In the middle of the bustling city we turned a corner, stepped over a threshold, and entered a different world. The 12 foot, ornately-carved wooden doors we passed through were just the beginning of the intricacy that filled the temple. Every detail was beautiful, from the perfect gardens, to the painted ceiling, to the curved roof lines. It was as quiet within the walls of the temple as it had been loud on the outside. The smell of incense filled the air and everywhere I looked were worshipers bringing their gifts.
In the outer court of the temple, booths were set up where people exchanged money for offerings of incense, candles, flowers, and food. They would then take their offering and burn it or lay it in front of larger than life statues fashioned from gold. They bowed in reverence, paced as they prayed, and waved incense in rhythmic patterns.
As we walked into the inner temple, the sound of drums and chanting filled the air. The room was filled to overflowing as the people kept coming. They desperately begged their departed ancestors to help them in this life as they placed their gift upon the altar.
“You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.”
Sacrifice isn’t part of our everyday life in America. We read about sacrifice in the Old Testament, but having never experienced it we file it away as a myth, legend, or metaphor. My heart was broken that day, standing in the temple and watching thousands of people bring their offerings to idols they placed all their hope in. The sheer desperation was palpable. And yet I knew that their prayers would dissipate just as quickly as the smoke rising from the incense in their hands.
Just a few days earlier, I had stood in another place of worship. It was an unpretentious building with white walls, wooden pews, and a simple cross on the steeple. Gathered in that place were thousands of worshipers who were also desperate. Their prayers filled the air with fervor and passion. Tears streamed down their cheeks as they cried out to Jesus for help and guidance. Yes, there was desperation here too, but also hope. Those same tear lined faces radiated with confidence and joy knowing that the God they prayed to welcomed them into His presence and listened intently to their prayers. I listened to them as their voices joined together in worship and peace filled my heart.
It’s been a few weeks since I visited those two very different places of worship. As I’ve tried to process that experience my thoughts keep returning to Hebrews 4:14-16:
“Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weakness, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet He did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”
When I left the temple that day, I left with a heavy heart. Broken for those who walk in darkness. And broken for myself, who walks in the light, yet so quickly forgets the good news of the salvation that Christ purchased for me. I often neglect my access to the throne of grace. I’m quick to find an excuse to skip church. I find it easier to watch Netflix then open my Bible. I think that going all in with God is a burden that is just too hard to bear. And yet... He promises that His burden is light and His yoke is easy. He’s the one that did all the hard work. He’s the one that paid the price for my salvation. He died, once and for all, so that I can live.
This life that we live in Christ is supposed to be different. Following Christ is supposed to be a delight, not a burden. Maybe we miss that because we are so far removed from the concept of sacrifice. Maybe our western way of doing church is too easy. Too sanitized. Too common. It’s so easy to forget the price He paid. It’s so easy to forget the burden of the law that He set us free from. It’s so easy to be lackadaisical about our faith. It’s so easy to be apathetic about what He’s rescued us from.
My prayer for 2018 is that we will remember. Let’s remember how good this gospel is. Let’s remember how much we are loved by the God who created Heaven and Earth. Let’s remember that we are children and heirs of the promise. Let’s remember that we serve a God that is good, and holy, and accessible. Let’s remember that it is not our works or our sacrifice that gains us entrance to His presence, but simply His grace and mercy. Let remember what a privilege it is to gather together and worship Him. Let’s remember where He brought us from and where He’s leading us.
Following Jesus is a delight, it is not a burden. Let’s remember that.