Sacrifice for What?
One of the classics of American theater is Arthur Miller's play, Death of a Salesman. It centers on the sad ending of Willy Loman, whose life falls in on him. Willy Loman was the jolly good fellow salesman who drifted through life convinced that to be "well liked" and have the right contacts would guarantee him success. Willy lived by this creed and taught it to his sons. They saw him carry his deception almost to the end, when it collapsed in the awful discovery that his business associates and his boss and even Willy Loman saw through the bluff. Judgment finally fell on Willy Loman.
The response to Death of a Salesman was startling. When it went to Europe, the newspapers there expressed amazement that America--the land of the success story--could produce a play about failure. In this country people wondered why this play fascinated its audiences as more glittering shows did not.
One day a newspaperman asked the author for his own opinion of the power of the play. Arthur Miller explained that his play dealt with a problem that concerns everyone: the fear that one has lied to one's self over a period of years in relation to one's true identity and what one should be doing in the world. What the play does is to make the individual ask himself whether his rationalizations about himself are not leading him to an ultimate rendezvous with a dreadful reckoning.
Willy Loman sacrificed the fidelity of his marriage, the respect of his sons, his self-respect, and finally his own life, for what? For the illusion of success. Our theme for this Lenten season is "The Call of Sacrifice." The text for today is Romans 12:1, "I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God." The title of this sermon is, "Sacrifice For What?"
The call of sacrifice is a powerful tug in the human heart. There is something in most of us humans that responds to sacrifice. Most of us respond to a call to sacrifice for something noble and worthwhile. The knights of the middle ages responded to the call of sacrifice, leaving the comfortable and familiar to go and free the Holy Land from control of the infidel; or, even more romantically, the knights gladly responded to the call of sacrifice to save the lovely damsel in distress. Some youths respond to the call of their country and are willing to lay down their very lives. Some youths were enticed to enter the military so they could get an education, or find discipline, or escape from parental dominance, but even then, when the chips were down, they responded to their country's call of sacrifice. There is something in us that stirs the blood, lifts the head in pride, and swells the chest when we respond.
But, the question to ask is, sacrifice for what? Is the particular cause worth the sacrifice? Some veterans of the Viet Nam war returned home bitter. They felt betrayed. They felt the cause was not worth the sacrifice they and their buddies were called to make. Willy Loman's life ended in despair because his cause was not worth the sacrifice he made. He felt betrayed.
Sacrifice for what? Is whatever you call success in your vocation or profession worth sacrificing your marriage? Some divorces are the casualties of supreme dedication to success. Is "success" worth sacrificing your family, the relationships in your family, or even the future wellbeing of your children? Some children are unable to cope with being sacrificed on the altars of parental success. Realizing they are sacrificial victims really messes children up. Sacrifice for what? Garrison Kielor on the popular radio show, "Prairie Home Companion", had the wife of the pastor of the Lake Woebegone Lutheran Church say to her husband, Pastor Engquist, "It's fine for you to choose to be a martyr, but why do you feel you can take me along with you?" Willy Loman sacrificed the fidelity of his marriage, the respect of his sons, his self-respect, and finally his own life, for what?
In the Scripture lesson this morning, Paul said only God is worthy of your sacrifice. Romans 12:1, "I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God." Paul is writing as a Hebrew who makes no distinction between body, mind, and spirit. The Greeks dissected us into body, mind, and soul. The Old Testament looks on us in a holistic manner. Perhaps, a better translation than "bodies" is "life." Present your life as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.
Our model is Jesus. I said last week that Jesus sacrificed his life to bring down the Roman Empire and all institutions and structures that oppose the kingdom of God, and oppress people. Jesus points us to a nonviolent means of not only resisting evil, but overpowering it. The cause was just and worthy of his life, and the promise of victory was certain because he was raised from the dead. The resurrection in three days proved that the enemies will never win. Ultimate victory is certain.
