How Great a Sacrifice

One of the most magnificent structures in the world is the cathedral in Milan, Italy. It is such a large structure it has five front doors. Each door leads to a different aisle in the sanctuary. The center three doors have carvings of note. Over the arch of one of the side doors is a carved wreath of roses, and underneath it is the words, “All which pleases is but for a moment.” Over arch of the other side door is sculptured a cross, and underneath it is the words, “All which troubles us is but for a moment.” But underneath the great central entrance to the main aisle is the inscription, “Only the eternal is important.” It is the eternal we are going to look at in the next weeks. The eternal grabs our attention today.

We find ourselves today in the twelfth chapter of John, verse one through eleven. According to the text, it is a few days before the Passover. Jesus is in Bethany. Jerusalem and Bethany are approximately two miles apart. It just so happened, Jesus has friends who lived in Bethany, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Jesus normally had an open invitation to their home. However, this time Jesus has a formal invitation. The women wanted to thank Jesus for resurrecting their brother, so they hold a dinner in Jesus’s honor. Jesus never traveled alone. He brings the twelve, along with a nameless crowd. The crowd was extra-large because they wanted to see the newly resurrected Lazarus.

The event is going off as planned. Everyone is having a wonderful time. Martha is serving. Lazarus is reclining at the table. It is Mary who does the unexpected. She took a pint of perfume nard and pours it on Jesus’ feet, wiping it with her hair. Mary seems to have some insider information. It is almost as if she was anticipating the week to come. Consider these two facts with me. First, she anoints Jesus like the dead were anointed. Second, she anoints Jesus’s feet like Jesus washed the feet of the disciples. The obvious happens. The house is filled with the odor of that sweet perfume. Everyone seems to handle the anointing, except one of the disciples, Judas Iscariot. He protests the waste. He is not completely wrong. The nard was expensive. He would have made the perfect church member in the twenty-first century. None of us believe money should be wasted. After all, a penny saved is a penny earned. The very least they could have done is sell the nard and given the money to the poor. Jesus deflects his criticism and applauds Mary for her priorities. Would Jesus applaud your priorities? We always sacrifice for those that we love. How much are you willing to sacrifice for Jesus.

Where were you on March 2, 2012? It is remembered as one of the most violent weather days in the history of our country. There were 140 tornados sighted that day, 76 confirmed landings. Thirty-nine people were killed. We prayed for the grieving, and all the lives that were changed that day, but we were inspired by one, Stephanie Decker.

On that day, Stephanie was a 37-year-old wife and mother, who lived in Henryville, Indiana. It was like a living nightmare. A tornado slammed into her home. With no other option, she acted like a human shield and laid on top of her children to protect them. The good news is everyone survived. The bad news is Stephanie lost both legs, one above the knee, one below the knee. Years later, she does not regret her sacrifice because she saved her children. It is a sacrifice she said she would do again. It is a sacrifice I hope I never have to make. I do not know how her children can look at her legs and question her love for them. I do not know how anyone can question her love for her children. We sacrifice the most for the people we love the most. That leads us to the question of the day. How much are you willing to sacrifice for Jesus?

How much money are you willing to sacrifice for Jesus? Imagine the scene with your sacrificed imagination. It is impossible to read this story and ignore the financial issues. You can still buy a pint of nard on the internet. It will cost you approximately $625 for a single pint. No wonder Judas Iscarot was shocked by her extravagance. It seemed economically impossible for a common to own such a possession. Some believe, Mary received the nard from her parents as a wedding gift for her wedding night. Mary sacrificed a great amount of money to show her devotion to Jesus. How much money are you willing to sacrifice for Jesus?

The Biblical standard for giving is the tithe, 10%. That is a challenge for a great number of people. According to Vanco, only 5% of all church goers’ tithe? 77% of all tithers give more than 10% The average church goer gives approximately $17 per week. That is $884 per year. It is the question I have asked you for the past quarter of a century. If everyone gave the amount to the church that you give to the church, would our ministry contract or expand? How much money are you willing to sacrifice for Jesus? Remember, we are not afraid to sacrifice for those that we love.

