sacrifice ourselves. To give ourselves fully into the beautiful, terrifying hands of the Living God.
When we do that, we open ourselves to the awesome love of Christ. A love that poured out God on the cross. A love that calls us to take up our own cross, to make a living sacrifice of ourselves, pouring ourselves out in service to God and to our neighbor.