The entire New Testament presupposes and is written against a backdrop of suffering for one’s faith. It was assumed that Christianity would be costly, but that it was worth the cost. Jesus had told his disciples, “In this world you will have troubles.” He warned them that they would be arrested and harassed. He said to them, “If any would be my disciple they must deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me”….
Most of us will never have to face this kind of hardship or sacrifice, though in some parts of the world Christians still face adversity, persecution and even death for their faith. Today I’d like to talk about what sacrifice looks like in our day and time, and specifically the paradox of sacrifice we see in our Scripture and throughout the New Testament. The paradox of sacrifice is found in three truths:
We sacrifice because we love, but we love more deeply because we sacrificed. I think about my children. When I tried to teach them how much I love them the deepest words I could use were to say that, in a moment, I would die in their place. I mean it—that’s how much I love them. I’ve never had to make that decision, but I know that every sacrifice I have made for them has only deepened my love for them.
When Danielle was little she had colic, and LaVon and I would take turns on different nights sleeping on the floor next to her baby bed when she’d get up in the middle of the night with her tummy in knots. It was not comfortable. It was not pleasant. But a funny thing happened. Sleeping on the floor, waking up in the middle of the night, comforting her actually made me love her more. It’s a paradox. It’s why we tend to overspend on our kids at Christmas, or our spouses….
That’s how friendships are forged—not just in spending time with each other, but when we go out of our way to sacrifice for one another. We gain stretcher-bearers by being stretcher-bearers. We’ve begun the season of Lent. Lent is all about sacrifice—first Christ’s sacrifice for us, but the spiritual discipline we most associate with Lent is fasting. We sacrifice something we love for Someone we love more.
The second paradox of sacrifice is this: sacrifice, while painful or difficult, has an odd way of producing joy. We live in a world where we think that joy will surely be found in a life of ease and comfort without sacrifice. But find people who never have to work for anything, strive for anything or sacrifice for anything and you’ll likely find joyless lives. There is something about working hard for something, sacrificing for it, that makes the end result more joyful.
This week I was standing in the sanctuary as the installers installed the final pane of the stained glass window. We began this process four years ago, and three years ago we chose the artists. Over the last two years they have been fabricating this window. For me that was a very small part of the last two years—four trips to Judson Studios, maybe 50 phone conversations. But for the artisans who created the window it was 14,000 hours with many late nights around the kilns creating this work. And for you as a congregation, there were over 3,000 of you who gave to make this window happen. I sat there as they moved the final window in place, tears welling up in my eyes—not tears of sorrow, but of joy.
Even more profound are the tears of a mother who has just been through labor, now holding her child. Even more so if the parents had to work particularly hard, undergoing fertility treatments, in order to conceive the child. Or think of the Olympic athletes who gave up so much, only to finally make the big games. The greater the sacrifice the greater the joy. The disciples, having been abused for their faith, rejoiced. Paul writes from a prison cell about his joy....
Finally, it is a paradox that what defines our lives is not ultimately our achievements or successes, but our sacrifices. I’ve preached over 300 funerals over the years. I’ve yet to have any family of the deceased suggest that I summarize their loved one’s net worth or assets, or the kind of home they lived in or the car they drove. Occasionally we have funerals where the greatest thing we celebrate about someone is their career achievements. Now there is room to celebrate career accomplishments at a funeral, but if that is all we have to celebrate, there is always something missing.
What defines real greatness is not career accomplishments or material acquisition. It’s not what we possess but what we give back that defines greatness. I think about a man who was a member of our church whose funeral I preached some years ago. In his career he fundamentally changed the industry he worked in. He had amazing accomplishments professionally. Personally he had travelled to amazing places. He’d played golf with famous people. But those were not the things we talked about in his service. What we celebrated were the stories of people whose lives he had touched, the ways that he had given to others, helped them, sacrificed for them, the investments he’d made in causes that mattered to him.
Often those we admire the most are those we say, “made the ultimate sacrifice”: firefighters, police officers, people who acted without thought for themselves to save or help someone else. But I also think of the sacrifices you’ve made routinely in your life. You are defined for your children by the sacrifices you made for them – sacrifices they don’t understand until they become adults. The depth of a friendship is defined by the sacrifices one is willing to make for your friends. You’ve been there at the hospital at midnight, or watched kids without being asked, or given yourself in a thousand other ways. And when it comes to our faith, the sacrifices we make both shape, and bear witness to our commitment to Christ. Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). Self-denial and sacrifice are a part of the Christian life….
Most of us will never be beaten for our faith. We’ll not be imprisoned or put to death because we are followers of Jesus. The sacrifices we make are going out of our way to minister to others, standing up and speaking out when someone else is wronged, serving in mission here in Kansas City and in other parts of the world….
I am the church, you are the church, we are the church together. Let’s see what God can do through us!
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