Date: April 6, 2022
Festival: Lenten Midweek 5
Text: John 15:12-17
Preaching Occasion: Zion Lutheran Church, Mt. Pleasant, MI
Appointed Scriptures: Genesis 22:1-19; Hebrews 9:11-22; John 15:12-17
Sermon Hymn: LSB #432 In Silent Pain the Eternal Son
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Introduction: The Stories of Sacrifice We Love
For Lent this year, we’ve contemplated Christian piety: that we fast in spiritual distress and self-discipline as we begin a serious task, what we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, how to lament, and that we repent with contrition over our sin and faith in God’s promise. Finally, on this last Wednesday of Lent before we sing Hosannas to our Lord on Palm Sunday all the way to the cross on Good Friday, we contemplate sacrifice.
A good story of heroism always has a great sacrifice on the hero’s part. I cannot help but think that the reason why we love hero movies and books is because they tell us something about Jesus, and they reveal in us our desperate need for a saviour, whether we are willing to admit it or not.
In Spider-Man: No Way Home, Peter Parker must make a tremendous personal sacrifice to save the world. Clark Kent must keep his identity as Superman secret lest his enemies know who he is and use the people he loves against him, as is common with many comic book heroes. In Avengers: Endgame, Black Widow sacrificed herself to obtain the Soul Stone to undo Thanos’ snap that wiped out 50% of life in the entire universe, and Iron Man then sacrifices his life to finish this work. In Stars Wars Episode VI: The Return of the Jedi, Luke Skywalker was willing to let Palpatine kill him to save his father’s soul; he was the chosen one, the new hope, to bring balance to the Force.
The Lord of the Rings is filled with Christ figures: Frodo, who had to bear the weight of the Ring to destroy it in Mt. Doom just as Christ bore our weight of sin on Mt. Calvary; Samwise Gamgee, who helped Frodo bear the weight of the Ring through good morale and even literally, just as Christ helps us bear our sin; Gandalf the White, an angelic being who walked amongst the people of Middle Earth as a man to undo the evil works of Morgoth just as Christ walked among us in the flesh to undo the evil works of Satan; and Aragorn, the promised King who would inaugurate a new age of peace in Middle Earth just as Jesus is the promised King who will inaugurate His messianic age of peace in heaven and on earth.
Perhaps another book series that comes just as close to telling us something about Jesus is Harry Potter. Only Harry or Lord Voldemort can live. Harry knew that to defeat Voldemort, the Dark Lord had to kill him. So, he lets Voldemort kill him with the killing curse, and then he miraculously rises from the dead and defeats Voldemort. The Boy Who Lived had to die to defeat the lord of darkness so that others might live. Jesus was born as a baby boy so that He might die to defeat Satan, the lord of darkness, so that you might live.
And in the sci-fi epic video game called Destiny 2, a character named The Speaker describes the quality of the game’s heroes called Guardians who can resurrect themselves from the dead through the power of the Light, and what he says also describes all these hero stories we’re familiar with, “Devotion inspires bravery, bravery inspires sacrifice, sacrifice leads to death.”
God’s Story of Sacrifice
God has His own story of sacrifice, and it is foreshadowed in Genesis 22. Before the Old Testament sacrificial system was instituted, God commands Abraham to sacrifice his only son. Abraham and his wife had waited decades to finally have a son, just as God had promised. Abraham was 100-years-old when God finally gave him a son, and his wife Sarah was 90. Then, without provocation or any explanation, God commands Abraham to sacrifice his only son. To his credit, Abraham does not question God; he obeys. As Hebrews describes this event, “He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead” [Heb. 11:19a]. And indeed, he received Isaac back; he might as well have died.
In the end, God prevents Abraham from sacrificing his only son and puts a male lamb in Isaac’s place. God would not allow Abraham to do what He Himself was going to provide: the perfect lamb, who would be His only-begotten Son. Jesus would be the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world [John 1:29]. Were Isaac to be sacrificed on that mount, as innocent as he was, his sacrifice would not have been enough, just as the lambs of the sacrificial system, though they sanctified the flesh, would ultimately not be enough. So, God solved this problem by providing the perfect Lamb without blemish—His only Son—whose blood would not only purify our bodies but even our conscience [Heb. 9:13-14].
If we were to place our Gospel reading, John 15, on the narrative arc, it would perhaps be the end of the rising action just before the climax of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection when He saves sinners from sin, death, and the devil. One of His last teachings to the disciples before He’s delivered to be crucified is that they should love one another just as He has loved them. “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”
Again, our stories of heroism that we love so much tell this story. On more than one occasion, Peter Parker is willing to die for MJ and his best friend, even the whole world. Every time he puts on his Spider-Man suit, he puts his life on the line. In The Lord of the Rings, the members of the Fellowship of the Ring would gladly die for one another because they’re not just comrades in arms; they’re also friends. The Hobbits especially are willing to die for one another, and no one more willing than Sam to die for Frodo. In Harry Potter, the Boy Who Lived willingly gave his life not just for the rest of the wizarding and muggle world but especially for his friends.
“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” Jesus is not only speaking of the kind of love His disciples are to have for one another, but He is especially speaking of Himself. As He says, “You are My friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you.” The disciples are Jesus’ friends, which includes you, and He willingly laid down His life for them—for you.
