If you would, take a moment and grab the Bible found in front of you in the pew rack and turn to page 492. Back when I was in school learning about all this “pastor” stuff, we got a chuckle over a verse on this page, especially how this particular translation of the Bible (RSV) puts it. Mind you, “preacher” types have a strange sense of humor. Anyway, in the top left corner of the page, take a look at the first part of verse 9 of Psalm 50. Speaking for God, it says, “I will accept no bull from your house...”
Now, I don’t wish to get crude here, but my generation - at least - used the term “bull” to refer to nonsense talk. You can even find that definition of the word in Webster’s dictionary. I remember one teacher, whether he was high school or college I don’t recall, who had a habit of writing in bold red ink across an answer to an essay question in a test, “Bull!,” if he detected you were bluffing your way through it, that you really didn’t know what you were talking about. I confess that on a few occasions he was right on target in my case.
Anyone who speaks in public can be accused of “bull,” that is - of “nonsense talk.” Politicians are often found guilty by the rest of us of just blowing hot air into the wind. And, if the truth be told, so are preachers. Can you understand why this verse would grab those learning how to preach and lead a congregation? “I will accept no bull from your house...” That’s what God says, with red marking pen in hand. I’m sure God knows “bull” when he sees it.
Of course, if you read the rest of that verse, you realize that this is not exactly what it says, ...or is it? Strictly speaking, it’s talking about an actual bull, that is - a male cow, those fellows with horns and a nasty attitude. This verse is getting at the same thing as the scripture we just heard from the prophet Isaiah. It refers to a religious practice that may feel a bit foreign to us. After all, when we think about “making an offering,” the first thing that pops into mind is opening the wallet or writing a check. We don’t today consider taking a live animal and sacrificing it on an altar. You wouldn’t ask me to actually do that. I think animal rights activists would be all over us if we did.
A lot has changed since Bible times, hasn’t it? We don’t ritually slaughter animals on the altar. The purpose back then was either to say “thanks” to God with such an offering, or to seek forgiveness for some sin. The priest back then was trained to take your offering in the Temple and take it into the secret place where only priests could go. There, on the altar, they would offer it up to God. That is, if it was grain (like the first wheat harvested in the Fall), they would burn it like incense - a way of thanking God for providing what it takes for this ground to feed us our daily bread. Or, if the offering was an animal, the priest would ritually kill it, burning portions of it - like incense with a different smell. In so doing, the sins of God’s people were figuratively placed on that altar. You could say the animal paid the price of that sin, to make things right between God and his people.
In fact, the Old Testament speaks of the aroma of those offerings, the smoke, the incense as a “pleasing odor” to God (Gen 8:21, Ex. 29:18,25,41; Lev. 1:9,13, 17 etc.). Many churches today, especially those who have a more complicated liturgy than we do, still make use of incense in worship - a practice that connects up with this much older system of sacrificial offerings.
In Psalm 50, where God says “I will not accept a bull from your house, ” (50:9) and in the first chapter of Isaiah, where the Lord likewise speaks, “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? ... I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats” (1:11) - in these verses and elsewhere the point is made that such offerings aren’t the whole picture. In fact, if you’re not doing what the Lord wants you to do in your everyday life, these passages say, all this offering stuff is a bunch of “bull.” It’s nonsense. You don’t know what you’re talking about, God says. You’re just talking the talk, not walking the walk. Therefore, “I will accept no bull from your house...”
Walking the walk is more than just doing the rituals. It’s like saying “God bless America,” without doing what it takes for this country to be a blessing in this world. In Isaiah’s day, walking the walk meant “ceasing to do evil, learning to do good, seeking justice, rescuing the oppressed, defending the orphan, pleading for the widow.” (1:16-17) That’s actually not a bad list for any day, our own included. You see, we can go through the religious motions, attend church, give our offerings (money, not animals, please), pray, sing, preach, listen to long-winded preachers, etc. - but if we’re not practicing what we preach, it’s all a bunch of “bull.” It’s not just our neighbors who indict us in that regard. It’s God. “I will accept no bull from your house...” Thus says the Lord.
I think most of us know this full well, even those of us who are not all that familiar with all this “church” stuff. I have a feeling that many folks don’t connect up with church because of this. Sometimes it’s a matter of the “hypocrites” in church, those who talk the talk but don’t walk the walk. If the truth be told, the biggest barrier between God and those folks whom God seeks out in order to drawn them in, is God’s people. The church itself can be a barrier to sharing good news. Let’s be honest.