When God's people act as Jesus' disciples, offer their blood of the new covenant, and attack the forces of evil with nonviolent sacrifice, nothing can stop them. The very gates of hell cannot prevail against them. The mighty church of God marches in triumph.
But, having said that, there are some folks who think they can avoid sacrifice. A little girl once wrote to her pastor, "I think more people would go to church if you moved it to Disneyland." No doubt some prefer a Disneyland type of religion, a fantasy existence without sacrifice. Some prefer a religion without the cross, a religion without blood, sacrifice and crucifixion.
Eighteen years ago our congregation participated in a survey to determine the congregation's profile. One of the statements read, "I believe Jesus is" with multiple choice answers. The results were very interesting. Some 379 people in our congregation answered. 46 checked, "Jesus was truly human with the aspirations, feelings and limitations of any human." 122 checked "The unique Son of God, sinless and resurrected from the grave." And the majority, some 210, checked, "Jesus was a great teacher through whom the highest revelation of God has come."
Adding those who believed in Jesus the human to those who believed in Jesus the teacher, eighteen years ago some 68% of our congregation preferred a human Jesus who was a great teacher. I interpret this theology to mean that our congregation preferred a religion where everything and everyone are nice, proper, clean, respectable, successful; a religion where Jesus was a nice teacher, but, please, do not disturb us with sacrifice, crucifixion, death and resurrection.
We may have preferred a religion without the cross, but consider our church's history. Since the survey was taken, our church has suffered a great deal. During one crisis, approximately one half of the congregation left. Our church was betrayed and humiliated. We endured sacrifices and crucifixions. We are a church with a battered history. And, when the crises came, we did not have the depth and power of Spirit to handle them. Our church was split, fragmented, and demoralized. We may have wanted a religion without a cross, but we didn't get one; instead, we were put on a cross. We didn't need a Teacher; we needed the Savior.
Our congregation is learning the gospel the hard way, and we are still learning. The gospel is not a matter of choosing which of the teachings of the gentle, kind Jesus we would like to follow. The gospel, the good news, is that Jesus meets us in our crucifixions. Christ meets us at the cross. Jesus went through it all, came out victorious on Easter, and can save us, and is saving our congregation. We are saved not by our own power, not by our own strength and determination, not by our attempt to have a nice, proper, respectable, successful, popular religion; but, we are saved by the grace of God, saved by the One who suffered, bled real blood, was humiliated and sacrificed on our behalf. We are gradually learning we as a congregation can be saved by Christ, and empowered by the Holy Spirit to forgive one another, delve into the Scriptures together, pray together, trust one another, and support one another.
Individual persons, like churches, experience crosses and cannot handle them without the Savior and the depth and power of the Spirit. Salvation is a rhythm of suffering, sacrifice and resurrection. No one only lives on Easter. Life is not one success after another. There are crosses to bear; there are crucifixions to suffer. We live in a world where little ones are dashed against the rocks, as we just read in Psalm 137. Some here today have gone through, and are going through divorce; suffering the guilt, pain and crucifixion of divorce. Some here are alienated from their children. Some have lost jobs. Some are suffering financial setbacks. Some face serious illness and death.
The gospel without the cross is impossible; but, praise God, the cross is not the end of the story. Jesus was raised from the dead. But, a gospel of only Easters is also not possible. I invite you to take advantage of the worship opportunities your church provides during Holy Week. Don't jump from Palm Sunday to Easter, as if you can live from triumph to triumph. Come on Maundy Thursday, and relive the pain of the last supper. Come on Good Friday, reflect on Jesus' crucifixion and the humiliation of the cross. Then, there is a possibility for real joy on Easter when you realize that joy comes out of pain. Out of humiliation, sacrifice, suffering and crucifixion comes Easter.
No, we can't avoid sacrifice. Our church can testify that the cross cannot be avoided, but it can be transformed by resurrection. By the power of the Holy Spirit, make your sacrifices count. Hear Christ calling you to the cross and through the cross to victory. Sacrifice for what? You choose. "I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to make your bodies a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God."
© 1991 Douglas I. Norris