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What Gift Have We to Offer?


Old Testament Reading: 2 Kings 3:21-27

New Testament Reading: Luke 14:25-33

Text: 2 Samuel 24:18-25

The title of this morning's sermon recalls the words of a Christmas song you will soon be hearing. It refers to the apparent absurdity of our rendering to God any sort of a gift. Talk about finding a gift for the man who has everything! As I said last week, it is superstition of the worst kind to imagine you have a God who must be fed and cared for by his worshippers -- like a pet! Yet the notion of sacrifice occurs in the Bible again and again. Is it an outmoded idea? In some ways, yes. For all my super-ecumenical tolerance, I have no trouble rejecting the practice of animal-sacrifice cults, whether we are talking about Santeria or the Levitical code of the Old Testament. I fully agree with my remote predecessor Dr. Fosdick in disdaining that "bloody religion."

Yet sacrifice is an important metaphor. It enshrines the crucial truth that if there is really anything to religion, then it cannot simply be a convenience, something like a computerized bank teller or a remote control for your TV. It must entail some giving on your part if it is service to a high cause. You must owe it something. If religion involves the idea of moral duty, then sooner or later there will be some kind of sacrifice, bigger or smaller, in its name.

Recently I was reading through my underlinings in Watchman Nee's devotional classic, The Normal Christian Life. Nee's book is a classic presentation of the way sacrifice is seen in pietism. As you listen, I know some of you will recognize some familiar concepts. Nee tells us that pretty much anything, however innocent, can become an idol if we come to cherish it more than God. And how do you know when things have come to such a pass? Even as a pietist, I was never sure. But here is what I think. The question is put, "Is there anything precious to you that you may love more than God? If so, you must be willing to offer it on the alter as Abraham offered Isaac." You might think immediately of some illicit affair, some shady practice, some overt sin that you must love more than your religion on insofar as you continue to practice the sin in known defiance of your conscience. And if you want to maintain any integrity, you must indeed give up what you are doing. If you don't, you will be an idolator, at least a polytheist of sorts, dividing your devotion.

But I always suspected that the whole process of spiritual growth as understood by pietism logically demanded that, on this side of the grave, there could never come a day when there were no idols in your heart. That to love anything at all but God must be reckoned as idolatry. And in turn this demanded the surrender of everything to a hungry God whose appetite could never be satiated. In other words, God had become an idol himself, whose altars ever flowed with the blood of cherished pursuits, plans, hobbies, relationships.

As soon as the faithful pietist hears the question "Is there anything you love more than God?" his conscience is galvanized with fear. He secretly thinks, "I hope the roaming finger of the Holy Ghost does not point to this or to that! After all, it seems innocent enough to me!" But then it seemed innocent enough for Abraham to have a son! Reason alone would never have dictated his sacrifice. It was the command of the Spirit heard in the subjectivity of the soul. The poor pietist is betrayed by his innocent defensiveness! The minute he thinks, "I hope God does not want me to sacrifice so-and-so," he has been conditioned to interpret such a hope as evidence that he is holding out against God! The very anxiety must mean he is after all making of it an idol!

Here is an ancient example. St. Jerome was a man of Classical education and appreciated the beauty of a well-balanced sentence. But one night in a dream an angel rebuked him for this "sin"! The angel said, "Thou art a follower of Cicero, not of Christ!" Here, I suggest, we are hearing the tortured conscience speaking, a religious conscience that has come to relate to God as a battered wife does to an abusive husband. She still loves him despite his meanness, and the price of love is trying to  absorb the impact of new and arbitrary assaults!

But I must get back to Watchman Nee. Let me read you a brief passage in which Nee seeks to illustrate how we must be prepared to part with our most cherished hopes, or we will never know the fullness of God's power in our lives. Nee's friend "Mr. Paul" had dreamed since his youth of studying for his M.A., then his Ph.D. degree. “Then at length the glad day would arrive when all would greet him as ‘Dr. Paul.’” He continued his doctoral studies while engaged in the pastorate. Despite seeming success, he felt spiritually empty and effective. He sought the answer with God in prayer and fasting. Moths went by until he heard the inner voice of God: “I long that you should know the power of my Spirit, but you heart is set on something that I do not wish you to have. You have yielded to me all but one thing, and that one thing you are holding to yourself – your Ph.D.” He tried to rationalize, to bargain with God, but to no avail. So finally he dropped out of the program just short of his comprehensive exams (or dissertation defense, it isn’t quite clear) and was promptly filled with the Holy Ghost! [pp. 145-148] 

Let me observe that two things jump out at me from this story. First, why did it not occur to Mr. Paul that there is perhaps a difference between the academic growth entailed in his doctoral work on the one hand, and the petty conceit he feared on the other? In my experience, doctoral study has been an extremely humbling experience, as it presses upon one the Socratic realization that even at the higher levels, one knows virtually nothing at all! One is in a better position to behold the vast ocean of knowledge one will never live long enough to master, like a spider crawling over the page of a philosophy treatise!

