The Beauty of Sacrifice
The Beauty of Sacrifice
On October 1, 2017, as a shooter was spraying the field where concertgoers were attending a country western concert in Las Vegas, there was an off-duty firefighter named Dean McAuley who was there with two of his friends. Initially, McAuley and his two friends, as the bullets were sort of spraying the ground, said, “We’ve got to get out of here.” But McAuley hesitated and his friends said, “Hey, you’ve got to come.” McAuley said, “No, I’ve got some work to do. I’ve got to go back.” He found his way to the medical tent where he found some medical gloves and he put them on. He was able to rescue two young women and get them to safety. Then he went back and he found another young woman, a 17-year-old girl named Natalia Baca who was literally bleeding out. He found something to use as a tourniquet to stop the bleeding, and he hooked her up to an IV, got her into a car, and they took her to the ambulance where he called Natalia’s father. Natalia lived and is okay. A day later, Dean McAuley went home to his wife and his son and his dog and according to The New York Times, he said, “I squeezed the heck out of my wife, I was just so happy to be home and so happy to see her.”
You know, every time I hear a story like this, a story of a real-life sacrifice, somebody putting their life on the line for someone else, for another group of people, it really moves me. I have a file and I collect these stories because they always show up in traumatic situations like this. Somebody is willing to put their life on the line. Somebody is willing to say, “My life for yours.” Not just my life for me, or my life for me and a little group of friends that I happen to like, but my life for yours. That is the essence of sacrifice. Now, it strikes me and it moves me so much because we live in a world of so much selfishness and so much corruption and so much violence, and I look into my own heart and maybe you look into your own heart and we see so much selfishness and pettiness. Maybe you’re not a violent person, but I can be a really petty person, I can be a really self-centered person, and then something like this happens and it just kind of cracks your heart wide open. It’s like, “Wow, that is amazing love.”
Now, for those of you raised in the church, you know the Christian story, you know where I’m going with this. Because that story of Dean McAuley is a human, flawed story—he’s a flawed human being, he’s a sinful human being like us—but it’s a foretaste, it’s like a shadow, of the story of sacrificial love we find in the Bible. The story of sacrificial love of God the Father sending his Son to die for our sins. And that’s the story that we have in the first reading that you heard from the Book of Philippians.
I want to talk about the beauty of sacrifice and what it really is that motivates us, that fuels us, that ignites a passion for us to live a life of sacrifice.
So when I was a kid, maybe about 11 years old, I had a collection of agates from Lake Superior in northern Minnesota. Agates are beautiful stones. I had them polished and you could see all the colors and the hues and the stripes. I used to take them out of this cigar box and line them up, one-by-one, and look at my beautiful rocks. Well, I’m going to do that this morning with this passage in Philippians 2. Every phrase is a beautiful stone. Let’s look at it one at a time and you’re going to see the whole story that this tells.
I want to start with verse 5, “Have this mind among yourselves which is also in Christ Jesus.” In other words, if you’re a Christian, if you’re a follower of Christ, the idea is not to be forgiven. Not to just be accepted by Jesus, as important as that is, but God wants to actually transform you. God wants to put the mind of Jesus Christ in your life. He wants, through the Holy Spirit that lives within you, to put the outlook of Jesus—how Jesus looks at the world, how Jesus looks at things, how Jesus looks at events—in your life. He wants to put that mind of Jesus into you so you start thinking a little bit more, acting a little bit more, feeling a little bit more like Jesus himself. That’s what Christians call sanctification. That’s what’s called growth. Now, how does that happen? Well, it happens in what Paul is going to tell us next in verses 6 through 11.
Verse 6 says, “Who although he—” talking about Jesus “—was in the form of God …” Now, the word form there is really important. It doesn’t just mean that Jesus had the outward form of God or he had some kind of glory of God. He was actually God in human flesh. It’s the Greek word, morphe, which literally meant the essence of something, the essential nature of something. So it’s saying that Jesus was fully God in human flesh. Not a junior varsity God, not part God. So the question is, if you were God, if you were the essential nature of God, how would you act? Well, a lot of us think, Well, what is God like? God is all-powerful. God does whatever God wants to do. When God says jump, we better jump. God has certain privileges; God has certain powers; God has certain prerogatives. So how would Jesus act?
