Lay so costly a sacrifice upon the altar

John Ditty Sunday School Lesson

January 12, 2014

Romans 12:1-2

In the fall of 1864, Massachusetts Governor John A. Andrew wrote to President Lincoln asking him to express condolences to Mrs. Lydia Bixby, a widow in the governor’s state who was believed to have lost five sons during the Civil War.

Executive Mansion,

Washington, Nov. 21, 1864.

Dear Madam,—

I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle.

I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile (lure, woo) you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.

I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage (soften) the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.

Yours, very sincerely and respectfully,

A. Lincoln

Later it was revealed that only two of Mrs. Bixby’s five sons had actually died in battle (Charles and Oliver). A third deserted the army, one was honorably discharged, and another might have deserted or died a prisoner of war.

Sacrifice, we are neither strangers to the word nor the idea. Since October 7, 2001 our nation has been at war with Afghanistan. This conflict has resulted in nearly 2100 U.S. causalities; soldiers who gave their lives for the safety of their fellow soldiers and the security and freedom of their nation.

Neither is the Church unfamiliar with sacrifice. It is attested that millions of Christians died during the days of the early church under the tyranny of the Roman Empire. During the 20th century it is reported that more than 100 million Christians died at the hands of ruthless, godless dictators; 40 million in the former Soviet Union alone.

Some believe those days are past and the world is a more civilized place. However, estimates suggest that 270 Christians are martyred every day, one about every five minutes. A 2010 report released by Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary stated that 159,960 Christians are martyred each year. We know sacrifice.

All Christians are called to sacrifice. Though some believers are called on to physically lay down their lives for Christ; it is not the call for all. However, in Romans 12:1-2 all Christians are called to be sacrifices. Romans, a letter to the Church in Rome, was written by a man who would himself, nine years after he wrote one of the clearest calls for Christian sacrifice, die for Christ. The author of the letter was the Apostle Paul. He was martyred in the spring of 68 A.D. just outside the city of Rome.

Paul wrote, “Therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, I urge you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God; this is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God.” For many Christians this is a familiar passage, for all it is worth looking into.

Paul begins with a reminder that what he wrote was urgent and well-founded. “Therefore,” a word calling the reader to respond to all that he has stated in the letter to that point. Led by the Holy Spirit, the Apostle told them of all that God did and was doing to bring them to belief in Christ. He “urged” them to respond to what God was doing. The Greek word translated “urge” is a strong call or summons carrying the force of begging, pleading, or to powerfully encourage.

That is the urgency, what is the foundation? God’s mercy. A few paragraphs prior, Paul reminded the reader that humanity’s sin earned us death but God’s grace offered the gift of eternal life through Jesus Christ. Based on God’s wonderful gift and His mercy, we do not have to die.

What response does God call for? He asks His people to willingly offer their lives to Him. God calls on Christians to being “living sacrifices.” What Paul’s first readers understood, living in a day when animal sacrificing was a common practice, is that to be sacrificed was to die. God is calling on His people to die. But He is not talking of physical death but of dying to our own will and desire and to live for His. Doing this right and pleasing to our Lord.

But is this a reasonable request? God’s response is yes. One Bible translation translates this as “our reasonable service” another “this is your spiritual act of worship.” Both ideas come from the Greek word “logikos” from which we get our word “logical.” Considering all that Christ did so humanity could live with Him it is only logical, reasonable, that we live for Him.

How do we do it? The next verse tells us that we must not be pressed into the mold of this world’s philosophies, definition of truth, its goals and desires. Rather we must know that God’s work in us changes us from the inside our; in other words, we must become in our thoughts and actions what God has made us to be.

Why be transformed? Simply put, so we can know what it is that God wants to do in and through us. So we can know His will. Paul says that God’s will is knowable, good in nature and usefulness, pleasing for us, and perfect or being brought to its proper end, being complete, lacking nothing.

This is a year of ministry, missions and discipleship. In this passage God shows you how you can successfully complete that which He has for you to do. May today be your day of sacrifice.