A Freewill Offering to the Lord

A Sermon by the Rev. James P. Cooper

Toronto, Sept. 13, 2009

Then the king said to Araunah, “No, but I will surely buy it from you for a price; nor will I offer burnt offerings to the LORD my God with that which costs me nothing.” So David bought the threshing floor and the oxen for fifty shekels of silver. (2SA 24:24) 

King David was a mighty, passionate man who earned his reputation as a warrior in great victories over the Philistines. His passion and his fire were tremendous assets to him as a leader of a nation seeking to establish itself in the midst of enemies. But it was his uncontrolled passions that led to his downfall:  his desire for Bathsheba that lead to the murder of her husband, and the death of the child conceived in adultery. And it was his impatience to get his army into the field before the Lord told him that the time was right that led him to number the people, for which he, and the nation, were severely punished by three days of plague, as was read in the first lesson.

At the end of the third day, the plague was coming to an end near the threshing floor of Araunah, very near the gates of Jerusalem. The prophet Gad suggested to David that he should go to that spot and there build an altar to the Lord to mark the end of the plague and Israel’s return to favour. Araunah, who owned the place where the altar would be built, was honoured by this, and told king David that he would gladly supply all the materials for the altar and the subsequent sacrifice.

But David correctly understood that it was his sin that was being paid for, and that no one else could carry that burden for him. He himself had to pay, and it was not the size of debt that was at issue, but the fact that he had to sacrifice something that was of value to him personally.

Sacrifice, the process whereby we give up something that we love very much in order to achieve some high goal, is a concept that is as old as the human race itself, and yet continues down to the present day as the doctrine of repentance, reformation, and regeneration – the process where we give up our beloved evils in order to achieve eternal life in heaven.

We don’t know what forms sacrifice took in the Most Ancient Church. We can suppose that it took some symbolic form of thanking the Lord for all His gifts. But when the Most Ancient Church (and the Ancient Church which followed it) fell, the ancient, the pure concept of sacrifice and thanks became perverted and degraded until many believed that the only way to show proper respect to the gods was to ritually murder their own first-born children. We see this in Abram’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac the heir conceived in his old age.

The doctrines of the New Church tell us that the Lord introduced animal sacrifice into the Jewish Church to replace the human sacrifice they really desired. It was better to slaughter an innocent lamb than an innocent child, although what the Lord really wanted was obedience, the sacrifice of the old will.[1]

The Israelitish Church understood their Covenant with God to be that if they would do these rituals, He would be their God, and lead them to rule over other nations. Beyond that, they didn’t want to know. And so they brought their sacrifices to the priests according to the Mosaic law:  one tenth of everything they produced was to be turned over to the Levites for the Lord.

‘And all the tithe of the land, whether of the seed of the land or of the fruit of the tree, is the Lord’s. It is holy to the LORD.[2]

‘And concerning the tithe of the herd or the flock, of whatever passes under the rod, the tenth one shall be holy to the LORD.[3]

“You shall truly tithe all the increase of your grain that the field produces year by year.[4]

When Joshua led the children of Israel into the land of Canaan, each tribe was given a specific area to be its home. The tribes that kept cattle were given the high plains to the West of the Jordan. The farmers were given the fertile fields near water, the merchants were placed near the cities and the trade routes, but the tribe of Levi was not given an area to be its own. The tribe of Levi were the priests, and in order to be the Lord’s representatives to all the people, they had to live throughout the land. Since they had no land of their own on which to produce their living, the other tribes were required to turn one tenth of their produce over to the Levites. The Levites then built and maintained the temples, provided courts and judgements in legal disputes, served as public health officials, kept the records, and taught the laws of Moses. Those who were sick and disabled, the widows and orphans, the strangers who were lost and homeless, could then come to the priests and be given food and lodging from this general fund that the Lord provided.[5]

From this we can see that the sacrifice commanded by God through Moses had two distinct purposes. 

