A Sacrificial Christmas

Have you ever wondered what the world would be like without you?

Through the mistake of another, George Bailey was going to lose his business. He had hit rock bottom. Despair crept in. He wondered what the world would be like without him

In his despair, as we sometimes feel in despair, George Bailey went to that bridge intending to kill himself because he thought the world would be better off without him.

I once heard the story of a man who was contemplating committing suicide like George Bailey was. But instead of killing himself, he decided to smuggle Bibles into China. If he was caught and killed, that would be fine with him. But instead, through the process, he found meaning in his life.

I don’t know if that story is true or not. It may just be a modern parable, but it illustrates the point that we truly live - we find meaning in our lives - when we die to ourselves and begin to live our lives for Jesus. For when we surrender to Jesus we start living the life that we were made to live. When we despair and everything seems to be crumbling around us, we should commit ourselves or recommit ourselves to picking up the shards of our dreams and letting Jesus put them back together as we head into the future. To find our true destiny, we should surrender our will to God’s will and live for Him.

We impact the world one way or another. The question is whether we will impact it for good.

When Jesus was asked what the most important teaching was, he replied that God is one, that we should love Him with every bit of who we are and to love our neighbors like we love ourselves.

Shane Claiborne shares an old story from the early church. Christians were spread throughout the desert and lived in little clusters of communities. Someone had brought one of the communities a bundle of grapes as a gift. That was quite a delicacy, maybe sort of like giving someone chocolate truffles today. They got so excited, and what happened next is fascinating. Rather than devour them all, they didn’t eat a single one. They passed them on to the next community to enjoy. And that community did the same thing. And eventually, those grapes made it through every community and back to the first community without being eaten. Everyone simply wanted the others to experience the joy of the gift....As Shane says: “The best thing to do with the best things in life is to give them away.” (edited from an excerpt from Shane Claiborne’s The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical 167-168).

This kind of love doesn't seem to come natural to us. To love others as we love ourselves. But it is the kind of love we are called to. Actually, Paul makes it a little more sacrificial than just that.
So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy,  complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.  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. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,  who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,  but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 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 (Philippians 2:1-11 ESV).
This is the Christmas story. God emptied himself and took on the likeness of us. When we refuse to allow the true story of Christmas to be drowned out by all the noise and busyness of this season, we see that this example of God becoming flesh was done to teach us how to live.

But as the Philippians passage shows, there are some obstacles to living the life Jesus lived. Paul shares two obstacles to love.

Obstacles to Love:

- Selfish ambition.

- Conceit.

Abraham Lincoln had a neighbor who was drawn to Lincoln's door one day by the sound of the crying of children. He saw Lincoln passing by with his two sons, both crying lustily. "What is the matter with the boys?" asked the man. "Just what is the matter with the whole world!" answered Lincoln. "I have three walnuts, and each boy wants two. (—London Christian Herald)

But our world teaches us to be selfish. The CEO and Opportunity Shaper at Now Possible says, "Let's get real. If you want a great career and wonderful life, you need to be spectacularly selfish..." We're taught that greed is good. Our society sometimes seems like a bizarro world compared to the teachings of Jesus.

These thoughts go directly against what we were made to be. And if we buy into them, we miss out. Our world misses out. Life isn't about the homes, the cars, the gifts, or whatever physical thing we make it about. Even when we celebrate the birth of Jesus, instead of seeing the culture inundated with profound acts of self-sacrifice, which would be more appropriate in celebrating the birth of Jesus, it's about consumerism, gluttony, Black Friday, and shopping.

Yet Paul unlocks how we can do this. We need to have a new view of ourselves.

New view of self:

- In humility count others as more significant than yourselves.

- Look to the interest others, not just our own.

You may have heard humility described as "Humility isn't thinking less of yourself, its thinking about yourself less." Preachers like to come up with these witty sayings. It's catchy, yet I think that disagrees with the teaching of Paul. It makes humility more palatable, but who said humility had to be palatable? Who says we need an easy faith? We're supposed to respond with surrender, with sacrifice. And in our desire to make the faith more appealing, we cheapen the lofty humility that Paul teaches us to have, a humility exemplified in the Christmas story that we celebrate this time of year. God emptying Himself of all his deserved privilege and taking on the form of a baby. 

It's tough to follow in His steps and consider others better than ourselves. That word, "better" in the original language has to do with something of surpassing or exceptional value. It's the same word Paul uses in Philippians 3:8 when he says, "I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord." This is a radical teaching. Jesus had the attitude that we were better than He was. Jesus viewed us as better than Himself. But that's what love is. And Paul calls us to have same view toward other -- an attitude that cherishes one another; that extols the value of one another; that looks for the best in one another instead of the worst. When we do that -- when we start to love others the way God loves them -- it will be much easier to be humble and sacrifice for them.

Then Paul moves on to two characteristics that Jesus exhibited that we are to adapt to our lives.