Well, here’s the next phrase: “He did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped.” That word grasped is the word to get something that you’re entitled to, to get something that you’re privileged to. You have certain privileges so go for it, grab it, “just do it,” as we might say. Just go for that thing because you’re entitled to it. So here it is saying that Jesus did not act the way we think that God would normally act by just grabbing all his privileges.
Instead, verse 7, he emptied himself. He emptied himself in love for us saying, “I’m going to give my life for yours.” Again, what is God like? Well, the Bible says—the New Testament says—look at Jesus. That’s exactly what God is like. So what did he do? He emptied himself. Now, he didn’t empty himself of Godness. When Jesus became a human being he didn’t become less God, just 50 percent God instead of 100 percent God. He’s still fully God. So what did he empty himself of? Well, that’s probably a figurative way of saying he poured himself out; he gave everything he had.
We use this phrase in athletics. Say, for instance, the women’s national soccer team for the United States. They play 90 minutes, the score is still tied, they play one overtime, they play two overtimes, now they’ve played 120 minutes. They’ve probably run for like seven or eight miles in this span of time. Then they do PKs, and they’re exhausted and they fall on the field. Why? Because they poured themselves out. They gave everything.
Well, here’s the thing with Jesus. He didn’t just pour himself out for one game, one match, one day. His whole life was a pouring himself out for others, and his whole existence still is pouring himself out. And he poured himself not just out, but he poured himself into something.
It says he emptied himself by taking the form of a bondservant, being born in the likeness of men. So he poured himself into a human being, but not just any ordinary human being, not just a remarkable human being or a rich human being or a powerful human being or a privileged human being or a beautiful human being. He poured himself into a very ordinary human being, and even less than ordinary. A servant, a doulos, a slave. So that you would walk by him on the street and you would pay no attention to him. As the song from 15 years ago said, “What if God was one of us, just a slob like one of us, just riding on the bus like one of us?” Well, that has a certain theological truth to it. What if God was one of … God was one of us. Not a slob like one of us—I don’t know if I’d call Jesus a slob, but I get the point. He was one of us, very ordinary. God poured himself into that.
So Jesus is the form of God. How does God show who he really is? By pouring himself out for the sake of others. My life for yours. Verse 8, “And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death.” Jesus was fully obedient. He lived the life we should have lived. He ran the race we should have run, perfectly, consistently. That’s what the Bible teaches. Now, none of us have done that. We’re inconsistent. Sometimes we’re interested in God. Sometimes we want to do what God wants; sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we know what God wants and we just flat out say, “Nope, forget it. I’m doing it my way.” Jesus consistently did it God the Father’s way.
We launched an Alpha group, which is an introductory course to allow people to explore Christianity at their pace and their way, in the DuPage County Jail. Nine guys showed up, and at the first Alpha we always ask one question, and that is, “Assuming you believe in God, if you could ask God one question, what would it be and why?” So all the guys went around the room and one of the guys—a young guy in his late 20s involved in gangs, now his wife or girlfriend is pregnant. He wants to get out of the gangs, he wants to become a good father, he wants to reunite his life with the Lord, but he’s really struggling with getting in and out of gangs. He said, “Here’s the question I would ask: Why did God make it so easy to sin?” And I thought, You know, I’m not really tempted to join a gang, I’ve never really been. That’s never been a problem for me, but I totally relate with his question. I got my stuff. I got my issues, which are just as serious, and pull me away from God. I really resonated with that.
