Tuesday in the Second Week of Lent
I don't often preach on a psalm. Although it is a reading from scripture, the psalms we read in worship are intended to be a response to one of the other readings--a hymn or poem or prayer to be sung or spoken the way we might sing the sequence hymn after the second lesson or sing the Te Deum after the first lesson during Morning Prayer. Honestly, I usually more or less skip over them, reading them once but, unlike the other lessons, never really giving them the exegetical attention that a preacher usually gives to the lessons upon which he might base a sermon. Today, however, the imagery of Psalm 50 really grabbed me, and I could not pass up the chance to dwell within it for a while.
In verse 7, the voice of God breaks through and levies an accusation against God's people: "Hear, O my people, and I will speak" God commands. "O Israel, I will bear witness against you; for I am God your God." This is the kind of official courtroom language we might associate with a trial. Indeed, God is putting God's people on trial. God himself is taking the witness stand. God has announced himself, has declared his intention, and is prepared to state the crime for which the accused has been brought before this divine court.
But, before we get to the actual offense for which Israel has been brought into the dock, God starts by declaring that of which he is not accusing God's people: "I do not accuse you because of your sacrifices; your offerings are always before me." Look at those words. Your offerings are always before me. Always. Day after day. Day and night. Hour after hour after hour. God's people are continually offering sacrifices to God. The blood and the smoke of those offerings flows and billows from the temple. But something is missing. God isn't interested in the material sacrifice. Something else is wrong.
"I will take no bull-calf from your stalls, nor he-goats out of your pens," the Lord declares, "for all the beasts of the forest are mine, the herds in their thousands upon the hills...If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the whole world is mine and all that is in it. o you think I eat the flesh of bulls, or rink the blood of goats?" In case you missed it, God doesn't need our sacrifices to keep God's self fed. God is not hungry. God is not interested in the item being offered. God is interested in the intention behind the act of offering. As God continues, "Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving and make good your vows to the Most High. all upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall honor me." In other words, "Can' we just get back to the simplicity of faith?" God seems to be asking.
In short, it does not matter to God how often you go to church, how often you say your prayers, or how often you give alms if those actions are not expressions of a faith that seeks God. As is so often the case, human beings fall into the trap of substituting the sign for the thing to which the sign points. If I tell my wife, "I love you," every day, does that make a difference if my heart belongs somewhere else? If I never miss my son's baseball game but spend the whole time on my cell phone, have I really attended to that father-son relationship? If I go to church every week and smile confidently as I take my appointed place on my appointed pew but I am only there to be seen and not to search for God, should I bother showing up at all?
It doesn't start with a bad intention, but, over time, the habit becomes a substitute for the thing to which the habit originally pointed. That's why a "date night" can be so life-giving to a marriage. That's why a weekend fishing trip can mean so much to a child. That's why a good old-fashioned tent revival can breathe new life into a congregation. If we break our routine and open ourselves up to the meaning behind the mechanism, we invite that substance to return to the surface. The next time we say, "I love you," we convey it with real meaning. Our cell phone seems to stay in our pocket for most of the son's game. We feel again God's presence in our weekly worship service. For now.
This wilderness journey forces us to confront the reality of our relationship with God. For forty days, Jesus was without the institutional religion of his day. He missed out on gatherings in the synagogue. He was removed from the operations of the temple. We, too, go without. The usual celebratory acclimation when the Eucharistic bread is broken is missing its familiar "Alleluia!" There is no Gloria sung at the beginning of worship. We forego some of the things that we take for granted to remind us what is really there--to remind us why we really do it at all.
God is not interested in the number of times you go to church if you do not go in order to find God. God does not need your prayers, your presence, or your offerings. God is quite complete on God's own. But God does want your heart--all of it. So render to God the offering of a thankful heart. Cry out to the Lord in your moment of distress--not because you're supposed to but because you need God. Remember that God is the one who cares for you, who loves you, who comes to you. Don't let religion get in the way of that.