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The Way of the Cross – Lenten Season 2018

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship.  Do not conform any longer 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.” (Romans 12: 1,2 NIV)

“When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it.  She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.  Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.” (Genesis 3:6,7 NIV)

“The LORD God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them.” (Genesis 3:21 NIV)

A Living Sacrifice

There are a few sayings that I really like, mostly because they tend to get to the heart of the matter and usually give a different perspective on things.  One of those that I like has to do with parenting (especially for fathers).  As a father myself, I have fallen into this trap a couple of times.  When my wife wants to go out, I end up babysitting the kids (at least that is how I usually put it).  But one day, my wife said to me, “Look, you aren’t babysitting, you’re parenting.  You aren’t doing me a favor, you’re just doing your job.”

Wow.  Burned.  But in a good way, you know?

I feel the same way about this particular passage of Scripture.  It is obviously very famous and we have all heard a lot of sermons about what it means to be a living sacrifice.  But then one day, I got an entirely new perspective on what it means and it has made all the difference.  For some reason, I was talking with a friend about the sacrifices he makes for his family and especially his children.

He looked at me and said, “Frankly, I have never thought of it as a sacrifice.  I am glad to do it.  My children and my wife need me and I give them whatever they need so long as I am able to.”

Wow.  Burned.  But in a good way, you know?

It is one of those fundamental lessons that we need to learn as humans and especially as Christians, that love knows no sacrifice.  If there is love, it simply isn’t a sacrifice.  It is just love.  I don’t sacrifice for my kids.  I just serve them.  The same goes for my wife.

Ok, ok.  I know what you’re going to say.  This isn’t about the normal things of life that you are responsible for as a husband and father.  The Bible is talking about bigger, more difficult things here.  Well, yes and no.

Before we jump to conclusions, let’s just reflect for a moment.

You have heard me talk about my friend, Scottie, and I minister to his needs whenever I can.  He and his wife are street evangelists and practically live on the streets themselves.  They are always in need.  And they are always asking for help.  One day, he just showed up at my front gate and without even saying hello, started asking for help and money because he had another difficult situation to deal with.  I remember feeling a bit cross with him.  It felt like he was taking advantage of me and that he was only in it for the benefits and not the relationship.  But I gave him what he needed and he left.

When I went inside a few minutes later, my daughter came up to me and asked me for something she wanted (not needed) and I immediately agreed and told her I would buy it later that day.  Then I sat down at my desk and this thought hit me.

Why was I not cross with Michelle but I was cross with Scottie?

Scottie came to me with a serious need, Michelle with only a desire.  I was quick to judge Scottie and his intentions but was more than happy to meet my beautiful, precious daughter’s needs immediately without thought to cost or intention.

The Lord was teaching me something.  The truth is that I love Michelle much more than Scottie.

Now, you might say that that is obvious and normal.  Maybe.

But Jesus told us to love our neighbors as ourselves (or, at least, as much as we love our own families).  For me, meeting my daughter’s needs was not a sacrifice but meeting Scottie’s needs was a real difficulty.  Not financially, but emotionally, in terms of the relationship.

If we love one another, as Jesus loves us, or even just as we love our own families, then the sense of sacrifice tends to fade away.  Love trumps sacrifice.  Sacrifice, in this sense, is still focused on oneself, not on the other.  It is focused on what we are giving up and not how the other person is being helped.

I guess what I am saying is that a lot of what we mean by sacrifice is really just a lack of love and is not what this passage is talking about in Romans 12:1,2.

Learning to become a living sacrifice isn’t about inconveniences and reluctance and focusing on what we are giving up for someone else (that we really don’t want to do) or for the church, or for a certain ministry.  I am sacrificing my time, my money, my abilities to make the ministry in my church happen.  Really?  Please, let’s not cheapen the concept of sacrifice that way.  That is just a lack of love.  Get over it.  

I want to say that “love knows no sacrifice” and leave it at that but I think the idea will be misunderstood.  I think it is a true statement when we use our normal concept of sacrifice, which is cheap and self-serving.

