Tag Archives: Sacrifice

Freedom and Sacrifice

“But even if he does not [save us from the fire], we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”
Daniel 3:18 (NIV)

Tomorrow is Independence Day here in the States. Wendy and I will be celebrating from the lake. Fireworks are legal here in the state of Missouri and it is always a night of loud and bright celebration as people light fireworks off of the end of their docks and over the cove. It’s a lot of fun right up to the time you’re ready to sleep.

I’ve lived my entire life in a nation where freedoms of speech and religion are protected and where life and liberty are held sacred. Despite this fact, I’ve observed along my life journey that there are subtle forms of social, political, religious, and cultural pressure to conform. I find it fascinating that I came of age at a time when religious conservatives wanted to dictate their particular morals and standards on the nation. Now, I find that it’s the other side who appear to want to demand wholesale adherence to a host of social, cultural, and political beliefs they hold sacred.

These examples notwithstanding, I have always found it a bit hard to fully understand or appreciate the predicament that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego find themselves in today’s chapter. They are exiles in a foreign land. They are minorities holding a very different set of beliefs than their captors. They have likely had to learn to live among society and culture that was very foreign to them while trying to maintain a  sense of their identity and faith.

King Nebuchadnezzar’s demand that all bow down to the statue he had erected was somewhat of a common practice in that ancient culture. It was a litmus test of obedience. Interestingly, as I read some commentary on today’s chapter, I found that scholars are split on whether the Hebrew trio would have been breaking the Law of Moses if they had chosen to bow down. This makes it an even more fascinating episode for me. If it wasn’t a black and white matter of religious law, but a gray area of their personal conscience before God, then their refusal to bow become even more meaningful.

In the quiet this morning I find myself thinking about my own personal beliefs. Where’s the line(s) that my conscience and my faith would not allow me to cross? I even find myself silently asking “For what am I willing to sacrifice my life?” On one hand, this feels like an overly dramatic and exaggerated question given the fact that I live in a land of freedom and I don’t anticipate ever having to face such a trial. On the other hand, I am fully aware that around the world people are facing this very real question on a daily basis. There continue to be dictators, tyrants, and regimes perfectly willing to execute those unwilling to bow to their political, cultural, social, and/or religious demands.

For what am I willing to sacrifice my life?

Today, I find myself whispering a prayer of gratitude for those men and women from every culture, ethnicity, religion, and political persuasion who sacrificed their lives across the centuries that I might walk my entire life journey on this earth without seriously having to answer that question.

Is “Living Sacrifice” an Oxymoron?

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.
Romans 12:1 (NIV)

To Paul’s readers, the term “living sacrifice” would have seemed an oxymoron. Animal sacrifice was a common part of religion at the time. This was not only true of Judaism, but most all of the Roman cults and religions practiced some sort of animal sacrifice. So whether the followers of Jesus in Rome who were reading Paul’s words had come from Jewish or Gentile backgrounds, they would have scratched their heads.

Living sacrifice?” I can hear one say. “But, doesn’t the very notion of ‘sacrifice’ mean that something dies?”

Quite right,” I imagine Paul replying if he were there in person. “You do.”

Excuse me?” the Roman believer asks quizzically.

You are the sacrifice,” Paul says, looking the believer in the eye and offering a warm smile. “In fact dying to yourself is really the heart of your worship. Not the occasional sacrifice of an animal like all these other religions you see around us. Anyone can do that and it costs very little in the long run. Cheap and easy, really. Our Lord Jesus was quite direct in telling us that in order to be His follower we have to take up our own cross. We would have to sacrifice ourselves for others, for Him. Just as He did for us. That’s at the very heart of true worship, and being a true follower.

But how does that work, exactly?” the believer asks. “How exactly do I go about making myself a ‘living sacrifice?‘”

Ah,” Paul says, a twinkle in his eye. “I’m glad you asked.”

The entirety of today’s chapter answers that question. What does it mean to truly worship by offering myself as a “living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God?” Ironically, going to church, singing, throwing a buck in the plate, and all the things we normally associate with “worship” are not even mentioned.