- Be willing to empty ourselves for others.

- Be obedient to God even in the hard stuff.

"Mary Brenner was a twice-divorced mother of eight children when she began doing volunteer work for the poor in Mexico in the 1960s. She had been active in charity work in California while she was married," living a comfortable life in Beverly Hills "but her devotion intensified after a priest led her to La Mesa state penitentiary, which housed convicted murderers, gang leaders, rapists and other serious felons."

She was faced with a call to self-sacrifice. Or to continue living her comfortable life. She was in her 50s, yet she still decided to heed God's call.

'Mary began providing for inmates’ basic needs, giving them aspirin, blankets, toiletries and prescription eyeglasses. She sang in worship services....If a prisoner died, of illness or in a gang fight, she prepared him for burial."

But this is the amazing part. She didn't just minister to the prisoners at La Mesa. She asked to move in and then actually moved into a cell to live alongside those she was called to minister to. A woman, moving into a male prision because God called her to it.

"Inmates told how Mary once walked into the middle of a prison riot while bullets flew and tear gas filled the air. When the inmates saw her, fearless in her habit, the fighting stopped. She never seemed to stop smiling."

Sadly, Mary Brenner passed away this October. Will you help fill this gap? (quotes on Mary Brenner from Antonia Brenner, ‘Prison Angel’ Who Took Inmates Under Her Wing, Is Dead at 86)

Self-sacrifice makes love real. There is love. We can say we love prisoners all we want. Or we can say that we love so and so. All words without sacrifice. But these proclamations of love are abstract and meaningless to the one we proclaim to love until our words are connected with self-sacrifice. Self-sacrifice makes the love we have toward someone become real to them.

Yet we sometimes do a disservice to sacrifice. Stories like Mary Brenner's story are amazing. Yet we can then fell defeated and unable to accomplish such lofty tasks. Maybe that's what you are feeling right now. "I can't possibly go and live in a male penitentiary like she did. They wouldn't even allow me to."

Your sacrifice does not have to look like hers. If each of us are committed to following God, He will orchestrate us all into a symphony. We will be living out our faith in the places where we need to. Our self-sacrifice may be giving time to make a meal for someone, visiting someone who is lonely, taking care of a sick loved one, or whatever it is you that you sacrifice your own life so that you can give to others. Those acts of love, when they are in response to God and intermingle with the Holy Spirit, are just as meaningful as moving into a prison and ministering to those prisoners. God has this amazing way of meshing our meager sacrifices together to bring Himself glory. One sacrifice at a time, we are being used to create a song of love.

See how this all works.

We are so often, as Christians, focused on receiving the blessing, whether it is a blessing from God or someone else. We may hear people complain about not getting something out of a church's worship gathering or that the church isn't doing this or that. But God is saying, "Stop being the kid at Christmas; it's time to give the presents."

Christmas is about being reminded of the sacrifice God made to live as flesh among us. It's about him emptying Himself of all the privilege and honor that He rightfully deserves to be a blessing for us. We often miss the beauty and majesty of this story and respond by getting hung up on the being blessed part.

This is a difficult issue because being blessed is typically a byproduct of the Christian life. People's lives are often transformed and improved, even by the world's standards, when they become a Christian. But being a follower of Jesus can never be about the blessings. We have this tendency to explain Christian teachings through the framework of selfishness to appeal to the selfish people around. Even to our own selfish natures. But we shouldn't. We have to remove our selfishness to be who God wants us to be.

And this goes against all modern sales methods. In sales, the salesperson tries to show the potential customer a product or service and convince them that their lives will be improved if they just use that product or service. The door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman tells us how his vacuum will pick up dirt that we didn't even know was there. The gadget manufacturer convinces us that our lives will be better if we have this or that gadget in our pocket. Selling is all about the benefits.

And we fall prey to that tactic as Christians. Being a Christian becomes about getting to heaven. Or the temporal blessings in this life. And we, the church, have made the gospel of Jesus all about the benefits.

But that is not what being a Christian is about. Being a Christian is about following Jesus. And we follow Jesus, not because of the blessings - although the blessings at times are great and the eternal blessing is worth living for - but we follow Jesus, not because of the blessings, but because He is worthy to follow.

We must empty ourselves of our selfish ambitions and vain conceit and just follow Him. And we do that, by doing what He did. He viewed others as better than Himself and looked to their interests, not his own. He was obedient, even when it got hard.

We follow Jesus because His vision of the world is the right one. We follow Jesus because He is worthy to follow. Forget the blessings. Those are just a byproduct of faithfulness. And even if they don't come, we know that we are following the One who is worthy to be followed.

Jesus did not come to be blessed. He came to be a blessing. Likewise, we live not to be blessed but to be a blessing.

On January 13, 1982, Air Florida Flight 90 crashed into the 14th Street Bridge over the Potomac River near Washington DC., tumbling into the icy river in the middle of a snowstorm. All but six passengers were killed. Some 20 minutes later, a helicopter arrived to rescue the survivors.

