Some years ago, I visited the monastery of Jasna Gora in Czestochowa, Poland. One of the monks did his best to explain, in broken English, the symbolism of the artwork in their stained glass windows. They had the same four living creatures representing the four Gospel-writers as we have on our pulpit – the man, the lion, the eagle and the ox.
“Here is Matthew, with the man,” explained the monk. “And Mark, with the lion. And John, with the eagle. And here is Luke… with the beef!”
Although the monk was struggling with his English, his declaration should give us reason to pause and consider. We keep cows to give us milk – that’s a day’s work and a slight discomfort for the cow – but we keep beef cattle in order that they may be sacrificed on the altar of a roast dinner. And in Old Testament times, bulls were regularly offered as sacrifices in the Jewish Temple.
Last week we considered Christ as the High Priest who offered sacrifice and taught us how to pray. This week, I invite you to consider Christ as the one who himself became the sacrifice for our sins, and what that means for us.
When a child is baptised, we declare that the child shares in the dignity of Christ as Prophet, Priest and King. But we never automatically share in the dignity of Christ as Sacrifice, for to be a sacrifice always requires a deliberate act of the will, a mindful choice to do the difficult thing for God’s sake, or for love of those in need.
This weekend marks the poignant time of the year when we remember the sacrifice of those who died in time of war. Behind each fallen soldier lies a personal story – a teenager who lied about their age in order to reach the front line and do their bit; a father drafted into service and accepting his call to defend his children’s homeland; a reluctant conscript fighting only for fear of what would happen if he deserted. In most wars, at least one army is fighting to protect their wives and families. In some, there is a clear moral purpose, the resistance of Nazi ideology or the prevention of ethnic cleansing. In many cases, those most willing to risk their lives do so because they know they’re fighting for a cause greater than their own personal interest. On this Remembrance Sunday, we pause to remember that our freedom, in Britain, depends directly on the sacrifice of our countrymen in two World Wars, and continues to be defended by servicemen and women today.
Today’s readings also present us with stories of sacrifice. The starving widow who met the prophet Elijah had food enough only for one last meal for herself and her son. Certainly, the Middle Eastern culture of showing hospitality to strangers would have drawn her to share even what she had, but I wonder – did she sense that God was offering an invitation to take a greater risk and receive a greater blessing in return? She does choose to share her last meal with the prophet, and because of that choice, God blesses her family with the means to survive a whole season of famine.
As for the widow spotted by Jesus in the Temple, we’re not treated to the ending of the story. We only know that the Son of God on earth noticed her actions, and pointed out that the sacrifice she had made, putting her last pennies into the Temple funds, was very pleasing indeed to God. We are not told whether she received a reward on earth or was called quickly to heaven; we only know that had she died at that moment, she would have been welcomed into paradise with the words “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Since I cannot reflect on the widow’s life, I will instead reflect on my own. The art of Christian giving is one rooted in prayer, and grown through experience. It is a daily part of Christian living to need to pour out the milk of human kindness to others, but there will also be moments when God asks for the beef. There have been times in my life – and I have only ever lived on the income of an academic student or of a priest – when I have felt nudged by God to make donations to particular causes. Not so much as to bankrupt me, but enough to dent my income for a few months. ALWAYS, when I have felt those nudges and responded with my chequebook, I have found myself no worse off, because money has come to me from the most unexpected quarters within days of my gift being given, enough to replenish my gift, and more besides.
But this is not a charter for reckless giving! Hear me right! I am NOT calling on you to empty your bank accounts so that God can double them. God’s blessing is not automatic, but a dimension of our prayerful relationship with Him. We must develop a willingness to give, and a listening ear that can pick up God inviting us to give to particular causes at particular times. It is when we respond generously to these invitations that we discover that God cannot be outdone in generosity. And the gifts which God may ask from us concern are gifts not only of our money, but also of our time or of our talents.
The life of Jesus Christ is punctuated by many small sacrifices – of time, of comfort, of popularity – and the one great sacrifice offered on the Cross. In the same way, we as followers of Christ are called to a daily lifestyle of making little sacrifices for our family, our neighbours, and yes, even for our church community – but also a willingness to make the big sacrifices when God invites us.
Faith is not an intellectual exercise, it doesn’t mean sitting on a pew and thinking “OK God, I believe in you,” or even standing up and reciting the Creed. Real faith is jumping into those places where God invites us, trusting Him to catch us. If we allow God to draw us deeper, we can tell personal stories of how God has provided for us. Jesus offered himself as a sacrifice on the Cross, and experienced the glory of the resurrection. If we respond to God’s call by doing the difficult things, we too will have stories of glory to tell.
Friends, the people in the world around us are hungry to know that God is real. If we tell them what’s in our heads, they won’t be impressed. But if we can share a story of taking a risk and allowing God to catch us – then we can present a powerful reason for our neighbours to believe. They want to believe, but these days they are deterred by a skeptical society You know what they’re asking? “You Christians – you believe that if you make sacrifices, God will bless you. Is that true? You tell me: Where’s the beef?”