St. Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist, September 21st, Year of Our + Lord 2014
St. Peter and St. Paul Lutheran Churches, Belfield and Beach, Montana
Mercy, Not Sacrifice, Matthew 9:9-13
Jesus said, "But go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,' for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners." Jesus confronts the self-righteous prejudice of the Pharisees, who are offended when our Lord eats with tax collectors and other sinners. In this confrontation, our Lord quotes from the Prophet Hosea, where the Lord teaches that He desires mercy, not sacrifice, from His people. Given that the sacrificial worship life of Israel, the Temple and all the appointed animal and grain sacrifices, were instituted by God, this passage from Hosea has always confused. God orders us to make sacrifices, and yet says He doesn’t want our sacrifices? God commands sacrifice, but He really just wants us to be merciful? Well, which is it? Is the life of the child of God to be filled with making sacrifices to please God, or not? If we just need to be merciful people, why did the Lord appoint so many sacrifices, of bulls and goats and lambs and birds and grain? They are a lot of work.
It might not even dawn on us that while simply being merciful sounds easier than making sacrifices, the reality is we don’t do mercy very well, either. Regardless, through the ages, people have wondered about sacrifices, wondering what role exactly they play in God’s plan.
This question persists still today. It is an honor and a pleasure to serve you this morning with God’s Word, and tell you a little about God’s reign in Spain, about my call to be a missionary to Spain, to go and join the work already started there, the work of telling the people of Spain about God’s mercy in Christ Jesus. My prayer is that you will be moved by God to partner with the work in Spain, to be connected, to pray for the Lutheran mission in Spain, and to support it financially. But first, we have this text, which we will do well to understand rightly, lest all our efforts, here or across the sea, be in vain.
Understanding this text rightly is very important in Spain, where Christ is named, but the Good News of His gift of free salvation is understood and trusted by few. It is important in Spain, and in North Dakota too, since every one of us is driven by our own sinful nature to think that we can, and must earn God’s favor.
Happily for me in my efforts to find partners for my missionary call to Spain, there is a great movie that shows very well the dominant understanding of Christianity in Spain, and why the Lutheran mission there is so needed. The movie is from 2010, and it is called “The Way.” The setting is northern Spain, and it focuses on four travelers, who join the thousands each year who walk from the border with France, 500 miles across Spain, to Santiago de Compostela, following the ancient pilgrimage route that has been walked by millions of Christians over the centuries, El Camino de Santiago, the Way of St. James. This is a sacrificial journey to the church in Compostela, where it is claimed, the bones of St. James the Apostle are kept. How the bones supposedly got there is a whopper of a story, too long to go into here. But the central point is that people have been told over the centuries, by the Church, that if they make the arduous pilgrimage to Compostela and then worship before the supposed bones of St. James, they will receive mercy from God. It is as if a translator got today’s text totally wrong, totally backwards. Jesus said: I desire mercy, not sacrifice. But it’s like someone instead taught God’s people that Jesus said, I desire sacrifice, and if you make enough sacrifices, I will have mercy and compassion on you.
The main character in the movie is an American named Tom, a lapsed Roman Catholic, who is walking the Camino carrying the ashes of his son. Tom’s son had come to Spain to walk the Camino, but had died in an accident in the mountains his first day out. Angry with God, and feeling guilty because of his bad relationship with his only son, Tom embarks on the journey, torn spiritually and emotionally, seeking escape on the Camino. At the climactic moment, Tom approaches a cross that stands next to the Camino, near to the end of the pilgrimage. This particular Cross, La Cruz de Ferro, is surrounded by a mountain of stones, placed there by travelers who have carried them from France. Tom too, has a stone, given to him at the start of his journey, for what reason he didn’t really know. Now, at La Cruz de Ferro, Tom suddenly desires to practice his religion again. So, standing at the foot of the Cross, Tom tosses his stone on the pile, and recites the following prayer: “Dear Lord, may this stone, a symbol of my efforts on the pilgrimage, that I lay at the feet of the Cross of the Savior, weigh the balance in favor of my good deeds that day, when the deeds of all my life are judged. Let it be so, Amen.”
Could the irony be any thicker? It would be laughable, if it weren’t so eternally tragic. The Cross of Jesus is right there. Tom even refers to our Lord as the Savior. But in Tom’s mind Jesus is not a Savior who really saves, apparently. Standing at the foot of this Cross, a symbol remembering the Roman Cross where the once for all sacrifice was made, Tom reveals His understanding of Christianity. Christianity for Tom, and for many people in Spain, and all around the world, is all about doing what it takes to make amends with God for our sins. The whole journey has been, Tom hopes, a sacrifice to atone for his sins, in order that at Judgment Day, the Lord might have compassion, mercy, on him.
But Jesus said, "go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,' for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners." Tom, like the Pharisees before him, hopes to make himself righteous by doing sacrificial acts. But Jesus calls Matthew the tax collector, a Jew who worked for the hated Romans, a traitor despised by all. Jesus calls unrighteous Matthew not merely to be a follower, but to be one of the Twelve, one of the Apostles upon whom Jesus would build His Church. All of this is part of Christ’s effort to help people understand that God does not desire our sacrifices, but rather the Lord delights in mercy, in compassion. And, (spoiler alert), God does both, sacrifice and mercy, on His Cross, for us.
Now, I need to be clear. God does not desire our sacrifices, but He did demand them. The command to make sacrifices for sin in the Temple was not a cruel joke, not a mistake by God, who changes His mind in the New Testament. The Temple sacrifices are very much part of God’s plan of salvation. But the sacrifices God commanded His people to make, indeed, the sacrifices God continues to demand His people make, are not the main thing. Our sacrifices have never saved anyone. Rather, our sacrifices, from those of the Temple in Jerusalem three thousand years ago, to our sacrifices of praise today, are all intended to point us and others to the Main Thing, which is the once for all Sacrifice that Jesus made, of Himself, on His Cross, in order to have mercy on sinners.
