Lions chilling out at Sedgwick County Zoo - Wichita, KS

What God requires

I like to perform, not on stage but in life. If I don’t deliver a good performance that meets or exceeds expectations in anything that I do, I get depressed. I like to please people, and I like to go above and beyond what people expect of me. But to accomplish that, I have to know what they expect me to do to begin with.

I’ve tried to break myself of this whole performance-based acceptance concept because God doesn’t work like that. God doesn’t care about our performance in regards to how much He loves us, but He does have expectations for how His children should behave.

Lions chilling out at Sedgwick County Zoo - Wichita, KS

Lions chilling out at Sedgwick County Zoo – Wichita, KS

Today’s verses are Micah 6:6-8.

What can we bring to the Lord?
What kind of offerings should we give him?
Should we bow before God
with offerings of yearling calves?
Should we offer him thousands of rams
and ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Should we sacrifice our firstborn children
to pay for our sins?

No, O people, the Lord has told you what is good,
and this is what he requires of you:
to do what is right, to love mercy,
and to walk humbly with your God.So many times I think we try to bribe God with money or giving up things we view as essential or important. I have many friends who give up things for Lent, which I believe is a period of time before Easter. It’s a religious tradition in some families. One friend gave up pop for a year. Another friend gave up chocolate for a year. And so on and so forth. They do it to show devotion, that things like that mean less to them than God does.

But is that what God requires of us?  What does God require from us? What does He want us to give up? What does He wants us to do for Him? What does He want us to sacrifice?

Well … here’s the thing. All of those requirements have been met through Christ. Christ was our sacrifice. Christ paid the price for our sins. Christ was the offering God required to symbolically cleanse us of our wrong and make us right with Him. So we aren’t required to give up anything. We aren’t required to sacrifice anything. We aren’t required to do anything, save making the choice to trust Christ in the first place.

People like to add things to God’s free gift so it makes us feel like we have some say in it. But God doesn’t need us to do anything more. He already did it all.

However, He does expect that we will behave in a certain way, and because God is a God of communication, He tells us exactly what those expectations are:

Do right. Love mercy. Walk humbly with God.

Here’s how The Message puts it:

Do what is fair and just to your neighbor,
    be compassionate and loyal in your love,
And don’t take yourself too seriously—
    take God seriously.

Is that too much to ask?

It’s certainly not easy. In the world we’re living in, doing what is fair and just is difficult because those qualities mark a higher road. And the higher road is always harder.

And when it comes to loving others? Love is easier from a distance, but that’s not real love. The kind of love here is compassionate love and loyal love, and both  of those require closeness. Another way to translate that says to love mercy and kindness, and that means to look for opportunities to show mercy to people. And that is even harder than taking the high road in doing right. You can take the high road and do the right thing without having to interact with people. But God expects us as His children to look for people to do good things for, even if they aren’t interested in doing good back to us.

And walking humbly? Not taking yourself too seriously? That’s difficult too, especially if you’ve already accomplished the other two. Because if you can always take the high road and always manage to do good to others, it’s easy to slip into the thought that you’re better than everybody else. But you’re not. You just take God seriously. That’s the key. You’re no different than anyone else; you just made a choice.

Another interesting thing to note is that each of these expectations starts with an action verb. Just a fun fact for all the grammar nerds out there. God expects us to move, to do these things, to be people of action, not people who absorb Bible verses and rest on their blessed assurance.

So get out there. Do right. Love mercy. And be humble about it. That’s what God expects from us.

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Sacrificial stone

God doesn’t care about your sacrifices

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?

Sacrificial stone

Sacrificial stone - Tikal, Peten, Guatemala

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.

What does God need?

Well, the verse of the day today is one I think I’ve covered before. Matthew 16:25, “If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it.” And while that is an awesome verse and one that is definitely worth meditating on, the Lord brought a different scripture to mind when I sat down at my computer this morning.

In the sermon over the weekend, my pastor referenced Psalm 50:15 as evidence that we can use prayer as a weapon in spiritual warfare, and I wanted to know what the rest of the chapter said. You should read the whole thing sometime. It’s really an awesome chapter, but for now I’m just going to focus on versus 7 through 15.

Psalm 50:7-15

 7 “O my people, listen as I speak.
      Here are my charges against you, O Israel:
      I am God, your God!
 8 I have no complaint about your sacrifices
      or the burnt offerings you constantly offer.
 9 But I do not need the bulls from your barns
      or the goats from your pens.
 10 For all the animals of the forest are mine,
      and I own the cattle on a thousand hills.
 11 I know every bird on the mountains,
      and all the animals of the field are mine.
 12 If I were hungry, I would not tell you,
      for all the world is mine and everything in it.
 13 Do I eat the meat of bulls?
      Do I drink the blood of goats?
 14 Make thankfulness your sacrifice to God,
      and keep the vows you made to the Most High.
 15 Then call on me when you are in trouble,
      and I will rescue you,
      and you will give me glory.”

As I read this, I got to thinking this morning. What does God need?

Well, nothing. He doesn’t need anything from us or from the universe or from anywhere. He is God. He is self-sustaining, perfect and eternal.

He doesn’t need our sacrifices. In the Old Testament, He didn’t need people to kill animals on alters. And even today, God doesn’t need us to give our tithes to the church. God doesn’t need us to volunteer our time in ministry and in serving others. He doesn’t need our friendship. He doesn’t need our presence period. He is God. There is nothing we can give Him that He didn’t already make.

So why does He ask us to tithe? Why does He ask us to serve? If He doesn’t need it, why does He ask?

The plain and simple truth is that we are the ones who need it. We need Him. We need to make sacrifices to Him. We need to tithe because of Him. We need His friendship and His love and His protection and support. And God knows that we need this because He made us.

There’s an old saying that there’s a God-shaped hole in every human being and until we choose to fill that hole up with God, it will always be empty.

God doesn’t need anything we do for Him. But worshipping Him, building a relationship with Him, fills something inside us that can’t be filled otherwise.

And even if you don’t have money to give or animals to sacrifice, you can still offer God your thankfulness. That’s more important anyway. That’s how God judges people, by their hearts, their motivation, their true selves.  Be thankful for all that He’s done for you. God doesn’t need your thanks, but He deserves it.

Change stinks . . . or does it?

Change is hard. It doesn’t matter what is changing, I find it difficult to adapt. Maybe it’s because I’m a creature of habit. Maybe it’s because I get too comfortable. I’m not really sure. Change is just hard for me.

I know many other people who don’t struggle with change, though. Some people thrive on it. It seems to me that these folks never stop changing. Like they can’t ever do the same thing twice or they decide to change things just to keep life interesting. Personally, I find life interesting enough without changing my plans or my habits daily.

However, sometimes change is good. I know it’s necessary most of the time. And even the changes I don’t like, I can see the need for, even if I have a hard time adapting to it.

The book of Hebrews is one of the deepest books of the Bible. It’s really really difficult to wrap my head around most of the things that go on in Hebrews, but one of the concepts throughout the book is change. Hebrews is talking about the difference between the old religious system that used to be the way to God and the new promise God has set up through Jesus.

This was something that had to change. It needed to change. The old system was flawed, broken, insufficient. It had worked for the time being, until the time was right for God to send Jesus into the world. But after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the old system wasn’t necessary anymore. So it was time for a change.

In the old system, people had to live under the crazy, detailed laws set down in Leviticus. They had to make sacrifices, portraying a picture of innocent blood spilt for their sins. There was a laundry list of things people had to do to be right with God in the Old Testament. But every rule and every law people had to follow pointed forward to the promise God had made them — that the rules He’d set up were only temporary and that Someone Better was coming to take away their sins.

The whole chapter of Hebrews 7 is talking about Jesus as our High Priest.

Israel had hundreds of high priests, and they had a tremendously somber responsibility of being the ones who communicated with God. The priests were the ones who made the annual sacrifice. They were the only ones allowed into the holiest chamber of the temple, where God’s presence resided at times. The high priest, I guess you could say, was the intercessor for Israel. The high priest was the one who stood in the gap and communicated between God and the people of Israel. But the high priests before Christ were limited because they were only human. They sinned. They died. They could only do so much.

But Jesus isn’t limited by humanity. He was human, so He knows what it’s like to be human. But He’s also God. Jesus lives forever so as our new High Priest, His priesthood lasts forever.

This is where we find our verse of the day in Hebrews 7:25.

25 Therefore he is able, once and forever, to save[e] those who come to God through him. He lives forever to intercede with God on their behalf.

Through Jesus, we have direct access to God Himself. Because of Jesus’ sacrifice for us, because He gave His life as a sacrifice for our sins, when we choose to believe that, the Holy Spirit comes to live inside us, and we are granted access to the throneroom of God. We no longer need to go to a priest to ask forgiveness. We can just ask for ourselves. We no longer need anyone to stand between us and God; Jesus already did that once and for all.

If you read the Old Testament, you’ll see that there were many high priests and most of them were utter failuers, if not in their leadership than in their family lives. But Jesus is something different. He always has been something different.

The old system didn’t work. It was like putting a bandage on an amputated limb. It treated the symptoms and not the illness itself.

What Jesus did changed everything.

Change is hard and difficult to get used to, but some changes have to happen. Some things need to change. And God had been planning this specific change for millennia. For thousands of years, God had been promising that the old system would go away in favor of a New Covenant.

Change is difficult. It’s scary. It’s unknown and it always presents a risk because you don’t know what else changing your life will affect. But if God is calling you to change something, you need to do it. Because when God directs a change, the results will be better than what you’re living with right now.