This year I decided to read through the Bible in a year. I regularly read and study scripture to preach and teach, but It had been a while since I read straight through. Sometimes I read the portions, and other times it is more convenient to listen to the audio version. This practice really helps me to keep the words and stories of scripture in their broader context.
A few months in to the daily readings I had reached the stories of the Exodus and entering the Promised Land. I typically like to read these stories. They tend to be full of adventure although at times the numbers and counting of people and animals gets tedious. I found myself sighing and wondering why it was important to know that there were 54,400 descendants of Issachar among the other numbers of other tribes in the Desert of Sinai? I saw that in part it is important because each of those lives is celebrated as a gift and blessing from God.
Later, as I read through the book of Numbers, I came across a passage with more accounting and it stopped me in my tracks.
The half share of those who fought in the battle was:
337,500 sheep, of which the tribute for the Lord was 675;
36,000 cattle, of which the tribute for the Lord was 72;
30,500 donkeys, of which the tribute for the Lord was 61;
16,000 people, of whom the tribute for the Lord was 32.
Did you read that?!?!?!
I dropped my Bible and literally said out loud “What the heck, God?”
How could God accept human captives as tribute? How is it that the descendants of the 12 tribes were celebrated and these lives were treated like cattle? I was completely gob-smacked! Understanding the cultural setting, I know that these were warring people who battled here, there, and everywhere on their way to and through Canaan. I get that it was a violent age with different norms and expectations. But I also believe that God is the same then, and now. So, seriously, “What the heck, God?”
Sitting in my discomfort and pondering this God whom I serve with my life and career, I came to a realization. Words so clear and distinct, God could have said them out loud, in a calm, flat tone. “There is no untainted offering.”
I really don’t know about you, but I was offended. Of course there are untainted offerings! My offerings are untainted! Mine come from a pure heart, clean hands, and a desire to glorify God alone. How dare God say that my offerings are not pure.
Then I stopped and pondered for a moment, are they? Are my offerings pure? My money comes from the church, I give it back to the Lord in multiple ways by supporting other ministries, missionaries, and feeding the poor. That money comes from the hands of people who work hard in our community, in businesses and service professions. When I though deeper, I wondered: do I really know all the threads that support those earnings? Could there be anyone in those businesses cutting corners, or defaulting on loans, or choosing inferior products, possibly made by slave labor? I have no control over who gives to the church or where their gifts come from.
Well, maybe my financial gifts can’t be entirely accounted for, but surely my service can. I love on people, it is kind of my specialty. Listening, gently nudging at times, but mostly delighting in the people God has made fuels my ministry. I do it all for God, right? But I love it, too. Maybe sometimes I relish people’s dependence on me. It might even feed a little bit of pride.
Oh, and speaking of pride, sometimes I obsess over my sermons and musical offerings, or get worried when people might not be responding to me in the way I want…Ok, so maybe my offerings aren’t 100% pure. But are they really comparable to human trafficking?
When I buy cheap clothes made by underpaid or forced labor.
When I drink coffee picked by today’s equivalent of serfs.
When I eat chocolate most likely from cacao harvested by children.
Can I really claim to be exempt or superior?
And here we are, back to why would God accept our dirty, scratched, and broken offerings. Grace.
God knows we are dust. God knows we don’t have anything else to offer. God knows our inability to produce holiness, righteousness, and purity on our own.
The only untainted offering is God stepping out of eternity to dwell among human beings as a human being. The only untainted offering is God smiling at the child, the leper, the outcast, the prostitute through the eyes of Jesus. The only untainted offering is God still loving as humanity sentenced him to the death penalty, carried out by the hands of the state. The only untainted offering is God returning to those who had fled from his side for fear of their own safety. Building the church with imperfect people. Sustaining it through millennia using lives and resources also bearing the marks of sin.
Accepting my gifts. Accepting yours. Seeing us for all we are, and loving us. God’s grace is the only untainted offering, and it is something He offers to Us.
These thoughts are humbling, but hopeful. For me, knowing that God will continue to be the giver of every good and perfect gift sets me free from the chains of perfection. The only gift I have to offer is myself, and God himself can take this imperfect gift and make it whole. I am a work in progress, but even now at times God’s grace moves through me to pour into the lives of others.
Next time I am tempted to judge the offering of another, I will remember: the remarkable event I am witnessing is not one of a gift being offered to God, but that God in his grace and mercy accepts that gift–scuffs, stains and all.
Acceptance & Grace
What could be more ReFreshing?