The Old Testament sacrifices were commanded by God, as the heart of the worship life of His people Israel, to teach them that blood must be shed to atone for sin, because the wages of sin is death. But these commands to sacrifice sheep and oxen and goats were given to a people God had already made His own. First God made promises, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to Moses and all the children of Israel. Only after He had rescued them out of slavery in Egypt, only after they were His people, only then the Lord gave them the sacrificial system, to point them to the coming Sacrifice of Jesus. The Old Testament sacrifices were only good and right when they were made by people who believed God’s promises, people who trusted not in themselves and their works and sacrifices, but rather who trusted in the mercy of God. The imperfect sacrifices of the Israelites served true faith, by pointing to the coming perfect sacrifice.
All of the Temple sacrifices God once commanded were fulfilled, swallowed up, superseded, and set aside forever, in the once for all sacrifice of the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. The Cross ended the Temple sacrifices, and also fully revealed their purpose. For the blood of bulls and goats could never atone for the sins of the world, but the blood of God’s Son could, and has. The promise that the Lord would save us Himself served to cover the sins of the people of Israel, until that perfect day when Jesus washed them away, forever, with His blood.
Always remember, the name ‘Jesus’ means ‘the Lord saves.’ The Lord promised to save, and in the Cross of Jesus, the Lord has saved. This is the proper meaning of the Cross, the meaning that Tom the pilgrim on the Way to Santiago completely missed. This true meaning of the Cross, that there Jesus has saved us sinners, completely, this the message that the people of Spain so badly need to hear, the message that every sinner needs to hear.
But what about life now? Do believers in Christ make sacrifices? Absolutely, but never for sin, for faith knows that all our sins are taken away, by Jesus. The sacrifices Christians have to make are never for sin, but rather are sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving, and also sacrifices of love. Christians are called to give of themselves, to sacrifice time and effort and resources in service to the neighbor, and especially to give time and talent and treasure to support the proclamation of the Gospel. But all of these sacrifices are pleasing to God only when they flow from, and are founded in, the mercy of God for sinners. We can only make worthy sacrifices when we are trusting in the mercy poured out in the once for all sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross, mercy poured out for you, and me, and for the people of Spain, mercy for all people, all sinners, everywhere. Mission starts, and lives from, the Cross of Jesus.
It is hard for us to keep this straight. It’s easy to pick on Roman Catholics and their error in teaching that Christians must make ongoing sacrifices for sin. This is especially easy in Spain, where a purely works righteous understanding of Christianity is very prevalent. It’s easy to pick on Roman Catholics, but we must watch ourselves, lest when we think we stand, we fall. Because we all do it. We all think that when we sin, we better fix it, or God’s going to get us. Sadly, it is part of our sinful nature to believe we must, and we can, do what it takes to atone for our sins. But we can’t. Our sinfulness trips us up before we even begin. Our daily imperfections mean our sacrifices are not perfect, and so are not an acceptable atonement for sin. We can’t make an acceptable sacrifice for sin. So God in Christ has done it all, for us, so that we can be His own.
We struggle to keep this teaching straight, and God knew this would be a problem for us. So He has never left us. Where two or three gather in Jesus’ Name, wherever the teaching of the Apostles is proclaimed, there is Jesus Christ Himself, giving His Spirit, and delivering us to His Father. And along with the Apostles, the Lord has given His Church gifts, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints, for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God. By His Preached Word, and in Holy Baptism, and in the Supper, Jesus comes seeking not the righteous, but sinners, like you and me. Jesus comes correcting our Pharisee ideas, reminding us that only one Sacrifice is good enough. Jesus comes forgiving our sins, even again today, here, forgiving, and restoring, freely. Because the Sacrifice that was needed because of our sin is complete, finished. Jesus by His death and resurrection has made peace between God and sinners, and so God comes to us in mercy, compassion, and love, again and again.
This is the Good News that I was called to preach in Sidney and Fairview for 10 years, the Good News that Pastor Hojnacki is called to preach to you here. Now I have been called to preach in Spain, to preach to a people who have for centuries heard that Christianity is all about you making yourself righteous, a people who most definitely need to hear the clear, pure, life-giving Gospel.
Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today. Now I ask you, “Will you partner with the Lutherans in Spain? Will you serve your neighbors in Spain, Lutheran Spaniards who have taken a great leap to leave Roman Catholicism, and the other Spaniards God has in mind for this mission? The Good News of forgiveness in Christ has brought you here today. Will you partner in the work of getting the Good News to Spain, by financially supporting me, so that I can go and preach Good News to them? Will you partner in prayer? Will you partner in telling others about God’s new work in Spain? Maybe you know someone with a connection or interest in Spain. Can you tell two others about the work in Spain? By praying, telling, and through financial support, you will be supporting the work already begun in Spain by our Argentine partners. Most of all, you will be supporting the Spanish people.
I pray that you will be moved to partner with the Spanish people. And I know that God will raise up the partners He has in mind. For ultimately it is always God who raises the support needed for the spread of His Gospel. It is in His hands. Good thing, too. All things are in His hands, and so, rest in God’s peace, the peace of knowing that the sacrifice for your sin is complete, the righteousness of Christ covers you, and Jesus rejoices to dine with you, today through Word and Sacrament, and one day face to face, with the Father and Holy Spirit, at the very throne of God in heaven, forever and ever, Amen.