Grace Through Ritual

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S (Scripture): Today, two of the lessons I read come together nicely to make one point: following God’s call supersedes even the most sacred of rituals.

1 Samuel 15:19 (Samuel said to Saul…) “Why didn’t you obey the Lord? You did evil in the Lord’s eyes when you tore into the plunder!”

20 “But I did obey the Lord!” Saul protested to Samuel. “I went on the mission the Lord sent me on. I captured Agag the Amalekite king, and I put the Amalekites under the ban. 21 Yes, the troops took sheep and cattle from the plunder—the very best items placed under the ban—but in order to sacrifice them to the Lord your God at Gilgal.”

22 Then Samuel replied,

“Does the Lord want entirely burned offerings and sacrifices

as much as obedience to the Lord?

Listen to this: obeying is better than sacrificing,

paying attention is better than fat from rams,

23

because rebellion is as bad as the sin of divination;

arrogance is like the evil of idolatry.

Because you have rejected what the Lord said,

he has rejected you as king.”

————-

John 2:13 It was nearly time for the Jewish Passover, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 He found in the temple those who were selling cattle, sheep, and doves, as well as those involved in exchanging currency sitting there. 15 He made a whip from ropes and chased them all out of the temple, including the cattle and the sheep. He scattered the coins and overturned the tables of those who exchanged currency. 16 He said to the dove sellers, “Get these things out of here! Don’t make my Father’s house a place of business.” 17 His disciples remembered that it is written, Passion for your house consumes me.[a]

18 Then the Jewish leaders asked him, “By what authority are you doing these things? What miraculous sign will you show us?”

19 Jesus answered, “Destroy this temple and in three days I’ll raise it up.”

20 The Jewish leaders replied, “It took forty-six years to build this temple, and you will raise it up in three days?” 21 But the temple Jesus was talking about was his body.

O (Observation): In the Gospel of John, Jesus turns water into wine…but not just any water. Jesus takes the water used for ceremonial cleansing and turns THAT water into wine. Jesus points out that those jars of water will not be necessary for cleansing anymore.

And on the heals of that story, we get today’s text of Jesus overturning tables and cleansing the Temple. And Jesus promising that the Temple will be torn down and raised in 3 days. Why? The whole sacred system is about to be turned upside down, right along with those tables Jesus flipped.

Now, in Jesus, the world has its path towards forgiveness and love for God and neighbor. Rituals don’t rule – God does.

Saul, trying to honor God with animal sacrifices, moves away from the Lord’s calling. The Lord calls on Saul to destroy the Amalekite people and their livestock. Saul disobeys, thinking his plan is above God’s. I think not.

What is more important? Samuel – God’s prophet – points out that following God and God’s commands is more important than tradition or ritual…even if it means changing the whole system. Even if it makes you looks unpopular.

A (Application): Ok, ok. Take a deep breath. I don’t propose we throw out ANY rituals at this point. I personally believe that the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion are chock full of God’s grace and are a means through which God speaks to us. So…ok.

As we use these rituals to point out that God is reaching us through these means of grace, we continue to embrace them. Jesus calls us to these sacred gifts, and so we call others to the waters in which we are spiritually bathed and to the tables around which we commune.

Let us never use these gifts as tools for leverage or as a means for holding power over one another. Let these gifts always point us to God, and not to ourselves. Let these gifts be blessed and let us use them as God does – for reaching out with a hand of mercy, grace, and compassion for others.

P (Prayer): Lord, help us to use these means of grace well. Amen.

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Some Old, Some New

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S (Scripture): Matthew 9:14 At that time John’s disciples came and asked Jesus, “Why do we and the Pharisees frequently fast, but your disciples never fast?”

15 Jesus responded, “The wedding guests can’t mourn while the groom is still with them, can they? But the days will come when the groom will be taken away from them, and then they’ll fast.

16 “No one sews a piece of new, unshrunk cloth on old clothes because the patch tears away the cloth and makes a worse tear. 17 No one pours new wine into old wineskins. If they did, the wineskins would burst, the wine would spill, and the wineskins would be ruined. Instead, people pour new wine into new wineskins so that both are kept safe.”

O (Observation): Jesus is always aware of the present moment. The NOW. In the present, what matters most is being present. An awareness of what God is up to us what Jesus is teaching his disciples. They will still need to fast and pray and serve and give…but in this moment, they simply need to be present with Jesus (and God).

A (Application): To simply apply the old / former ways is to miss the point. To apply a ritual / custom for the sake of the ritual / custom is to miss out on the opportunity to be present with God in a new way that might be more helpful / hopeful. (Don’t get me wrong, rituals and customs DO have a place in our society and in religion, but let’s not make those rituals / customs our “god”.)

The only way forward is to be aware of God’s presence now. To adapt to the circumstances before you (without simply reverting back to the former ways or to hope for a new thing using the former methods) can be both difficult and fruitful.

