This is one of those sermons that took on a different life than when I started it. It should be stated that I used this scripture for my trial sermon, which I preached in March of 1992. For some reason, I was drawn back into it. Then I had a conversation with a pastor in my area about fasting and prayer, as I have started a fasting and prayer program at my church. And from there, it just flowed. Before this sermon, I never truly understood the statement "Obedience is Better Than Sacrifice." I understand it a lot more now.
We have hear the first words in the Bible attributed to the prophet Isaiah. He starts off his book with a chastisement of the people of Israel from God. Isaiah received a vision from God in which he saw a great many things. Isaiah saw the future, saw what the people of Israel would become and how they would get there.
Isaiah was what we would call today an intellectual. He was not royalty, but he held favor with several kings, until the time he started making everyone uncomfortable with his prophecies and forewarnings about the coming of God and the nation of Israel.
The Lord chose Isaiah to give accounts of his visions. And Isaiah was a faithful servant of the word of God. For whatever God told Isaiah, it was immediately recounted to whom the visions were directed at. Not only was Isaiah faithful to God's word, but he was obedient as well, something we will get into a little later.
In this set of scriptures, we have God's words to Isaiah. God is lamenting over the condition of Israel. He says he has done so much for the children of Israel, how he was brought them up out of slavery and out of oppression, but still they turn away from him. How he has liberated them from their former enslavers, but still they rebel against God. God speaks of how animals, donkeys and oxen know, recognize and acknowledge their masters, but for some reason, the people of Israel continue to ignore their one true Master, and that is God.
Then Isaiah chimes in, commenting on what a sinful nation the people of Israel are, how they are loaded with guilt, how they do evil and how their children are prone to corruption. Isaiah speaks of how the Israelites have forsaken God and turned away from their God, their Lord. Isaiah asks them why they continue to allow themselves to be abused and mistreated in the manner in which has befallen them, and why they continue to rebel against the word of God.
He speaks of how the people of Israel have been wounded, how their hearts have been damaged by their actions. The countryside where they live has been laid waste by war, the cities are burning as a result of these wars, the cities are being pillaged by strangers, and all because they have turned away from God. Isaiah goes on to say that Israel, which he calls the Daughter of Zion is left open for the taking, with very little protection. But he says that since God allowed some to survive these tragedies, he kept things from turning into another Sodom and Gomorrah.
Then Isaiah challenges them to hear his words, to listen closely so that they will not be like the people of Gomorrah. God tells the people what good are their sacrifices of burnt offerings and fat animals. What good is a sacrifice is you do not obey the word of God?
As I have said many times before, I see a great many correlations between the people of Israel and black people in America. With all of our tragedies and suffering, with all of the wrongs that have been committed against us, and the wrongs that we continue to admit, the same God who was there for the Israelites is there for us. The same God who counseled the prophets and priests through visions and dreams is the same God who plants the seeds in the minds of today's people to walk closer with God, to follow the commandments of God, to obey God in order that we might receive the blessings that God has to give us.
Often, we like the Israelites, turn our back on God in the most crucial moments. From day one of biblical history, we see how people have turned their backs on God. Adam and Eve turned their backs on God when they decided it was better to allow themselves to be deceive by the serpent than to follow the direct commandments of God. The people during the time of Noah, despite being blessed by God by being allowed to prosper and multiply on the earth, turned their backs on God, resulting in the great flood. The Israelites, after being freed from the bonds of slavery from the Egyptians, did nothing but wallow and complain, resulting in them taking 40 years to complete a 3 or 4 day journey. Time after time we see that right after God has blessed us or our people that we take that blessing, say thank you, then go right on our way. We think that just because one particular blessing is over that we can do whatever we wish.
But we think we are justified in our actions because we give up certain things for God. Just because we make one or two sacrifices for God, we somehow think that those sacrifices atone for our other sins. But God tells us in these verses, what good are sacrifices to Him? Do the sacrifices that we make really mean anything to God? After all, he has everything we have because he created it all in the first place. Granted, the sacrifices that we make signify a commitment to the word of God and represent our appreciation for what he has done for us, but that is not a sure way to gain favor in the sight of God. There are people who everyday sacrifice and give their of their time and make allowances for God, but they do it with a begrudging spirit. They do it as if it is something that they don't really want to do, or something that they think will get them a little closer to God in the end.
