Sacrifice Means Self-Giving
It was interesting to attend different churches while on holiday. The first one was a village church not unlike our own with a similar attendance and age profile on the day although with one or two young children present. It was homely and unpretentious with a small choir and a pipe organ well played. The annual income is a bit bigger than ours. The service was taken by a lay reader, a lady. The sermon she gave had depth and it ended by referring to how faith sees you through the darkest days of life's difficulties. The rest of the service was very chatty in style. Now she did not say anything like 'My that's some carry on in Emmerdale this week – did you see it?' but she did talk to the congregation during the readings and prayers. It was a bit too familiar for me lacking in the sense of divine presence and worship.
The second church was a much larger, much stronger congregation in a very large somewhat dark and overwhelming building; there may well have been 200 attending many of whom were older including a robed choir and some young and older children. Their annual income is over £200,000. They have recently welcomed a new minister. The hymns were of the newer variety and the congregation did not sing them well. The minister's radio microphone did not work initially and he had difficulties working their brand new audio-visual system whose screens projects the hymn words and summary points of the sermon. The preaching was based on the story of Abraham which we heard read earlier. However, it had an interpretation which I'd never heard before. The main theme and message was that it was not about Abraham being tested although that's what the text actually says. It was about having false or counterfeit gods in your life that needed slaying. According to this, Abraham had made a god of his son and heir Isaac and had put his faith and trust in the boy. He had to learn that God was in charge of the future, not Isaac. Likewise then we must have no false gods in our lives not even our own children whom indeed, we might worship uncritically justifying and excusing their every action. I left the service very impressed with the overall worship event. It had depth and challenge and I felt that it made going to Church something special indeed.
The next week we attended another church less than half a mile away from the second one. It is built in light coloured sandstone with aisle pillars and a partial gallery. Beautifully architectured this church building made worship easy and relaxing. The discreet lighting was a bit special, unobtrusive but lending atmosphere to the service. There was a large attendance upwards of 150 mostly older people. The annual income is around £150,000. There was a robed choir and a new organist with a splendid pipe organ. There were hardly any children present. They also had a new minister and he was a bit chatty also. He preached on exactly the same story about Abraham but he had a very different emphasis. He began by telling us that he is involved in faith share activities with Muslims. He acknowledged the large differences between Christianity and Islam, giving as an example the fact that Islam teaches that it was Ishmael and not Isaac was was to be sacrificed. This to me is evidence or irreconcilability. It is the Jewish Bible after all which gave the story to the world and no-one has the right to re-write it. But of course, Mohammed retold much of both the Old and New Testaments to suit his own purposes. The minister then went on to try to tell the story from Isaac's point of view. It was unconvincing especially as he put on a childlike voice. There was no great depth to the sermon which was very short almost a kind of extended children's address. The atmosphere throughout was very peaceful and comforting, de-stressing and worshipful. I marvelled though that such an affluent and educated congregation had called a minister who would not challenge or disturb them in any way, so it seemed. Overall, it was a lovely experience of worship very different from the previous week.
The fourth church was a large and beautiful parish church. Again there was an attendance approaching 200 mostly older people with 3 or 4 children present. Their annual income is around £150,000. They also have a new minister, an American. The style of service reflected the American Presbyterian Church being modelled on the historic Reform pattern with congregational responses like the English Church and with bits and pieces of text and commentary added throughout and the sermon in the middle not the end. The minister's conduct of service was machine-gun like, speaking fast, punchy and eloquent enough. He preached about the people who followed Jesus after the feeding of the 5000. He wondered why they were there, what they thought would happen. He thought about how he might have reacted had he been there. In the welter of words I was not exactly sure what his message actually was. He kept referring to becoming our best selves and our first selves. He offered no judgements of or challenges to the congregation and comforted them with a guarantee of eternal forgiveness. On leaving I felt a bit spiritually bludgeoned and I thought it might be hard to take that in every week. However I liked the dignity of worship at the beginning focussing on God rather than chatting and the size of the congregation was impressive.
