Worth the Death of God
Today we’re going to talk about something difficult.
Today we’re going to talk about sacrifice.
Sacrifice is hard to talk about for three reasons: first, because it can be taken to an unhealthy and exploitative extreme, second, because we don’t want to do it ourselves, and third, because it’s hard to accept on our own behalf. We’ll work our way through these problems with sacrifice one at a time.
Sacrifice is what our lessons are about today.
It is described in a vivid, elegant and emotive phrase.
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep,” Jesus says.
In our text from 1 John, we read, “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us– and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”
What does it mean to lay down one’s life for another?
In the most basic and obvious sense, it means to die.
But not just to die randomly and pointlessly, but to die with purpose.
To lay down one’s life for someone is to voluntarily accept death that another might live.
That is terrifying to imagine.
Our lives are what we defend most aggressively.
There are few biological instincts more powerful than simple self-preservation.
The will to live is built into our very DNA, our primitive lizard brains will take over to help us defend ourselves in case of danger.
To lay down one’s life for another is to override one’s own humanity for something greater.
It is to defeat biology for an abstract idea.
Paul recognizes how difficult it is. In Romans, he says, “Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die.”
And Jesus says, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
It is never something that happens by accident.
It is a choice, and it is a choice with a cost.
Sacrifice is not something we talk much about in our culture today.
We talk about things like winning and succeeding and building a better life and climbing to the top.
It is all better, now, further, higher, faster, more, more, more.
Sacrifice is about giving something up.
Sacrifice is about letting go, abandoning one’s self interest, taking and doing and being less so that someone else might have some goodness.
When we think about sacrifice, we start to understand why Jesus described discipleship as taking up our cross to follow him.
It is scary, and we should be scared of it, because it is dangerous.
How is it dangerous?
Well, first of all, if our hearts are not in the right place when we make a sacrifice, it is not going to accomplish anything good.
There are two extremes that negative sacrifice fall into. One is the sacrifice of the martyr, and the other is the sacrifice of the victim.
The sacrifice of the martyr is the sacrifice that is a thin surface of giving over a deep well of pride and self-satisfaction.
We’ve all known people who do this and done it ourselves.
This is the sacrifice that we make so other people can see us doing it and admire us.
“Look at how brave and noble and giving I am!” we inwardly cry as we give money or time or talent to something.
We get so proud of our humility that we can’t even see how damaging our sham of sacrifice is to our own souls.
A sacrifice done to look good to ourselves and others is not what Jesus meant when he talked about laying down one’s life.
The opposite end of the spectrum from the sacrifice of the martyr is the sacrifice of the victim.
This is a sacrifice that is not freely chosen but forced upon someone.
This is the sacrifice of the mother in Africa who is starving but gives up her small portion of food for her child.
This is the sacrifice of the domestic violence sufferer who lets himself be beaten to protect his sibling.
These are the sacrifices born out of crippled self-esteem and abject poverty and injustice of every kind.
While God cherishes the courage of the people who make these sacrifices, this is not what God wants for any of God’s children.
These are sacrifices forced on the innocent by the powers of evil, and they bring neither spiritual growth nor honor to God. They are unnecessary suffering.
And sacrifice is meant to be holy.
That is the linguistic origin of the term. It comes from the Latin root sacra, from which we get “sacred,” combined with facere, meaning “to do or perform.”
Sacrifice literally means to do something holy.
When we think of sacrifice the way Jesus describes it, laying down one’s life, it does seem holy and dramatic and noble and inspiring.
That is because we are very unlikely to have to do it.
We as affluent 21st century American Christians are extremely unlikely to find ourselves in circumstances where we have to die for someone else.
So laying down our lives for another or for the sake of the gospel remains comfortably remote and distant.
We can go about our business feeling confident we would do it if we had to, we would die to save someone else, bolstered by the reality that we probably won’t have to.
Until we realize that there is more than one way to lay down one’s life.
And then suddenly the Cross that is part and parcel of discipleship catches up with us.
Laying down one’s life does not necessarily mean literal, physical death.
You can lay down your life and still keep breathing, still have a beating heart.
Laying down your life while staying alive could be something like giving up an ambition for a high-profile career to care for a parent with Alzheimer’s.
Laying down your life while staying alive could be something like giving the better part of your savings account to a friend to pay for her child’s cancer treatment.
Laying down your life while staying alive might mean giving up a kidney or a car or a dream or a year of time.
Those are the kind of sacrifices that make a real difference in someone’s life. They hurt, they cost, and they can be the means of resurrection for someone in pain or need.
They honor God and they call us into a deeper realization of who God created us to be.
They make us different, and they make life for someone else not just different but better.
But I have more hard news.
Those types of sacrifices, those ways of laying down one’s life, are worthy. They are valuable. They honor God.
And they are still just the littlest bit satisfying for being big dramatic gestures.
The truth is, even though we are more likely to be called up on to lay down our lives in one huge moment like this than we are likely to actually have to physically die, that is still not the most likely type of sacrifice that lies ahead of us.
For the vast majority of us, we will be called to lay down our lives one moment at a time.
One small, insignificant, unseen and unheralded day or hour or second at a time.
Laying down one’s life for one’s friends happens most often in giving up a day to serve those in need, or giving up a seat to someone who is tired even though you are too, or giving up a chance to talk about your own problems because someone else’s heart is heavier than your own.
Laying down one’s life for the sake of the gospel may be as humble and stupid and ignoble as not taking the last slice of casserole, as replacing the toilet paper in the church bathroom, as reloading printer paper or doing dishes or letting someone cut in front of you in traffic.
Moments like these that are so insignificant that the sacrifice isn’t even satisfying—they are worthy of being counted with the giving up of one’s literal life exactly because we get virtually no emotional mileage from them.
What all the different types of sacrifice have in common is their motivation: the sincere desire to do the right thing, to give of ourselves, to love.
Love is the heart of laying down one’s life.
And loving something or someone means valuing that thing or person highly.
Sacrificing for someone means valuing that person more highly than one’s own time or space or money or self-interest.
And here is where we get to the heart of the truth about who Jesus is and how relationship with Jesus can transform us.
Jesus laid down his life for us because he valued us more than his own life, his own self, his very being.
This sounds like a truth we’ve heard a thousand times, but stop and pay attention to what this really means.
Jesus laying down his life for you means that he judged you more important than the life of the miraculous person who was fully divine and fully human.
Jesus had the choice of saving God’s life or saving your life, and he chose your life.
In giving himself up, Jesus allowed God to die.
God, in the person of Jesus Christ, was absent from existence for three days, because you were worth it.
It is staggering to realize the nonsensical and frankly insane depth of love that underlies the great sacrifice of the crucifixion.
How on earth could any one of us be worth the death of God?
Well, Jesus says we are, and he proved it with his body, his blood, his breath, his life, his death.
And if we are that deeply worthy, that deeply valued, that deeply good, that deeply holy, surely there must be something within us strong enough and brave enough to give it all away for the sake of others.
If we are the ones Jesus chose to live for, to die for, to defeat death and rise again for, than surely we must have something of him within us that could help us follow in his footsteps.
If we can find within ourselves the radical courage to accept that we are worth his sacrifice, worth the fact that he laid down his life for us, that is only one small step from having the courage to let Jesus transform us into people who can lay down our lives for others, for the gospel, for him.
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