To sacrifice means to give up. In order to sacrifice, you must relieve yourself of something, be it money, possessions, or maybe even a part of yourself. But when you make a sacrifice to God, you are just returning to Him what was His in the first place. And not to say that sacrifices are not important, because they are. However, sacrifices only represent that you acknowledge God, not that you are necessarily following what God is telling you to do.
But obedience is another thing all together. Until recently, I did not like the statement "Obedience is better than sacrifice." And mostly it was because I did not fully understand the concept. I did not truly understand what the difference was. I thought that if you sacrificed what you had for the good of the Lord, then you were fulfilling your commitment to God and fulfilling His commandments. It seems that while I was not entirely wrong, I was not entirely wrong.
I think part of the problem comes in with our interpretation of the word obey. We seem to have a lot of problems with that word. In the New International Version's translation of the Bible, the word obey is mentioned 165 times, and this does not count all of the variations of the word. It would appear that since this word does appear so often in scripture that is something that is important to God.
When most people think of the word obey, they think of something close to slavery, something negative and something evil. Somehow, to obey someone or something is wrong, a barbaric notion whose time has come and passed.
According to Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary, the definition of obey is as follows: 1. To give ear to; to execute the commands of; to yield submission to; to comply with the orders of; 2. To submit to the authority of; to be ruled by; 3. To yield to the impulse, power, or operation of; as, a ship obeys her helm.
So we see, that obey has meaning meanings, several of which we have problems with. According to the definition I just read, a synonym of obey is submit. And we all have a problem with the whole act of submission. Somehow the notion of submission is something that we just can't accept. Sure, racially and historically speaking, there is reason to get uncomfortable with the act of submission and that's fine. But when we inject gender issues into the word of God, then we have problems.
It has always amazed me why we actually have such a problem with these words. I do not know of one woman who has gotten married in recent years who has allowed the word obey to be used in her wedding vows, including my own. Which is amazing to me in how we give so much power to one little word. Never mind the fact that biblically wives are to submit and obey their husbands, and never mind the fact that if a woman married a power hungry fool, he will be that fool with or without the word obey in the wedding vows. What gets me is how we say we are willing to follow the word of God, as long as it does not upset our comfort level. But the word of God is the word of God, and we must be consistent in that. The act of submission is not something we can get away from.
Another problem with the word obey and the act of obeying someone is that is has to deal with power. We often don't like to admit that there is someone or something else that has power over us, that has the ability to control our lives. Sure, we can say all we want that God is an all-powerful and all-knowing being, but there is a part of us that wants us to believe that we have the ultimate power and control over our own lives. That we, somehow, control our destinies. Now, I am a big believer in free will, and believe that God has given us the free will so that we may come to Him on our own without force and provocation, but with that free will, I also acknowledge that my life is in God's hands. That my son's life is in the hands of God. That God's will, no matter what I say, think or pray, supercedes that of my own. That I acknowledge that God has the power, and that I am but a mere servant of that power.
Despite our own problems with the word obey and the act of obedience, we must acknowledge that while we don't always want to give it, we sure do want to get it. Parents expect their children obey them, and we are directed both in Ephesians 6:1 and Colossians 3:20 to obey our parents. We expect co-workers or those we supervise to respect us and obey us when we tell them to do something. We are expected to obey the laws of the land, traffic laws and the like. We enact certain rules in our homes that we expect people to follow and obey, or else they are no longer welcome in our homes. So the question becomes, why do we, like the Israelites, have such a problem obeying God.