But the Biblical concept of sacrifice is deeper and more powerful.  Perhaps it would help to realize that the word “sacrifice” in this passage is a noun, not a verb.  We sacrifice (verb) a sacrifice (noun) we say.  And that is true.  But in this passage, we are called to offer ourselves as a living sacrifice (noun).  Like the sacrifices in the Old Testament maybe.  True.  But more like Christ himself.

The example of “a living sacrifice” that we must always keep in mind is the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.  It was not a lack of love but a demonstration of love.  And he did it for the “joy” that was set before him, not out of reluctance or resentment, though the process was still (necessarily) difficult.  It was not about trifles, but about his life (and death) as a substitute for each one of us.  It was about becoming what his soul hated – sin itself – an abomination to the Father he loved and worthy of all of His wrath.

It’s not just that this is serious stuff, but rather that this is something that Jesus did not have to do.  It was voluntary.  It was not normally expected of someone.  Yes, he came to earth to die on the cross, but he pointed out very clearly that nobody takes his life from him but that he gives it up freely.  That was the point of Gethsemane after all.

Another important point to remember is that we are not doing the sacrificing (verb).  We are the sacrifice (noun) and we are offering our bodies to God as a living sacrifice.  God is the one who sacrifices us but we make ourselves available for sacrifice.  Just like Christ did.  It was voluntary.  He offered himself as a sacrifice.  It wasn’t forced on him.

Think of Abraham and his son Isaac on the mountain.  If Isaac had understood what was happening, he could have chosen to offer his body as a sacrifice.  That is a level of spiritual maturity that is holy (set apart for service) and pleasing to God.

But when you take it out of the physical realm of actual sacrifice (like Abraham and Isaac), and understand it as a daily submission to the will of God, you begin to understand what a “living” sacrifice must be like.  God is the one to whom you are offering yourself and the purpose of the sacrifice is for the spiritual benefit of those who witness it and even participate in it.  Just like Christ.

To give up something that you are not normally required to give up (like a normal life), and do it voluntarily (even if it means suffering for it), for the benefit (especially the spiritual benefit) of another is closer to the idea.

Doesn’t it make you jump with excitement?  What spiritual maturity this is – to be willing to lay down your life for the spiritual benefit of others and trust God to do the deed.  What a powerful prayer it is to offer yourself, your body, your life, your finances, your talents, your suffering, your pain, your words, your actions as a living sacrifice for the spiritual good of others.

To pray the prayer that says, in effect, “God use me in whatever manner you choose to provide the kind of testimony that my kids need to see in order to be saved.”  Even if that means cancer.  Even if that means impoverishing myself for the sake of the gospel.  Even if that means changing my career path and going to Bible College and Seminary at forty years old.  This is your life ministry and your life ministry is your testimony.

But not just for your kids, also your neighbors, your co-workers, your friends and fellow worshippers, believers and religious alike, who need to see that testimony, that spiritual maturity that agrees with God that the salvation of the lost is worth sacrificing for, even dying for.  That anything and everything in my life is available to be sacrificed, spent, changed, given up, developed, learnt anew for the sake of the gospel, for the sake of the spiritual well-being of my kids, my family, my friends, even my enemies.

Now we are starting to think like Christ, starting to have the mind of Christ, the priorities of Christ.  Now it’s getting interesting and God can do great things through us.  This is the practical, everyday life testimony of the spiritually mature.

But how do we get there?

Let’s go back in time to the book of Genesis where we read the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, rebelling against God and beginning the endless cycle of sin in the lives of all human beings.  Their eyes were opened, the Bible says, and they knew they were naked.  They were exposed.  They were in danger because their nakedness was a symbol of the safety and care they experienced with their Creator God who provided a Garden and a relationship where exposure wasn’t even an issue, where safety was not even a concern.  Now that the relationship was broken, they could no longer trust the protection, physical or otherwise, of their Creator God.

