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Faith Walk: Faith and Sacrifice

April 17, 2011
Sermon:  Faith Walk:  Faith and Sacrifice
Text:  Ephesians 4:29-32; Philippians 2:5-11; Romans 12:1-2

We continue our series of sermons entitled Faith Walk.  This Sunday the theme focuses on faith and sacrifice.  Let me ask you a question.  What did you give up for Lent?  You might say, “Well, Kirk, you should have asked me that question weeks ago.  You should have asked me that question on March 9, Ash Wednesday.  Since you asked, I gave up chocolate.”  You might have answered, “I gave up eating red meat” or “I gave up bread.”

The best Ash Wednesday message I ever heard was preached at the Episcopal Church of the Advent by Dr. Clay Turner.  His message was based on Ephesians 4, Verses 29-32.  Let me read those verses for you as a suggestion of what we might give up for Lent next year:

 29 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31 Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. 32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.

The whole idea of giving something up for Lent is based on the concept of sacrifice.  In the New Testament – and especially in the writings of Paul, – which comprise about half of the New Testament, sacrifice is always intended as a way of improving relationships, a way of improving our relationship with God or our relationship with other people.  Christians are asked to sacrifice because it is a way of making our relationships with others better.

I spent a good bit of time outside in my garden this week.  A lonely mockingbird sang and sang and sang at all hours until last night.  I believe he finally found a mate.  Bless his heart.  I am so happy for him.

The garden is an absolutely a beautiful place this time of year.  Lady bank roses are blooming beautifully, creating a tapestry of yellow blossoms.  Other roses that are blooming include the zepherine drouhin, the David Austen Roses, and the knockout roses.  A beautiful red honeysuckle and an orange tangerine vine are also blooming.  My favorite flowers this spring are some iris that my friend Everett Lineberger gave me.  Some of you know Everett as the “Iris King.”  He gave me some absolutely stunning re-bloomers that are supposed to bloom in the spring and again in the fall.  Those iris, which have names like Immortality and Resurrection, are especially meaningful to me this year because of their symbolism.

Here on Palm Sunday, I again ask the question, “What did you give up for Lent?”  On March 9, I made a decision about what I planned to give up for Lent.  Now on April 17, I find that I gave up something entirely different for Lent than I had originally planned.  I gave up my Dad for Lent.  His death is somewhat like a library burning to the ground.  A great repository of knowledge and wisdom has been lost to me.  I have also lost a good friend, one who told funny jokes, one who prayed as simply and as powerfully as anybody I have ever known, one whose favorite meal was breakfast, one who whistled while he worked, one who jingled his change during a conversation.  I gave up my father for Lent.  Giving up – sacrifice – always involves one’s relationships with others.

This afternoon, I will stand with two brothers beside a grave at Greenlawn Cemetery.  I doubt that those two men have even thought about the fact that they have given up their mother for Lent.  This walk of faith that we call the Christian life must include sacrifice.  We neither like this fact nor want to consider this fact.  If you have lived the Christian life very long though, you know that sacrifice is involved.

I want us to consider three additional passages of Scripture today that address this issue of sacrifice.  They will help us understand the nature of sacrifice.  I invite you to turn to Philippians 2, beginning at Verse 3.  Some of you will recognize immediately that this passage contains one of the great hymns of the early church.  We are fortunate that Paul has preserved it here in the context of his letter to the Philippians.  I want to read just a few verses that precede and follow this hymn so that you can see the context in which it was written and the connection between sacrifice and relationships with others.

3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

 5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

6 Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

This passage from Philippians reveals what the early Christians believed about Jesus.  He had every reason to count equality with God a basis for power, a reason for authority.  He emptied himself, humbled himself, however, and took the form of a servant.  He became obedient, even unto death on a cross.

Paul continues in Verse 12, talking about relationships:  “…continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.  14 Do everything without grumbling or arguing, 15 so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.”

We, as Christian people, are supposed to see in Christ Jesus an exemplary model.  You see that Jesus humbled himself and became obedient to God, obedient to death.  You see that he gave up selfish ambition and conceit; he had no part of that.  You see that he regarded everyone as a person of worth, a person of value.  You see that he looked out for the interests of others rather than focusing on his own interests.  He was a servant.  He was the man for others.

