Mayans were scary people. I’m not sure how many folks realize that, but they were. Their entire culture centered around blood and violence. This photograph is one I took on my trip to Guatemala in July 2011. Tikal, the Mayan ruins, is full of these sacrificial stones. From what I understand, the round stone in the front is where the sacrificing would be done, usually I think it was removing the heart. And the stone on the back served as a billboard to list why the person had to die, which usually would have been something along the lines of winning a great competition or triumphing over an enemy on the battlefield.
No, you read that right. The Mayans sacrificed the best to their gods. Not the criminals. Not the dregs of their society. The upper rung. It was a great honor to be sacrificed in Mayan culture.
Maybe there’s a lesson to be learned in wanting to sacrifice only the best, but that’s not what I’m thinking about this morning. Sometimes I struggle with sacrifice because in the religious culture I grew up in, you were expected to sacrifice everything you had in order for God to accept you. You were supposed to give up your life, your dreams, your assets, your hopes–everything. And only then, after you gave up everything you loved, would God be pleased with you.
And while there is nothing wrong with sacrificing all you have (giving things up rather than killing people on stones, of course), do we really need to sacrifice everything for God to accept us?
Today’s verses are Psalm 51:16-17.
You do not desire a sacrifice, or I would offer one. You do not want a burnt offering. The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit. You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God.
This is one of David’s Psalms, the one he wrote after he got his head back on straight after the whole mess with Bathsheba, and it seems pretty cut and dry. God doesn’t want a sacrifice, at least not the kind of sacrifices David was accustomed to offering. Because the Israelite religious system was also based on sacrifices–just not people. They sacrificed the best lambs, bulls, goats, etc. according to what was started in the first five books of the Bible.
But they were expected to sacrifice. So why is David saying that God doesn’t want a sacrifice here?
Have you ever noticed that people who sacrifice everything often want to make sure everyone knows they’ve sacrificed everything? Sometimes sacrifice can become the key to getting attention. Sometimes it can make you famous, depending on what you sacrifice and how you do it. It certainly can make you famous in the church and in the religious community.
I’m not saying that all people who sacrifice are motivated by the desire to be famous. I’m not saying that at all. But remember, I grew up in the church. And I have seen many people who have “sacrificed” something that they didn’t really need to begin with in order to gain the spotlight, to earn the adulation of people around them.
What David is saying here, is that God doesn’t care about what we sacrifice. He cares about the heart behind it.
Sacrifices are nice. They’re good. They help us remember Who we serve and why we serve Him, at least they’re supposed to. But when you get right down to it, sacrificing is a good work. And good works, while they demonstrate that you have faith, they will never make you good enough to get to heaven.
God is pleased when we show that we have faith. And He is pleased when we give up something we want in order to pursue something He’s told us is better. But if we’re giving up our dreams and our lives and our plans so that we can tell everyone around us that we’ve given up our dreams and our lives and our plans, that’s not sacrificing to God. That’s seeking the spotlight.
God doesn’t want our works, and if the sacrifice you make isn’t motivated by a heart that wants to please God and no one else, that sacrifice won’t mean anything. He doesn’t want us to prove ourselves to him. He wants our heart and our will to be submissive to Him.
Real sacrifice is a result of a heart that is submissive to God. And the irony is that when you are truly walking with God, the sacrifices He calls you to make won’t really feel like sacrifices at all.