Categories
Lent 2018

LISTENING FOR THE MESSAGE OF SACRIFICE

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. (John 3:16)

No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. (John 15:13)

For some reason, the concept of Jesus’s death as a sacrifice is difficult for us to grasp. It seems archaic at best, barbaric at worst – but the idea of sacrifice really isn’t as foreign to our own experience as we sometimes think. All of us can probably think of many 21st century examples of sacrifice. For example, parents make financial sacrifices for their children so they can have better educational opportunities, or develop musical or athletic talents. Military families make many sacrifices in the service of their country – the separation of husbands and wives, parents and children; the loss of limbs and physical functions and at times psychological well-being; and sadly, in some instances, the loss of life. Only a month ago during yet another tragic school shooting, a beloved coach sacrificed his life to save the lives of students by shielding them from fire with his body. While these sacrifices vary widely in terms of their personal cost, they are all contemporary examples of people putting the needs and interests of others ahead of their own. Why, then, is the idea of personal sacrifice so disquieting when we apply it to Jesus?

Perhaps the answer lies in the incomparably greater sacrifice that Jesus made. We believe that Jesus’s death by crucifixion was the ultimate sacrifice for sin that releases all who believe in him from the power of evil and death. There are several ideas in this doctrine that might be uncomfortable to think about and also difficult to grasp. One is the sacrifice of a willing death. Jesus knew that according to God’s plan he had to die, and he chose to go through that death. He wasn’t coerced or compelled. He could have gotten out of it – he was the son of Almighty God and fully divine, after all – but he didn’t choose that course because his death was the only sacrifice that could satisfy the penalty for the sinfulness of the human race.

Of course the world in which Jesus lived was much more familiar with sacrifices to atone for sin, not only in the Jewish temple, but also among pagan religions. Sacrifices of livestock and other animals were common, and among some groups human sacrifice was also practiced. We consider the sacrifice of a human being to be barbaric, and the idea that the God of love would require the sacrifice of his own son is virtually unthinkable. But it’s precisely because of God’s love, expressed in human terms by his son, that Jesus’s death was sacrificial. The IVP New Testament commentary explains:


[Jesus’s] death is at the heart of the Son’s revelation of the Father, for God is love and love is the laying down of one’s life (cf. 1 John 4:8; John 3:16). So in the cross the heart of God is revealed most clearly. Selflessness and humble self-sacrifice are seen to be divine attributes. Throughout his life Jesus has done the Father’s will, and such selflessness is a key component in the eternal life he offers. God’s own life is a life of love that denies self for the sake of the beloved, and therefore such love is the very nature of life itself, real life. (IVP New Testament Commentary, downloaded from biblegateway.com)

Love, selflessness, and sacrifice are all bound together. Love motivates self-denial for the sake of the beloved. Thus Jesus’s sacrifice was not simply a mechanical killing to settle a score; it was the logical conclusion and fulfillment of divine love.

No doubt another troublesome aspect of Jesus’s sacrifice for humankind is the manner in which he died. The cross was an instrument of terror and torture, and not just a method of execution. The Romans made a big point of publicly displaying crucifixions as a deterrent to insurrection, so there was public humiliation in addition to physical suffering. Those executed on the cross were first flogged, and then went through hours and sometimes days of inescapable exposure to the sun and agonizing thirst as they hung from the cross. Breathing was difficult because of their body position. Pain was excruciating. It was one of the most inhumane ways to die imaginable. It’s generally pretty hard to find the love as we view at an artist’s rendering of the crucifixion.

But love is there, radiating from the cross, sustaining the savior through the ordeal, and pointing toward the triumph of resurrection. The story does not stop abruptly on Good Friday, because the crucifixion was not the end. Love overcomes all, even death.

Categories
Lent 2018

LENT: A Time to Listen

Lent is the liturgical season of preparation for Easter, similar in nature to Advent which is the time of spiritual preparation for Christmas. In the early days of the Church, individuals who planned to be baptized at the Easter Vigil service spent the 40 days of Lent in prayer, fasting, and self-denial. Their preparation to join the family of the faithful followed the pattern set by Jesus himself during his 40-day fast in the desert. As Mark’s gospel records it, this time came immediately following Jesus’s baptism – literally the first thing he did as he began his ministry. The gospels also record Satan’s attempts to sabotage the fast, trying to take advantage of a hungry stomach and a mind playing tricks in the desert heat. Satan didn‘t appreciate that fasting was an experience of spiritual nourishment and refreshment for the Savior as he prepared to undertake his mission. We too can find nourishment and refreshment in our Lenten observance, if we approach the season as a time for listening for what God wants us to hear from him.

The last Sunday before Lent is observed as Transfiguration Sunday. That Sunday’s Gospel story of Jesus on the mountain, appearing before Peter, James and John in dazzling white clothing, and talking with Moses and Elijah, culminates in the spoken message from God: “Listen to my Son.” That’s all. Listen. No mention of working miracles or healing the sick or preaching the gospel to the ends of the earth. Listening is what God expects. We may think that sounds too simple, but it really isn’t because “just” listening isn’t as easy as it sounds.

Most of us have experienced the frustration of someone misinterpreting something we’ve said, or failing to acknowledge it. What do we say to that person? “You weren’t listening to me!” Not being listened to is insulting and emotionally hurtful, and has the potential to damage close relationships. The person who wasn’t listening may have heard the words that were said, but he may still not have an accurate impression of the intended meaning. That’s because the process of listening depends not only on our auditory function, but also on the cognitive and emotional components that interpret meaning and intent. All of those elements are also involved in listening for what our Lord has to tell us, plus one more crucial component: the spirit. The Bible often refers to it as “heart.” Many well-known thinkers have written about what the heart perceives that the mind and senses cannot; for example:

The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched – they must be felt with the heart. – Helen Keller

Sometimes the heart sees what is invisible to the eye. – H. Jackson Brown, Jr. (author of Life’s Little Instruction Books)

It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye. – Antoine de Saint-Exupery

The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing. — Blaise Pascal

The first step, then, is listening for God is to open our hearts. The Psalmist in Psalm 51 asks that God transform the sin-stained heart that has led him astray into a new, clean heart. We need to join the Psalmist in his humble request, because we cannot cleanse our hearts on our own. Thus we follow our Lord to the desert – figuratively, of course: taking six weeks out of our lives to become temporary hermits it isn’t practical for most of us! However, each of us can commit to giving special attention to a discipline like prayer, spiritual reading or meditation during the 40 days of Lent.

Spending even a short amount of time in quiet on a regular basis, listening for what God is communicating to us, will begin to open our hearts. We may not receive clear messages right away. Think about the many years of training and practice that counselors and pastoral caregivers undergo, and still they don’t hear everything perfectly every time. Listening, like other skills, improves with repetition. One key is to be open to receiving a message in any one of several forms, because God speaks to different people in different ways. Some people report ideas that perhaps quietly or perhaps more dramatically enter their minds, apparently from out of the blue. Others say that other people in their lives have transmitted messages, and still others speak of an unmistakable “sense” or awareness that permeates their consciousness. No matter what form God chooses to communicate with you, it’s well worth the time and effort to practice regular listening, and the season of Lent is an ideal time to begin.

QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION

1. Most of the time, is your heart closed or open to receiving messages from God? How do you know?

2. What steps can you take to set aside a time and space conducive to opening your heart to God’s communication?

 

PRAYER

God, please cleanse my heart from all of the worldly attachments that distract from and shut out what you’re saying to my spirit. Open my heart to you and to your will. Amen.