November 10, 2019
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
Hebrews 4:14 – 5:9
There’s a term in baseball. Small ball. What it means is instead of winning games by hitting lots of towering home runs, you win games by getting runners to first base. Then second, then third, then home. One base at a time. And often you accomplish this with a play called the sacrifice bunt.
For example, in the recent World Series, a player named Adam Eaton did something that had happened only 13 times in 665 World Series games dating back to 1903. He had a sacrifice bunt and a home run in the same game. And he did this twice. So now it’s 15 times in 672 World Series games.
A record number of home runs were hit in Major League Baseball this year. And the record for fewest sacrifice bunts was
also set. Small ball has fallen out of favor. There were 23 home
runs in this year’s World Series. And there were 4 sacrifice bunts.
In baseball, a sacrifice means you give yourself up in order to give your team a better chance of winning. But you don’t really give yourself up. You just get thrown out. You just get to sit on the bench for a few minutes. You still get to keep playing. And your out doesn’t even hurt your batting average as long as the scorekeeper considers it a sacrifice. If you’re a player like Adam Eaton, you even get your name in the record books.
I thought this might be a good day to talk about sacrifice, because this is the day before Veterans Day. Our veterans have done a lot more than lay down a sacrifice bunt. In many cases, they have laid down their lives. Or they have lost limbs. Or they will never be the same psychologically. Or at the very least, they left behind their families and their freedom, in order to protect the freedom the rest of us enjoy. They deserve a special place of honor. You deserve a special place of honor, because I know many of you have served or are serving. We all have something to say to you. Thank you.
Maybe you heard the story a few years ago about the crotchety old man in Henrico County, Virginia who locked horns with his Homeowners Association. Van Thomas Barfoot wanted to fly an American flag on a 21-foot pole in front of his house. But there was something in his CC & R’s that did not allow that. A smaller flag on a house-mounted bracket would have been acceptable. The big one he insisted on was not considered “aesthetically pleasing.” They wouldn’t back down. He wouldn’t back down. This 90-year-old man was threatened with a law suit.
Then people discovered who Van Thomas Barfoot was. He had been a war hero in three wars. World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. He was a recipient of the Medal of Honor. Here’s a little something about him.
(YouTube: Medal of Honor – Van Barfoot)
Once word got out who the Homeowner’s Association was taking to court, they backed down. Van Barfoot got to fly his flag.
He recalled in that video the motto of his fighting unit: “No mission too difficult. No sacrifice too great. Duty first.”
This word “sacrifice” has its origins in our faith. It combines two Latin words, “sacer” and “facere.” Together they mean “to make sacred” or “to make holy.” Here is a simple definition: “An act of giving up something valued for the sake of something regarded as more important or worthy.”
It’s a concept that goes way back to primitive times. The
Aztecs and the Mayans practiced human sacrifice. Here is an altar at the ancient ruins of Copan in Honduras. Over all these centuries the sun has apparently bleached out the blood stains.
Of course our religion is nothing like that. And yet there is that troubling story in Genesis about Abraham being convinced that God wants him to sacrifice Isaac, his son.
With that one little exception, it’s animal sacrifice, not human sacrifice, that is the norm in the Old Testament. A priest would be involved. You would take your animal to the priest. Not the animal that was about to die anyway. You’d take your prize, blue ribbon calf or lamb or goat. It would hurt you to give such an animal up, but not nearly as much as it would hurt the animal to be given up.
The priest would serve as the intermediary between you and God. You may not be on the best terms with God, but if you bring your sacrifice to the priest, who then offers your sacrifice to God, God is now pleased with you. That’s the way it’s supposed to work.
So why not skip the middle man and just offer your sacrifice directly to God? Because you aren’t worthy. You are way too sinful. The Latin word for priest is “pontifex” which means “bridge maker.” The idea is that you are on one side of a deep canyon. God is on the other side. So you need a bridge to get across to God. It’s your priest who performs that function.
Pretty nifty. In theory anyway. The problem is it never
worked. Your priest is just as sinful as you are. Your priest needs
a priest as much as you do. Maybe more. And killing animals never accomplished the intended purpose of bridging that canyon. Still, they kept at it. The priest would enter the Temple once a day. The High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies once a year, on the Day of Atonement. Sacrifices were offered to God. Over and over and over. But nothing changed. The problem of sin remained.
So, if you are having a problem with your car and you have it towed to the mechanic to fix it, and you keep having to tow it back to the same mechanic over and over and over again because the problem keeps coming back, one thing is obvious. You still have a problem. The mechanic has not fixed it.
Which brings us to the scripture we read this morning. It’s
from the New Testament book of Hebrews. Hebrews is a mysterious book. For one thing there is the mystery as to who wrote it. We know it wasn’t Paul, but we don’t know who it was. It’s a book filled with Old Testament concepts – temples and priests and altars and blood. It has an extended section on Melchizedek, who is mentioned barely in passing elsewhere in the Bible. It can be a confusing book, but it doesn’t need to be. This is really a book about sacrifice – the sacrifice Jesus made for us.
Here’s what it says: The old system of animal sacrifice hasn’t worked. We’re still on one side of the canyon and God is still on the other side. Our human “pontifex” has not been able to build that bridge, because he is just as sinful as we are. He’s standing with us on the same side of the canyon.
So Jesus is now our new “high priest.” He is human, like us. But he is not sinful, like us. He is able “to sympathize with our weaknesses.” He “has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” He is one with us and he is also one with God. So he has a foot on both sides of that canyon. He is the bridge that could never be built before.
