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What God Thinks of Religion (God Will Not Be Bought Off By Ritual) (published in The Tribune 4/28/12)

posted Sep 7, 2013, 1:17 PM by Fccea Webmaster
Karl Marx wrote: "Religion is the opium of the masses." From a certain perspective, there is a lot of truth in that statement.

I'm a pastor. But religion scares me to death. Religion is people trying to reach God through human efforts. By that definition the world teems with catatonic people, placated by the thought that they will be all right in the end because they are "as good as the next guy and better than most."

Or they are convinced that some occasional ritual offsets an existence that otherwise ignores God. That's religion as an opiate.
What's really interesting is that most people believe that's what the Bible teaches -- be good, do your best and God is obligated to honor the effort.

In fact, the Bible teaches exactly the opposite.

There is a fascinating message in Isaiah 1:11, one of many such in the Bible. God says, "'What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?' says the Lord; 'I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats.'"

The obvious reaction to this is, "Wait a minute! Who asked these people to bring these sacrifices in the first place? Wasn't it you, God?" Of course, it was. So, what gives?

An insight into God's character found in I Samuel 16:7 will help. God has just rejected Saul from being king of Israel for his disobedience. Samuel, the prophet, is sent to the home of Jesse to anoint a new king. As soon as he spots Jesse's oldest son, Eliab, he thinks this strapping lad must be the one.

But God weighs in: "Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart." God sees to the core of our being. He is only interested in human effort spawned by a repentant and contrite heart.

We see this in the Jewish rite of circumcision. Ancient Israelites saw this as their key to the kingdom! God saw it differently. He said through Moses, "Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn. For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe" (Deut. 10:16-17).

This is God clarifying, "If I dont have your heart, the effort is immaterial. It amounts to bribery -- and I can't be bought." To think anything else is to be comatose on religion.

Want to know what God thinks of religion? Read Jesus' comments to the most religious people of his day, the Pharisees, in Matthew 23. It will curl your hair. And He summarizes the problem by saying in verse 26, "First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean." They had a heart problem that negated any possible merit from good works or ritual.
The 21st century application is easy. We can forget our goodness. We can forget confirmation. Forget church attendance. Forget baptism. Forget ritual. What does God see when He looks at our heart? That's the question. The rest will follow if the heart is cleansed by repentance. But God will not be bought off by ritual to cover a hard heart.

Jan Karon's fictional Father Tim says this in Home to Holly Springs, "I was in my forties before God cracked open my heart and revealed himself to me and I surrendered my life to him. That was the breakthrough. Before that, I was merely a man with an agenda. After that, I was God's man and it was his agenda. It changed everything."

God must be approached from the inside out. Contrary to modern advertising, the question is not what's in your wallet, but what's in your heart?

Dave McNeff is pastor of the First Congregational Church of Eaton/Ault