Listen to it:
“The Sacrifice of Mercy”
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Here we sit, around the table at which Christ is present, and He speaks to us of the sick and the healthy, the sinner and the righteous. Some of us think that we are too sick to be healed. Our sin is too much and mercy is too small. No one knows the sins we have committed, with our eyes and hands, our minds and hearts; if anyone did know, we would be ostracized, cut off from others by disapproving looks and whispered gossip. And we do not want to be exposed, so we let our sin burn us up from the inside rather than confess it and be healed. Some of us think we are too healthy to see a physician. Sure, we have an occasional mild cough of spitefulness or the common cold of elevating ourselves above obvious sinners, both small and great. But no one would ever think of including us among them. People know us, and they approve. We sacrifice our money and time, and we will always be seen as the backbone of our community and our church.
But the judgment of God comes forth against all of us like a searchlight (Hosea 6:5). None is righteous, none is healthy (Psalm 14:1-3; Psalm 53:1-3; Romans 3:9-18). And Jesus, speaking for God because He is God, says, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13). He speaks to the Pharisees like us who think we’re doing pretty well, at least as far as sinners go. And He speaks to the Matthews like us who think we’re unworthy of mercy because we’re already in too deep. It would seem that mercy is easier than sacrifice. To our minds, sacrifice requires something of us, while mercy is a general feeling of pity toward those less fortunate. But not before God. Really, it is sacrifice that is easy: you come to the place of sacrifice, buy your offering, and the priest does all the work. It might require your money, but it doesn’t require your heart. Mercy runs much deeper. God wants from you not only a right heart, but a right self. He wants your whole self completely devoted to Him and to your neighbor. He wants “steadfast love,” khesed. It is a word that is used in the Old Testament primarily to describe Yahweh’s love for His people. It is a love that never ceases and is completely faithful. It means the abundant and everlasting mercy of God toward sinners who do not deserve it. In other words, God wants you to love others in the same way that He loves you. And when we put our love into the terms of God’s love for us, how far short we fall! We are unforgiving, unfaithful, and unkind. Our love is severely limited by how we feel at the time, by how much sleep we get, and by how loving others will keep us from doing what we want. It is far easier to send a check or sacrifice our time, as long as it does not require us to actually change how we think. And so we tear sacrifice apart from mercy.
“I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” Jesus is not only telling us that external ritual, divorced from a changed heart, is empty. That is true. But He is saying something much more like, “I desire not only sacrifice, but, even more, mercy.” Sacrifice is good. The God who gave sacrifice to Israel is the same God who says, “I desire mercy.” The point is that sacrifice is not acceptable in itself. Your offerings are not acceptable to God simply because you’re putting them in the church offering plate. Your time is not acceptable to God simply because you spend it in the church building. Your worship is not acceptable to God simply because it is worship of Him, no matter how sincere. All of the sacrifices you offer, even and especially the best of them, are only acceptable to God because they flow from a heart that trusts Christ alone for His mercy. Don’t mishear: they are not acceptable because of your heart, but because of Christ, in whom your heart trusts. We can easily distort the free grace of Christ by trying to manufacture merciful motives within ourselves. Again: your sacrifices are not acceptable even if you have the right motives. Only because Christ presents you before the Father wrapped in His steadfast love and righteousness are you and your sacrifices acceptable before the almighty Creator of heaven and earth. Only the knowledge of God, which is faith, makes burnt offerings acceptable to the God who has no need of goats or cattle, let alone our money and our time.
We have torn mercy apart from sacrifice. At times we are the sinner who cannot imagine a mercy big enough to cover what she has done; at other times we are the Pharisee who thinks rather highly of his sacrifice. Both are symptoms of an illness that goes all the way to the head and all the way to the heart. None of us is able to please the God who desires a mercy that covers everyone the same, as well as a sacrifice that flows from the pure heart of the righteous one. True mercy is the fountain from which sacrifice flows and true sacrifice is the evidence of mercy. There is only one person in whom mercy and sacrifice are perfectly united and His name is Jesus, the one who, because of His great mercy, has saved His people from their sins. This is the very mission of God to each of you, as St. Paul wrote to Timothy: “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Timothy 1:15, ESV). God desires mercy, and He is merciful to you. The sacrifice of the Son of God for you and in your place is the work of mercy. Because of that sacrifice, our offerings are accepted through faith (Hebrews 11:4).
Forgiveness has never been found in the sacrifices themselves. The people of Hosea’s time, from whom today’s Old Testament reading comes, forgot this. They thought they could simply put in their Sabbath time at the temple, offer the prescribed sacrifices, and go on worshiping the same old idols the rest of the week. But their hearts were just as filthy after they offered the sacrifices as before. “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins,” the writer of the letter to the Hebrews tells us (Hebrews 10:4, ESV). That is because those sacrifices were signs of the promised Lamb of God, Jesus. Jesus came to do the will of God, and part of that will was that He be the sacrifice for the sins of all people, who are altogether mercy-less and who offer sacrifices with unclean hearts. “And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all…For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (Hebrews 10:10, 14, ESV). When I finally realize that I am the sinner for whom Christ died, when you finally realize that you are the sinner for whom Christ died, we find that we can offer no sacrifice big enough to heal the sickness of our souls. The greatest mercy of an individual human is far too poor to pay for our sin-because “none is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Romans 3:10-12, ESV).
It is you whom Jesus calls! He calls sinners, not the righteous. And since no one is righteous, He calls everyone. Do you want proof? It is at the table where your Lord is ready to feed you. He is here, reclining in this house, and He is waiting for you; “behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples” (Matthew 9:10, ESV). If you will not be included in that company, the table is not for you. If you will not be included among such as these, Jesus is not for you. He is present for the forgiveness of sinners, and only for sinners. But if you know yourself to be unworthy of Jesus, then come, because it is precisely for you that He gives His holy Body and Blood into your mouth. “The true and worthy guests, for whom this precious sacrament above all was instituted and established, are the Christians who are weak in faith, fragile and troubled, who are terrified in their hearts by the immensity and number of their sins and think that they are not worthy of this precious treasure and of the benefits of Christ because of their great impurity, who feel the weakness of their faith and deplore it, and who desire with all their heart to serve God with a stronger, more resolute faith and purer obedience” (FC, SD VII, Kolb/Wengert 605:69). “Come, let us return to [Yahweh]; for he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us down, and he will bind us up. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him” (Hosea 6:1-2, ESV).
Fellow sinners and all who know the sickness of their souls, your God is the Merciful One. Jesus Christ has already offered Himself as the eternal sacrifice for your sin. No further sacrifice for sin is needed. Because we are in Jesus, our whole lives are living sacrifices to be poured out in love for God and for our neighbor (Romans 12:1-2). “[W]alk in love,” St. Paul encourages us, “as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:2, ESV). “Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God…Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen” (Hebrews 13:15-16, 20-21, ESV).
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV).
— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 6/3/08