Monday, January 5, 2009

This week's sermon: Is the goal is worth the sacrifice?

Matthew 2:1-23.
We consider it very noble to sacrifice everything for a goal. It is held up in our society as one of the noblest things a person can do. We have legends of people who gave up even their lives to bring about their goal, and we admire them. We set them on a pedestal and celebrate their fame.

Every year there are more than 800 events called marathons to celebrate and reenact the running of a Greek messenger from the town of Marathon to Athens. This messenger reportedly ran with such abandon that when he arrived, he fell down, uttered one sentence and died. He brought news that the Athenians had been victorious in battle. He laid down his life to bring a message, and we celebrate him.

Every year for 87 years, men have tried to climb the highest mountain in the world: Everest. Every year, some have died going up or coming down. At least 3,000 people have attempted the climb, and at least 200 have died trying. That is one in six. And yet those who have made the climb are given acclaim, and those who have failed are lost forever.

So, what does this have to do with wise men and Herod and the baby Jesus? They didn’t run Marathons and they didn’t climb Everest, but each participant in today’s scripture had a goal they were willing to sacrifice for. This morning we are going to look at their goals and their sacrifices. And we are going to be challenged to evaluate our goals to see if they are worthy of sacrifice.

The wise men, the magi, were scholars, astronomers and probably astrologers as well, they knew of ancient prophecy that said that a star would appear to signify the birth of a great ruler in Judah. They had knowledge, and that knowledge led to a goal. Their goal was to find and honor this new king. So they left everything, probably selling what they had to buy camels and pay for travel expenses to go to Judah and honor the new king. They brought with them expensive gifts worthy of a mighty king. They sacrificed time, money, property, and risked it all traveling across the desert to accomplish their goal.

Herod was a mighty king. He was given the name Herod the Great. He was a master builder and oversaw construction on palaces, monuments, fortresses, the first completely man-made harbor, and the temple in Jerusalem. His buildings and structures are still there to be studied today. He was also ruthless. He murdered family members, exiled his first wife and son, held religious leaders captive, and when the wise men came and told him a new king had been born, he would stop at nothing to maintain his position and eliminate the competition. That was Herod’s goal: to have power and authority, and to keep it at all costs. For Herod, that goal was worth sacrificing, but the sacrifice he made was the lives of others. He sacrificed the children of the region of Bethlehem to keep his throne, but he also sacrificed his soul.

For Joseph and Mary, their goal was to protect Jesus, as any parent would, and to obey God. When the angel came and told them to go to Egypt, they sacrificed everything to go. They were poor people; the sacrifice they offered at the temple when Jesus was circumcised was that of a poor family. They probably had to use the gold that the wise men brought to finance their trip. They didn’t know how long they would be gone; they sacrificed the security of their future and their relationships. They got up in the middle of the night and left for Egypt, and so they sacrificed sleep and personal comfort for their goal of protecting Jesus and obeying God.

All three had goals that were important to them. All three sacrificed to accomplish their goals. But not all of those goals were worthy of the sacrifices they made. Certainly it was noble for the wise men to sacrifice everything to visit a new king whose birth had been prophesied and was marked with such a great sign. I doubt, though, that they fully understood the magnitude of their decision to visit him. They went to the palace. They were expecting an earthly king. They were expecting a great ruler. Maybe they were expecting to find greetings and hospitality, maybe even a job in his royal court. They never expected to find him in a small town, in a nondescript house, with impoverished parents. But that is exactly what they did find. And they had enough confidence in the prophecy, and enough resolve to complete their goal that they presented this toddler with the gifts they had brought. When the angel came to them in a dream and told them not to return to Herod, they obeyed. They went home by another route. Their goal had changed. They were no longer seeking fame and hospitality in a warm palace, but were willing to lay down their previous goal to honor this new king that angels came to protect.

Herod thought his goals were noble and lofty. He was wrong. It was not worth the lives of all those innocents to keep his power. It didn’t work either. He missed his target, and was powerless to stop the decay of his rule and his health. One commentary said it could have been as short as a few months after Joseph and Mary took Jesus and fled before Herod died and Joseph was given the go ahead to return. His sacrifice of others was in vain. His goals even if he had the power to make them happen, they were temporary. They were fleeting. And in the process of pursuing his own ends, he sacrificed anything that would have made a difference for eternity.

Certainly the goal of Mary and Joseph were pure and correct. Their sacrifice was justified. It was the sacrifice requested and required of them by God. They left everything to carry out his command to protect Jesus and leave the country. And when it was safe, they did it again to bring him home. They were obedient. And Jesus was obedient. The Bible tells us he was obedient even unto death, even death on a cross. Their sacrifice made a difference for eternity, not just for their own souls, but the souls of all who would come after them and believe.

Their goal was worthy, their sacrifice was noble, and that is what God calls each of us to as well. He calls us to have his priorities, his goals. Sometimes like the wise men, our personal goals have to be changed in order to accomplish God’s goals. Sometimes like Herod, people make choices to sacrifice others to their own personal gain. Maybe we are those people, and we don’t even know it. How often do we sacrifice our families to pursue wealth? How often do we sacrifice other people’s well-being because it is inconvenient for us to help? How often do we sacrifice the speed limit to be a little less late? Anytime we sacrifice the eternal for the temporary, we are putting ourselves in the same boat with Herod. Whenever we sacrifice the temporary for the eternal, we build the kingdom.

When we sacrifice for a goal, we need to be sure that the goal is worthy of the sacrifice. Whenever our goals are eternal, we can be confident that giving up everything is not too great a sacrifice. If our goals are earthly, we have to ask if they are worthy of any sacrifice at all. People routinely sacrifice their health for vanity; their children for status in their profession; their marriages for pleasure in the moment; and their souls because they are simply too busy.

As followers of Christ, we need to be different. Let us be those who will sacrifice the temporary for the things that last. Let us be the ones who sacrifice vanity for health; earthly status for the health of our children and families; momentary pleasure for the joy of long and healthy marriages; and our busy schedules so that we can nurture the greatest relationship of all—the one that is freely offered to us by the creator of the universe and the savior of the world.

Jim Elliot, a missionary pilot who gave his life to reach the lost wrote in his journal “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot loose.” If we could only let go of the temporary, think of the heavenly gain that would abound.

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