The Bible says that we have a bent and broken human nature that’s bent away from God, that we have a sinful nature. Jesus walked right into that without sinning and bent it all the way back to obedience. He was obedient even to the point of death, and then it says, “even death on a cross.” Now, of course, you probably know there was no place lower than death on a cross. People in those days didn’t walk around with crosses on. It wasn’t a piece of jewelry; it was reserved for low-lifes, it was reserved for rejects and rebels, it was reserved for people who whatever they did they had it coming, and they’re rejected. The Romans were horrified by it; Jewish people said that anybody that hangs on a cross is accursed. And yet there he is hanging on the cross, even death on a cross. God is demonstrating in Jesus the form of God that there is no place too low for God to go, to go down and reach a flawed and human, rebellious humans, broken humans. There is no place too low. You can’t go any lower than Jesus went. You can’t start any higher; you can’t go any lower.
Verse 8 ends and I think there should be a paragraph break because it leaves us in silence, verse 8 ends with a thud, darkness, defeat, utter rejection, and desolation. It looks absolutely hopeless, so we pause. Then we come to verse 9, “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
So verse 8, thud, silence, darkness. Verse 9, what we call at Church of the Resurrection, crazy, holy noise. So every Easter we have this acclimation of holy noise, and it is celebrating the resurrection of Jesus after we walk through Lent, after we walk through Holy Week, after we walk through the crucifixion. It is nuts. The noise is deafening. It’s like being inside of a jet engine. If you’ve been here you know what I’m talking about. Children dancing all over the place. It’s holy bedlam, holy joy, holy noise. That’s what verse 9 is talking about.
Therefore, God highly exalted him. Does that mean that Jesus got a promotion? Like God the Father said, “Oh, you did such a good job I’m going to promote you now. I’m going to lift you up.” No, it was not a promotion; it was a vindication. It was a vindication saying that it’s God the Father’s stamp of approval and honor that Jesus was acting like the real God acts. That is the deepest story at the heart of the Bible’s message—God overflows with self-giving love. God says, “My life for yours.” Whenever God is in charge in the Bible, true humility always results in exaltation. Not right away but eventually. God is doing here what God always does, which is to lift up the humble, to lift up to those who go low. So Jesus couldn’t go any lower, but you can’t get any higher than Jesus. He starts higher, he goes lower, and he ends up higher than anybody. The name above every name.
Now, let me just pause for a minute and interject something and speak pastorally because I know some of you in this church family, and there’s probably a lot of you that I don’t know, that you’re going through a season or a journey of sacrifice that is really deep and painful. Maybe it’s caring for a child; maybe it’s being in a marriage that’s really struggling right now. Maybe you’ve made some choice to follow Jesus and it’s really costly and a lot of people think you’re crazy, and why would you do that. You’re in a deep season of sacrifice. Let me say from the heart of this passage that God knows what you’re going through, and that if you’re with Jesus, everything that happened to Jesus is going to happen to you. So you’re walking with him now through death, or at least what feels like death, a small crucifixion. You will also walk with him through vindication. You will also walk with him through exaltation. Just as Jesus went low to go high, you’re going low and you will go high. Just as Jesus had tears, the tears turned to joy, your tears will turn to joy. Just as Jesus’ defeat was turned to vindication, your defeat will turn to vindication. Just as brokenness turns to healing, the same thing for you. God is not finished with your story yet. So I think part of what Paul wants us to see here is that when we go low, God is going to bring us out of that as well.
So that’s the story, that’s the gospel story: my life for yours. The point of this is not to just be inspired; the point of this is not just to move us. There is a right word, movement—as we receive from the Lord Jesus, as we’re united with him, as we’re in him, as we’re caught up with him and his Spirit is within us, we want to pour out our lives in sacrifice for others. That’s the application in this passage, which is actually at the beginning of this text. So let me go back and read that because the apostle Paul kind of frontloads it with the application and then he tells us how to do it, or what makes it all happen. Here’s the application, verses 3 through 4: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”
Do nothing in selfish ambition. Now, ambition is not a bad thing. God’s not anti-ambition, but there’s selfish ambition. That’s when ambition runs amock. It gets twisted by our needs, by our selfish desires. It becomes selfish; it becomes all about us and we can wreck people around us. Believe me, I’ve done it in my life. Most of us have at one point or another. That becomes twisted; it becomes selfish. He says, “Do nothing from selfish ambition.” Because of who Christ is, because of who you are in him.