God throughout the Bible gives us very direct things that we are to follow. Things we are to obey, things called commandments. Now, while we have the free will to follow them or not to follow them, we are nevertheless commanded by God to obey and keep these commandments. When Jesus, he did not erase the commandments that were given in the Old Testament as some people like to think, instead, He Himself said He was coming to fulfill the commandments, an enforcer of sorts. And while the advent of Jesus and the New Testament established a new covenant with the people of earth, Jesus still expected people to adhere to and follow His teachings. In other words, we are to obey.
When God places something on our hearts, we are honor bound by scripture to obey what He tells us to do. We are bound by the promise of salvation to obey that which God has placed on our hearts. Too often we hear the words of God telling us something, and thinking we know best, we choose to ignore God's words and follow our own path. We choose not to obey God because it does not fit in with our plan at that given moment in time. Or we find an excuse as to why not to obey what God has told us.
When it comes to giving support to the church, while it is an option, we are told on many occasions that we are to be about the work of God and build His kingdom here on earth. But in order to do that, we must obey Him when He tells us to be faithful to His cause. We are to work and pray unceasingly in order that we might do the things that will gain us favor in the sight of God. But yet, somehow we continue to skip over certain things. We are to be committed to the church, to be committed to God, to be committed to the words of God. We are to be committed to preaching, teaching, learning, understanding and internalizing the word of God. We are to be committed to giving a tenth of our time, talents, and yes, our money to God. These are not things that are optional. These are not things are that are debatable. These are things that God has commanded us to obey.
Working for the church, preaching the word, teaching the word, understanding the word, giving of our time and talent and money are not sacrifices, especially when it comes to tithing. When we view these things as sacrifices, often we view them as a means to get something in return. And while following the word of God and obeying them will bring something in return, sometimes in material form, we do not do these things for those reason. We obey God, we invest ourselves in God, we obey God through our tithes, we obey God through our time and commitment because they are spiritual building blocks. They are a means for us to be totally obedient to God and thereby, receive spiritual grace as a result. God can give us all the money in the world, but it will mean nothing if we are not obedient when it comes to following His word. For as quick as He can give it to us, that is how quick He can take it away.
The people of Israel did not fully comprehend this lesson. They thought that by going around and doing what they only felt they had to do, giving their sacrifices but not being truly obedient to the word of God, that somehow they would gain favor with God. They thought that by doing what was prescribed by the minimum of the law, if that much, that somehow they were being holy and righteous.
But we should have learned by now that just doing the minimum is not sufficient. Just getting by does not make it. Instead, by being fully obedient to God, doing what he tells us and when he tells us, that is how we find favor with God. That is how we honor God and keep His commandments. It is not enough to just sacrifice, because after Jesus, what sacrifice can we make to please God. The ultimate sacrifice has already been made. There is nothing that we can do which can equal or surpass that sacrifice. Therefore, it is better to obey. Indeed, obedience is better than sacrifice. It's not an easy lesson to learn. It's take thousands of years to even get to the point where we can see the benefits of such obedience. But we see the fruits of it.
Tomorrow, we take time to recognize the birth of a man who was obedient to the word of God. Dr. King, who was by no means a saint, was nevertheless obedient to the word of God. And through his obedience he was called on to make a sacrifice. And while Dr. King is the most notable example of this, there were many other people through the course of the civil rights struggle whose obedience led to sacrifice. But in each case, in the case of those nameless souls who were obedient to the word of God in their cause, their sacrifice was as a result of obedience.
So in actuality, it is really okay to be willing to sacrifice. It's okay to take stock of your life and sacrifice for what you believe in and what you think is right and just. But don't think that it ends there. For the true test of a Christian is to be obedient to the one who gave you life, the one who gave you breath, to the one who woke you in the morning and the one who puts you to sleep at night. To be obedient to the one who knows what the level of your commitment is, who knows how to make things right and how to correct the wrong. To be obedient when you are working in His vineyard and for His kingdom. To know that when the Lord tells you to give of your time, your talent, and your possessions, that is not just so you will have to make a sacrifice. By giving of those things, and being obedient, your spirit will grow, your walk with God comes closer because you are submitting to the ultimate power and the ultimate authority, that you acknowledge your creator in all your ways and that you do everything for the glory and honor of God.
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