They tried to deal with it themselves by sewing fig leaves together to cover their vulnerability (a symbol of all religious efforts to protect ourselves from the dangers of this world).  But God, ultimately, had to kill some of the animals (probably sheep) to make skins for Adam and Eve and clothe them (a symbol of the coming sacrificial system and the final sacrifice of Christ on the cross).

Yes, animals had been dying since the beginning as a consequence of our rebellion against God.  But in this case, it was God ordained.  As a symbol.  As a type of what was to come.  First the sacrificial system which existed in some form even before Moses but was codified for the people of Israel as a temporary solution until the true lamb of the world would be slain on a hill outside of Jerusalem two thousand years ago.

The point being that the animal’s lives were sacrificed.  Blood must pay the price.  The wages of sin is death and it has always been so.  Our deaths, most certainly, but also the deaths of animals as a symbol of the deeper relational, spiritual death that God works hard for us not to forget.

Animals could never be anything more than a symbol of course.  Animals have no business dying for humans.  How is that just?  It isn’t.  But it is a necessary reminder that blood must be shed and that the broken relationship with our Creator God is not to be taken lightly.

Still, ultimately, each human must pay the price for his or her own sin.  We all die and we all face judgment.  But while we live, we need symbols and reminders to tell us that all is not well with this world we live in.  Protection is needed, both from creation itself (earthquakes, hurricanes and disease alike) and from God.  Yes, from God and His righteous justice.  A justice rooted in his great love.  A love we have rejected and we reap the consequences every day.

So what am I trying to say?

First, do not cheapen the idea of sacrifice to mean the inconveniences and difficulties of everyday life where we are called to love one another truly from the heart.  Love knows no sacrifice.

Second, remember that a true, biblical, sacrifice is made for the spiritual benefit of the other.  It isn’t just about meeting people’s needs.  That’s love.  It is about meeting their spiritual needs by giving up something essential that is normally not required of you.  Although it is rooted in love, it goes beyond simply loving your neighbor as yourself.  It is a spiritual sacrifice.

Are their any examples of what this kind of living sacrifice for the spiritual benefit of others is all about?

Yes.  Christ, himself, shows us the way.  He didn’t need to die on the cross.  It was a voluntary act.  But why do it at all?  It was necessary in order for him to become our substitute and allow us to renew our relationship with our Creator God and reverse what happened in the Garden of Eden.  It was necessary for our spiritual good.

I find it interesting that Paul once said that he would be willing to go to hell and take the place of the Jewish nation if that would allow them all to be saved (Romans 9:3,4a NIV).  But Paul is not asked to do that.  Only Jesus.  Still, he understands the idea.  When Paul talks about his ministry, his living sacrifice, for the sake of the Gentiles, he talks about being shipwrecked, about being stoned, about floggings, rejection, escaping away at night, and becoming a prisoner so that the Gentiles would receive the gospel (II Corinthians 6:3-10 NIV).

Jesus is one example and Paul another.  There are many more throughout the Bible (see Hebrews 11 for a list of the Heroes of Faith) and throughout history.

My life can also be a living sacrifice.  I am also called to give up my life (Matthew 10:39 NIV), give up the normal, expected things of this life for the sake of the gospel.  I am a disciple and I need to follow.

Paul says here in Romans 12 that it is our spiritual worship to do so.  It is expected of all of us.  We are to give up our life in this world with all of its requirements, needs and expectations to make the Kingdom of God our first priority.

Jesus died on the cross and suffered the mockery and injustice of his own people for the sake of the gospel.  Paul says something interesting in his letter to the Romans about this very thing.  He says “now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory” (Romans 8:17 NIV).  When we suffer for the gospel, as Christ did, then we will also share in his glory, according to Paul.

And this is no pie in the sky stuff, either.  Don’t “spiritualize” it into something that isn’t real, that doesn’t hurt, that doesn’t cost you anything, maybe everything.  You would be making the idea of sacrifice cheap again.

Look at what Paul says.  “offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God” (vs 1).  Keep it real.  Feet on the ground, toes in the dirt.  Paul went through it all.  It hurt.  It smelled bad.  It was difficult.

