There’s this cliched trope we see trotted out in TV, movies, etc. You’ve seen it, I promise. One partner in a relationship (usually male, just pointing out the contours of the stereotype) messes up the relationship in some serious way which violates the other partner’s trust and threatens the survival of the relationship. The guilty party then sets off to the florist, the jewelry store, and/or the chocolatier to bring gifts of beauty and pleasure which, he hopes, softens the sting of his betrayal somehow. Sometimes in these stories the gambit works and forgiveness begins. Other times the cheap gesture only accelerates the unraveling.
Does this logic make sense to us? Have we ever been on the giving or receiving end of these gifts ourselves?
In the theological world of the Old Testament, there was nothing sweeter to God than the entirely burned offering. The priests set aside a perfect specimen of an animal and then, rather than cooking and eating it themselves, or even offering part of it to God and saving the rest for later, sacrificed it so that the whole thing was burned up. It was completely consumed by the flames and its aroma carried aloft to, it was believed, to a pleased God. God wouldn’t be angry at them while they were being so generous toward God.
Yet here comes the prophet Isaiah where the Lord says “What should I think of all your sacrifices? I’m fed up with entirely burned offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts. I don’t want the blood of bulls, lambs, and goats.” (Isaiah 1:11) Instead, the Lord says, “Wash! Be clean! Remove your ugly deeds from my sight. Put an end to evil, learn to do good. Seek justice: help the oppressed; defend the orphan; plead for the widow.” (Isaiah 1:16-17) This takes place within a realm where forgiveness is also possible – “though your sins are like scarlet, they will be white as snow.” (Isaiah 1:18) That forgiveness came through living a transformed life, however. No matter how many perfect bulls burned up on the altar, the people were going to have to do something truly sacrificial: seek justice.
Jesus offers us forgiveness while handing each of us a yoke. To walk in the light of Christ is to dare to imagine the kingdom of God breaking into this very world at this very moment. It is to dare to peer into both the astonishingly beautiful and the impossibly awful. It is to see children shopping for back-to-school supplies suddenly running for their lives once more in this world shot through with the majesty of God, and say not only “Lord, in your mercy” while sending along ephemeral “thoughts and prayers,” but to look and instead ask “Lord, how can I protect your children?” There are no easy answers. The cliches fall apart in the reality of living together and seeking peace. Please be in prayer and active listening this week and in the days ahead.
Grace and Peace,
10 Hear the Lord’s word, you leaders of Sodom.
Listen to our God’s teaching,
people of Gomorrah!
11 What should I think about all your sacrifices?
says the Lord.
I’m fed up with entirely burned offerings of rams
and the fat of well-fed beasts.
I don’t want the blood of bulls, lambs, and goats.
12 When you come to appear before me,
who asked this from you,
this trampling of my temple’s courts?
13 Stop bringing worthless offerings.
Your incense repulses me.
New moon, sabbath, and the calling of an assembly—
I can’t stand wickedness with celebration!
14 I hate your new moons and your festivals.
They’ve become a burden that I’m tired of bearing.
Isaiah 1:10-14 (CEB)