How much time are you willing to sacrifice for Jesus? Imagine the scene with your sacrificed imagination. The house is filled with guests and there are a million things to do. There is food that needs to be cooked. There are dishes that need to be washed. There are children that need to be entertained. There are a million things to do, so where is Mary. She is sitting at the feet of Jesus absorbing every word. It was not that those other things were not important. It was that this was an opportunity that could not be missed. You can do housework anytime, but you cannot always sit at the feet of Jesus. Mary sacrificed valuable time to sit at the feet of Jesus. How much time are you willing to sacrifice for Jesus?

It is impossible for our generation to sit at the feet of Jesus. However, that changes nothing. How much time do you spend with Jesus? I am not talking about the time you spend in the church building or the time you spend fundraising for the church. I am talking about spending time practicing the Holy Habits. How much time do you spend meditating? How much time do you spend studying your Bible? How much time do you spend in worship? How much time do you spend in prayer? How much time are you willing to sacrifice for Jesus? Remember, we are not afraid to sacrifice for those that we love.

How much pride are you willing to sacrifice for Jesus? Imagine the scene with your sacrificed imagination. The fact that Mary anointed Jesus’s feet is significant. That sounds odd to our generation. It was odd to her generation too for two reasons. First, usually someone’s head was anointed, not their feet. Second, Hebrew women never unwrapped their hair in public. They only unwrapped their hair at home. Both expose her humility. How much pride are you willing to sacrifice for Jesus?

Humility is not emptying yourself of self-worth. Humility is embracing your self-worth and your gifts and offering those things to the glory of God. Are you hoarding your gifts or are you using your gifts to bring glory to God? How much pride are you willing to sacrifice for Jesus? Remember, we are not afraid to sacrifice for those that we love. Let me state the obvious. During the next two weeks the issue is not how much we have sacrificed for God. The issue is how much God has sacrificed for us. In the Gospel lesson, only Mary seems to see the big picture. Only Mary, understands the events to come will have eternal consequences.

Jesus sacrificed it all because he loves us! You know the story, but it is worth repeating. It all began with the incarnation. God left the perfection of heaven to slum it with people like us. The incarnation of God, Jesus was born in the ordinary, yet he lived an extraordinary life. Let me make the point clear so there can be no confusion. Jesus’s father was God, and his mother was a poor young woman by the name of Mary. The most famous stepfather in his Joseph, a simple carpenter. At twelve years old, Jesus’s spiritual uniqueness became clear, yet he did not begin his ministry until he was thirty. That ministry only lasted three years, but it changed the world. In a nutshell, he simply loved everyone. Healing the sick and teaching about the Kingdom of God, Jesus threatened the orthodox leaders of his day. So threatened, they decided Jesus had to be eliminated. The plan was simply, but deadly. During the Passover, a few days after everyone cheered Jesus as he entered the city, one of Jesus’s own, Judas Iscariot, agreed to betray Jesus. He was arrested after the Passover meal on Thursday evening. Jesus was tried twice, once by his own people and again by the Romans. It was the Roman, Pontius Pilot, official who gave the death sentence. Hours later the order was carried out. Jesus died Roman style, on a cross between two criminals. The Sunday crowd has abandoned him, but the faithful remained. They saw him draw his last breath. They saw him take out his lifeless body. They cried because all hope was lost and they were the ones who asked the question, “Why?” No knowing the happy ending we call Easter, they wrestled with the harsh reality, Jesus was dead.

It was a powerful moment in the history of the world. Jesus, the incarnation of God, was dead. Remember, we are not afraid to sacrifice for those that we love. This is not doubt about it. Jesus loved us so he sacrificed it all for us. It has been said many times:

If our greatest need had been information, God would have sent us an educator; If our greatest need had been technology, God would have sent us a scientist; If our greatest need had been money, God would have sent us an economist; If our greatest need had been pleasure, God would have sent us an entertainer; But our greatest need was forgiveness, so God sent us a Savior.