Right at the very heart of living our life like Jesus is the whole issue of sacrifice.  When Christ became flesh, he became fully human and fully divine.  When the chips were down, he emptied himself and became our sacrifice.  That sacrifice is not a concept that is tacked on to our theology.  That sacrifice is the very heart of the gospel we proclaim about Christ Jesus and his crucifixion.  The cross is central, right at the heart of everything we believe.  Holy Week is the most important week in the entire church calendar.  It offers the opportunity to come back by Golgotha and look again at the sacrifice Jesus made for us.

Some people who read these passages distort them.  When I was in seminary, a theologian named Ernest Lomire said that Paul presents Jesus in this way because Paul himself had a martyr complex.  He stated that Paul wanted to justify his own martyr complex.  I do not buy that notion for a minute.  For some, this cross becomes, as Paul said, “foolishness” (I Corinthians 1:18) and for others a “stumbling block” (I Corinthians 8:9).

When I was chaplain at Ormsby Village Treatment Center, an institution for juvenile delinquents, I preached a Good Friday service.  We did not have all the high technology available today.  I had only a record player, a simple cross, and some spotlights as props.  I played a reading of the Scripture in the King James Version by Alexander Scourby.  Some of you have heard those readings.  We listened to all of the events that led up to the crucifixion.  When we reached the place where the Gospel of Mark says Jesus was crucified, a maintenance man backstage began hitting an anvil with a hammer, creating a ringing sound as if he were hitting spikes.  The record continued with Jesus speaking those terrible words, “My God, my God!  Why have you forsaken me?” and the narration saying, “He breathed his last and he died.”  At that point, I silenced the record and changed the light on the cross from blue to red.

One teen stood up in the middle of that darkened auditorium and yelled, “No!  Don’t let them do that to you!”

When I talked to this teenager later, he asked, “Why did he do that?  He could have stopped his death!  He had all that power.  He did not have to let that happen.”

Maybe you can understand why a juvenile off the street would come to that conclusion.  These teenagers at Ormsby thought in terms of power, in terms of violence, in terms of self-protection.  It is not such a stretch to see how one theologian might say, “Well, this did not have to happen.”  Even those at the cross stated, “He saved others.  Let him save himself.”

Why did Jesus go through this pain and suffering?  Why did he allow this to happen?  It is a great question that compels us to take a hard look at the center of our faith.

Jesus spent hours praying fervently in Gethsemane under a full Passover moon just like the moon we have tonight.  The Scripture says that sweat fell like drops of blood.  Jesus was stretched out, face down in the dirt, praying, “Father, if there is any way out of this, if there is any other way, let this cup pass from me.”  Finally, we see his surrender, “Not my will, but Thine be done.”

Why did Jesus let this happen?  There was no other way for the world to be saved, for Kirk to be saved, for you to be saved.  This was the will of God.  May I say and would you understand this was the horrible will of God, a severe mercy?  And so Jesus surrendered.

What is our response to this answer?  If we believe this, and if this is at the heart of our faith, how are we supposed to respond?  Turn to Romans 12, Verses 1-2:

1 Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. 2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

I have told you the story before about the importance of this passage in my life.  My mother asked me to come into her room the summer before I started the seventh grade.  My mother often made us sit in a chair in her bedroom, a chair that I eventually called “the confessional.”  She handed me a slip of paper with the passage of Romans 12:1-2 and told me that she wanted me to memorize those verses.  It did not take me long to memorize the Scripture.

The next summer before I began the eighth grade, she handed me a slip of paper containing the very same verse.

I thought, I already have this one memorized.  Maybe I just won’t tell her.  I did call it to her attention though.  I said, “Mama, this is the same passage you gave me last year.”

She said, “Yes, I know.”

“Why are you giving it to me again?”

She explained, “Kirk, you learned this verse in your head, but that is not enough.  I want you to learn it in your heart.”

I started thinking about the verse and asked myself, What does this passage mean? By the end of the summer, I felt that I understood its meaning.

The next year before the ninth grade, I again went into her room and sat in the confessional.  She once again handed me a slip of paper that contained the words to Romans 12:1-2.  She told me, “Kirk, the verse just cannot be in your head.  It cannot just be in your heart.  It is the way you have to live.”

I have never been one to talk about “life” verses, but I guess that if I have one, it is this verse.  The word “transformed” comes from the Greek word metamorpho.  You will recognize the word “metamorphosis.”  Think of a caterpillar changing into a butterfly.  Being transformed means being completely changed.  The word “transformed” appears only one other place in the New Testament – when Jesus was transfigured.  We are to be changed by the renewing of our minds, our hearts, and our behavior.

