“Give Of Your Best To The Master” – Lessons from Leviticus and Livestock Shows . . .
I was about 16 when I first sang in a worship service. Our little church’s bivocational minister of music was my first mentor, and he talked me into singing him the old hymn, “Give of Your Best to the Master”. (This was hymn #353 in the 1956 Baptist Hymnal, which in 1970 was the only edition of that resource. Later editions have omitted that hymn. You can draw your own conclusions from that). I don’t know if he picked the song out specifically for my benefit—but the text was a worthy lesson for a young Christian. And that was not the only lesson involved. I sang the melody, and he took upon himself the challenge of finding notes that would harmonize with my uncertain pitch. Thus I learned about sacrificial ministry.
“Giving our best” is now translated as “the pursuit of excellence” in many realms, including the arena of Christian worship. But I think there is a fundamental difference in what that phrase means in the world, and what it means in the context of worship. To explore that difference I want to pull out my English lit bag of tricks (also from the 1970’s), blow the dust off the contents, and do a little comparison and contrast.
As I write this in mid-July, the opening of our state fair is just a few weeks away. Our Kentucky fair remains a celebration of rural values even as our state is increasingly urbanized and suburbanized, and even as the location of the fair styles itself as a sophisticated metropolis. When I attend the fair, I usually stroll through the livestock barns and observe those competitions that seem laid-back to me, but I guess are pretty intense to those involved. As a little calf is running around a ring and serious looking judges are noting its qualities and defects, I realize how ignorant I am of the world that supplies the food I love.
I am also ignorant of the world in which the book of Leviticus was written, filled as it is with animal sacrifices and bloody rituals. Yet it is that world which is referenced at the end of the Old Testament, when God through Malachi calls his people on the carpet because their worship was deficient. I recently spent some time in Malachi, and to understand it better I also spent some time in Leviticus. As I did so, the experience of walking through the livestock barn came to mind.
So I want to compare Leviticus and a livestock show. I think this is a first, but if someone has done this before in their seminary master’s thesis, I apologize, and any similarity is as unintended as it is bizarre.
First, let’s review: The opening chapters of Leviticus are all about offerings–burnt offerings, grain offerings, sin offerings, fellowship offerings, and so on. The rest of the book is sprinkled (pun intended) with references to the need for those offerings—because the people had trouble keeping the rules in the rest of the book. The procedures for those offerings are pretty complex and detailed and tend to be sleep-inducing for devotional reading. But all the instructions have something in common, revealed in these recurring phrases: “first fruits, without defect, without blemish, finest flour, new grain.” In other words, God commanded His people to bring the best from their herds, flocks, and crops to offer to Him in worship and sacrifice. We have rightfully adopted that principle in our worship and discipleship as followers of Christ. Because He gave His life for us, He deserves our best—our excellence. The folks in Malachi’s day were instead bringing the lame and diseased, the runts of the litter, the leftovers. God was not pleased.
So what does this have to do with livestock shows? Actually, I could make the comparison to all the contests at state fairs—but would have lost the alliteration, and no communicator wants to sacrifice that gimmick. So we’ll focus on livestock, but with the understanding that our observations apply not only to the cows and sheep but also to the canned vegetables and prize chickens and plump tomatoes and decorated cakes.
If you visit the barns at a state fair, you see lots of families who have brought to the fair their best animals, and who lavish upon them the care and attention usually reserved for beauty queens. They are washed, groomed, petted, protected, and displayed by proud farmers and 4-H’ers who often bunk down in the stall next to their four-legged masterpieces. If the competition is over, there will be ribbons of various hues to mark those animals deemed the best of the best. Meanwhile, I look carefully at each heifer and for the life of me can’t see what distinguishes one from the other.
When I reviewed in Leviticus the requirements for acceptable offerings of worship, I was struck by some parallels to those hard-working farmers (or children or housewives) bringing their best to the fair. But as I considered those similarities, some significant differences occurred to me—and it is those differences that became for me a lesson in worship. As I “compare and contrast” Leviticus and livestock shows, it is in the contrast that I am convicted.
Since I keep falling into the alliteration rut, I might as well stay in the preacher mode and go with three points:
Point number one:
In a livestock show, all the participants bring their best—but then someone else judges who is the best of the best. The participants are competitors. In Leviticus, each worshiper was to bring their best, but there was no comparison to someone else’s best. I suppose human nature might have led some to eye their neighbor’s sheep to see how they measured up—but that would certainly miss the point. Comparing our worship offering to someone else’s likewise misses the point—whether that comparison leads us to discouragement or to pride. This person has a powerful voice, or this one preaches to thousands, or this one has built an amazing choir—and we imagine blue ribbons on other platforms and pulpits and none on our own. Or we hear accolades from the fans, I mean worshipers, and we add a few more trinkets to our mental trophy case. In either instance, we have turned the worship of God into just another livestock show. The defects of our offerings are far deeper than musical shortcomings or verbal miscues. Malachi would have a field day with us.
Point number two:
The rancher brings his pride cattle to the fair in order to demonstrate the quality of his product and therefore demonstrate the rancher’s skill and hard work. The worshipers in Leviticus on the other hand are commanded to bring their best in order to demonstrate the quality of what God had done and would do for them. God would give His best when the Lamb who was “slain before the foundation of the world” would reveal what all this sacrificing really meant.
So the measure of our worship is not in its inherent quality of speech or musicianship or structure or emotional flow, though all these have value. The measure of our worship is how much our offerings remind others of the offering God has made for us.
Point number three:
I assume prize-winning livestock commands an appropriately hefty price when put on the market, earning for the farmer a tangible reward. But to bring our best in worship, whether as a Jew in the Old Testament or a Christian in the 21st century, cannot earn for us the righteousness God requires. The offerings referenced in the book of Leviticus were a short-term fix, a kicking the can down the road, a mere shadow of the reality to come. They may have earned a reprieve, but they could never earn a relationship. Likewise, what we offer in worship may give us a sense of well-being, but it cannot earn God’s approval or forgiveness or grace. To give our best is to merely reflect what God has already given us.
What He has given us is this: a blue ribbon, absolutely undeserved, that declares we are perfect, without defect, without blemish. The ribbon was put on our stall by the nail-scarred hands of a righteous judge who clearly saw our every flaw and then took responsibility for those flaws upon himself. So if we want to worship Him, if we want to truly give our best, this is what we do: we take the blue ribbon and we show it off, and the more we show it off the less it looks like a ribbon for us and the more it looks for all the world like a cross.
Or to put it more accurately, it looks like a cross for all the world.
That is the best we have to give. That is what our master deserves.