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Preacher: Revd Dr Victoria Johnson, Precentor
Title of sermon: Is your all on the altar?
Readings: Ezekiel 43:27-44.4, I Corinthians 13, Luke 2:22-40
Date/time/service: Sunday 30th January 2022 – 11am Choral Eucharist
You have longed for sweet peace,
And for faith to increase,
And have earnestly, fervently prayed.
But you cannot have rest,
Or be perfectly blest,
Until all on the altar is laid.
Is your all on the altar of sacrifice laid?
Your heart does the Spirit control?
You can only be blest,
And have peace and sweet rest,
As you yield Him your body and soul.
These words are from the once well know hymn, Is your all on the altar? Written in 1900 by Elisha Hoffman, the hymn questions how much we are really prepared to give of ourselves in and through worship, how much of ourselves we are really prepared to give to God. Evelyn Underhill, the 20th century Anglican theologian, in her reflections on worship, said that Christian worship can never be divorced from sacrifice. Worship is not a form of entertainment, though occasionally the sermon can be funny. It’s not a ‘show’ that we watch passively, and it’s not something we are forced to do. For the Christian, this is a sacrifice of thanksgiving and praise. But what does that mean?
Martin Luther suggested that when we hear the word of God with all our heart, we offer a sacrifice. When we pray and when we give in charity to our neighbour, this is sacrifice. When we receive the sacrament, we offer a sacrifice. This is the place where we are transformed and made new. This is the place when we give of ourselves that we might therefore live.
It’s the basic message of the gospels give your life to God to save your life. Love God with all of your heart and mind and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself. Worship is a sign of all of these things, and the place where we learn them. It’s a school for the soul.
Thankfully when we come to worship, we do not have to offer a pair of turtle doves or two young pigeons, a donation as you leave would be wonderful though! We are simply called to offer ourselves in love to God, and that is a sacrifice of thanksgiving and praise.
In the lifetimes of Elisha Hoffman, Evelyn Underhill or Martin Luther, sacrifice might have been an easier word to understand, but for us today the concept seems rather challenging. Why would anyone give up anything for someone else? Or give of themselves for another? Hasn’t our culture has become a culture of taking rather than giving- a culture all about ‘me’ and my views, my needs, my rights above the views, needs, and rights of everyone else?
To put all this in another more straightforward way how might this act of worship help us look at the world in a new way? What is worship teaching us to be and to do and how is it shaping the life of the Christian community and the world in which we live?
In faith, Joseph and Mary went to the temple to present their new born in thanksgiving and praise. Their response to the living God was their duty and their joy. Their thank-offering represented all that they were- they were putting their all on the altar in the form of their new born baby.
Their love for God had drawn them to the temple, as it had drawn Simeon. He had also given his long life, living in the hope of seeing the salvation of God. And what about Anna, the prophet, who had given her life to the Lord, praying and fasting in the temple until, upon seeing this child, her fasting turned to celebration and her prayer was transformed into praise.
Every one of the characters in our Gospel reading put their all on the altar and of course, as Simeon looked at this tiny new life in front of him, he said to Mary ‘a sword will pierce your own soul too’- a premonition of the sacrifice of Christ himself upon the cross, the sacrifice above every sacrifice, God giving a beloved son for the life of the world.
This pattern we are called to follow, is one where we give of ourselves, for God and for our neighbour, putting our all on the altar. Throughout the gospels, Jesus calls his disciples to follow him with a whole heart not at their own convenience.
Another name for this ‘giving of our all’– this ‘sacrifice’ might in fact be love.
St Paul, in his letter to the church in Corinth, gives us a definition of divine love and in that definition, love always gives of itself: to love is to give yourself away for the sake of another. Love is patient, kind, not envious, boastful arrogant or rude, love does not insist on its own way. In the vows made at a wedding, loved and beloved say to each other- all that I am I give to you, all that I have I share with you, within the love of God. Of course, that formulation only works if both people say it, and this formulation is meant to be a reminder of the complete love of God for each one of us, and hopefully our love in return.
This is the love we are called to give to God and our neighbour- love given as a sacrifice of praise. Christina Rossetti captures this perfectly in her carol, In the Bleak Midwinter: ‘What can I give him, poor as I am?’ she asks. In the end she realises that she doesn’t need to offer a lamb like the shepherds, or a gift of great price like the wise men- all she is asked to do is to give her heart.
This is all we are asked to give: all that we have and all that we are. This is the kind of love which could transform the corrupt and unjust structures of our society into the kind of communities which reflect humanity at its best, where the forgotten are drawn in, the excluded gathered to the centre, the victims of tyranny, poverty and oppression released from their captivity. It can all start here, if we are prepared to put our all on the altar.
Perhaps Sacrifice is a good word for us to use after all? Because it suggests that none of this is easy. If we think beyond our circles of comfort, what are we prepared to give for the good and the flourishing of another, not just those with whom we share our lives, or those like us, but a brother or sister who lives on the other side of the world, who lives on the streets of our city, who is excluded and persecuted for who they are?
Might we want to break down, just a little, the injustices of our world? The corruption, the sense of entitlement, the selfishness? As we read the news and reflect on the world around us this week, might we want to build a different kind of kingdom, with more loving values, with more sacrificial values?
‘Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle’, so said, Martin Luther King. What are we really prepared to give or give up for this Kingdom cause? What individual inconveniences are we willing to accommodate for love in its truest and broadest definition?
Well, it all starts here. If we really take our worship seriously, if we give our heart, if we give our all, if we see ourselves as a living sacrifice, and are ready and open to being transformed by love, we can really change the world through our worship and all we have to do, is put our all on the altar, in the name and to the glory of the one and only living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
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