Summary: Pursuing God’s will for our lives requires personal sacrifice.
I’m sure that some of you are a little nervous right now that I’m going to talk to you about money and about how you all need to give more to God and to the church. I certainly could do that; the story of the widow’s offering lends itself well to a sermon about tithing and giving to the church. But I want to go a little broader than that today. I want us to think about personal sacrifice, and God’s call upon us to offer all of ourselves in service to Christ.
Last week we took time to remember and celebrate the lives of the saints who have gone before us. Both those who guided the way for us long ago, and those who have held our hands and walked with us more recently. As I mentioned last week, in my mind a saint is someone who devotes her entire life to following and serving Christ and who inspires others to do the same. God wants all of us to be saints; God wants all of us to be people who commit our lives in service to Jesus and lead others to do the same. One of the most significant aspects of being a believer and a Christ follower is being willing to make sacrifices. The widow made a great sacrifice of her resources when she put the two copper coins into the Temple treasury. But a great part of serving Christ also requires a sacrifice of our time, our desires; really our whole lives.
God requires much of us who claim the Christian faith. God wants more from us than simply warming seats in a church on Sunday mornings. God wants a priesthood of all believers. God wants every member in ministry. God expects that we will take the Kingdom that began with Jesus Christ and we will do everything we can to help that Kingdom spread and grow. But if we are going to be faithful in the work that God has called us to, then we have to be willing to push aside some of the things in our lives that are ultimately unnecessary. In other words, we have to be willing to make some sacrifices; and when it comes to being followers of Christ, sacrifice takes on many different forms.
The most powerful definition of sacrifice I have ever heard came from Kendall Soulen, one of my seminary professors. In my Systematic Theology class, Kendall offered this description, “Sacrifice is costly self-giving.” Costly self-giving.
What does costly self-giving look like? I believe the widow of today’s gospel lesson gives us a perfect picture of costly self-giving. In Jesus’ time, widows were the epitome of the poor and helpless. They had no status in society, no resources, and no one to provide or care for them. And so Jesus here lifts up the widow in contrast to the rich people who can give extravagantly to the Temple treasury and make sure others see them doing it. Society tells us that the great people are those with money, power, and prestige. But Christ paints a different picture. Jesus lifts up the widow’s gift as noteworthy because she has given literally her “whole life;” those two seemingly insignificant copper coins, which were actually all she had to live on that day. Greatness is not determined by the size of our gift, but by our willingness to sacrifice extravagantly in God’s name. The widow’s gift was small in comparison to the bags of money being thrown in by the rich, but her sacrifice was total.
So what about today? What is sacrifice? What is it to really give of ourselves? I think costly self-giving looks like putting aside that deadline to provide a shoulder for a mourning friend to cry on. I think costly self-giving means stepping away from our agenda so we can hear the hearts of the people around us. I think sacrifice leads us to push aside our fears and open the doors for the “unknown.” I think costly self-giving means offering to God our “first fruits,” not just our excesses. Sacrifice means that we put God first in our lives, and we shape all of our actions based on that; we push our own desires aside to follow God’s will. I believe that sacrifice means we have struggles; that we know pain and disappointment in our lives, so that those persons who have never known anything but pain and disappointment might get a taste of God’s grace, mercy, justice, peace, and most especially, God’s love. This is costly self-giving. This is sacrifice.
Admittedly, what I propose is a tough pill to swallow. Sacrifice is counter-cultural in every respect. America’s market-driven consumer culture sends a constant message that any sacrifices we make should be for self-gain, not at self-cost. And that’s not really sacrifice at all. As Kevin Watson says in his recently released book, A Blueprint for Discipleship, “It is often easier to coast in our faith in the direction in which our culture leads us.” But coasting at the whims of culture is not costly self-giving. Yet imagine how different our world might look if all people (or at the very least all Christ-followers) truly engaged in costly self-giving. How many widows, orphans, or ill, might have been served if all of the wealthy parading by the Temple treasury had made the same sort of sacrifice the widow made? What about a similar sacrifice from us? Just imagine the many lives that might be transformed by our willingness to step out of our comfort zones and proclaim the Gospel message to people in our lives. Think of the hope that might be restored in our willingness to speak out against injustices against the marginalized. Imagine the love that is shared when we give of ourselves in service to another. The gospel we as Christ-followers are called to proclaim requires that we make sacrifices and at times even suffer a bit, but because of what Christ has already done, the return on such sacrifices is enormous! God’s Kingdom is glorified and expanded!