The second amazing thing is that though Mr. Paul feared the pretension he thought a PhD would bring him, he thought nothing of the incredible presumption of thinking he heard and felt the leading of God with pin-point accuracy! If Mr. Paul could know the will of God on such minute points and with such minute accuracy, a PhD would have been nothing by comparison! He was the oracle of Delphi! What he was really hearing, and dreaded to hear, was the voice of a tortured conscience, his pietistic Super-Ego. Poor Mr. Paul was like the Moabite king who sacrificed his son in desperation. He assumed something dear to him was blocking the blessing he wanted. Pietism had taught him so to assume. So his hyperactive conscience fingered his dearest dream. At that point he had to sacrifice it to get the experience he craved. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy, a kind of subconscious bargain with himself. 

Personally I do not think that God is like the demon-god Moloch who demanded the sacrifice of your children. I do not accept the gory superstition of some primitive tribes and some psychotic individuals that you must chop off fingers or limbs in service to the deity, to show you're serious. That is the religion of Mr. Paul and Mr. Nee. But then what gift have we to offer? Has it ever occurred to you that you have certain abilities, desires, and interests because God created  you that way? Maybe he had your blueprints on the drawing board, like Geppetto the puppeteer. Maybe it was the providential juggling of chromosomes. Think of it any way you want. But if you are a creature of God, doesn't it seem logical that he would be pleased with the fullest possible development and use of your talents? Wouldn't it seem a happy truth that what pleases you most, when you are at your best, would also be the fittest offering to him?

Would the eagle please his creator if he piously renounced flight? Would Leonardo have pleased God had he laid painting on the alter and never taken up the palette again? Bach understood full well what kind of sacrifice God required of him when he wrote his magnificent pieces and dedicated them "to the glory of God." You may not be a Bach, but there is something that fulfills you and thus fulfills God's design in creating you! Your life can be a gorgeous symphony dedicated to God, not a plodding pietistic chorus of gloom and puritan austerity. What does God require of you by way of sacrifice? What the master in Jesus' parable required his servants: he had given them certain gifts and expected them to make something of it! What Mr. Paul did was to hide his talent in the ground and expect to be congratulated for it.

But perhaps this all sounds a bit too good to be true! Is it really such a happy coincidence that what delights my heart delights the heart of God? Is not religion, on my reading, simply a convenience and a divine pat on the back after all? If you think it is, ask an artist or a writer or an athlete if it is easy to develop his or her gifts. Ask if their disciplines are easy. Because that is what it takes. Your life, lived in the most satisfying way, is not easy to live! If it is like a work of art that you mean to dedicate to the glory of God, then it had better be fit for the occasion! It had better not be second-rate. It had better be the best you could have done. Don't offer to God that which costs you nothing!

Rich Griese has become interested in Process Theology. In one of the most important works of Process Theology, Christ in a Pluralistic Age, John Cobb sets forth the idea that we should view Christ the Logos as God's tugging lure toward creative transformation. Christ is God's call out of the cocoon, and it is more comfortable inside the cocoon.  Christ is God's call to maturity, and maturity is never easy.  Christ is God's call to become more fully your unique selfhood and to live your unique story. But it is so much more easy as Heidegger said, good New Testament theologian that he was, to sink back into the sweet stupor of the crowd with its anonymity and conformity and mediocrity.

The ancient sacrifices were conceived as giving God something to eat. Well, let's use that imagery for a moment. Christ is calling you to offer your life to God as the culinary delight of a master chef, but you, left to yourself, would rather slack off and be presented as a McDonald's hamburger! Believe me, God has better taste than that! And furthermore, you taste better than that! You can be Bach in his ears; don't be Muzak! And it won't be easy! Becoming the self you were designed to be is the greatest joy, but also the hardest work! And that is what God requires at your hand. What gift have we to offer? As Paul said, "Present yourselves as living sacrifices!" That is the sweetest savor the nostrils of God can know.




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