Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you (Matthew 5:11-12).
Sacrifice: Problems with the Old Ways
As Lent approaches, we consider what to sacrifice, what to give up. Chocolate? Facebook? Driving over the speed limit? Whatever we choose, we usually keep self-improvement in mind. We assume that improving ourselves will please God and make us feel better, a sacred win-win.
Meanwhile, we find sacrifice in scripture crass and archaic. Slaughtering animals and burning their carcasses offends our sensibilities. Civilized carnivores delegate such dirty work to butchers and pay for meat wrapped in plastic.
Moreover, ancient sacrifice seems manipulative and self-centered. I, the ancient sinner, transfer my sins to this lamb, offer the lamb to the priest, and the lamb carries my sin into death. It goes up in smoke to please a deity who loves the smell of pit barbecue. This cleanses me and pleases the deity while the lamb takes the heat.
Biblical prophets offered a still more substantive critique. They regularly delivered a message that such ritual sacrifices please God not one bit apart from ordering of society to support the vulnerable (e.g., Isaiah 1:10-17; Amos 5:21-24).
Finding ancient sacrifice distasteful and misguided, we take solace in seeing Christ as the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. We move on to better things.
Going with the Deeper Meaning of Sacrifice
But not so fast. Sacrifice did not take center stage in antiquity for nothing. For while sacrifice purportedly purified the self and appeased the gods, something else defined it. The term, “sacrifice,” derives from the Latin, sacer, meaning “sacred,” and facere, meaning “to make or to do.” “Sacrifice” means “to make sacred.”
The sacrificial lamb amounted to more than a trash bag for our sins. The lamb became sacred, meaning it carried divine power. Unlike the modern meat-packer, the ancient priest actually elevated the animal. This has obvious implications for a Christian understanding of Christ as the Lamb of God.
Those implications may include the end of all ritual sacrifice for sin (Hebrews 10:1-18), but it does not include the end of “making sacred.” For Christ constantly bids us surrender our lives to gain life. Christ calls us to take up our crosses and follow him on a path that makes our lives sacred. As Paul said,
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:1-2).
Sacrifice now means make your life sacred. Sacrificing primarily for self-improvement cheapens it, and you will not improve much for very long. But if you do it for love of God regardless of the outcome, if you listen for God’s will and respond to it because you genuinely want to join God in the joy of loving, you make yourself a living sacrifice, an earthen vessel carrying the treasure of divine mercy and truth (2 Corinthians 4:7). Then you will be “transformed by the renewing of your mind,” pleasing to God and yourself.