Here’s a bulleted and paraphrased list of what Paul goes on to mention in the rest of today’s chapter:

  • Don’t follow the “It’s all about me” behavior and thought patterns of this world.
  • Transform your thinking; Renew your mind with Jesus’ teaching.
  • Don’t think too much of yourself; Maintain an on-going sober self-assessment.
  • Use your gifts and abilities to serve others.
  • Hate evil.
  • Cling to what is good.
  • Devote yourself to loving others.
  • Attach such worth to others that you naturally serve them first.
  • Be zealous in serving others, and keep feeding the zeal.
  • Be joyful in hope for all God can and will do.
  • Be patient when you’re afflicted, there’s a point to the pain.
  • Faithfully maintain an on-going conversation with God.
  • Share what you have with anyone in need.
  • Practice hospitality. Seriously, practice. You need to get better at it.
  • Bless those who persecute you. Do something nice for them and if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.
  • If you know someone who got a win, sincerely celebrate with them (don’t envy their success or good fortune).
  • If you know someone who is grieving, be present in their pain.
  • Live in harmony with others; You might not be on the same note, but you can at least blend your differences so as not to be dissonant to everyone around you.
  • Don’t be proud; Every day you encounter people in lower, more humble circumstances than you. Be willing to meet them at their level, even if it means stooping below your comfortable social status.
  • Don’t be conceited. Consider the reality that you just might not that important in the grand scheme of things. Embrace it.
  • Evil that is done to you does not justify revenge. Let it go.
  • Do the right thing for everyone, not just your particular religious, political, tribal, ethnic or socio-economic constituency.
  • You can’t control others, but you can control yourself, so practice that self-control to live peacefully with everyone, not just your particular religious, political, tribal, ethnic or socio-economic constituency.
  • Let me repeat, give up your right to revenge. Vengeance is like drinking poison and expecting it hurt someone else.
  • If your enemy is hungry, give her some food.
  • If your enemy is thirsty, give him some water.
  • Responding to evil with your own evil tactics only escalates the situation and then everybody loses. Respond with goodness. You’ll sleep better.

In order to practice this list on a daily basis,” Paul says to his friend, “it will require some sacrifices on your part: your ego, your time, your pride, your resources, your wants, your comfort, and even your rights. That is how we worship God by being a living sacrifice.”

One of the Things We Continually Get Wrong

Then Paul answered, “Why are you weeping and breaking my heart? I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.”
Acts 21:13 (NIV)

I have a notebook in which I keep thoughts, notes, and ideas that come to me at odd times. In this notebook I have a series of messages I’d like to give someday. The working title of the series is The Things We Continually Get Wrong. It’s about the common thoughts and beliefs I observe followers of Jesus continually embrace (and, I confess, that I sometimes catch myself embracing) despite what God’s Message teaches and two millenia of examples provide.

One of the things on my list of The Things We Continually Get Wrong is the notion that God’s will is for all of us is to be healthy, wealthy and wise in the temporal and material sense. There are plenty of teachers and preachers willing to tell us that (usually as they ask people to give them money), yet those who follow in the footsteps of Jesus often find a very different reality.

As I read today’s chapter I thought about Paul’s resolute decision to travel to Jerusalem, despite being told by both God and prophetic believers that it would not end well for him. Paul is on a mission, and as Luke describes the events I couldn’t help but think of how Luke also described Jesus’ in Luke 9:51: As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem[emphasis added]

Now, Paul is following in Jesus’ footsteps, and he knows it.

This morning I’m again reminded of our human desire to cling to this life and avoid death [see yesterday’s post]. It’s a natural desire, but it’s another thing I find that we continually get wrong as believers. If I truly believe what Jesus taught, what Jesus exemplified, and what I see Paul doing in today’s chapter, then I must embrace the notion taught in the old timey spiritual:  This world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ through. Paul, like Jesus before him, is pressing the events that will lead to his death. This isn’t some act of suicidal desperation, but an act of obedience and sacrifice knowing that the events which will transpire will provide the platform for Paul to share the Message in unparalleled ways with people he would otherwise never reach.

