When the offering plate is passed down the pew, some people understand that they are giving back a tiny portion of what they have been given, while others give with the mindset of paying a bill. Even among those who understand the principle of giving of a tithe, it's quite another matter when it comes to other giving -- or even more giving. We treasure our belongings; our treasures. Although we're willing to sacrifice our ten percent, going beyond that is pushing it. And we'd better get a receipt so we can write it off on our income taxes.
It's tough for us to read Luke 9:23-26 and hear it the way the original hearers of the words did.
Then he said to them all: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels."Of course, we hear the part about taking up our cross and we see the foreshadowing of Jesus' words, but those gathered to hear Him wouldn't have known anything about that. To them, taking up our cross was an allusion to the criminals who were being led out to their crucifixion, bearing on their shoulders and backs that which would eventually kill them.
Jesus is warning His followers that they will have to willingly carry around a great burden which will eventually prove to be their undoing. And if the cross doesn't kill them, then they will feel it's weight all along their journey. But the good news is that compared to the weight of the world, that cross is light. We don't have to live up to the standards of people who can't agree on what the standards are supposed to be. We are to live through the power of the Holy Spirit to love God and love our neighbors, and we uphold one another in that task.
Today we tend to underemphasize the principle of sacrifice in the Church. After all, how are we going to increase church attendance if we tell people they have to drag around a burden as Christians? They'd never go for it! And so we have churches full of people who fill a seat and get their noses counted in attendance and may even put a check in the offering plate, but they have no clue about taking up a cross every day.
One of the traditional lessons the Church has used to teach sacrifice is the celebration of Lent. For the forty days prior to Easter Sunday, a person is encouraged to give up something of value to him. Making that sacrifice for a forty day period is a way to prepare us to celebrate Jesus' ultimate sacrifice for us. But an interesting thing tends to happen. If you're like me, and you've given up, let's say chocolate, for Lent, you abstain for forty days. It's hard at first, but then you don't think about it as much. Then you see the light at the end of the tunnel entering Holy Week. Then right after leaving the church building on Easter Sunday, you're headed home, ready to overdose on chocolate eggs, chocolate bunnies, M&Ms, Hershey bars, or anything even mildly edible so long as it's DIPPED IN CHOCOLATE!!
And the experience is over. You've deprived yourself for forty days, but now you can go back to normal. There's nothing wrong with that lesson, but the sacrifice Jesus calls us to isn't just forty days long -- it's every day for the rest of our lives! Do we really get a grasp of that? At Lent we typically choose something which we may miss a little, but it won't hurt us too badly. (And it's probably something we should be cutting down on anyway.) But taking up our cross daily may entail giving up something, not just to make us feel better, but to take those resources which we would have used another way and instead offer them for God's use.
For example, I've been told numerous times, "I'd like to read the Bible every night, but I just don't have the time to do it." But from what Jesus says, I ask, "What are you willing to give up to make it happen?" The incredulous looks and the gasps are priceless. You see, usually we have time to read the Bible and pray and worship Him and seek His direction... but, American Idol is on! Or we have to read the paper. Or surf a few more blogs. Or go volunteer with the Little League team. It may be a very deserving cause, but is it more important than opening up ten minutes of your busy schedule for your Savior?
But let me get real about cross carrying. What are we willing to give up for Jesus after all He gave up for us? There are the martyrs who have given all for Christ. They continued to stand for Jesus even when threatened with death. They knew that it would soon be over and that they would be standing with Jesus in moments. In Acts, Stephen looked up as he was being executed and saw Jesus in heaven and knew he'd soon be there. Fantastic sacrifices. But at the risk of belittling them, the martyrs often got an immediate reward. What about the sacrifices you are called to make that we have to live with for years and years and years afterward? Are you so willing to make the sacrifice if we know it's not just for forty days, but for a lifetime? What is it that you are holding so dear that you'd rather keep it than give it to God?
Maybe it's your luxuries. Many people give from the abundance of our riches. The fact is that this is how far too many people give to God through the church -- whatever they think they can afford after keeping what they want. "I'll gladly give this to God, provided it doesn't hurt my lifestyle." I read somewhere that if you own a car -- that's just one car -- you're richer than 96 percent of the people of the world. That's just ONE car. How tightly we grip our extravagant lifestyle.
Maybe it's your freedom. We hold tight to our right to decide for ourselves what to do, giving only lip service to seeking God's direction. We don't like to be told we cannot do something or associate with someone. We hate being told we're not good stewards of our time and our talents, but it's usually true. But we hate even more sacrificing what we want.
The sacrifices of bulls and goats didn't accomplish any real salvation. That was accomplished by the one ultimate sacrifice of the perfect Lamb of God. But the nation of Israel was being taught that what they had was not their own, but a gift of God Almighty. Yet even today, we still haven't completely learned that lesson. If we had, would there be any sacrifice too great for our Lord? Would there be any hesistation to take up that cross every morning and drag it around with us all day?