But that’s not the whole story. Often times, folks shy away from church because they know that God will not accept “bull.” And we look at our lives, and we see a bunch of “bull.” Again, let’s be honest, we’re not just talking “non-church” people here. If we truly listen to what the Bible says, to what our hearts say - at least that portion deep down that knows the truth - we know “bull” when we see and hear it. And it isn’t someone else’s bull. It’s our own.
Take Zacchaeus, that tax collector, whose story we heard earlier this morning. Zacchaeus knew that all was not well in his life. He knew the compromises he had made over the years in order to make a buck. He had made a bargain with the devil, that is - with the Roman empire, to be their stooge, to collect their taxes. Remember, this was an occupied country back then. Many Israelites hated Rome and Caesar back then as much as many Arabs today hate the United States. They also had little respect for their own rulers in Jerusalem. The “bull” they detected in all those politicians they saw in those who collected their taxes, guys like Zacchaeus.
Of course, Zacchaeus didn’t help matters. He could add on his own tax, the cost of doing business, applied equally to all, even those who could least afford it. How many widows suffered because of his actions? How many orphans walked the street? ... He was no dummy. He knew the hatred aimed his way. He knew he was far from perfect, but hey - look at the other hot air folks, the religious guys - there was plenty of “bull” to go around, wasn’t there.
And along walked Jesus. No “bull” came from this teacher’s mouth. Jesus talked the talk and walked the walk. Something drew that tax collector Zacchaeus in. It’s what draws us all to Jesus. He spoke the truth, and he lived what he said. His miracles weren’t a gimmick to bait and switch. Neither were they the main event. He was simply pointing the way to God. As things turned out, he paved that way with his life and death. You could say that Jesus became the “bull” - such that bulls, and sacrificial lambs, and scape goats would no longer be needed in order for people to be forgiven, for them to be able to really live. Jesus died on that altar we call the cross in order to make things right between God and us. And that’s no “bull”!
Of course, when Zacchaeus climbed that tree, all of this lay in the future. All Zacchaeus knew was that Jesus was “real” in a way that everything else seemed a bunch of bull. When our Lord called him down from that tree, it changed his life. “I’m going to your house today,” Jesus said. “But..., but..., but...,” everyone else said when they saw what was happening, especially the religious types. Didn’t God say, “I will accept no bull from your house...,” especially the house of a tax collector?!
Jesus went anyway, and the words of Isaiah came true in that place, where someone who knew his life was built on a bunch of bull, chose to walk in another way. “Come, let us reason together,” God said through the prophet Isaiah. “though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool” (1:18). Actually, the word “reason” in that verse is a bit mild. “Argue,” might be better, “plead,” or even “wrestle.”
Back in college, a professor named Carl Ziegler became my mentor. He was in his 70's at the time, and retired, but he taught one class in New Testament which I took. This widower befriended me, and I spent many evenings in his home. I even lived with him for two months. Carl enjoyed wrestling, a sport he had competed in when he was in college. On not a few occasions, after supper he pulled out a mat and wanted to wrestle with me. (I’m sure I’ve told you this story before.) I felt kind of funny about it. I saw it like taking candy from a baby or robbing a widow. I was at the prime of my strength, after all, and he was an “old guy.”
The first time we wrestled, I discovered he was a lot stronger than I thought. I couldn’t pin him, even when I tried. And I did try. Oh, we wrestled with words in other settings, but this went beyond words - just like our friendship... “Come, let us reason,” God says. “Don’t give me any bull. Let’s wrestle this out.” Though I doubt Zacchaeus and Jesus went to the mat together, in a way they did. In the process, Zacchaeus truly became a son Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob - whom God renamed “Israel,” after a midnight wrestling match on the banks of the Jabbock river. That’s another Bible story for another time (Gen. 32:22-32). What’s important to recall from it, though, is that the word “Israel” means “one who wrestles with God.”
God says to us - you and me, all of us together, whether we have been coming to church since we were a baby or are fairly new to this “church” stuff, whether “church” is something positive or is for us fraught with the negative experiences of those who were full of a lot of “bull” - God says to us, “Come, let’s wrestle, let’s reason, let’s honestly relate with one another. I don’t want any “bull,” just you, even if your sins are many.” Jesus says to us, “Come down out of that tree, I’m coming to your house. Am I welcome? Will you receive me?”
(revised and reused from 2001)