And not only that. Jesus is not only our “pontifex”, he is also our “sacrifice.” He is our sacrificial lamb. When he died on that cross, our sins died with him. He didn’t deserve to die. We deserve to die. “The wages of sin is death.” But he died in our place. His blood accomplished what the blood of animals never could. So “the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord “(Romans 6:23).
Here’s one way to look at it. Let’s say someone in our church
is going through something difficult. So I go to that person as their pastor. I listen. I sympathize. I empathize. I hurt. I try to understand what that person’s hurt feels like. But I don’t come close. Those words we often speak – “I know just how you feel” – are almost never true. How can we know how another person feels?
And even if I could – even if I somehow had that rare ability to totally connect with another person’s emotional state – I do not have the ability to connect that person to God. I missed that class in seminary. The best I can possibly do is point that person to Jesus.
Because Jesus is the only one who truly understands. He is the only one who knows exactly how we feel. He lived our life. He experienced all of life, at its best and at its worst. We have a refrain we repeat at our Good Friday service each year: “Jesus understands. He walked that way before us.” Only Jesus understands.
And only Jesus can connect us to God. Because he is God. We “come to the Father through Jesus the Son.” As we read this morning, “we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God” (Hebrews 4:14).
Our veterans are not Jesus. Brave and heroic as they are, they are still human beings . They are not without sin. Yet they do have this in common with Jesus. They have sacrificed. They have given up something valued for the sake of something regarded as more important or worthy. So how do we compare their sacrifices with the sacrifice made by Jesus?
We can say three things:
1) Both are costly. It cost Jesus his life. It has cost many veterans their lives. And if not their lives, there has been a cost. Often a very steep cost.
2) Both are made in love. “There is no greater love than this: to lay down your life for your friends” (John 15:13). We see that love on the cross. We see that love on the battlefield.
3) I’ll save the third one for later.
William T. Clarke was 25 years old when the Civil War broke out. He left his Lancaster County farm and joined the 79th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Four years later, the war was over and he returned to his farm. He did not have to sacrifice his life, but he did sacrifice. He was wounded three times in the Battle of Perryville, Kentucky in 1862. He was wounded again in the Battle of Chickamauga on the Tennessee / Georgia border in 1863. He suffered the effects of these wounds for the rest of his life, which lasted into the 20th century.
Michael A. Monsoor was 25 years old when he died in Ramadi, Iraq. He joined the Navy right out of Garden Grove High School in California. He was a member of Delta Platoon Seal Team Three. In 2006 he was sent to Iraq to train Iraqi soldiers. In May he rescued an injured comrade while under enemy fire. He earned a Silver Star for that. In September he fell on a grenade, sacrificing his life and saving the lives of the two Seals beside him. President Bush presented to his parents the Medal of Honor. There is now a destroyer named the USS Michael Monsoor.
Navy Seals wear a distinctive gold pin, combining a trident, anchor, and eagle. At Michael Monsoor’s funeral, Seals lined up on either side of his casket and each one slapped his pin into the wooden lid as a final tribute to their fallen brother.
These are just two random stories. There are way more stories of valor than could possibly be told. These two men weren’t Jesus. None of us are. But these two men, like Jesus, sacrificed. Their sacrifices were (1) costly and (2) made in love.
Those are two of the three things we can say about the sacrifice of Jesus and the sacrifice made by our veterans. (1) Both are costly, (2) both are made in love. So they are similar in these two ways. But they are different in the third way: (3) Only the sacrifice of Jesus shows us the way out of our age-old cycle of violence and revenge.
Jesus submitted to those who killed him. He put up no resistance. There’s that old song: “He could have called ten thousand angels.” They would have gone to battle for him. They would have defeated the enemy. But he didn’t call in those angels. He didn’t fight back. “He died alone for you and me.”
Which reveals to us a whole new concept of sacrifice. Our God voluntarily chooses to suffer violence rather than meet it in kind.
So is that what we should be training our brave warriors to do on the battlefield? Should we fire our generals and replace them with chaplains? Should we adopt a new military strategy: “Gonna lay down my sword and shield, down by the riverside. Ain’t gonna study war no more. Ain’t gonna study war no more”? Probably not.
We live in a fallen world. And so followers of Jesus have disagreed for centuries about how to put his teachings into practice. Some are pacifists, renouncing all war. Some agree with Augustine, and his “just war theory” that goes back about 1,600 years. He taught that non-violence is the norm for Christians, but that under certain strict conditions there are wars are permissible.
We still are locked in a cycle of violence and revenge and there are no signs that we are breaking out of that cycle any time soon. So we thank our veterans for their costly sacrifices, past, present, and future. And we also pledge to make a costly sacrifice of our own. To sacrifice on God’s altar our need to get even with those who wrong us.
Jesus said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). We honor our veterans most of all by working and working hard to change this fallen world into a world of peace and harmony.
So two prayers as we close: (1) Thank you God, for our brave and heroic warriors. (2) By your grace O God, may this generation of warriors might be our last.
O God, surely you are grieved as your precious children continue to fight and kill and die. We have people here today who grieve the loss of a loved one in war. We have people here today who worry for the safety of their loved one who serves in the military. And we have those who have served or who are serving, and who bear wounds deeper than we know. Thank you, God for their sacrifice. And thank you for the sacrifice of Jesus – the one full, perfect, sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world.
He alone is one with us and understands what it is to be human, and at the same time is one with you and has paid the price for our sins that only he could pay. He taught us your way, the way of peace. Help us to learn and to live that way. In his name, Amen.