Tried and true can be helpful, but it can also miss the point. And not only miss the point, but as Jesus says, new wine in an old wine skin can ruin the wineskin and thus, ruin the wine as it spills out everywhere.

Be aware of God’s presence this day. Try something new with God: listen differently, pray in a new place, serve where you’ve never served before, and see if you notice God in a new way.

P (Prayer): Lord, you challenge us with new and different ways of being in your presence. You are here. You are there. Help us to be aware of your presence. Amen.

Rituals and Relationships

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S (Scripture): Hosea 6:4 Ephraim, what will I do with you?
Judah, what will I do with you?
Your love is like a morning cloud,
like the dew that vanishes quickly.
5 Therefore, I have attacked them by the prophets,
I have killed them by the words of my mouth,
and my judgment goes forth like a light.
6 I desire faithful love and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God instead of entirely burned offerings.

O (Observation): God’s people are getting a heaping of The Law, they are being shown where they have fallen short of honoring God. In God’s address to the people who claim the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as their God, we hear God naming God’s people as a vanishing morning cloud. God’s people show up, but vanish. God’s people appear, then disappear. They claim to be faithful to God, but go away when they desire affirmation or healing.

Faithful love and knowledge of God. This is what God desires most – for people to know their God. Instead, God’s people find a way to focus on the rituals, with empty hearts. Seems God would rather have a relationship than a ritual. Or maybe, better yet, the relationship would be the focus of the ritual.

A (Application): Do you and your friends have a special greeting or handshake? I know that sounds very middle school, but do you have routines with friends or even family members? Like, do you take your shoes off when you go in their house? Do you go right to the kitchen to grab a snack or a water?

When you leave, do you honk your horn a certain number of times? Do you have a prayer or some other send off?

If any of the above apply, I hope you consider that your rituals likely occur, because you have a relationship with one another.

In the same way, God wishes for our worship rituals to be reflective of our relationship with God. God’s people of Old (in Hosea) still showed up for worship with burnt offerings, but they had very little stock in their relationship with God. When trouble came, or a need for healing, God’s people would quite often turn elsewhere for hope.

In Jesus, we have God re-establishing a relationship, and this time, the relationship is clearly with the whole cosmos! All people are invited to receive God’s mercy and be transformed by God’s grace.

Next time you worship, hear the words and focus on the relationship God wishes to have with you (or maybe you know that relationship is already there). For many of us, that relationship is made firm in our baptism. As a Lutheran, I have lived my whole life long knowing that God reached out to me to establish a relationship with me in my baptism, and has brought many others around me (friends, family, pastors, church leaders, etc.) to remind me of our relationship. And from this relationship comes the many rituals in which I am blessed to partake.

Peace!

P (Prayer): Lord, I thank you for establishing a relationship with me, and helping me to see that our relationship with you and one another on earth are central to who we are as your followers and your witnesses to all the earth. Amen.

Intentional Worship


S (Scripture): 2 Chronicles 29:16 The priests then entered the Lord’s temple to purify it; they brought out to the courtyard of the Lord’s temple every ceremonially unclean thing they discovered inside. The Levites took them out to the Kidron Valley. 17 On the first day of the first month they began consecrating; by the eighth day of the month they reached the porch of the Lord’s temple. For eight more days they consecrated the Lord’s temple. On the sixteenth day of the first month they were finished. 18 They went to King Hezekiah and said: “We have purified the entire temple of the Lord, including the altar of burnt sacrifice and all its equipment, and the table for the Bread of the Presence and all its equipment…”

O (Observation):  King Hezekiah takes over and brings God’s people back in line with God’s ways.   Hezekiah orders the priests to take the time necessary to make the Temple pure and holy once more – to ritually purify it.   The prior king had desecrated the Temple by worshipping and making sacrifices to other gods.  

This small, but important task should not be overlooked.  

A (Application):  Those around me know that while I don’t go overboard with liturgical stuff, I do try to plan a worship experience that is reverent towards God and guides God’s people to praise the One – the Holy Trinity – who is our audience.  

How we do worship where I serve is done with much intentionality.  Sure, sometimes I goof up and skip something on accident, but we try our best to put things in place so that we don’t forget items.  And when we trip up or fail to sing the right notes (okay, that’s mostly me not singing the right notes), we do so humbly asking that God forgive our foibles.   We don’t treat worship flippantly, and yet, we also acknowledge that our brokenness in worship is part of what we repent.  

Did those servants make that Temple holy again for worship, under King Hezekiah?   Yes. Were there some mistakes made?  Perhaps.  Perhaps not.  We don’t know.  

I hope we treat worship with respect and with dignity and with humility.  We will not always get it right, but we will be intentional about how we go about our leading of worship.  Our audience will be the One.   Our worship will be to give God the glory.   And we know that God will redeem us from our average ways.  

What issues and hangups do you have about worship?

P (Prayer):  Lord, keep us mindful of praising you and not making our worship an idol in itself.  Amen.