The only things that matter are eternal!

Real Christians Sacrifice

Years ago, Millard Fuller (1935-2009), the founder of Habitat for Humanity, was addressing a gathering of 200 pastors at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. The assembled pastors quickly pointed toward greed and selfishness as the reason the church never had enough money to accomplish its mission in the world. Millard then asked this seemingly innocent question: “Is it possible for a person to build a house so large that it’s sinful in the eyes of God? Raise your hand if you think so.” All 200 pastors raised their hands. “Okay,” said Millard, “then can you tell me at exactly what size, the precise square footage, a certain house becomes sinful to occupy?” No one responded but everyone looked down. You could have heard a pin drop. Finally, a small, quiet voice spoke up from the back of the room, “When it is bigger than mine.” Can anyone here relate to that story? This is the question. How much are you willing to sacrifice for God?

Once again, we find ourselves in the closing verses of the second chapter of James. These words will sound familiar because last week’s scripture and today’s scripture are the same. The topic is authenticity. James reminds us how important it is for us to be genuine in our faith. We find genuine faith when we combined the right words with the right deeds. In other words, you are supposed to be able to tell people what Jesus means to you. You are supposed to be able to tell people what Jesus has done for you. You are supposed to be acting in a way that demonstrates to the world your appreciation for this great gift of salvation. James says simple words are not enough. After all, talk is cheap. James says good behavior is not enough. After all, you can’t earn your salvation. Words and deeds must go hand in hand. Verse 14 says it clearly, what good is it, my brothers, and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?

Let me repeat my opening words. James underscores this point with three examples. In verses fifteen through seventeen we are told authentic Christian faith responds to basic human need. We will look at that next week. In verses twenty-five and twenty-six we are told authentic Christianity involves an occasional risk. We looked at that last week. Today, we are going to look at verses twenty-one through twenty-four. In those verses we are told authentic Christianity requires a certain amount of sacrifice. We understand the basic concept of sacrifice because sacrificing it part of life. Not only do we understand sacrificing but we respect people who are not afraid to sacrifice it all.

In the winter of 1943, the SS Dorchester was the temporary home of 904 soldiers and 4 chaplains. World War II was in full bloom. The Dorchester was crossing the North Atlantic. Those were dangerous waters because it was filled with German U-boats. At 12:00 on the morning of February 3, a German torpedo ripped into the ship. Everyone knew it was only a matter of time before the Dorchester would sink. Each one grabbed their lifejacket. A young GI crept up to one of the chaplains. “I’ve lost my life jacket,” he said. “Take this,” the chaplain said, handing the soldier his jacket. Before the ship sank, each one of the chaplains gave their lifejacket to another man. The heroic chaplains then linked arms and lifted their voices in prayer as the Dorchester went down. There is no happy ending. Each one of the chaplains died. For their sacrifice they were awarded posthumously the Distinguished Service Cross. I challenge you to tell me that both words and deeds do not matter. It is a true sign of real Christianity. How much are you willing to sacrifice for God? The Bible is filled with people who were forced to answer that question. Some found it easier to sacrifice. Some found it difficult to sacrifice. Do you remember these stories?

Do you remember the story of Abraham and Isaac in the 12th chapter of Genesis? In those days his name was Abram. It means the father of many. God promises Abram he is going to be the father of a great nation. The problem is the father of many has no children. He has no children through his wife, Sarai, when God changes his name to Abraham, the father of the multitude. It seemed like a cruel joke, until Sarah gave birth to their first child, Isaac. That name means “one who laughs” or “one who rejoices.” You must tip your hat to Abraham. He was 100 years old when Isaac was born. (Genesis 21:5) You must tip your hat to Sarah. She was 90 years old when Isaac was born. (Genesis 17:17) It is safe to say that Abraham and Sarah cherished their son. He brightened every dark corner of their lives. There was going to be a happy ending then it happened. In the twenty-second chapter God calls Abraham to sacrifice his Isaac. It was a test we would have failed but Abraham passed. In the original Hebrew the point is clear. Abraham has already said, “Good-bye” to Isaac. When all hope is gone, God supplies another sacrifice, ram. It is a difficult story for our modern ears to understand but the point is clear. He was willing to sacrifice his most cherished possession at God’s request. Abraham was willing to sacrifice it all to God. How much are you willing to sacrifice for God?

