When we do this study, I often ask, “In your home, who usually feeds whom?” “Parents feed kids,” is the reply. Yes, big people feed little people when they are hungry. The people of Israel, by bringing sacrifices to God in this way, are making themselves big (the ones with spare bulls and goats) and God small (the one who needs a tasty meal). So God is angry because their sacrifices are inverting the relationship he wants with his people.
But it is fair to point out that God was the one who set up the sacrificial system. God asked for the best bull and the first fruits because those were the things in their lives they’d be tempted to trust in, instead of God. The best bull would provide the best genetic material for the next generation, to ensure a healthy herd. The first grain off the field would normally be set aside for the next year’s planting. These things just make sense to a farmer. But God asked for the best bull and the first fruits to show his people what trust in him looked like. “Give me your best bull and I will provide healthy offspring for your herds. Give me your first harvest of grain and I will ensure that your whole abundant harvest is brought in.”
So the sacrificial system was set up by God not to impoverish his people, or to meet his own nutrition needs, but rather to show people how to trust him. It was a gift God was giving them, and the people of Israel, as recorded in Psalm 50, have turned it upside down and made those sacrifices into gifts they are giving God. And that makes God angry.
So God offers, in v14-15, another way of pleasing him, a simple, three-step plan: 1) “Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving.” First of all, thank me. You have plenty of reasons to be grateful, so take time to thank me. 2) “Pay your vows to the most high.” Simply put, “Do what you said you would do.” 3) “Call out on me in a day of trouble. I will deliver you, and you will glorify me.” The third step seems the easiest, simply call to God when we get into trouble. Our job, it seems, is to get in trouble, while God’s job is to get us out. This makes God the hero of our story: he’s big and we are small; he’s powerful and we are needy.
Today, we don’t offer bulls and goats on altars—we don’t make these kinds of sacrifices. Instead, we have ministry. But ministry works today the same way the sacrificial system worked in the Old Testament—it is not a gift we give God but rather a gift he gives us. When students enter the ministry to lead, serve and care for other students, or when staff have chosen to do the same with their lives after they finish their university degree, they have signed up for trouble. They have signed up to care for others in a way that they will naturally run out of resources, and they will feel in over their heads. This is inevitable: when we begin to care for others in this way we will become aware of great needs in many areas: relationships, finances, health, time-management, wisdom, compassion. That may even cause us to doubt our sense of calling, but in fact it is exactly where God wants us. One way to get out of trouble is simply to say, “Wow, I didn’t know it would involve sacrifice/suffering/discomfort/frustration/difficulty. I guess I am not called to this ministry.” It is at this point step 2 of God’s three-step plan comes in, “No, my child, do what you said you’d do. Instead of getting yourself out of trouble, call out to me. That’s what I’m good at—getting my people out of trouble when they call to me.”
God calls his people into ministry to show them his love and care for them as they show God’s love and care for others. He blesses them as they bless others, and works for good in their lives. As I share this passage with staff and students around Eurasia, it rings true for them. They know what it is like to be in trouble, and have seen God work to get them out of trouble over and over again. Our hearts break to hear stories of the disappointments of the ministry in this part of the world, but the testimony of staff is repeatedly one of seeing God at work, in their own lives and in the lives of students, in the midst of and through the trouble and difficulty they face.
Lisa and I are in the same situation, as we are preparing to return to the US. We have some income guaranteed upon our return, but certainly not at this point full-time work for us, replacing salaries we left behind now over ten months ago. We felt called to take this year, but we are feeling ourselves to be a bit in trouble as we return. And yet, we are calling out to God, and believe that in the end he will be the hero of our story, and we will thank and praise him as he has provided for us, repeatedly, abundantly, over many years. Praise be to God!