Some people want to interpret the whole concept of “a living sacrifice” by that one word, “holy” and interpret it merely as morality.  As if Paul were saying, be good, moral people and do the right thing (which is always a bit of a sacrifice) and if you are holy in your lifestyle you will be pleasing to God and that is your spiritual worship.  No.  That is not what Paul is saying.

Certainly morality is part of the picture.  No doubt.  And morality is generally a limit to our wills (since we often want to do things which are not very loving towards others).  So far so good.  But the idea of holiness has to do with being set apart for a purpose.

Part of being set apart is that we are cleansed (and continue to be cleansed) for that purpose but without the purpose, the cleansing becomes an end in itself.  It is self-serving and safe.  That is much more acceptable to people.  We don’t mind being moral but we know that a new “set apart” purpose to suffer for the gospel, sacrificing our normal lives for the sake of the spiritual benefit of others, would upset the apple cart too much.  But so it is.

We can’t avoid it.  It is our spiritual worship after all.  We must have a gospel purpose, a ministry of suffering for the spiritual benefit of others, and do so in practical, real ways, in our bodies.  This is what it means to be a living sacrifice.

And it makes sense.  We have been talking about spiritual maturity based on these same two verses in Romans 12 and agreed together that spiritual maturity consists of a transformation of our minds that results in testing and approving of the will of God in all circumstances.  It means agreeing with God’s priorities, His spiritual purposes, His eternal perspective even if that means suffering in our bodies (with floggings, disease, rejection, mockery) for the sake of the gospel.

If that is spiritual maturity, which is only developed in the context of a ministry mindset that promotes the gospel and seeks the Kingdom of Heaven first and foremost, then it proves that our understanding here of the meaning of a living sacrifice is correct.

This is not the cheap version but rather the life changing version that can make all the difference in the world.  No wonder so many people can hear sermon after sermon on these verses and it makes so little difference in their lives.  The change here is a change in worldview, a change in perspective, a transformation of the mind that brings renewal and hope to many.  It brings identity, purpose and significance.  It brings joy and meaning to life.

That is why I called this whole thing a cyclical process of spiritual maturity in an upward spiral of virtue and purpose.  The more we offer ourselves up to suffer for the gospel in ministry to others, the more we will be transformed by the word of God in real life situations, which allows us to test (live out) and approve (agree with) God’s priorities.

Which, in turn, encourages us and empowers us to give our lives in even more serious ways to the suffering for the gospel in ministry to others which is the context for even more renewal as the word of God teaches us the priorities of God in the midst of real life situations in ministry.

That is how we change.  And this change makes all the difference in the world.  It is our testimony that we have been changed.  It is our testimony that the gospel can make a difference in the lives of people.  It is our testimony that we are willing to give up a normal life in order to pursue the renewing of our minds in the context of ministry, and demonstrating to the world a radical discipleship that takes the gospel seriously.

Now that is what I call a living sacrifice, a living martyr that can make a difference in society, in family, in individual lives.

Just like the early church did as they followed Christ and were persecuted for it.  Thrown to lions.  Used as torches for Nero’s night parties. Crucified upside down.  Now we are starting to understand why these living sacrifices, these living martyrs, willing to die for Christ but would rather (like Paul) live to promote the gospel (and suffer for it) are God’s secret weapon in his fight against evil (see Revelations).

The only question is whether you and I are willing to pay the ultimate price and dedicate our lives to the gospel or whether we will continue to play the game of making this “sacrifice” business just another cheap attempt to be a moral person or eat fish on fridays or be nice to the local missionary when he comes to our church.

The difference is abysmal.  The results will be as well.

The Desert Warrior

Creator God,

Please teach me what it means to be a living sacrifice willing to suffer for the gospel in ministry to others.  Make me willing to pay that price.  Help me to become more spiritually mature so that I can experience and live in the truth that your eternal priorities are worth the price of any suffering this world has to offer.  In Jesus’ name I pray.  Amen.