Overall it was fascinating to attend these churches and I learned much. There are still lots of people going to churches in Scotland. By any standards the churches I went to are successful. I considered too that since there is no social imperative to go to Church it must be the Lord himself who calls people to worship. That must be true here also. You come to Church because God asks you to, wants you to, calls you to. I learned too that worship in the Church of Scotland is strongly influenced by congregational traditions even if these are unconscious. These churches I attended have not really changed throughout their existences. Each has its own ethos and it is surprising that they are so different. Ministers are very different also and bring distinctive emphases to worship. Each communicates aspects of the great Gospel of Jesus Christ. Even if you don't like the Minister or agree with the Minister on everything, you can still worship God and you can learn a lot by attending Church regularly. The Church of Scotland is very far from dying. It is still a thriving organisation in the land. It is a disgrace that politicians treat the churches with such indifference and even contempt.
The readings today from Genesis, Hebrews and Luke allow us to think some deep thoughts about our Christian Faith. In Abraham's time and in that area child sacrifice was practised by peoples, tribes and cultures. The Bible itself tells us that the Ammonites practised child sacrifice to their god Molech in the area in which Jerusalem came to be built. The message of the test of Abraham is that God never did and does not require child sacrifice, unlike the cults of neighbouring nations. If any kind of sacrifice was required, God provided the sacrifice. Austere early Judaism was very different from the pagan idolatries of the time and place. It was the exception to have such a strict moral code as the later 10 Commandments. The Old Testament revelation is that that God is good and that is unique good news. Even today some cults practise child sacrifice; there have been a very few incidences in this country specifically among immigrants from African countries living in London, for example. But you could argue that our industrial scale abortions, 200,000 and more each year are forms of child sacrifice to the gods of our own lifestyles and selfishness.
But if God did not require the sacrifice of Isaac did he require the sacrifice of his own son Jesus on the cross of Calvary? There has always been a strong theological interpretation that Gold did indeed require a sacrifice for the sins of humanity. It had to be a blood sacrifice because that was the highest sacrifice possible. There has also been an interpretation that says that God required punishment for human sin and that Jesus took upon himself the punishment due to humanity. It seems that we have opted out of taking this idea on board in our collective life. We accept that punishment is due to criminals and wrong-doers. There is a strong desire for people to be punished when they do bad things. But we no longer consider that we should be punished for our sins in the sight of and in relation to God.
The New Testament does not actually have a harsh view of Jesus' death. It does not emphasise the negative interpretations. Jesus, says the writer of Hebrews, offered himself as a once for all people and for all time sacrifice for sin. All human wrong-doing is to be placed in the context of Jesus eternally valid self-giving. Without this we have no sense of right or wrong in God's sight. Without Calvary it is tooth and claw bestiality for every human. There are no restraints, there is no light or guidance - no standards to look up to and follow. Jesus' voluntary self-giving is the visible historical means to our understanding of our relationship with God. As in the case of Abraham, God provides the sacrifice, God incarnate in Jesus, himself the sacrifice. This proof we have that God is love.
We have our own visible material historical connections whenever we celebrate Holy Communion. 'After taking the cup, Jesus gave thanks and said, “Take this and divide it among you. For I tell you I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying,“This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you"'.
The Christian Gospel is the loveliest thing in the world. We exist out of the creative love of our Maker who came among us in Jesus to redeem and save us into eternal life and living. Our worship is our public witness to this and our own response to God's love for us. We live in a difficult time of falling away from Christian Faith. But that does not make our faith untrue or in vain. The opposite is the case. Let us rejoice in the Grace and favour in which we are privileged to share all the days of our lives.
'Praise, my soul, the King of Heaven; To His feet thy tribute bring. Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven, Evermore His praises sing: Praise Him! praise Him! Praise Him! praise Him! Praise the everlasting King'.