Do you remember the story of the rich, young ruler? It is found in three places. The nineteenth chapter of Matthew, the tenth chapter of Mark, and the eighteenth chapter of Luke. If you combined the three, then you get the whole story. The title of the story says it all. He has no earthly limitations. He is a man, so he is not limited by his gender. His was a time of great sexism. He is not limited economically. He is rich so he can buy anything he desires. What would you buy if you were not economically limited? He is not limited by age. He is young so he is not limited by health issues. What is your greatest health concern? He is not limited by power because he has influence. He is ruler. Who is the most influential person you know? It appears on the surface he has everything yet at closer examination he has nothing. He lacks the one thing money can’t buy, salvation! He goes to Jesus and asks him the question we have all asked, “What must I do inherit eternal life?” After discovering the man is a good man, Jesus gets to the topic of sacrifice. Jesus said to him, “Sell everything you have and give it to the poor, and then you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”  The rich young ruler exits the scene depressed because he can’t do it. There are limits to what he would sacrifice. I have never liked that Bible story because the rich young ruler looks so much like me. We struggle with the story of Abraham and Isaac because Abraham would sacrifice anything for God. We relate to the rich young ruler because we too have limits on what we will sacrifice. Is it harder for you to sacrifice your relationships or your possessions? How much are you willing to sacrifice for God?

Anyone who has ever taken a leadership position in the life of the church knows the simple truth that people limit how much they will sacrifice for God. If you have ever tried to organize Vacation Bible School, you know it is true. The children cannot come because a family member is visiting. If you have ever tried to help the needy in the inner city, then you know it is true. I cannot help because they smell bad. If you have ever tried to find a reader at a worship service, then you know it is true. I am afraid to stand up in of people. If you have ever tried to organize a musical program you know it is true. I do not really care for that kind of music. If you have every worked on the annual stewardship drive, then you know it is true. I do not care how many facts we give. I do not care how many charts you show. They give the same amount for the last twenty-five years. I do not want to be negative, but it is painfully obvious. People have limits on how much they will sacrifice for God. We are much more like the rich young ruler than we care to admit. It has been that way for a long time.

Danish theologian and philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) saw the problem in his time. He once wrote I went into church and sat on the velvet pew. I watched as the sun came shining through the stained-glass windows. The minister dressed in a velvet robe opened the golden gilded Bible, marked it with a silk bookmark and said, “If any man will be my disciple, said Jesus, let him deny himself, take up his cross, sell what he has, give it to the poor, and follow me.” This is the problem, real Christians sacrifice.  How much are you willing to sacrifice for God?

In 2014, Barack Obama (born 1961) was President of the United States. During his State of the Union Address, the crowd was divided. Some were always standing up and cheering at his words. Others were always sitting on their hands. It was easy to identify the red people from the blue people. It was easy to identify the liberals from the conservatives. The President was unable to unite the crowd, but one man did, Army Ranger Cory Remsburg (born 1984).He sat next to the First Lady. I don’t know how anyone could have missed him. The thirty-year-old man needed help standing up. The wounds he received in Afghanistan will never completely heal. He sacrificed so much for our country. I am glad to report, he is still alive. How can we question his patriotism? How can we question the patriotism of the people who sacrificed their lives serving our country? Listen to what I am about to say.

