Scripture: Leviticus 1:1-17
Audio available at the bottom of the page
You can give without loving, but you can never love without giving.” – Robert Louis Stevenson
Sacrifice – if you think about the word sacrifice what comes to mind? Perhaps it’s the stories of heroic sacrifices we heard about on the news coming out of the Las Vegas shooting or other recent tragedies? Perhaps it is a portrayal of human sacrifice in a movie or television show? Or maybe if you really love the Old Testament, perhaps the image that comes to mind is the meticulous details of cutting up of bulls, goats and birds that we read about today? No one?
Today we jump right into the thick, nitty gritty centre of Leviticus. Chapter 1 and Leviticus pulls no punches: we get into the meticulous details about sacrifice – which parts of the animal to clean, where to dash blood, how to cut up the bull, goat or bird; here in chapter 1 we get into the proper order of offerings to God – who can do offer which sacrifices, what directions to worship; Here in Leviticus 1 we get into the beginning of the seemingly arcane and distant rules and regulations which confound even the most avid Bible reader. Last week we got the easy entrance into Leviticus – the 10 commandments – but today we are confronted by a stereotypical passage from Leviticus that would make us begin to skim over to find the good bits. After all you are probably asking yourself what good these rules are for us, how they can inspire us to think imaginatively about the life of the Church. And on the surface you’re right: I don’t know if you’ve noticed but I’ve never had to chop up a bull and dash its blood upon the altar, most of you have probably never brought sheep or birds as an offering before God (though I know some of you might have back home). While we might not offer sacrifices of animals before the altar any more, we might even think the practice is barbaric – there is far more going on in this seemingly arcane passage of scripture, that can teach us today and spur us to the heights of imagination. So let’s dig in.
The hidden depth of our passage begins right in the first two verses. “The Lord summoned Moses and spoke to him… saying “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them…”. Our passage, in fact the very book of Leviticus begins with the assertion that God is with the people of Israel, that God speaks to the people of Israel, that despite their disobedience, the unfaithfulness that they exhibited previously in the wilderness God wants to be in relationship with them. This truly is the basis of the book of Leviticus – God’s desire for relationship with Israel and the ways God invites them into his life. The basis for all these laws, offerings and sacrifices is God’s desire to be in relationship with his people – God gave the people life out of enslavement in Egypt, he fed them in the wilderness, he gave them water, he sought their life to flourish. And so when you read the Book of Leviticus remember that this is the basis, that everything is founded on: that all the arcane laws, sacrifices, the purity laws, even the laws we might grimace at, are all centred on the notion that God gives life to his people and wants them to flourish.
And so the beginning of Leviticus is rooted in the fact of God’s provision for his people. It doesn’t begin with God commanding the people to perform sacrifices, it doesn’t begin with God prohibiting anything, it doesn’t begin with laws it actually begins with voluntary action. In our world today ‘sacrifice usually means giving up something of value, something we would rather keep unless forced to let go.’ But Leviticus offers us a different vision of sacrifice – the Hebrew word used in verse 2 is qorban which means gift and it applies to every offering that will be described throughout the course of the book of Leviticus. Generally speaking, we do not usually begrudge giving someone a gift: we give to our friends and loved ones for birthdays, anniversaries and sometimes for no reason at all – sometimes we even go to great expense and personal loss to shower gifts upon our loved ones.
The gifts described in Leviticus are brought voluntarily and spontaneously, they aren’t commanded by God, they aren’t brought because the person bringing the offering has sinned or broken a law, no they are offered as a gift to God, for no reason other than thanksgiving. These are still sacrifices in the modern sense mind you – giving a bull, a sheep or goat or even turtle doves would have been a significant outlay for the people of Israel – however, Leviticus ‘understands sacrifice more as a giving to (or for) than a giving up. Just as we give gifts to show how much we love our friends and family, the sacrifices that open the book of Leviticus are rooted in this understanding of love and relationship with God. (Samuel Balentine, Leviticus: Interpretation Series)
And what do these sacrifices accomplish? They draw the giver into the presence and into a relationship with God. After each sacrifice is described Leviticus tells us that the offering is a ‘pleasing odor to the Lord’. Think of the feeling you and a loved one have when a gift is shared – the pleasure and the joy for both the giver of the gift and the recipient. Gifts bring people closer together, they build up relationships, the bind us together in love – and the same is true of the gift offerings described in Leviticus, they are part of the whole people or Israel’s relationship with God.
