Some people say lamb is an acquired taste. I have fortunately acquired the taste, and I sure think it tastes good. Especially here in SA, lamb chops done on a proper braai, the fatty edges getting nice and crispy while the inside is still just a shade past pink…a couple of baked potatoes, a salad with enough dressing for two, and I’m a happy camper.

Except when I’m pregnant.

And fortunately for the whoo-hoo a baby is coming story, but unfortunately for the lamb consumption story, I am just not interested in a slice of lamb right now. We tried to have some for dinner just this evening, and I was halfway into my big juicy, and nicely done (thanks Hero Hubs) piece, and I just had to push it away and work on my potatoes and salad. Eish.

Eating lamb often makes me think about the sacrificial lambs in Scripture, the passover lamb, the burnt offerings, the sin offerings, and the Lamb that took away the sin of the world. And I think about the fact that the Scriptures say the aroma of those burnt offerings were pleasing to the Lord. But really, there was something more He was after, and it didn’t have anything to do with choosing the right cut and getting it crispy on the outside, juicy on the inside.

It turned out that at some point, those burnt offerings weren’t so pleasing to God. And that wasn’t because the Lord was like me, and His tastebuds changed after a while.

Twice in the space of just a few chapters of the Gospel of Matthew, it’s recorded that the Pharisees were poking at Jesus’ ways. He responded twice in the same way. First, in chapter 9, the Pharisees don’t get this whole hanging with tax collectors thing.

“Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” the Pharisees ask His disciples. (By the way, in case you’re wondering, the Pharisees were the show-off religious folks of Jesus’ day. And I’m sorry to say, you might know a few these days.)

Jesus responded with an analogy from the practice of medicine: People who are healthy don’t need a doctor, but people who are sick do. Then He says, “But go and learn what this means: I desire mercy, and not sacrifice. For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”

Since the Pharisees were rather learned folks, they might’ve remembered these words written by the prophet Hosea (6:6). They’re in a section where the people are being called to return to the Lord, to repent for the way they’ve been living. The verse Jesus has quoted goes on to say:

“For I desire mercy and not sacrifice,
And the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.”

Apparently, the Pharisees just don’t get it. They have rituals on top of rituals, and are the most religious of the religious, but it seems like they’re not tracking with what Jesus is trying to help them understand.

In Matthew 12, they’re at it again, questioning why Jesus’ disciples are allowed to pluck heads of grain and eat them on the Sabbath. (Because that’s like work, and work isn’t supposed to happen on the Sabbath.)

Jesus reminds them of a story that would’ve been familiar to them, when David was running for his life, and was hungry, and he and the guys by his side took the special bread which they weren’t supposed to eat because they weren’t priests, but it was okay. He reminds them that the priests in the temple are not perfect enough for God — even they profane the Sabbath, but they’re blameless. Eventually he comes to the same point again (v. 7):

“But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice;’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.”

What’s the point Jesus is trying to make by bringing this same Scripture up again?

God is looking for religious activity to reflect what’s actually in the heart.

The outward rituals of sacrifice and offerings were significant because they were demonstrations of a repentant people, with a repentant heart. They were intended to be demonstrations of sorrow, by a unholy people, aware that they were being loved, accepted, and undeservingly forgiven by a great, awesome and Holy God. When the people were repentant, when their hearts were truly desiring to walk in the ways of God and sorry when they didn’t, their sacrifices were pleasing to God. Even though it was an imperfect system, God was willing to forgive. David eating the showbread. The priests who were presenting imperfect sacrifices to a perfectly Holy God.

God was never looking for perfection. He was looking for people who were after His own heart.

Tax collectors and ‘sinners,’ in Jesus’ day, seemed to have an easier time admitting their shortcomings. Their need for forgiveness. But the religious folk struggled to see past their rituals to realise that they too were sinners in need of a Saviour.

I think sometimes we can be the same way, today.

Thinking that clocking in for an hour on Sundays…faithfully attending a Bible study once a week…reading the Bible every evening puts us in right-standing before a Holy God? If our hearts aren’t after God’s, our actions do no more than a messuvaheapagrain or a nicely burnt lamb.

Mercy is at the heart of God, and He wants it to be at the heart of our hearts, too. The Hebrew word for Mercy, chesed, describes God’s steadfast love and His covenant loyalty. Experiencing His mercy is experiencing His unfailing love. It’s sometimes translated as His “loving-kindness.” It’s because of this loving-kindness that we receive our very costly forgiveness, and the compassion and blessings of God. At the heart of it all is this amazingly, perfectly Holy and other-than-what-we-are God who is showing mercy to people who cannot but fall short and remain debtors to grace.

This is the mercy He extends to us. It is also the mercy He wants us to extend to one another. More than He wants to make sure you arrive at church on time or attend Bible study faithfully or check whatever boxes speak of ‘the Christian life’ to you, God wants to see your heart after His — your heart running for mercy and the knowledge of God. To love Him more, to know how loved you are, to respond to a world in need out of that overflowing loving-kindness.

God loved so He gave.

If we love, so we should give…of our time, of our talents, of our treasures, yes, but more than that, our whole hearts.

The Sermon in a Nutshell: Mercy and not sacrifice. The Lord is looking for hearts after His, without the heart, the rest is burnt lamb.