A Living Sacrifice
Based on Exodus 1:8 – 2:10, Romans 12:1-8, Matthew 16;13-20
In 1945, an Austrian psychologist named Viktor E. Frankl, in nine straight days penned what has become a revered piece of spiritual and practical insight, “Man’s Search for Meaning”. Dr. Frankl was imprisoned and tortured in the concentration camp at Auschwitz. He watched scores of people die through forced labor, starvation, despair and the infamous crematorium/gas chambers. They were imprisoned in this place by an ideology which stated that anyone of the Jewish faith was a lesser being, a non-human, and should therefore be eliminated by the State to preserve the sanctity of the “master” race. It is estimated that six million Jews were murdered in those six years of World War II – and it is a miracle that any survived.
Anyone paying attention who lived in Europe in the late 1930’s could see what was happening in Germany. The rise of the Nationalist Party with the election of Adolf Hitler and the burgeoning military and war-based rhetoric would have been impossible to ignore. Once the Jews began to be singled out for oppression and marginalization, prudent members began to flee the coming atrocities. Frankl was asked why he did not try to leave once the Nazi’s occupied Austria and he has this answer: “…Shortly before the United States entered World War II, I received an invitation to come to the American Consulate in Vienna to pick up my immigration visa. My old parents were overjoyed because they expected that I would soon be allowed to leave Austria. I suddenly hesitated, however. The question beset me: could I really afford to leave my parents alone to face their fate, to be sent, sooner or later, to a concentration camp, or even to a so called extermination camp? Where did my responsibility lie? Should I foster my brain child, logotherapy, by emigrating to fertile soil where I could write my books? Or should I concentrate on my duties as a real child, the child of my parents who had to do whatever he could to protect them?…”
Our scriptures today speak to us plainly about the call on our lives to become a “living sacrifice” to honor our loving relationship to one another and to God. An Israelite mother places her trust in God as she sets her baby boy free in an ark on the Nile so that he can be preserved. Paul continues his letter to the believers in Rome exhorting them to live lives holy and acceptable to God as living sacrifices. Jesus is surprised by Peter’s response to his question about who people say Jesus is – and he tells Peter that on the rock of his faith in God that Jesus will build his Church. Let us go to God now in prayer and thanksgiving that we are all offered the opportunity to find meaning in our lives by being transformed into living sacrifices….
Jesus has traveled with the Disciples to a center of pagan worship and sin. Caesarea Philipi was the city built by Herod the Great’s son, Philip the Tetrarch, who made the city his capital until 33 C.E. It was a prominent place of pagan worship especially to the Roman God, Pan, whose temple was built at the mouth of the cave of Hades (the “gates of Hades”). Jesus’ message to the Disciples in this place, not long before his murder, was to set faith in God directly against belief in the current political and spiritual systems of Empire. Peter’s exclamation that Jesus was the “Messiah, the Son of the living God”, gave Jesus the opportunity to showcase how God’s vision of the future differed from the world’s – and that nothing man-made could prevail over God’s Church.
Paul is entering into the next weighty subject of his final letter – living life in Christ. Here he admonishes and exhorts the believers to allow their minds to be transformed by God’s love so that they might “discern the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect….” He goes on to state, “…Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer….” In this way then, we will all be able to “…present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God,…”
The beginning of the Book of Exodus has an ominous warning, “…Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph….” All of Joseph’s generation have died and the new generation did not remember his great work on behalf of the Empire. Instead, Pharaoh saw that, “…the sons of Israel were fruitful and swarmed and multiplied and grew very vast, and the land was filled with them….” The Egyptians tried to subjugate them and yet the people continued to multiply – so much that our text says the “Egyptians came to dread” them. Finally, a pogrom was instituted decreeing that all male babies were to be thrown in the Nile while females could live. In this way, the people would not be able to reproduce. Trying to save her newborn son, Moses’ mother placed him in an ark and put him adrift in the Nile near the palace. The daughter of Pharaoh had pity on the Israelite child and did not drown it as per the law. Instead she fostered and raised him up as one of her own. A mother’s living sacrifice would go on to lead her people out of bondage.
Frankl continues his explanation of why he chose to stay in Austria following the German occupation. He wrote, “…I pondered the problem this way and that but could not arrive at a solution; this was the type of dilemma that made one wish for ‘a hint from Heaven,’ as the phrase goes. It was then that I noticed a piece of marble lying on a table at home. When I asked my father about it, he explained that he had found it on the site where the National Socialists (i.e., Nazi’s) had burned down the largest Viennese synagogue. He had taken the piece home because it was part of the tablets on which the Ten Commandments were inscribed. One gilded Hebrew letter was engraved on the piece; my father explained that this letter stood for one of the Commandments. Eagerly I asked, ‘Which one is it?’ He answered, ‘Honor thy father and thy mother that thy days may be long upon the land.’ At that moment I decided to stay upon the land, and to let the American visa lapse.”
We sometimes think of self-sacrifice like Hollywood drama, heroic men and women conquering evil through acts of humility far beyond every day human abilities. However, revolution and its resulting liberation has most often been realized via intentional communal acts of kindness and compassion which refuse to follow the laws of Empire. Two midwives decide that they will not follow Pharaoh’s decree to murder innocent babies to enable the fear-based narrative of the Egyptian political machine. They use their innate power as people who revere God over-and-above the “power and principality” of their day. They make the choice to passively yet assertively defy the law because it was both unjust and contrary to what they discerned to be the will of God. When confronted about their lack of progress on decreasing the number of Hebrews, the midwives quote an urban myth of the time that the Hebrew women were far more hale and hearty than the pampered Egyptian women and thus would deliver before the midwives arrived.
Jesus and Paul know quite well that the future of the Church of Jesus is founded on the belief that enough people will be transformed by the grace of God, the teachings of Jesus and the spiritual community that forms, that evil will be effectively resisted while waiting for Jesus to come again. The Church does not have actual gates to resist the assault of evil forces. That interpretation completely misses Jesus’ metaphor. Rather, the Church He inaugurated on Earth – as a people and a movement – is aimed at removing people from the hell that they make of their lives through their own choices and through the actions of the powers and principalities which create and maintain institutional sin.
Therefore, when we work together we can destroy the very gates of hell which imprison so many; it’s what we, the Church of Jesus the Christ, were created to do by becoming living sacrifices to God. Sacrificing like Viktor Frankl did to continue to be with his parents to the end. Ordinary people transformed by our belief in and reverence to the grace of God who seek to “…discern the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect….” Paul tells us how to become these living sacrifices as does the witness of Shiphrah and Puah, “…Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer….” In agreement with this, may all God’s transforming people say, AMEN!