Jesus said, “Whoever wants to save their life will lose it, while those willing to lose their lives will find it.”

“So, You Want a Promotion?”

Then Jeremiah said to the family of the Rekabites, “This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: ‘You have obeyed the command of your forefatherJehonadab and have followed all his instructions and have done everything he ordered.’ Therefore this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: ‘Jehonadab son of Rekab will never fail to have a descendant to serve me.’”
Jeremiah 35:18-19 (NIV)

Once upon a time, I was asked by an executive with one of my company’s clients to mentor a handful of young people with management potential. The executive was looking for my objective insight and assessment regarding the young employees’ fitness for promotion and development.

At one point in the coaching process I asked each of my protegés to complete a certain strategic task. I provided them with instruction and examples. I also offered to assist as they progressed in their work.

One of them set to work, emailing me drafts and asking for my feedback and assistance. The task was completed on time and had already been fruitful in initiating some other positive outcomes in the person’s work. Meanwhile, I had not heard from one of my other charges at all. When we sat down to review the project, this person shrugged and admitted that the task had simply not been done. My charge then went on to explain that there were other important things that took precedent.

Who do you think I recommended for promotion?

Who do you think received a promotion?

It’s a simple word picture of obedience, which is exactly the point of today’s chapter in the prophet Jeremiah’s works. God asks Jeremiah to bring a nomadic clan called the Rekabites to the temple and offer them some wine, knowing that the Rekabites would refuse. For generations the Rekabites’ entire clan shunned wine because their forefather had been promised that God would bless them if they didn’t drink wine or build houses. As expected, the Rekabites politely declined the wine offered them.

Jeremiah then uses this simple example of obedience as a foundational word picture for his message to the people of Jerusalem and Judah. The simple obedience of one nomadic clan contrasted with the countless prophetic messages God had sent to the people of Judah promising them blessing if only they would stop their worship of local pagan dieties. They continually refused.

This morning I’m reminded of the prophet Samuel’s words to King Saul when Saul flatly disobeyed God’s simple command that a King was not to offer sacrifices (only a priest should do that):

“Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices
    as much as in obeying the Lord?
To obey is better than sacrifice,
    and to heed is better than the fat of rams.
For rebellion is like the sin of divination,
    and arrogance like the evil of idolatry.
Because you have rejected the word of the Lord,
    he has rejected you as king.”

Simple command. Simple obedience.

This morning in the quiet I’m taking stock of my own thoughts, words, relationships, and actions. Are there areas of simple, willful disobedience in my life?

I have often observed in this chapter-a-day journey that, unlike today’s educational system, God doesn’t just promote us to the next grade level until we’ve learned the lessons in the stage we’re in.

Are there places in which simple disobedience is keeping me from getting a promotion?

A Sacrifice of Aroma

The Lord said to Moses, “Give this command to the Israelites and say to them: ‘Make sure that you present to me at the appointed time my food offerings, as an aroma pleasing to me.’”
Numbers 28:1-2 (NIV)

I remember as a young child taking a school field trip to the Wonder Bread bakery in Des Moines. I can still remember the overwhelming aroma of all those loaves baking in the industrial oven. Pardon the pun, but it was a little slice of heaven to me. At the end of the tour each of us were given a mini-loaf of freshly baked bread still warm from the oven. The simple joy of that experience is still fresh in my memory almost fifty years later.

There is, perhaps, no aroma more pleasing to my soul than that of freshly baked bread. Over the past few weeks, between baby shower and Thanksgiving celebrations, Wendy has made multiple loaves of bread at home. The aroma wafts up the stairway from our kitchen into my office. I don’t know whether it is the nostalgic memories of my mother baking in the kitchen or something more innately human that connects my spirit to the smell of something so basic to life. It fills my spirit in a way that’s almost impossible to describe or quantify.

I find it fascinating that God prescribed to the ancient Hebrews sacrifices of aroma. In my experience we rarely, if ever, connect the spiritual to our sense of smell. Yet we depend on our olfactory senses in such basic ways. When the deli meat has been in the refrigerator for a while Wendy asks me to smell it to discern whether it’s still good. I have cologne in my bathroom cupboard that I refrain from putting on when Wendy and I are going on a date because I know the smell turns her off.  Quite often one of us will stop and say, “I smell something rotten” because our sense of smell has determined there is something amiss.

