For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise. Do good in thy good pleasure unto Zion: build thou the walls of Jerusalem. Then shalt thou be pleased with the sacrifices of righteousness, with burnt offering and whole burnt offering: then shall they offer bullocks upon thine altar. Psalm 51
Today we enter into a new church season which is considered the springtime of the church. As gardeners return to their plot to work the soil, so we turn to our souls and bodies and work out our salvation with fear and trembling. Gardeners have to dig into the soil. With sweat and toil they turn over the winter cover, the fallen leaves, the compost, and they bare the earth as generations have done spring after spring. This preparation and the sowing of seed is necessary, of course, for the fruitful outcome during summer and fall.
So too have Christians concerned themselves with tending to their lives during this season. Each Lent we get another chance to tend to our baptismal vows and bring them to fruition. At baptism we are infused with the virtues of faith, hope, and love, and throughout our lives, by God’s grace, these virtues grow as we work out our vows. We strip away the pride that has overtaken our will, turn over old habits, and water those virtues with humility and repentance.
Our work as Christians is to tend to our bodies and souls as a gardener would tend to his garden, and a good primer on that work is Psalm 51. David wisely starts the work on his body and soul with the acknowledgment of his state of being. We must acknowledge our transgressions and the state of our frail nature. He is opening up his soul to God, laying bare the soil so that God’s work might be accomplished. David first asks of God to purge his soul, and then to create a clean heart within him. David knows that it is only through God’s work that this can be done. Finally, David asks for a restoration of joy in the 12 verse, and this is the true joy of knowing our salvation.
Next David gets to the heart of the matter: what is the true sacrifice that God demands. Think just for a moment of the expansive use of sacrifices at the tabernacle and later the temple. Imagine David though declares that God does not truly delight in a burnt offering. Instead, God demands a broken and contrite heart. It is through humility and repentance that God will work . .
But here we need to be careful, for often the conversation regarding Psalm 51 stops there. What results is a dualistic version of our Christian life. God does not like physical sacrifice, he only cares about our spiritual growth, what is inside. But this is not what David ever intended, nor does it accurately represent Jewish thought about the human person. Look at the last two verses of the Psalm. David says:
Do good in thy good pleasure unto Zion: build thou the walls of Jerusalem. Then shalt thou be pleased with the sacrifices of righteousness, with burnt offering and whole burnt offering: then shall they offer bullocks upon thine altar. (Psa 51:18-19 KJV)
God does desire the physical sacrifice, but it must be done with humility, it must be done with a converted heart. It is good to understand what we mean by sacrifice, because it does not mean the annihilation or destruction of the animal. It means the offering of a life. And so, a burnt offering was also considered a sacrifice of life. This is, in part, what the ashes represent to us today. The end result of a total sacrifice, burnt on the altar is ash. And today we mark our foreheads with ash because it is our end as well. It is a reminder of our mortality, but also fo our role as a sacrifice, not just animals, but us.God still expects sacrifice of us as well. This is exactly what the Apostle Paul means in his letter to the Romans. He writes:
I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, [which is] your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what [is] that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God. (Rom 12:1-2 KJV)
Our service to God, our work within this life, is to present our own bodies to be a living sacrifice to God. In no way does this mean the destruction of our body, but the presentation of its very life. Paul does not make a dualistic mistake, either. You see, he knows that while the body is a beautiful creation, it is also not a good master of the person. He then advises that we be completely transformed (that means body and soul) by the renewing of our minds. It is the complete person, body and soul, all his actions and motivations and intentions, being offered to God. It is opening up of your entire being to God. This is our living sacrifice.
On our own, this opening up of our entire being is impossible, but it is possible through participation. It is not a coincidence, that they Church is called the Body of Christ. When we are baptized into the Church, we are baptized into the Body of Christ. We then participate in his Body, which was offered to God. The author of Hebrews writes:
But this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God; From henceforth expecting till his enemies be made his footstool. For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified. (Heb 10:12-14 KJV)
We can offer our bodies now as a sacrifice to God the Father through His son. Our lives are raised into his life. Now our thoughts, intentions, actions, choices, fears, sufferings, hopes, and even our very fleshly bodies are lifted up into the One body of Christ. We truly can offer ourselves up as a holy and living sacrifice because now our own flesh has been united to the flesh of Jesus Christ.
We, however, prevent ourselves from such an offering because of many reasons, and we all know from experience the havoc that sin can cause in our own lives. Instead of choosing to live for God we choose to not live fully, to waste the gifts given to us, and to settle for a deficient life. Lent, then, is your time to rend your heart, take up the fast, and ask God to make your life a living sacrifice. As the days lengthen, and the light comes, as we prepare for the brightness of Easter, tend to your soul and let God work.