But the story does not end there just as our stories of heroism do not always end with the hero’s death. Not every hero story we write ends with the hero overcoming death. Some of them die, like Black Widow and Iron Man, and the best that people have is to hold on to their legacy and memory that will inevitably fade away into the obscurity of history, which the show Hawkeye portrays quite well every time Hawkeye visits Black Widow’s memorial.
But for those heroes whose stories do not end in death, their resurrection also tells us something of Jesus, whether their resurrection is figurative or literal. Figuratively, in The Lord of the Rings, the Mouth of Sauron fools Aragon, Gandalf, and the others that Frodo is dead, so they fight for him. But Frodo never died, and when they discover that he is alive, he might as well have risen from the dead, like it was for Abraham with his son. Harry Potter literally dies and rises from the dead, and by his death and resurrection he defeats Voldemort.
But not even these stories are perfect. Aragorn, though he has longevity of life twice that of normal Men, would eventually die. Harry, too, would eventually grow old and die, never to rise from the dead again. And so will the people they saved. Not so with Jesus.
These stories, then, bring us to yearn for a better Saviour, Jesus Christ, whether we know it or not. As St. Paul writes when he’s speaking about Baptisms, “Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with Him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over Him… So, you must also consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” [Rom. 6:8-9, 11]. In less than a fortnight, we will sing Alleluias that Christ Is Risen! Christ is risen from the dead, and He will never die again! He is ascended at the right hand of God the Father, ruling over His entire creation. He is the resurrection and the life; though you die, yet shall you live [John 11:25-26], just as Jesus died and rose again.
Love One Another
While we wait for the resurrection of the body, we do as the Lord has commanded His disciples: we love one another just as He has loved us. And as Jesus’ own life testifies, love requires sacrifice, even to the point of death. In the Army, my brothers in arms and I were willing to die for one another, even if we hadn’t known each other for very long. We were willing to die for country, and even more for our friends, just as Christ willingly died for the world and especially for His disciples whom He calls His friends, like you.
So, Christ commands us to love our neighbour. Our neighbour is the homeless man on the street. Rather than making up excuses that he’ll just use the money on drugs and alcohol, we deny ourselves and love him by giving what he needs, whether that be a few bucks or even daring to take him into a warm place and giving him food and clothing. Saint John Chrysostom has a sharp rebuke on refusing the poor man, “When you are weary of praying and do not receive, consider how often you have heard a poor man calling, and have not listened to him.”
Our neighbour is also the slow and forgetful waitress at a restaurant. We know not whether she is having a bad day, and we fail to love her when we refuse a tip or tip poorly. Maybe she does deserve a poor tip, but what do we know? When we deserved God’s wrath, instead He loved us. Therefore, let us love her by treating her well and even tipping her well, even though she might not deserve it because that’s not the point of love. Deny your wrath and do not make her feel worse.
I forget who the pastor was that I heard this from, but I remember him telling me something he always asks the man in premarital counseling. He always asks him, “Are you willing to die for your fiancée?” 99% of the time, he says without hesitation, “Yes!” Then the pastor asks him a follow-up question, “Are you willing to give up the TV remote for her?” And he hesitates… Love requires sacrifice. As Ephesians 5[:22-33] teaches, as much as the world hates this, the wife sacrifices her pride to submit to her husband. But the husband has an even greater sacrifice; he is called to die for her. Most men are willing to die for the love of his life, and this is good and pleasing to God our Saviour. So, it’s surprising that it’s rather difficult for some men to give up small things for his wife: like the TV remote, the game controller, work, his project in the garage, and so on.
Love requires sacrifice, and sacrifice leads to death—dying to yourself and living to your spouse, your children, your neighbour.
Loving God and neighbour is what it means to follow Jesus. In Jesus’ words, “If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow Me” [Luke 9:23]. Following Jesus requires sacrifice, which looks like self-denial, which is dying to sin. What we sacrifice, then, is sin. Jesus died for the forgiveness of your sins; so, when we cling to our sin, we reject Him. The world teaches you to hang on to your sins—that it’s okay to practice homosexuality and transgenderism, to express your so-called “righteous” anger, to ruin someone’s reputation on social media, and to love only those who support your sins and agree with you politically. But Christians live fundamentally different than the rest of the world. When the world says hold on to your sin and celebrate your pride, Christians sacrifice it to Jesus. He removes your sin from you and commands you to therefore live according to His ways, and that is to reject sin and to love one another just as He rejects your sin in His love for you.
Much as we are called to love one another, no one loves more perfectly than Christ. He is the hero of humanity’s story. Jesus is God who came not as a mighty superhero who dies and remains dead, and not as a normal human hero who dies and rises only to die again and remain that way forever. Rather, although He is your Master, Jesus came as your humble friend. He came to reveal the will of God the Father, which was that Christ might die for you and rise, never to die again, so that when you die, you too shall rise, never to die again.
Jesus is the friend of sinners. As your friend, He does not accept your sin; He took your sin upon Himself on the cross so that you might die to sin and instead live in Him. This happened when you were baptised. You are therefore free from your sin—free from living in its chains and damnation, because Jesus died that His friends like you might live. And you do. You live now as you love others just as He has loved you, and you will live into eternity when Jesus returns to raise His friends from the dead.
We pray: May the friendship of Christ our Saviour, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and minds forever and ever. Amen.