The sacrifice of God

This Holy Week I invite you to ponder the question: “How shall I live my life in response to what Jesus has done for me?” Photo: Galyna Andrushko
Published April 2, 2012

The earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan last year is nothing new for that island nation. At the latter half of the 19th century, for example, on an autumn evening, an earthquake startled villagers living on the Japanese seashore. Being accustomed to earthquakes, the villagers soon went back to their activities, believing the danger had passed.

Above the village on a high plain, an old farmer was watching from his house. He looked to the sea, and the water appeared dark and acted strangely, moving against the wind, running away from the land. The old man knew what it meant. His one thought was to warn the people in the village.

He called his grandson, “Bring me a torch! Make haste!” In the fields behind him lay his great crop of rice. Piled in stacks ready for the market, it was worth a fortune. The old man hurried out with his torch. In a moment the dry stalks were blazing. Then the big bell rang from the temple below: Fire!

Back from the beach, away from the strange sea, up the steep side of the cliff, came the people of the village. They were coming to try to save the crops of their rich neighbor. “He’s mad!” they all thought. “Why would he deliberately set fire to his crops?”

As they reached the plain, the old man shouted back at the top of his voice, “Look!” At the edge of the horizon they saw a long, lean, dim line, a line that thickened as they gazed. That line was the sea, rising like a high wall and coming towards land.

Then came the shock, heavier than thunder. The great swell struck the shore with a weight that sent a shuddering through the hills and tore their homes to match sticks. It drew back, roaring. Then it struck again, and again, and yet again.

On the plain no word was spoken. Finally, the old man said gently, “That is why I set fire to the rice.” He stood among them almost as poor as the poorest, for his wealth was gone. But in the aftermath of the tsunami, the villagers recognized that the old man’s sacrifice saved their lives.

Two thousand years ago on another hillside, another man made a sacrifice that saved countless lives. St. Paul says in our lesson from Philippians that Jesus “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.” Jesus died for us. He made the supreme sacrifice on our behalf. He gave and gave and gave until the only thing he had left to give was his life. Imagine that – God dying for us – but in Jesus he did!

I am sure all of us can think of people who have gone out of their way to help us at some point in our lives, even when we didn’t deserve that help.

Last term I read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, and the thing that most impressed me was the extraordinary sacrifice Job’s adoptive parents on his behalf. To get him in a better public school, they sold their modest house and bought another house in a better school district, even though they could hardly afford it. And when Steve insisted on attending an exclusive private college in Oregon rather than a state university in California where the family lived, they acceded to his wishes, used their savings and took out another mortgage on their home – just so Steve could go to the college of his choice. He didn’t deserve that, as he himself would acknowledge, but they did it anyway because they loved him.

There’s a saying that love is stronger than death. That saying became real to me many years ago when I read a story in the January 1976 issue of Reader’s Digest, which told of a father and his 12-year old daughter Sharon and 11-year old son David, who hiked up Mount Rainier in Washington State on a May weekend in 1968. It was their first long hike – a five-mile climb.

An hour after they started hiking, a blizzard struck high on the flanks of the great mountain, trapping the father and his two young children. The temperature dropped well below freezing, with wind and snow blowing at 100 kilometers per hour. Snow fell in thin, wet sheets. It was impossible to see or move. A few steps in the wrong direction could mean certain death.

So, the three of them tramped around in a circle, making a depression in the snow. Then they spread a tarp over the trench. The father helped David and Sharon into their sleeping bags. Then he placed himself near an opening in case the wind blew the tarp off. In that way his body protected his son and daughter from the howling wind.

Just before six o’clock the next morning, a search party found the trio. The two children were alive; their father was dead. Sharon explained to the search party: “Dad gave his life for us.”

Has anyone ever died for you? The answer is yes. We are here in this church because of what a man did for us 2,000 years ago. Jesus took our place on the cross. Nails and ropes did not hold Jesus to his cross. His own sacrificial love held him there. No one took his life. He took our place of his own accord.

Our gospel tells us that as Jesus hung on the cross, his life slowly slipping away, a crowd gathered round and began to mock him. What did they want him to do? Listen to their taunts: “Come down from the cross and save yourself! He saved others, but he cannot save himself.”

The crowd meant that as mockery, but it contained deep theological truth. Just because Jesus wanted to save others, he would not save himself. Voluntarily, Jesus gave himself to save others. He saved us when we could not save ourselves, by taking our place and taking our sin. And he did it all because he loves us – loves us even to the point of laying down his life for us.

This Holy Week I invite you to ponder the question: “How shall I live my life in response to what Jesus has done for me?” That’s the question, isn’t it, to live with a life that belongs to Jesus.

In Steven Spielberg’s epic World War II film Saving Private Ryan, a squadron of young soldiers is sent on a mission to find one soldier behind enemy lines and bring him home. Most of the young men in the squadron, including the captain, die in the rescue attempt. As he lay dying, the captain’s last words to Private Ryan are, “Earn this.”

Many years later, Private Ryan, now an old man, visits the grave of the captain. As he kneels at the grave, he says, “Not a day goes by I don’t think about what happened… And I just want you to know… I’ve tried. Tried to live my life the best I could. I hope that’s enough. I didn’t invent anything. I didn’t cure any diseases. I worked on a farm. I raised a family. I lived a life. I only hope, in your eyes at least, I earned what you did for me.”

Jesus made the supreme sacrifice on our behalf, so that we can live our lives responsibly, sometimes heroically, but always with gratitude for what he did for us. Jesus is the captain who dies to save a private. Jesus is the wealthy farmer who burns his crops so the villagers are saved from the tsunami. Jesus is the parent who would do anything or give anything to benefit his child, no matter what the cost. Jesus is the father who protects his children from the howling wind and freezing cold with his own body, so they can live. Jesus is the Son of God who loved us and gave himself for us – the perfect sacrifice for the sins of the world. Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!

“At the name of Jesus,” says St. Paul, “every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Amen.

Text: Philippians 2:5-11; Mark 15:1-39

The Rev. Dr. Gary Nicolosi is rector of St. James Westminster Church in London, Ont.




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