The first and foremost use was to the giver himself. By giving something of value to the Lord, by recognizing the Lord’s dominion in his life, he was establishing the first essential of the church with himself, that is, the acknowledgement of the Lord. 

The second use was that the things that were sacrificed went to support the whole structure of civil and religious life, thereby providing for order in his world, and charitably supporting the old, the sick and the stranger. This is, of course, the second essential of the church, to do good to others from your love of the Lord.

This holds true in the comparison to repentance, reformation, and regeneration as well, for by sacrificing selfish desires, we turn from self to the Lord, the first essential; and when we succeed in turning away from evil, we become better people, more pleasant to be around, more useful to others, and being useful to others is the second essential of the Lord’s church.

We tend to regard charity to the neighbour as a purely spiritual thing, where we help others by teaching them the truth, or the like, and that the New Church is somehow “above” benefactions of charity, but the True Christian Religion, which is the universal theology of the New Church, tells us that:

Charity is … giving to the poor and assisting the needy; … it is endowing churches and doing good to their ministers; … all these are eminent examples of charity when they are done with judgement from a love of justice.[6]

 

We know that the Israelitish Church eventually became so natural and corrupt that the only way the Lord could communicate with them was to come in person. A good example of the nature of their corruption was the law of Corban. The law of Moses said that the son was responsible to care for his parents when they became old and unable to care for themselves, but the Pharisees added a twist to the law, saying that you could dedicate the money intended for the care of your parents to the temple instead, and so be relieved of any legal obligation to care for them. The necessary contribution to the temple was much smaller than the cost of supporting the parents, and so the shrewd businessman would take advantage of this to his own and the temple’s benefit, leaving his parents to suffer along on whatever they could get from the Pharisees. This is a good example of how the Pharisees made the laws of Moses of “no effect.” [7]

The tradition of sacrifice was continued into the Christian Church, and, as in the Jewish Church, what started out as an honourable thing that conjoined God to man in the essentials of the church, was turned by human greed into something evil. It turned the churches into instruments of financial power and political manipulation.

In the New Church, the principles of sacrifice remain, and in their true spirit form the foundation of all our services of worship. Bishop W.F. Pendleton, who as first Bishop of the General Church made the initial studies of ritual, taught the following concepts about the importance of sacrifice, or an offering as the first thing we do upon entering the church:

“The voluntary or freewill offering, which is placed in the basket on entering the church, is the first act of worship. That it is an act of worship ought to be fully recognized. To a large extent it takes the place of the tithes and offerings of the Jewish Church, and has in it a similar spiritual principle, namely, an ultimate acknowledgement to the Lord that all we have is His and from Him. The command to the Israelitish people was, that at the yearly feasts ‘every man shall give as he is able.’ (Deut. 16.16-17)

“The offering may be devoted to the support of the minister, or to other church uses; but the use to which it is applied should not be actively in the mind of the individual in this act of worship.

“The first act of the Service has in it also the element of sacrifice, or the voluntary giving up to the Lord that which is valued or held dear. This leading idea runs through the Service and qualifies all that follows.”[8]

In and of itself, whether or not we put a contribution in the basket, or make an offering in some other way, does not give or deny us a place in heaven, for deeds are nothing in themselves. It is the heart and will that motivates them that matters to the Lord.[9]

The children of Israel were required by the laws of Moses to make offerings because they represented spiritual things, and it was the spiritual things that were important. But there are certain signs (sacraments and rites, for example) that in and of themselves have no real power, that we are required by God to do as testification of our understanding and obedience to His spiritual law.

The teaching of the Word is clear:  the Lord requires us to sacrifice, not because He needs the things we bring, but because we need to give of ourselves, to give up what we love, to suffer its loss in order to grow spiritually.

The temptation is always with us to turn our ritual offering into something that will give us a natural return. The children of Israel had to be specifically forbidden from bringing the sick and the deformed of their flock to the sacrifice.[10] The modern equivalent is giving money to the church solely as a way with to avoid taxation, and thus provide a net profit for yourself, and without thought of the uses it may serve.

