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  • Writer's pictureFather Benjamin von Bredow

God hates religion.

A Sermon for Passion Sunday (Lent 5)

March 17, 2024 at Holy Communion

Isaiah 1:10–20, Hebrews 9:11-15


“If we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him” (Romans 3:8) In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. ☩ Amen.


This week Trudy and I were clearing out some old boxes of books from the church hall, and the title of one of them grabbed her attention: God Hates Religion. Does God hate religion? It’s an important question, for me at least, because here I am dressed up in five layers of fancy fabric, waving my hands around and carrying on as if this all somehow matters. Does God hate religion?


Reading our Old Testament Lesson for today would certainly give you that impression. It says, “I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. … Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them” (Isaiah 1:11, 14). It seems that God hates religion at least some of the time.


But all of these observances are things that God himself had earlier commanded. Why would God tell our fathers to sacrifice bulls and goats, and then criticize them for doing it? As Martin Luther said, “God loves adverbs”: the way you do a thing makes all the difference.


When the Prophet Isaiah was writing, he saw a nation which loved to observe rituals, but wouldn’t lift a finger to help people in need. Speaking through Isaiah, the Lord commands the people to “seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow's cause” (v 16–17). Their failure to do these things, he says, is sin (v 18), but if they are willing to re-submit themselves to obey all of God’s law—including the parts about caring for the downtrodden—God is willing to wipe the slate clean (v 18–19).


The people’s problem was not with the sacrifices themselves, which God had indeed commanded. The problem is that they observed a half-religion. They had kept the outward part of God’s law, but had neglected the inward part, the part where God commands mercy, humility, generosity, and tenderheartedness. God hates when you offer him an observance without offering your heart as well. You receive no credit in heaven for such a religion.


So when our Epistle tells us how much better Christ’s sacrifice of himself was than animal sacrifices, it’s all about the difference between outward and inward purification. “The blood of bulls and goats” were offered in rituals which cleansed the people in a legal, outward sense, purifying their bodies from ritual defilement so that they could participate in the outward forms of worship.


But Jesus, by the shedding of his own blood, offered himself to God “through the eternal Spirit without blemish” (Hebrews 9:14). Pay attention: what Jesus offers to God is not primarily his broken body and shed blood, as if God was delighted by human suffering. Jesus offers himself to God—his whole person—perfectly, spiritually, and entirely. The shedding of his blood is just the means by which he does that. As a embodied human being, his act of total self-offering must include the offering of his body, but the essence of what he does is spiritual.


So, as the author of Hebrews says, as we are joined to Christ in his sacrifice and “draw near to God through him” (Hebrews 7:25) the effect for us is also inward: it “purifies our conscience” (v 14). As St Peter says when he’s describing baptism, when we talk about being “washed from our sins” or “washed in the blood of the Lamb” as we sometimes say in our Christian jargon, it’s not like washing dirt off the body, which we have to re-do every time we get dirty again. It’s not about getting the sins off of us, it’s about getting the sins out of us—out of our conscience, out of our heart (1 Peter 3:21).


As Holy Week comes up, we have to be very careful about the way we talk about the cross. We may have been told that the cross is about Jesus dying “in our place.” That’s right, provided we know what we mean by it.


We run into trouble if think that Jesus dying “in our place” means that Jesus dies instead of us. We suppose that someone needs to die to satisfy God’s anger against sin—although where we got this idea it’s hard to tell—and by all rights it should be us sinners, but Jesus generously takes our place. The trouble is that this is a way of thinking about the cross that makes Jesus into the best animal sacrifice that ever was. It’s all outward: Jesus is our blood sacrifice so that we can get off scot-free for our sins, whether or not we are inwardly transformed. We’re right back in the Old Testament sprinkling people with blood as if that did anything for them.


But if Jesus dying “in our place” means that he dies as our representative and our leader, we’re on more solid ground. It is our place that Jesus fills, our role that he takes on. On the cross, Jesus does what we will also need to do: give up ourselves entirely to God. Day by day, as our fellowship with Christ deepens, we also experience in ourselves a sacrificial death: we offer “ourselves, our souls and bodies, as a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice.” Jesus does not die instead of us; he dies for us, as the trailblazer on a path we also follow with his assistance.


The point is not just theological; the point is practical. The way of salvation is to offer oneself, body and soul, to God. The way to be saved is to give yourself without reservation, to lay yourself bare before God and say, “This is all yours: my sins, for which I ask forgiveness; my gifts, which I ask that you put to good use; my anxieties, which I surrender; my hurts, for which I ask healing.”


But we do have “reservations,” little parts of ourself we are unwilling to shine a light into, commitments we are unwilling to consider, steps of faithfulness we are unwilling to take, people we are unwilling to forgive, acts of trust we are unwilling to risk. We think that our life belongs to ourselves—and indeed it does, but we are the poorer for it. Communion with God is blessedness, and to the extent that we belong to ourselves rather than to God we are missing out.


The solution and the invitation is to bring your reservations, all the parts of your life that you are holding tightly to as yours and yours alone to determine, and offer them in sacrifice at this altar. Do what Jesus did, laying himself down, and feel yourself rise to new life.

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