"Sacrificial Love"

(Part III of VIII in the Lenten Sermon Series:

For the Love of Christ)

Psalm 22:23-31; Mark 8:31-38

The First Congregational Church, Columbus

March 16, 2003 -- 2nd Sunday in Lent

Rev. Ronald Botts, Preaching

Divine love has never been more fully expressed in human terms than in Christ's willingness to sacrifice his life for those he loved-- then and now. He knew the pain of staying upon his appointed path; yet, he anticipated it with that inner calm which is born of conviction. To this, he had been called; to this, he would remain true.

Sacrificial love takes many forms. Perhaps we can never fully understand and appreciate the actions of Jesus because they exist in a higher plane than our more limited experience of life. So it may be of help to consider a mere extraordinary example of such love out of the life we know. Let me give you one.

In my prior congregation we had a sewing group. These talented women would make one special quilt each year to raffle off at our annual holiday bazaar. Price a handmade item like this and, if you can find one, it'll cost hundreds of dollars.

One year it was won by one of our own members. Now in Evelyn's department at work there was a colleague whose wife had cancer and the family's finances were particularly strained. So instead of keeping this beautiful quilt for herself, this compassionate woman took it to the office and created a raffle there along the same lines as the one at church.

The fundraiser went extremely well and the quilt was won for a second time by a lucky ticketholder. This wonderful quilt would, indeed, turn even an average bedroom into a showplace. Yet a truly unexpected thing happened. The winner brought the quilt back and started another raffle in that same workplace. Tickets were sold all over again, and this time even more money was raised. The family in need was helped doubly.

So, yet another fortunate person came forward to claim her prize and was handed this quilt which was so painstakingly sewn by a group of dedicated ladies at Trinity UCC. I'm not sure, but I wonder if they didn't stuff it with love. For when the last recipient had it in her hands, she walked over to the man whose wife was ill and presented it to him.

Small sacrifices of love, repeated many times. Christ-like gestures that reached out to encircle a family with true concern. None of the people had to do what they did. They did it out of the generosity of their hearts. We can understand that kind of giving.

Jesus said, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me." Now if he would have had speechwriters, I'm sure that they would have advised Jesus that this is no way to reach new people. You always start with the benefits of doing something and then, only later, do you want to reveal the potential costs.

"For those who want to save their life, will lose it," he continued. Certainly Jesus was going about this all wrong. Nobody would fall for this, or so the skeptics might say. Capitalize on everything to be gained, make it as easy as possible, promise them anything-- just don't make it seem hard or you'll lose them before you get them. [Note: rewrite this speech before he makes it again. As it is, no one will ever remember it.]

"For what will it profit a people to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?" This is going too far. It's out of hand. We've got to get a new image out there. We need some glitter, some pizzazz. We need some "feel good" words. And whatever you do, Jesus, don't use that word "sacrifice." It turns people off. It's way too heavy and implies cost. No one wants to hear that.

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected… and be killed…. [but] "Those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of this Good News, will save it."

The truth is, Jesus said, we receive as we give. In unselfish acts for others, we are given a reward even though we don't seek it. Life often takes us to the mountaintop when efforts are costly, rather than the easy way that conventional wisdom would tell us.

Just a few minutes ago we baptized little Miriam Elizabeth. You know, Matt and Julia, she will never truly understand the sacrifices of love you make for her until she is older, perhaps when she is a mother of her own. Then she will know. In the meantime, do what your heart tells you. Care for her always in the way that you know is best, even when it takes effort, even when it hurts, even when that concern is bought at great sacrifice.

The African-American poet Robert Hayden wrote a short verse that he titled "Those Winter Sundays." In it he remembers his father and the old coal furnace that had to be stoked by hand each morning, long before the convenience of modern gas and electric heat.

Sundays too my father got up early

and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,

then with cracked hands that ached

from labor in the weekday weather made

banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.

When the rooms were warm he'd call,

and slowly I would rise and dress,

fearing the chronic angers of that house.

Speaking indifferently to him,

who had driven out the cold

and polished my good shoes as well.

What did I know, what did I know

Of love's austere and lonely offices.

O Jesus, what indeed do we know of love's austere and lonely offices? What do we really understand of your sacrificial love for us? Yet even what we can't comprehend, when we can't truly know, let us live in the example you give us.

Let us follow the road where you traveled first and where you reach out to meet us in our journey.

For so you give to us, and so we give to others: gifts of love made holy because the cost never undermines the act.

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