When we enter the church and make our offering as the first thing of our worship of the Lord, our thought should be on the spiritual use that giving provides for us, rather than the amount being given, or the uses to which it might be put. But we must be clear that the offering is the true beginning of our worship, as important as the opening of the Word, or the benediction.

The other thing clearly taught in the Word is that our offering must be something that we value, or it has no spiritual effect. Remember what David said as he built his altar to the Lord after the plague: 

Then the king said to Araunah, “No, but I will surely buy it from you for a price; nor will I offer burnt offerings to the LORD my God with that which costs me nothing.” So David bought the threshing floor and the oxen for fifty shekels of silver[11]

We must also remember what the Lord Himself taught when He compared the offering of the widow to that of the rich men:

So He said, “Truly I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all; for all these out of their abundance have put in offerings for God, but she out of her poverty has put in all the livelihood that she had.”[12]

We must be extremely careful when talking about money because all of us have such strong affections for it. We are very sensitive to any suggestion that we should give it up, and there is always the danger that it will appear that we are speaking from selfish motives. But it should be clear that the Lord has taught in His Word that we need to sacrifice to Him for the sake of our own eternal spiritual lives. It would be good for us to give even if everything we gave was simply thrown away! The value is in symbolically and actually giving up what is natural for the sake of what is spiritual.

We know that everything in the Word is there for the sake of the internal sense, and we can see that in the internal sense, the sacrifices that were commanded by the Lord through Moses represent the process of repentance, reformation, and regeneration. We can understand these spiritual truths, and our lives will be better for living according to them. But we must be careful that we do not allow ourselves to believe that we can only regard the spiritual sense and ignore the letter of the law. That would be like saying that as long as we know that the internal sense of “Thou shalt not commit murder” is that we are not to desire to have dominion over the Lord, we are then free of the constraints of the commandment on the natural and spiritual levels.

The Lord has commanded every church to sacrifice in one way or another because in His wisdom He knows that it is essential to our spiritual well-being. Through sacrifice we turn away from the loves of self and the world, and turn toward the Lord and the neighbour, but only when the sacrifice is of sufficient value that it causes us some grief or suffering to give it up. It is of no value to your regeneration to give up an evil to which you are not inclined.

We are all inclined to love the world and the lovely things we can enjoy here. We can be so inclined to love it that we can forget our obligations to the Lord and to our neighbour and instead work to build up treasure upon earth. When reflecting on this in the privacy of your own heart, remember the Lord’s words given in the sermon on the Mount:

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.[13]

AMEN.


First Lesson:  2 Samuel 24:10-25

And David’s heart condemned him after he had numbered the people. So David said to the LORD, “I have sinned greatly in what I have done; but now, I pray, O LORD, take away the iniquity of Your servant, for I have done very foolishly.” {11} Now when David arose in the morning, the word of the LORD came to the prophet Gad, David’s seer, saying, {12} “Go and tell David, ‘Thus says the LORD: “I offer you three things; choose one of them for yourself, that I may do it to you.”’ “ {13} So Gad came to David and told him; and he said to him, “Shall seven years of famine come to you in your land? Or shall you flee three months before your enemies, while they pursue you? Or shall there be three days’ plague in your land? Now consider and see what answer I should take back to Him who sent me.” {14} And David said to Gad, “I am in great distress. Please let us fall into the hand of the LORD, for His mercies are great; but do not let me fall into the hand of man.” {15} So the LORD sent a plague upon Israel from the morning till the appointed time. From Dan to Beersheba seventy thousand men of the people died. {16} And when the angel stretched out His hand over Jerusalem to destroy it, the LORD relented from the destruction, and said to the angel who was destroying the people, “It is enough; now restrain your hand.” And the angel of the LORD was by the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite. {17} Then David spoke to the LORD when he saw the angel who was striking the people, and said, “Surely I have sinned, and I have done wickedly; but these sheep, what have they done? Let Your hand, I pray, be against me and against my father’s house.” {18} And Gad came that day to David and said to him, “Go up, erect an altar to the LORD on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite.” {19} So David, according to the word of Gad, went up as the LORD commanded. {20} Now Araunah looked, and saw the king and his servants coming toward him. So Araunah went out and bowed before the king with his face to the ground. {21} Then Araunah said, “Why has my lord the king come to his servant?” And David said, “To buy the threshing floor from you, to build an altar to the LORD, that the plague may be withdrawn from the people.” {22} Now Araunah said to David, “Let my lord the king take and offer up whatever seems good to him. Look, here are oxen for burnt sacrifice, and threshing implements and the yokes of the oxen for wood. {23} “All these, O king, Araunah has given to the king.” And Araunah said to the king, “May the LORD your God accept you.” {24} Then the king said to Araunah, “No, but I will surely buy it from you for a price; nor will I offer burnt offerings to the LORD my God with that which costs me nothing.” So David bought the threshing floor and the oxen for fifty shekels of silver. {25} And David built there an altar to the LORD, and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings. So the LORD heeded the prayers for the land, and the plague was withdrawn from Israel. Amen.