Someday you are going to be standing. You will not be standing in front of the eyes of country. You will be standing before God on judgement day and God, who sees everything, will be looking at you. Do not take this as a warning. Take this as a reminder. He will be looking at how much you have sacrificed. Remember, real Christians sacrifice. Indian education Sadhu Vaswani (1879-1966) once said, “True love is selfless. It is prepared to sacrifice.” How much do you love God? How much are you willing to sacrifice? Real Christians sacrifice!

Give Up!

What are you giving up for Lent? That is the question I am asked annually. The one who asks the question is my ex-neighbor. I moved seventeen years ago, but we still get together regularly. He is my escape from this church and my portal into the real world. He was raised Roman Catholic, but he hasn’t practiced Catholicism in years. He married a Lutheran, but they are generally unchurched. However, they are good people. He has nothing positive to say about the Roman Catholic Church, but he looks at the world thru a Roman Catholic screen. His heritage is exposed when he asks me the question, what are you giving up for Lent? So let me ask you the question, what are you giving up for Lent? With that question in mind let us look at our scripture reading.

We begin our Lenten journey in the sixteenth chapter of Matthew. Do you remember the story? Jesus had grown to celebrity status. Everyone was talking about him. Everyone wanted something from him. Everyone was guessing about his identity. However, Jesus was not interested in what the masses thought about him. Jesus wanted to know what the disciples thought about him. So, he asked them the question that changed everything, who do you say I am? The normally chatty disciples grew strangely silent. It is not that they don’t have an opinion. It is that they don’t want to be wrong. It is Peter who answered first and correctly. Jesus is God’s Messiah. Instead of Jesus renting a billboard to announce his identity, Jesus asks the disciples not to tell anyone.

His messiahship was to be kept a secret. The reason is simple. That generation misunderstood the word Messiah. They longed for a military Messiah to liberate them from foreign rule. Instead, Jesus was a spiritual Messiah who came to liberate them from sin, itself. Jesus says it clearly, but the disciples don’t listen. As the spiritual Messiah, Jesus will suffer, be rejected and die. Jesus warns them to be prepared for the same. True discipleship is not about glory. It is about sacrifice. Traditionally people give up things for Lent to show the world they are completely committed to Jesus. By your presence here this evening, I am assuming you have decided to follow Jesus too. 

So, let me ask you the question again: What are going to give up for Lent?

Maybe you are giving up one of these things? The list changes from generation to generation. This list can be found in a variety of places. It is a list of what most people give up. This is what people give up for Lent.

1. Chocolate or Sweets

2. Alcohol

3. Smoking

4. Fast Food

5. Swearing

6. Social Media

7. Shopping

8. Sports

9. Caffeine

10. Sex

There is a website called Catholic Extension. I found an article on that site called What to Give up for Lent. This is their list of what to give up:

Give up bitterness; turn to forgiveness.
Give up hatred; return good for evil.
Give up negativism; be positive.
Give up complaining; be grateful.
Give up pessimism; be an optimist.
Give up harsh judgments; think kind thoughts.
Give up worry; trust Divine Providence.
Give up discouragement; be full of hope.
Give up anger; be more patient.
Give up pettiness; be more mature.
Give up gloom; enjoy the beauty around you.
Give up jealousy; pray for trust.
Give up gossiping; control your thoughts.
Give up sin; turn to virtue.

That list speaks to me.

Unlike Christmas and Easter, Lent has not crossed over into the secular world. The reason is obvious. Christmas and Easter emphasize receiving something. Lent emphasizes giving up something. My Lenten sermon series this year is called Give Up! In the next few blogs, we are going to look at things we need to give up because they are stunting our spiritual growth. This is my list:

  1. Control
  2. Darkness
  3. Arrogance
  4. Enemies
  5. Greed
  6. Popularity
  7. Death

Let me end not with a story but with a fact. Did you know, according to Life Way Research, 24% of all Americans observe the season of Lent? That means 76% of all Americans ignore Lent. That means, mathematically, we are in the minority. That does not bother me because Jesus as never interested in the crowd. Jesus was only interested in the committed.