He says also do nothing from conceit. The word conceit there is literally the Greek word for empty glory. It’s that craving we all have to get glory. We want to be affirmed; we want people to tell us how great we are. We want glory. We’re famished for it, and we never get enough. But unfortunately, it becomes like a never-ending quest.
Then he goes on to say, “Look not only to your own interests …” I love that because it assumes that you’re going to look for your own interests. Because we’re human beings, right, you can’t just forget that you have needs. Nobody can really live that way. That’s not realistic. I love how realistic it is. It says look not just to your own interests but starting looking to the interests of others and actually put them ahead of you, put them ahead of the line for you. What’s more important for you?
You know, it’s amazing how many of us think we don’t really need this. For instance, I read some statistics this week. One survey about who we see as really selfish and who we think is selfish is very interesting. 71 percent of people surveyed think that millennials are really selfish. Everybody loves beating up on the millennials, they are everybody’s scapegoat. Millennials, we love you here, okay? We don’t believe that. We believe 100 percent of you are selfish; I’ll get to that in a minute. They did another research study and 60 percent of people thought that other people have a problem with looking out for themselves first. Those same people surveyed said 17 percent of them have a problem being selfish. See how it works? Does this surprise anybody? Well, let’s just call it even: 100 percent of us. We all struggle with this. It’s the human condition in a fallen world and with our bent sinful nature. 100 percent of us. But Jesus wants to deliver 100 percent of us.
C. S. Lewis once said, “If you meet a truly humble person, he will not be thinking about humility, he will not be thinking about himself at all.” The freedom of humility is that God frees us from that. You know, let me just say I hope that we can have an awakening to a life of sacrifice.
We were at our Alpha retreat and one of the young women there said she was working at a bar, very far from God, not thinking about God, not a Christian, not interested. This bar, she said, was just such a dark place, drugs, immorality, all kinds of stuff. She said one day it just hit her, I don’t want to live this life anymore, I don’t know what to do, but I don’t want to be here anymore. So she walked out. She quit. A week later she stumbled into a church. Wasn’t even a church service, wasn’t even Sunday morning, they were having a prayer meeting. She connected with some Christians, she gave her heart to the Lord, and she kept saying, “I had an awakening; I had a spiritual awakening.”
If you haven’t started a journey with Christ yet, or if you’ve been on a journey with Christ for a long time, we all need awakening and that is the work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit awakens us. We look at who Jesus is; we look at what he’s done for us. We look at our lives and we go, “Oh no, I am not where I’m supposed to be. I am not who I am supposed to be. I got all this little petty selfishness. “My life for me,” I’m so wrapped up in it. “Woe is me.” That’s not where the gospel wants us to end. The gospel wants us to end with “Thank you that you have saved me, that you have rescued me, that you have redeemed me, that you have awakened me.”
I pray this morning that all of us will have a Holy Spirit awakening. Maybe the Lord is awakening you to a certain pattern, a certain way of your life, a certain area of your life that’s gotten really twisted, it’s gotten really curved in on yourself, and it’s really all about you and you’re focused on “my life for me.” Maybe it’s with your time, maybe it’s with your finances, maybe it’s with your career, maybe it’s with your sexuality, maybe it’s with your media consumption. You fill in that blank—I know I’ve got mine. The gospel unwinds that. The work of the Spirit wants to awaken us to our need for Jesus.
So the message is don’t try harder to be like Jesus. The message is: Look to Jesus, receive from Jesus, ask Jesus to make you more like him. May he make us people that are truly able to live lives where we are free to sacrifice.
Matt Woodley is the pastor of compassion ministries at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois.