“For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”
Not me, oh Lord, but you; Not us, oh Lord, but thee; Not our ideas or concepts of you, oh Lord, rather you; not even your bountiful gifts, oh Lord, but you and you alone do we seek. Amen!
Why are you here? No, I’m not asking an existential/philosophical question. I am being specific. Why are you here in this room at this hour? There are a plethora of other things that you could be doing right now. From gardening to golf, from cook-outs to croquet, from sports to sleeping, you do not have to be here. So, the question remains: why are you here?
It is my hope that you are here to worship the one true God, the God of Abraham and Sarah, David and Bathsheba, Mary and Joseph. The God that Jesus of Nazareth called Father. It is my hope that you and I are here to enter into the presence of the divine, to commune with God so that we may know God in an intimate and transforming way.
Now, whenever we come to worship God, we are confronted with an ironic sinful temptation. This phenomenon is alluded to both at the end of our lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures and from our Gospel reading. The end of our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures says, “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” Why does God appear to disqualify sacrifice and burnt offerings when God had handed down the decree to sacrifice in the first place?
See, way back about 25 books ahead of Hosea in the scriptures God lays out the manner God is to be worship from the location all the way to what sacrifices and burnt offerings are to be done for what offense or thanksgiving. Yet, here, in the book of Hosea, God speaking through Hosea seems to renounce God’s earlier proclamation. This is seemingly a tangled contradiction and we need to know something of the human condition and historical background of this passage to unravel it.
In regards to the human condition we can never forget the creation story and that all of creation is fallen from what God intended it to be. Our relationship with God is impaired. We are not able to come to know God on the intimate level that God desires on our own because of our fallen-ness. Now, this doesn’t stop us from trying to know God, which is a good thing. However, because we are fallen we can start to believe that our ideas about God are indeed God instead of being in relationship actually with God. Abraham J. Heschel, the wonderful commentator on the Hebrew Prophets says it like this, “An idea or a theory of God can easily become a substitute for God, impressive to the mind when God as a living reality is absent from the soul.” (P.1) He goes on to say that the prophets, Hosea included, do not speak about the nature of God. He says “They disclose attitudes of God rather then ideas about God.” They are trying to call us into the presence of God not to describe God. However, we being fallen humans can begin to think they are telling us about God and we can begin to worship these ideas of God instead of God. This is true for worship as well. Worship is to call us into the presence of God, but we run the risk of answering the temptation to worship the worship instead of worshiping God. We are tempted to make an idol of the liturgy, instead of letting the liturgy bring us closer to God.
This becomes clearer when we look at the historical context in which Hosea spoke. See, way before Hosea, Moses led the chosen people out of Egypt, through the wilderness, and to the Promised Land. Once there they at first lived as twelve loosely federated tribes. Eventually under Saul and David they united to become the Kingdom of Israel. Within a short time, they went from nationhood to empire. Being an empire led to division of the people and abuse by the institution. The kingdom split into the northern nation called Israel and the southern nation called Judah. One of the disputes and abuses was over worship. The southern kingdom said it should be in the temple, and the northern kingdom said it should be on their mountain. Meanwhile the religious leadership was in cahoots with the state and the needs of the people ignored. They were more interested in getting the ritual right then with facilitating the moral and spiritual transformation of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah into the kingdom of God. They had come to worship the worship rather then to worship God.
So, God speaks through Hosea and says that sacrifice and burnt offering do nothing if not done in spirit and in truth. God desires a changed heart through intimate relationship not robotic ritual performed for rituals sake. God does not care if we are immaculate liturgists and champion genuflectors, if we are not awakened to the presence of God in our worship. God does not care if we follow all the rules and do all the right things the right way with all the right people, if we are not transformed into the image of God, the image of mercy and compassion in the world.
In our Gospel lesson today, we see Christ acting and speaking against this checklist faith active in his own day. Matthew echoes Hosea and many of the prophets when he tells the Pharisees to learn what, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” means. Jesus does not just talk a good game however. In this passage we hear today he also, displays mercy in three ways that he wasn’t supposed to. First he calls Matthew to be his disciple. Now, traveling rabbis were common in that day and they often called young men to be their disciples, students who would follow them everywhere. However, they called only the best and the brightest. They only called those who had great intellectual ability with the highest character and moral fiber. Matthew, on the other hand, was a tax collector. Basically, he was a traitor to his people who worked for the occupying Roman oppressor. Not what I would call the highest of moral fiber, but Jesus calls him anyway.
Next, while Jesus is on his way to heal a child, he is touched by a hemorrhaging woman. Blood was considered unclean, especially if it came from a woman. Women who were bleeding were not supposed to be in the community much less touching a distinguished rabbi. Yet, Jesus does not condemn her, does not denounce her in aggressive fashion as would be expected of a leader. No, he looks with compassion upon her and proclaims that her faith has made her well.
Finally, Jesus heals a dying or already dead girl. Once again he is flying in the face of convention. Not only were rabbis not to touch females they definitely were not to touch anything dead, human or animal. So this is a double no-no, a dead girl. Jesus does not see the stigma or taboo, he simply sees pain and heals the girl. He is not limited by the ideas of God that surround him. He is detached from concepts and conventions so he is free—free to love where love is needed, free to serve God where service is needed, free to see God wherever God desires to be seen.
This pure desire for God and God alone is how we should be excellent in our worship and preaching. The late Jesuit brother and international speaker on spirituality Anthony De Mello says that often when someone points to God we get caught up looking at their finger instead of looking at God. We use a lot of things in our worship to point to God: music, prayers, scripture, bread, and wine to name a few. None of these things are God, rather they are evidence of things unseen as the writer of Hebrews points out. They are signs and symbols that point to God.
I challenge us this day and everyday that we gather to worship that we worship God alone, that we do not get caught up looking at the finger but at where the finger is pointing. Let us get caught up in the glory and majesty of God, the transforming power of God that can relieve our suffering, heal our world, and make us what we were intended to be. I challenge us to come to this house of God, not because we always do so, but because we want a closer relationship with God. I challenge us not to kneel and pray just because we’ve always done it that way, but because we are thankful for what God has done for us and we seek further transformation of our hearts and minds. We can and should come to this table, not seeking our individual wants and desires, but seeking the majesty and splendor of God. Come, offer sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving not out of route habit, but out of gratitude and humility. Come, for God desires steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God and not burnt offerings." Amen