Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

"Not sacrifice, but mercy"

Message preached June 2, 2002
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon Matthew 9:9-13, Hosea 5:15-6:6, Psalm 50:7-15

Order of Worship

            Classes are slowly winding down for the year in our local schools. Our young people in Harford county will be done at the end of this week. Baltimore county kids still have five more days after that. Of course, some are already finished - the college crowd, the graduates... Now, Iíve been told by a reliable source that the last month of school is pretty much a wasteland for those trying to teach. Children are not exactly "steadfast" in their attention when summer looms so near. When it comes to high school, I understand that many seniors begin coasting much earlier - especially those who received early admission to college and see no reason to study.

            "Steadfast" is not exactly a word we lift up all that often, especially in the month of June when many of us anticipate a season with a lighter touch, a time when schedules might slow down just a fraction, where thereís maybe a wee bit of space for something different. Oh, for the day (those of older years may say), when all of summer was something we simply called "vacation!" You children know what I mean. Youíre still living it. The rest of us are just there in memory.

            Question. Do we get a "vacation" from our relationship with God? Now, Iíll grant you that there are moments in our life of faith that may feel pretty much like a wasteland. In the life of Godís people together - that is, the church - there are definite down times, when we seem to just coast along. After all, weíve received "early admission" to the "U of H" (you know, the "University of Heaven"). We know thereís only a few more days left, and what can be gained in that short a time? Might as well start vacation early, right? So, let me ask again: Do we get a "vacation" from our relationship with God?

            The folks in the prophet Hoseaís day seemed to think so. Oh, they had faith - faith that God would always be there, that Godís steadfast love and mercy could be counted on, even when their own steadfast attention in return could not. The collective mind of Godís people wandered in many different directions, pulled this way and that, especially toward other gods. You know, the gods of "vacation," itself. The children of Israel knew that once September came, so to speak, they could get back into the religion stuff. And they believed that God was always there in case of emergency. All they had to do if the going got rough, they believed, was to reach for the spiritual fire alarm and pull the lever. God would come running to save them from their latest predicament. Until then, they could coast.

            I remember one summer day as a kid, when my mother left for work with clear instructions concerning all the things I needed to do before going to play with my best "buds" down the street. High on the list was mowing the lawn. I must have listened to her with the "steadfast" ear that most children seem to possess. When the front door closed behind her, I then must have counted the usual amount of time it would take to walk to the car parked out front, start it, and drive off. Then I burst out the same door and started running toward my friendís house, without first looking out the window. If I had, do you know what I would have seen? Her car still sitting there. Halfway across the yard I realized my mistake, but instead of turning toward the garage - as if thatís where I was intending to go from the start to get the lawn mower - I kept running down the street like an idiot. It mustíve been a comical sideshow for our neighbors, seeing my mother drive alongside me, with looks that could kill and words not far behind.

            The truth is - even on "vacation" there are chores to do. As we heard earlier from the prophet Hosea himself, God was as exasperated with the children of Israel as my mother was that summer day with her son. Correction, on that day I was probably my fatherís son in my motherís mind. Not hers. Of course, I thank the Lord she didnít give up on me for all my antics. Likewise - thankfully - God didnít give up on the children of Israel, either. But neither did he just say, "oh well, boys will be boys."

            No, like a parent who has reached the end of her rope, God said, "What am I going to do with you?" According to Hosea, the children of Israel counted upon God being there when needed, and would come like the spring rain after a drought. However, God - who is steadfast and true - was tired of being taken for granted, and spoke back. "What am I going to do with you?" You are about as steadfast in your love as "a morning cloud" that soon disappears, or as "the dew" at the break of day, which "goes away early."

            What does our heavenly parent want of us? "I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice," God said through Hosea. I desire that you come to know me and not just bring something to burn on the altar to me. Donít just turn to me when youíre in trouble. Of course I am always there, but when you do turn to me, donít come to me with anything less than your very life - not just the life of some animal whose flesh is burned on your grill, not something peripheral to who you are... I want you. In other words, since God doesnít take a "vacation" from us (though Iím sure there are days!), God doesnít want us to take a "vacation" from him.

