(Prepared for a sermon on James 1:26-27)
If asked to describe a religion, most people would probably talk about the rituals the people practice who belong to that religion. To put it another way, we define religions in terms of what the people do. However, the rituals, and ceremonies are not supposed to be ends in themselves. They are supposed to be expressions of, or a visual representation of, what the people who participate in them believe.
Human nature being what it is, though, it is very easy for someone to substitute the rituals for the beliefs the rituals represent. Many people think that the rituals themselves are what makes a person pleasing to God. Once they have appeased God by doing the ritual, they are free to go ahead and live their lives however they like. In their minds it is the ritual, rather than a heart which is seeking God that is important.
This was a problem the Israelites had during the days of the Prophet Amos. They were keeping all of the religious rituals. They celebrated the feasts specified in the Law of Moses. They brought offerings to the Temple. They sacrificed animals on the altar. And because they did all these things, they couldn’t understand why God was upset with them. The problem was that even though they were doing all these religious things, they had turned away from what God really wanted. They did not value truth. They oppressed the poor. There was no justice in the courts. They turned against the righteous. They took bribes. They were dishonest in business. In so doing they missed the whole point of rituals. As it says in Hebrews chapter 12, verse 14, “…without holiness no one will see the Lord.” (NIV)
God told them, “I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:21-24 NIV)
The Israelites of Amos’ day, substituted the rituals for righteousness. Unfortunately, ist’s also easy to make the opposite mistake and discount or despise the rituals altogether. People who fall into this trap might express it this way, “I don’t need all these rituals to worship God! They are a pointless waste of time.” This was basically the attitude of the Jewish people during the Prophet Malachi’s time.
““A son honors his father, and a servant his master. If I am a father, where is the honor due me? If I am a master, where is the respect due me?” says the LORD Almighty. “It is you, O priests, who show contempt for my name. But you ask, ‘How have we shown contempt for your name?’ “You place defiled food on my altar. But you ask, ‘How have we defiled you?’ By saying that the LORD’s table is contemptible. When you bring blind animals for sacrifice, is that not wrong? When you sacrifice crippled or diseased animals, is that not wrong? Try offering them to your governor! Would he be pleased with you? Would he accept you?” says the LORD Almighty. “Now implore God to be gracious to us. With such offerings from your hands, will he accept you?”— says the LORD Almighty. “Oh, that one of you would shut the temple doors, so that you would not light useless fires on my altar! I am not pleased with you,” says the LORD Almighty, “and I will accept no offering from your hands. My name will be great among the nations, from the rising to the setting of the sun. In every place incense and pure offerings will be brought to my name, because my name will be great among the nations,” says the LORD Almighty. “But you profane it by saying of the Lord’s table, ‘It is defiled,’ and of its food, ‘It is contemptible.’ And you say, ‘What a burden!’ and you sniff at it contemptuously,” says the LORD Almighty. “When you bring injured, crippled or diseased animals and offer them as sacrifices, should I accept them from your hands?” says the LORD.” (Malachi 1:6-13 NIV)
Oh, it is easy for us to roll our eyes and cluck our tongues at the foolishness of the people of Amos’ and Malachi’s time. But what about us? Is it possible for us to have the same attitude as they did? Jesus asked us to conduct a very simple memorial of Him and what He did for us. He asked us to eat some bread to commemorate the sacrifice He made for us. He asked us to drink some juice to remind us of His blood which cleanses us from sin. Have you ever caught yourself thinking that participating in this memorial is a substitute for living a holy and righteous life? On the contrary, this memorial should inspire and encourage us to live love and righteous lives.
Or perhaps you have had the attitude that this bread and juice are contemptible. “Couldn’t they at least find something that tastes better?” Perhaps you’ve caught yourself thinking, “This is so boring! Can we please get it over with so we can do something more important?”
The truth of the matter is that, while the Lord’s Table is no substitute for living a holy life, there really isn’t anything more important. The Lord’s Table is a constant reminder of the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. Without Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf, without His resurrection, we would have no hope. There would be no point in even trying to worship God.
Today as we eat the bread and drink the cup, let’s remember that they point us to the very core and heart of our belief system. The Lord’s Table is an essential part of our religion. We cannot do without it. Let’s embrace it wholeheartedly.