Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Confession Is Good for Worship

During the time of the divided kingdom, the northern tribes as Israel under Jeroboam II had prospered economically, largely by taking advantage of the poor and downtrodden. During this time sacrifices continued in a syncretist form by combining elements of Baal, Asherah, and Molech with Jewish elements—all before golden calves erected years prior by Jeroboam I.  The people were zealous in their sacrifices and worship thinking that their economic and cultural boon was the result of God's blessing.  They determined that their work and worship as the larger half of God's elect, covenant people must have been in accord with his desires. After all, had they not grown in wealth and might and expanded their borders?

Then along came Amos, a farmer from the northern boundary of Judah to give the straight story including what God thought of their worship:
I hate, I despise your feasts,
    and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
        I will not accept them;
    and the peace offerings of your fattened animals,
        I will not look upon them.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
    to the melody of your harps I will not listen.  (Amos 5:21-23)
Notice that they gave three prescribed Levitical sacrifices.  The burnt offering was a freewill offering given wholly to the Lord and atoned for sin in a general way and was an appeal for God's acceptance.  The grain offering was also freewill and allowed for some variety by the person bringing the offering.  Also, this was shared between the Lord and the priests.  Lastly, the peace offering was unique in that the Lord, the priests, and the person bringing the sacrifice all shared as a symbol of fellowship.

All these are apparently good, but there is a striking lack: missing are the sin and guilt offerings.  While the burnt offering was given with an understanding that there is some sin within our nature, the sin and guilt offerings address specific transgressions before God and man that needed an act of reconciliation and possible recompense.  The Israelites did not recognize the sinful acts they were perpetrating against one another and God: the required satisfaction was not given.  The people were not ignorant of the Lord's desire.  He had shared through Moses, David, prophets, and Amos himself what was desired above sacrifice:
But let justice roll down like waters,
    and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.  (Amos 5:24)
They simply did not know how far they had fallen and refused to accept the rebuke.  What worked in Israel's and later Judah's corporate life came about because they fell away from their God for their own ways: what had been clearly revealed in absolute terms was later minimized, distorted, or abandoned for a man-made plan or system.  A powerful person or group turned the hearts of the people to what they considered a better way.  Rather than return to the Lord when he sought them (Amos 5:4-7, 14-15 and later in Hosea 14:1-9), they continued in their ways.

What Is That to Me?
All this above was stimulated by a men's Bible study I lead.  This past Friday, as we were discussing this chapter, one of the men made a comment that maybe we Christians should be more serious in confessing sin before coming into worship.  This is a great idea.  Christ even gives specific instruction to this end (Matt 5:21-26).  Sadly, this falls by the wayside.  The sins and transgressions against God or neighbor are not confessed, and there is no room for repentance.  This can happen from ignorance of scripture, though usually there is a deliberate move out of pride, arrogance, lust, or some other sin that takes root.

We tend to treat Sunday morning meetings like a therapy session.  There is an unspoken expectation that every person coming in the door is doing moderately well in life; all settle in to a service with rousing and/or joyful singing followed by an invigorating sermon; and there is an expectation that everyone has been sufficiently moved or stimulated godward.  The only acknowledgement there may be a possibility that something might be less than perfect in anyone's life is just prior to the Lord's Supper when we are reminded to examine ourselves and participate accordingly.  That is far too late.  There needs to be a procedure or mechanism to deal with this beforehand.

Confessional Lutherans make use of a corporate confession and absolution early in the service.  People come acknowledging that their sin nature remains with the daily struggle.  Though no specific sin may be known, there is the appeal to be cleansed from unrighteousness knowing the sure promise in Christ that he will be cleansed.  I can see the benefit of this as it is typified in the burnt offering mentioned above.  There would certainly be a danger of becoming rote or victim to lackadaisical hearts.  It can happen in the Christian just as certainly as the ancient Israelite.

And then there is the need to set things right in specific matters.  The Law dictated certain sacrifices be given for unintentional sins.  Where the sin was intentional or the sacrifice might be refused, that person was cut off from his people.  Again, we see the Lord Jesus teaching this (Matt 18:15-20), and the expectation after the Ascension was for the church to continue dealing with the unrepentant with a view to ultimate restoration (1 Cor 5:1-5).

Whatever the solution for the church today, the constant reminder of the sinfulness of sin still working in our members should be reminding us Christians of the promise to "draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water" (Heb 10:22) and that our Lord will "save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them" (Heb 7:25).

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