The sacrifices or gifts themselves please God, not what they are. Whether it is a bull, or whether it is a sheep/goat or bird the offering is pleasing to God. What is remarkable about this, is that God shows no preference to the wealthier offerings – the bull and the sheep produce no more pleasing an odor than the birds – everyone’s offering is received with pleasure, with gratitude. Each person of Israel was capable of approaching God; each person no matter their station in life was capable of pleasing God according to their means and abilities.
Here at the beginning of Leviticus, even in the midst of seemingly arcane laws about sacrifice, we learn about God’s desire to be present with his people, we learn about what it means to be in relationship with God and what it means to joyfully respond to these realities.
As you see there is more to this ancient law book than meets the eye, and so the question remains what might we learn from it and how might we cultivate an imagination rooted in the lessons we learn from this.
I want you to imagine what our life as a Church would look like if we believed God was present with us, seeking relationship with us and what that would mean to ways that we respond. Offering and sacrifice are part of our life as a church – but what are our motivations? Do we offer sacrifices out of duty, out of guilt, begrudgingly? Or do we offer sacrifices out of joy, and thanksgiving and out of a belief that God is present and in relationship with us?
I want to begin by recognizing that each of us here at Grace, and everyone who is part of the wider Church makes sacrifices – many of you offer their financial sacrifices, many of you offer sacrifices of time, many of you offer sacrifices of your talents and abilities and many more of you offer your prayers and presence as part of the ongoing mission and ministry of the Church. But the question is why do you give, what are your motivations? Many of us were likely taught about giving as an obligation, as something our parents or grandparents made us do as part of our life of faith. Perhaps some of you give because you believe the church needs it for survival, to meet a budget, to make sure we make another year. Perhaps some of you give because a preacher guilted you into it. All of these are reasons to give, some of them good reasons, but none of them necessarily inspire joy in us. Imagine if each of us saw our offerings of time, talent and treasure as gifts to God? Imagine how that could transform our life, transform our guilt into joy and celebration? Imagine if our duty and obligation can be turned into freedom and wonder at the Holy God who seeks relationship with us?
When each of you offer your time – time to serve our neighbours at the community lunch, time to prepare for worship, time to practice an anthem or even carving out time on a Sunday morning to come to worship – you are offering a gift to God, you are offering a sacrifice that is pleasing in the sight of the Lord, you are drawing near to the Living God, the Holy One of Israel. When each of you offer your talent – your ability to sing, your financial or planning skills, your attention to detail, your hospitality – you are giving offerings to God, you are deepening your relationship with the Triune God. When each of you offer your treasure, your money – money to support the work of mission and outreach, money to support our education, money to support our worship and our congregational care – your offerings rise to heaven as a pleasing odor to God. And not only are all of these ways we offer ourselves to God, all of them are just as acceptable in the sight of the Lord. Leviticus reminds us that it is not the size, or type of offering which God finds pleasure in but rather it is the intention – God finds pleasure in a joyful giver. Some people are able to give time to God, others are able to give their talents, others are able to give their treasure – all of these gifts are pleasing in the sight of the Lord, none of them are more or less important as gifts we give to God. Imagine if we believed that truly? Imagine if we as the Church, didn’t think about what someone else gives or doesn’t give but rather celebrated the fact that we all share in the blessings of God? I think that our life together would be more joyous, there would be more cause for celebration.
At this time of Thanksgiving I want to truly thank each of you for the gifts you offer to this church, for the gifts that you present before your God of your time, your talents and your treasure. I pray that you would find this giving a joyous occasion, that you would know joy and celebration in the gifts and sacrifices you make for this church and for your Lord; I pray that you might be relieved of any burden of guilt, or obligation so that you might be released to experience the true freedom and love of God, the gift that he has given us in his Son Jesus Christ.
Let us pray.
Download audio file