Monday, September 17, 2007

A Vision for the Church: Moving Beyond Security to Sacrifice

(A sermon based on Luke 9:51-56; John 11:16)

[Fifth in a series]

My, how different things would be!

How different things would be if, “when the days drew near for him to be received up,” Jesus had “set his face” to go away from Jerusalem! For Jesus, Jerusalem was the place of supreme sacrifice. It was the place where he would die. He knew what was going to happen to him when he got there. Still, he resolutely determined to move toward Jerusalem until he got there. He moved forward until he achieved the level of sacrifice that was required of him. To do otherwise would have been the way of security, not sacrifice. Where would we be if Jesus had not “set his face” to go to Jerusalem?

How different things would be if, when Jesus and his disciples were not welcomed into the Samaritan village as Jesus journeyed toward Jerusalem, he had agreed with the proposed policy of James and John: “Yeah, go ahead and burn them out!” How different things would be if Jesus had allowed the power of God to be used to hurt rather than to help people. To take that action would have been the way of security and not the way of sacrifice. Where would we be if Jesus had allowed fire to be brought down from heaven to burn up folks who where resistant to him?

But things are not that way; they are the way they are. That is, we have the opportunity to have real life, real hope, real joy, and real purpose. Why? Because Jesus’ life was one of purposeful sacrifice and not one of desperately seeking security.

Most of us live in search of the ultimate security of heaven. Jesus had that security before he ever came into this world but he willingly gave it up for his sojourn here. Most of us live in search of the temporal security of material resources. As the Lord of the universe, Christ had everything in it at his disposal. But he came to earth where he had “nowhere to lay his head.” Most of us live in search of ways to prolong our earthly lives, hoping somehow to squeeze in one more day. But Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem,” knowing that there he would die a painful death not even halfway to the expected three score and ten.

Now, there is sacrifice and then there is sacrifice; Jesus’ actions constitute a real sacrifice. Perhaps many of us would give of ourselves out of obedience to God and out of concern for other people if circumstances forced the choice upon us. That is good. But do we go out of our way consciously and purposefully to give of ourselves? That is what Jesus did. He did not just end up in Jerusalem one day and get arrested and then decide, “OK, I’ll do this.” Rather, he resolutely determined to go to Jerusalem and there to offer himself. It takes real commitment to make a real sacrifice.

It is not sacrificial commitment that asks, “What’s in it for me?” It is sacrificial commitment that asks, “What’s in it for God?” and “What’s in it for people in need?” We seem, though, to gain security by maneuvering things to our advantage. Think of Jesus again. Can you imagine him saying, “I am going to Jerusalem. But first, I need to make sure that I am going to come out of the experience having gained something. I’ll do the right thing if it will be good for me”? Of course you cannot imagine such a thing! But is that not the way that Christians and churches often think? We may think “What can I do to serve the Lord?” but that thought quickly flees before another: “Will it be advantageous to me?” And once we think that thought, our sacrifice has been sacrificed to security concerns and, in fact, our quest for security has deteriorated into selfishness.

We have sold our birthright for a mess of pottage.

Furthermore, it is not sacrificial commitment that asks “How can we protect ourselves?” Again, can you imagine Jesus saying, “I am going to Jerusalem—if I can be sure that I will not get hurt”? And again, of course you cannot imagine such a thing. Ultimately, self-protection amounts to self-insulation. That is, we Christians and churches seek to protect ourselves from the demanding will of God. We seek to protect ourselves from the needs of hurting people. We seek to protect ourselves from the problems and pain of the world. But in reality we are insulating ourselves.

In doing our work of insulation, we actually go in reverse order from the listing I just offered. First, we try to insulate ourselves from the problems and pain of the world. Then, we try to insulate ourselves from the needs of hurting people. Then we look up and find that we have in so doing insulated ourselves from the will of God and all of its claims on our lives. When we have done that, we may still be Christians and we may still be the Church, but we do not look very much like them.

Jesus said “I am going to Jerusalem” and he had no other reasons than that it was the Father’s will and it was time. He sought no advantage for himself. He did not try to insulate himself from the pain that lay before him. Living sacrificially to the point of giving up all that he had and all that he was fulfilled his calling.

Perhaps you agree with what I have said about Jesus. Granted, it runs against the human currents that propel our lives forward. Humans are by and large more concerned about getting than giving and about living than dying and about protecting than sacrificing. So you may think that “it was good enough for Jesus but it is just too much for me.”

If you’re thinking that way, please meet Thomas. Thomas was one of the Twelve. His discipleship is defined in the minds of most of us by the adjective “doubting.” Any person, however, is multi-faceted, and Thomas is no exception. He comes across quite differently in another episode. The approach of Jesus to Jerusalem still provides our rough time-frame, even though we have moved from Luke’s narrative to John’s.

Word came to Jesus that his friend Lazarus was ill. After a couple of days, Jesus resolved to go to Bethany to see about Lazarus, who had in the meantime died. When Jesus made known his intentions to go to Bethany, Thomas, speaking to the other disciples, uttered the words that are of interest to us today: “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

Significant is the fact that Bethany was only about two miles from Jerusalem. Also significant is that in John’s chronology, the last time Jesus had been in Jerusalem the people had almost stoned him. Thomas knew which way the wind was blowing. He knew that is was risky for Jesus to go near Jerusalem. Indeed, according to John’s narrative, it was Jesus’ raising of Lazarus that prompted the final and successful assault on his life (John 11:45-53). We cannot with certainty guess the state of Thomas’ mind as he made the statement but this much is sure: he knew that to follow Jesus was to risk his own life.

Jesus says “I am going to Jerusalem” and embedded in his words is his invitation: “If you will be my disciple, you must go with me.” In my mind’s eye I see Jesus setting his face to go to Jerusalem. In my mind’s ear I hear Thomas saying “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” But do I see myself going with Jesus? Do you see yourself going with him? Do we follow Jesus with the goal of dying with him? Or are we trying to follow him with our minds on self-attainment and self-protection? The latter is hardly worthy of being called “following,” is it?

Here is the truth for the individual or for the church: we only live when we die to ourselves. Furthermore, when we die to ourselves, when we lose our lives in the life of Christ, we continually give of ourselves in obedience to God and in service to other people. As always, the words of the Bible speak for themselves better than we can speak about them:

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
(Matthew 16:24-25)

It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)

We know love by this, that he laid down is life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. (1 John 3:16)

The Lord through the Bible offers a vision for our lives and for the life of the Church. That vision is that we will be crucified with Christ and that his life and love will be lived out through us. It is that we will realize that the face of our Savior was set toward Jerusalem where he was going to die and that we will go with him that we may die with him. By dying with him we become continually sacrificial, looking for ways to serve our Lord and to help people. Our eyes are on the way of the Cross which is sacrifice and not on the way of the world which is security.

The question as I have posed it today has been “Will we be sacrificial or will we be secure?” Perhaps is can be better put, “Will we or will we not be disciples?”

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