We come back to Philippians 2 to the mind of Christ.  We cannot settle for the way that we think, and we certainly cannot confirm to the way that the world thinks.  We cannot let the world squeeze us into its mold.  We cannot be conformed to this world.  We must try to think like Jesus.

Teenagers, if you are a Christian who follows Christ, you will not be able to do some activities.  At times you will be left out of the group.  Your feelings will be hurt because your friends will not ask you to be a part of some activities they are doing.  In fact, being a Christian is going to affect the kind of friends you have.  You cannot live for Christ Jesus and have your mind renewed by him and also let the world squeeze you into its mold.  You cannot do both.  You must decide one way or the other.  My mother pounded this fact into me because she knew the decision would be a lifelong struggle.  You cannot solve this struggle one time when you are a teenager.  You must cope with it day after day after day.  Do not be conformed to the world.  Be transformed, completely changed from a caterpillar to a butterfly by the renewing of your mind.  It is the mind of Christ.

Some people have been asked to die for Jesus, and we might be asked to do that at some point in our life.  We are asked to give ourselves as a living sacrifice.  The problem with a living sacrifice is that it keeps crawling off the altar.  We keep trying to get away from this idea of sacrifice.  At the heart of the Christian faith is this idea that we have to live by faith, which will involve sacrifice.  It means giving up some of the things we like, some of the things we love.

I want to call your attention to one more passage in the book of Galatians, Chapter 2, Verses 20-21:

20 I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 21 I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”

I am still puzzling over the meaning of this Scripture.  I know that being “crucified with Christ” means that we must be willing to completely eliminate, put to death, some of the things in our life that we love, things that are an inherent part of us.  It is, again, the idea of sacrifice.  I believe the meaning is connected to our baptism.  In Romans 6:4, Paul says, “We are buried with Christ in baptism, and we are raised to walk in new life.”  To be crucified with Christ, I believe, is connected to the words of Jesus, “If you are going to follow me, you have to be willing to take up your cross” (Matthew 16:24).  It is a matter of denying yourself in order to regain yourself.  You deny your auton, which is the Greek word for the selfish part of yourself, so that you claim the psyche, the real life, your soul.

Being “crucified with Christ,” again, does not mean that we have to die for Jesus.  It certainly means that we have to be willing to die for Jesus.  It calls us to look carefully at this cross, to look at this sacrifice.

Are you telling me that you are giving up chocolate?  Really!  Are you telling me that you are giving up red meat and bread?  Do not trivialize this concept.  Look at the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

While outside working in my yard I tried to think of a way to illustrate this sermon.  As I was washing my hands at the kitchen sink, I noticed on the windowsill a little manger scene containing the figures of Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus.  Its presence is not a mistake.  Clare leaves it there all year.

I thought, What part does Mary play in the great unfolding of the passion of Jesus?  Where was Mary on Palm Sunday?  Her custom was to go to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover.  It is entirely possible that she was with that crowd coming down the Mount of Olives.  Mary possibly saw her son mount that donkey’s back and wondered, What in the world is he doing now?  She possibly saw him riding with his legs dangling down, almost dragging the pavement.  How ridiculous, she must have thought.  She probably saw him stop and weep over the city of Jerusalem.  I am sure it pulled at her heart, as it would for any mother seeing her son weep over Jerusalem, weep over cities like Baghdad, Tokyo, Washington, or Spartanburg.  Mary heard the hosannas and saw the crowd waving palms.  Can you imagine that in her pondering heart she must have thought, I just do not have a good feeling about this.  This does not look like it is going to end well.  We know that on Friday Mary was right there at the foot of the cross, looking up and seeing her firstborn.  Jesus was not just God’s beloved Son; he was her Son, too.  He was not just the Son of God nailed to those timbers; he was also the Son of Mary.

You talk about giving up chocolate?  Sacrifice is not to be trivialized.  If we are going to be followers of Jesus, we must be willing to sacrifice.

I want to read a prayer to you, a prayer written by Isaac Watts.  I ask you to look at the cross and listen to these words.

When I survey the wondrous cross,
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.
Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ, my God;
All of the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to His blood.
See, from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down;
Did e’re such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

Do you know how much Jesus Christ loves you?  Do you know what he did for you?  I am overwhelmed by the sacrifice he made for us.

If you have never accepted Christ as your Savior, could I plead with you to do that today?  Acknowledge him as the Lord of your life.  Some of you have other decisions to make.  You know what they are.  We open the doors of this church to you and extend the invitations of our God.

Kirk H. Neely
© April 2011
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