In his letter to the followers of Jesus in the city of Corinth, Paul makes the point that they are the “aroma of Christ.” I’ve always been attracted to that word picture. I’ve blogged about it multiple times. When I’m on site with a client today will my spirit, my attitude, my words, and my actions be a pleasing aroma to those around me? Just as my soul smiles at the smell of Wendy’s freshly baked bread, will there be some sense in which my clients will think, “I always like it when Tom shows up.”

Conversely, it is perfectly possible that I might possibly “stink up” a place. When my life, my mind, or my soul are slowly rotting from the effects of fear, anxiety, judgement, anger, hatred, envy, bitterness, pride, conceit, or the like, others can “smell” it in the air when I’m present.

In another letter to the followers of Jesus in Rome, Paul tells them to  offer themselves as “living sacrifices.” I’ve never connected the two, but this morning I’m thinking of my “living sacrifice” being a sacrifice of aroma just like God asked from the ancient Hebrews in today’s chapter. Today I want my life and actions to be like the aroma of freshly baked bread in God’s nostrils. I want my presence on-site with my client today to be a similarly pleasing spiritual fragrance for them.

In order for Wendy to produce the aroma of freshly baked bread in our home, she has to actively preheat the oven, mix the recipe in the kitchen, let the dough rise, and bring about the conditions in which the bread will bake and the aroma will be unleashed. Similarly, I’ve got to consciously put together the recipe of intention, thought, words and actions to produce a pleasing aroma for God in my day today.

Of course, in order to produce a stench I don’t have to do a thing. When a living thing sits long enough in stagnation the rot will eventually, naturally happen on its own.

It Was Never About the Rules

The former regulation is set aside because it was weak and useless (for the law made nothing perfect), and a better hope is introduced, by which we draw near to God.
Hebrews 7:18-19 (NIV)

When our daughters, Taylor and Madison, were young girls they were subjected to a fairly substantial system of rules. There were moral rules (don’t lie, don’t take what’s not yours, don’t hurt another person, et al). There were rules of health and hygiene (wash your hands before meals, no snacks before meals, cover your mouth when you cough, take a bath regularly, et al). There were rules of the family system (do what mommy or daddy says, put away your toys before bed, say your prayers, et al).

Taylor and Madison were both good kids, though they were certainly not perfect. Let me make two very important points:

First, I love Taylor and Madison dearly, but not because of the perfection with which they obeyed my rules! I love them because they are my daughters. They are God’s uniquely beautiful creations. They are inherently lovable, valuable and capable beings.

Second, the rules that I as a father subjected them to as young children had nothing to do with earning my love. Certainly there was a measure of pride and joy when they were obedient (which they did most of the time), and there was disappointment and even anger if they willfully disobeyed (trust me, I have stories). However, neither their obedience nor disobedience had any effect on my underlying love for them. The rules were about teaching them how to live healthy, productive lives, how to successfully live in relationship with others, and how to contribute meaningfully to the lives of others and the world as a whole.

In today’s chapter, a very similar distinction is being made that is critical to our understanding of both God the Father (God for us) and Jesus, God the Son (God with us). The law of Moses (that would include the Big Ten commandments and the more than 600 other rules) was the guiding force of Hebrew religion. The Hebrew priests, descendants of Aaron, along with the descendants of the tribe of Levi were in charge of these rules and the rule keeping. Rule keeping became the focus of the Jewish people as if being perfectly obedient to the rules put you in right standing with the Father. But no one became a perfect person by religiously adhering to a set of rules.

A priest is a “go-between.” Some one who represents others, intercedes for others, mediates for others, sacrifices for others before God. Jesus perfectly fits the definition of High Priest, but the author of Hebrews continues to make a very important distinction, that Jesus was not a High Priest  in the traditional, Law of Moses prescribed genetic line of Aaron. Jesus was a High Priest in the line of the cosmic, eternal, mysterious figure of Melchizedek.