Second Lesson:  Luke 20:41-21:4

And He said to them, “How can they say that the Christ is the Son of David? {42} “Now David himself said in the Book of Psalms: ‘The LORD said to my Lord, “Sit at My right hand, {43} Till I make Your enemies Your footstool.”’ {44} “Therefore David calls Him ‘Lord’; how is He then his Son?” {45} Then, in the hearing of all the people, He said to His disciples, {46} “Beware of the scribes, who desire to go around in long robes, love greetings in the marketplaces, the best seats in the synagogues, and the best places at feasts, {47} “who devour widows’ houses, and for a pretence make long prayers. These will receive greater condemnation.”

And He looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury, {2} and He saw also a certain poor widow putting in two mites. {3} So He said, “Truly I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all; {4} “for all these out of their abundance have put in offerings for God, but she out of her poverty put in all the livelihood that she had.” Amen.

Third Lesson:  AC 9293

…Gifts which were offered to Jehovah meant the kinds of things that are offered to the Lord by a person from the heart and are accepted by the Lord. The situation with those gifts is as it is with all a person’s deeds. A person’s deeds are merely acts performed by the body, and when regarded in isolation from his will are no more than variously regulated, so to speak articulated movements, not unlike the movements of a machine, and so are lifeless. But deeds regarded together with the will are not like those movements. Rather they are outward expressions of the will displayed before the eyes, for deeds are nothing other than witness-bearers to such things as compose the will. They also derive their soul or life from the will. Therefore something similar may be said of deeds as of movements, namely that nothing in deeds has life apart from the will, just as nothing in movements has life apart from endeavour. Mankind also knows this to be so, for someone endowed with intelligence pays no attention to a person’s deeds, only to his will, the source, the means, and the reason for the deeds. Indeed someone endowed with wisdom scarcely notices the deeds but rather sees in the deeds what his will is like and how great it is. The same applies to gifts, in that in them the Lord looks on the will. So it is that by ‘gifts’ offered to Jehovah, that is, to the Lord, such things as are present in the will or the heart are meant, ‘the heart’ being what the Word calls a person’s will. From all this it is also evident how to understand the teaching in Matt. 16:27 that everyone will receive judgement in the next life according to his deeds or works, namely that he will receive it according to what is in his heart and consequently his life. Amen.



[1]1SA 15:22

[2]LEV 27:30

[3]LEV 27:32

[4]DEU 14:22

[5]See Deut. 26:12,13; 2 Kings 12:4,5

[6]TCR 459:17 (emphasis added)

[7]See Mark 7:9-13

[8]On Ritual, W.F. Pendleton, pp. 10, 11

[9]See AC 9293, 9938:2

[10]See Lev. 22:21

[11]2SA 24:24

[12]LUK 21:3-4

[13]MAT 6:19-21