After getting one man to safety, the helicopter threw a life ring to Arland Williams. He immediately gave it to the passenger next to him. They threw two lines down and Arland helped to strap it on to other passengers who were struggling more than him in the freezing water.

When the helicopter came back a final time, Arland was gone. He had slipped under the water. He’d used his last ounces of strength to save complete strangers. Sacrificial love.

Have you ever wondered what the world would be like without you?

In the end of It's A Wonderful Life, George Bailey was able to see all the lives that he had touched.  And they reciprocated that love and helped him get his business back. It's beautiful.

It's a Hollywood ending. We like it. It's what makes It's A Wonderful Life one of the most popular Christmas movies of all time.

It's stories like this that makes us say to people when they suffer, "It will get better." Because when George Bailey suffered, it did get better.

But Hollywood isn't where we should get proper doctrine.
It may be unpopular, but things may not get better. Many of you know this all too well. Someone who has alzheimers. It's not going to get better on this side of the grave. Or a debilitating disease that you or someone you love is going through. It's not going to get better on this side of the grave. Some of you have experienced tragedy all too much. I have been in too many ICUs and done too many funerals. Things don't always get better. Sometimes they may get worse. Tragically worse. It's true that it may get better, but I don't think we're implying when we say "It will get better" that we may have to die to receive that "better."

We want the better. And we want it now. We think we deserve the better, especially if we're trying to be faithful to Jesus.

The idea that "things will always get better" just shows how inundated we are with concepts like the health and wealth false gospel in Christian circles. But the truth is that it may not get better. I may be the only person to tell you this because everyone is trying to build a facade around you, but the situation you are currently struggling with may not get better. You may be sick, and it could lead to death. You may work hard and not prosper. But even if we don't get better, even if we don't get wealthy, we still serve a worthy King.

We don't worship God because of the presents; we worship Him because He is worthy. When things are going well, we celebrate. We know things won't always be this great, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't ruin the good moments by worrying about their end. Celebrate the moment of beauty if that is what you are experiencing. Celebrate it without worrying about tomorrow.

And for those of you who aren't living in a moment of celebration, remember that He is there with you. Offering you comfort and peace where there should be no comfort and peace. Even in our darkest valley, God is still worthy of our worship.

Being a Christian and following Jesus, isn't about things getting better for us. That may happen. It often does. I've seen crazy, unexplainable blessings come to people who start giving and are blessed in return. God does seem to bless radical faithfulness. But we serve a savior who was executed, along with most of the apostles who followed Him. Being a Christian is really about humbling ourselves and serving others, being Jesus' hands and feet in this world because His hands and feet were nailed to a cross for us. It's about being Jesus to everyone around us. It's about following the example that Jesus set and living for others. That little baby born in a manger in Bethlehem was going to face a lot of pain, discouragement, obstinate people, and a disgraceful death in His days here on earth. Who are we to think we deserve differently?

"It will get better." That's the false gospel of Hollywood, happy endings, and many Christians. The message of Jesus is to humble yourself. To love God and to love others. Arland Williams was doing God's will and it didn't get better for him. The early Christians who gave away those grapes were doing God's will and didn't taste the pleasure. Mary Brenner, imprisoning herself for Jesus, was doing God's will. Jesus, emptying Himself, being born as a little baby, and living a life of suffering for us, was doing God's will.

If you're just focused on life getting better for yourself, then you will be unable to live the life of self-sacrifice that shows the love of Jesus to our world. You will be out of step with the song God is performing.

In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe one of the children asks one of the beavers about the lion named Aslan.

"Is he safe?"

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

When we teach that things will always go well for Christians, we make it difficult for those who are having tough times. In our bad times, our bad theology makes us ask, "Am I right with God? If I am, why all this pain, suffering, and sorrow? Do others think I am a bad Christian because I am suffering?" The truth is that you are still right with God, even if things are going bad. Even when you think you are a small star, alone, suffering in the darkness, Jesus came to show you love. This is Christmas.

So when we see someone suffering and feel the need to utter "It will get better" to give encouragement, recognize that it may not get better for the person we want to comfort on this side of the grave. But for you--following in the steps of Jesus--you should be willing to follow the teaching of the Christmas story, sacrifice yourself to make it better for them. Jesus was in the form of God yet did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped. Instead, he emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of us. Being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

It may not get better, but like Jesus, we need to be willing to remove our self-perceived loftiness - not self-perceived in His case - , be willing to get dirty, and make it better for others.

We sacrifice so that life is better. Like George Bailey did when he gave up his own plans and stayed in his small town to make it better. Like the people around George Bailey did when George needed loved back. Sacrifice makes the world better.

At this time of year, we celebrate the birth of Jesus. His humble arrival to this world. And this world will not be the same, especially when those who claim to follow Him model his humility and life of sacrifice. You were called to make this world better for others by sacrificing yourself.