Why is this important? It tells us that perfection of religious rule keeping was never the point to earning God the Father’s love any more than my love for Taylor and Madison being hinged on the perfection of their keeping the rules of my house. We are loved by God inherently because we are His uniquely beautiful, lovable, valuable, and capable creation. So loved, in fact, that Father God (God for us) made the ultimate sacrifice of sending Jesus (God with us) to free us from our silly religious rule keeping and to show us the deep, abiding, full, limitless, abounding, abundant LOVE that defines God. When conversing with God the Father, Jesus used the word “Abba” which is defined more commonly as we would use “Daddy,” “Papa,” or “Pops.” Jesus came as Priest, Mediator, and Sacrifice so we could understand that kind of loving relationship with Father God.

This morning I’m thinking about the ways that the rule-keeping paradigm keeps sucking me back into its false economy. I’m mindfully pondering how I actively continue my process of understanding “Abba” and digging into my relationship with Him. I’m reminding myself this morning of the reality that I know deeply as a father of Taylor and Madison: It was never about the rules, or the rule keeping. I am loved inherently for who I am as God’s child.

Bloody Thoughts

For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life.
Leviticus 17:11 (NRSV)

I grew up delivering newspapers. As a young boy I helped my older brothers on their “paper route.” When I was old enough, I had my own. By the age of eleven I was helping my buddy Scott with his route. Scott delivered both the Des Moines Register (morning) and the Des Moines Tribune (afternoon) to the Veterans Hospital in our neighborhood. When Scott was on vacation, I covered his route.

It was the mid-1970s. Veterans Hospital was filled with aging World War II veterans as well as young men who had only recently endured the horrors of Vietnam. I would carry an armload of newspapers to the ward rooms at the end of the corridor on each floor. The giant rooms held 10-12 beds. I would shout “Paper!” and wait to see if any of the patients indicated they wanted one.

For a young kid, the experience was chalk full of intensive life lessons. Delivering papers at “Vets” was a crash course in harsh realities. Old men lay naked on beds, shaking, and crying out in hallucinations. Former soldiers suffering from various mental issues were tied to beds to protect them from themselves. “Hey kid! There’s a hundred dollar bill in that drawer over there. If you untie me, you can have it.” Men coughing up mucus and blood. Men speaking through the strange robotic device that allowed speech through the tube protruding from their trachea. Then there was the time Scott showed me the splattered blood and chalk outline on the pavement just outside the hospital’s back entrance where a veteran had jumped out an upper floor window to his death.

I’ve always found it odd when people pass out at the sight of blood. I’ve never been bothered by it. Perhaps it was those early experiences at Veteran’s hospital.  Perhaps it’s because blood has been consistently present in my family’s back story.

My twin brothers were born at a small town hospital in Le Mars, Iowa. They were born breach (feet first) and my mother experienced severe internal hemorrhaging in the process. The hospital needed blood to keep her alive. The local radio station put out a call for donors. Farmers came in from the field. Shopkeepers left their stores. Their sacrifice kept my mother alive. I’m here because of their blood. My father made a commitment to be a regular blood donor in gratitude of the blood sacrifice others made to save my mother’s life. I grew up watching my dad bring home t-shirts, coffee mugs and lapel pins that announced his ever, increasing count of gallons of blood donated.

The ancient Levitical sacrificial system was based on blood. Blood carries oxygen through our bodies and with it, life. The loss of blood means the loss of life. Blood is integral to God’s story. The consequence of sin is death. The spiritual solution is sacrifice. The blood sacrifice brings life from death.

This morning I’m thinking about blood, life, and death. I’m remembering blood splattered on the pavement in a gruesome scene of death. I’m thinking about the sacrifice of blood that gave my mother life years before I was even a thought in my parents minds. I’m thinking about the time, energy and blood my father shed over the years in gratitude and the desire to pay it forward. There is a hymn from my childhood running through my mind…

Would you be whiter, much whiter than snow?
There’s pow’r in the blood, pow’r in the blood;
Sin-stains are lost in its life-giving flow;
There’s wonderful pow’r in the blood.

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