            Of course, there is another word similar to "vacation," a word used often in the Bible. That word is "Sabbath." I know two fellows who recently got themselves in trouble by misusing the word "Sabbath." They took a weekend "sabbatical" from their families - thatís what they called it. To them it meant a drinking binge. Thatís not what Sabbath is all about, is it? No, when we take a sabbatical we use that time to clear our focus and zero in on what is most important in life. I doubt thatís easy to do with a hangover or what comes before. "Vacation," at its best, can be Sabbath time, if we allow it to be a rest period to clear our minds and lives, and focus upon whatís most important. And what is most important? "Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might." (Deuteronomy 6:4-5) ... "I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice."

            "I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice." Jesus had a slightly different twist on those words. He quoted this passage from Hosea twice, according to Matthewís gospel. The second time it took place on the day of Sabbath. Jesus and his disciples were hungry, and they satisfied their hunger by plucking grain from the field to eat. This "work" horrified some good "church folks" (if you will) who told him youíre not supposed to do that on the Sabbath. These critics knew that Sabbath was important, but they had lost touch of why. If Sabbath is only a matter of "do this" and "donít do that," which is how some of us may see faith in general - how are we going to get around to whatís most important, i.e. to loving the Lord with all our heart, soul, and might and, furthermore, to loving our neighbor as ourselves?

            Jesus had some other things to say to those Pharisees in response, but he reminded them of Hosea, and how God said "I desire mercy and not sacrifice." "Mercy" is another way of translating the Hebrew word, Chesed, which also means "steadfast love." According to Jesus, God desires more than a "do this, donít do that" response from us. Donít get me wrong, we need to pay attention to Godís commandments. But unless we get to the heart of the matter, and focus upon the God behind the commandments, weíre lost.

            The good news is that Jesus came to find the lost. On the other occasion when Jesus quoted Hosea in Matthewís gospel, he was having dinner in the home of Matthew who was then a tax collector, someone thought of as "lost." The good "church folk" on that day were appalled that he would associate with such a disreputable character. Who then might he go out for supper with, a prostitute? "Shame, shame, shame!" they said. Jesus should know better! Instead of saying this to his face, however, the Pharisees gossiped with his disciples about it, wondering why Jesus ate with such "sinners."

            You heard what he said in response. "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ĎI desire mercy, not sacrificeFor I have come to call not the righteous but sinners." (Matthew 9:12-13) Now, for those familiar with Hosea, that might sound like Jesus himself misunderstood the quote. After all, God there expressed exasperation with the unfaithfulness of the children of Israel. The Pharisees were trying to be steadfast in their love for and obedience to the Lord. They were "good" church folk. They knew that rubbing shoulders with those who have wandered from God can lead you to wander also.

            Thatís what God complained about in Hoseaís day. The folks back then were wandering after other gods, making alliances with other nations, trusting in anyone and anything but the Lord God. In times of trouble, when they counted on God to save them because they had "returned to" him, this faith was just part of their smorgasbord of options. Theyíd do their own thing, rubbing shoulders with anyone they pleased, until the last possible moment, and then theyíd remember the chores to be done. "Sorry, God, we forgot. Forgive us. Oh, and by the way, could you get us out of this mess?"

            The Pharisees werenít stupid, nor were they bad people. They just had lost track of whatís most important. They forgot the "loving your neighbor as yourself" part, which included "tax collectors and other sinners." They failed to remember that, when it came down to it, they were just as much in need of the great physician as anyone else. There is, after all, a reason that God is known for love which is steadfast, that God is known as merciful. Even the "good people" are in need of such steadfast love and mercy. In fact, when the Bible speaks of God desiring steadfast love and mercy instead of sacrifice, it means that God wants our love and mercy to be steady - not only toward him, but toward our "neighbor" as well, whomever that neighbor might be.

            Now, I know that summer is almost here. I also know that this worship service is almost over. Iíve been told that the last few minutes of a sermon are pretty much a wasteland for those trying to preach. Godís children - myself included - are not exactly "steadfast" in our attention when the end looms so near. So, let me just cut to the essentials. Brothers and sisters, I urge you - donít take a "vacation" from God this summer. The Lord will always be nearby even if you try, wherever you go... One more thing, donít take a vacation from the chores of love and mercy toward your neighbors, even those youíd rather not care to care about.

            "I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice," says the Lord. Letís walk with God every day.

online resources for these scripture texts

For commentaries consulted, see Matthew, Hosea, & Psalms.


©2002 Peter L. Haynes

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