I’ll bet each of us has prayed one of those desperate prayers at one time or another. You know the kind: “Lord, if you’ll just get me out of this jam, I’ll, (1) be good forever, (2) go to church every Sunday, ( 3) do something wonderful for you, (4) all of the above.
And we PROMISE, because we’re desperate! Keeping those promises is a different story.
Too often, we still believe it all depends on us. If we’re good, God will do good things for us. If we don’t commit any sins, God will like us better. If we do sin, God will be mad at us and we’ll have to earn our way back into his favor. But this isn’t what Jesus is all about. We don’t earn grace. It’s a gift.
Hebrews 10:11-18 contrasts the Hebrew High Priests of the New Testament and Jesus, our great and forever High Priest. There are some similarities, but the job descriptions are very different. Consider what an ancient Hebrew temple must have really been like.
It must have looked and smelled like a slaughterhouse! The noise had to have been deafening, with all those animals. For every sin committed by a devout Jew, a certain animal or bird had to be sacrificed, which meant that this was what the priests did all day: killed and sacrificed one animal after another. This had to be hard, heavy, messy, and exhausting.
And for what? What was the best this system could produce?
The blood of bulls and goats COVERED the sin of the people. The next time the sin was committed, the sacrifice had to happen all over again. Here’s great news for us! We have a new system now –– a new covenant. Jesus Christ is our High Priest. When HIS blood was shed, it didn’t just cover sin, it took sin away, washed us clean, and never had to be repeated.
Through Jesus, we’re cleansed and righteous and free. If we don’t always FEEL that way, we need to remember that we didn’t make this covenant. God did. It’s about Jesus, his sacrifice and love, his grace … that’s what God sees when he looks at us. That’s the truth of who we really are in Jesus.
So much of religion is taught in terms of us straining, struggling, trying to follow the Law, which dealt with outward actions, and not the heart attitudes that motivate our outward actions. With Jesus, everything changed. God promises to put his laws in our hearts, and write them on our minds. He changes us from the inside out, through his Spirit. The best thing we can do is let him in and let him do his work.
Well, then … what DO we bring to God? We don’t have to earn our salvation –– it’s a gift. We don’t have to earn God’s love –– we already have it. We don’t have to earn God’s forgiveness –– we already have that, too. So, if it’s not our desperate (and often forgotten) prayers of eternal service and good behavior, what does God really want from us?
First and foremost, I believe God wants our thanks –– not because he needs to hear it, but because we need to offer it. And God wants from us the same gifts of love and grace and forgiveness he’s given us. The scripture tells us that we love because God first loved us. And in response to that powerful love, we love God.
The way we treat one another is also something we bring to God. Are we loving each other the same way God loves us –– faithfully, sacrificially, unconditionally? Can we show others the same understanding, acceptance, and forgiveness that God shows us? If we truly believe in, and receive, God’s grace, we’ll understand all we’ve been forgiven, and we’ll want to forgive others in the same way.
Truly receiving and understanding God’s amazing love for each of us is humbling and overwhelming. If we let it fill our lives to overflowing, that’s what people will see in us and receive from us. And they’ll begin to see that such wonderful love can only come from God.
It’s a gift … a gift we can bring to God. God is all about love, and healing, and reconciliation. He wants us to treat others the same way he treats us.
There’s only one thing strong enough to motivate this kind of giving, and it’s the thing God wants first from us: gratitude. All of life is a gift; we have so much to be thankful for. And here’s the funny thing about gratitude: It brings us joy. Giving thanks for the cleansing, one-time sacrifice of Jesus; giving thanks for the privilege of loving others as we are loved; giving thanks for the opportunity to bring to him the gifts he’s given us to bring –– there’s nothing better, nothing more joyful.
A life filled with thankfulness is a life filled with joy.
Rev. Susan Bennett is pastor of Stockbridge Presbyterian Church. She and her husband live in Stockbridge with two giant Rottweilers and a 15-pound rescue dog who is the boss of everybody.