I was sitting in the break room at work the other day, engaged in a conversation with a co-worker, when all of a sudden I caught a glimpse of the center and foundation of the universe.
It was a simple conversation over coffee and the mindless task of wrapping oil lamps to be handed out as gifts for those taking the daily tours through Nazareth Village—a replica of 1st century Nazareth. It was a conversation that was tucked away within the folds of everyday life, much as the seeds of the kingdom of God often are. It was an unheralded moment—no choir of angels, no subtle impression in my spirit to prepare myself for an unveiling of divine wisdom—just the bittersweet twang of Arabic coffee on my palate and the simple words of my friend Sameer, the head groundskeeper.
As I looked into his earnest yet piercing blue eyes, framed by a face fashioned and chiseled by the daily caress of the sun’s implacable rays, I listened to his hopes, dreams, and ambitions. This was a man who had great personal vision, the determination, drive, and talent to make his vision a reality, and the passionate excitement that made his vision infectious. As I listened intently, I could not help but think that the work that we were doing could not possibly contain such a man, that somehow he stretched the boundaries of the reality we shared, pushing and prodding in such a way that inevitably it had to collapse in order to propel him toward his destiny.
In that moment, I did what I do best. I asked a question.
“Sameer, why are you working here? I can see the passion burning in your eyes as you share your dreams, and I know that you cannot accomplish that vision in this place.”
Sameer paused for a moment, his eyes watering slightly, and then he smiled a broad and unapologetic smile.
“Did you know that when I leave my work here, that I go home to have dinner, then I go back to work at my other job? I have four children now, and a wife who is in poor health—I need to make sure that I provide for and take care of them. If I can provide for my children so that they grow up strong and educated in a field that they love and if I my wife can receive the medical treatment she needs and is restored to health. . .That is enough for me. This would be a greater gift from God than if my own passions and dreams came true.”
I sat there in stunned silence for a moment—reflecting on what was on display before me. Have you ever experienced a moment in conversation where someone’s words strike the core of your being with an awe that defies expression? This was one of those moments for me. It was a moment that humbled me as I saw the selfishness of my own life contrasted with the sheer selflessness of this man’s life, and I knew that this disposition was not confined to his family—I had observed the manner in which he laid his life down for his fellow workers. This was a man who has vision, determination, and talent yet also one who has made a choice, one that, in my opinion, grasps the foundational wisdom of the universe.
A life laid down for others, one that takes joy in lifting others towards fulfillment and wholeness. A life that shines like radiant light in the midst of darkness. A life that can say, “if there is any other way, yet not as I will but as you will.”
I could not help but think about 1 John 3:15-16, “Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him. This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.”
The passage goes on to define hatred of a brother or sister in pragmatic rather than emotive terms, “If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” This truth is echoed by the apostle James (James 2:14-17) and spills forth from the lips of Jesus himself (Matt. 25:32-46).
The first epistle of John is characterized by much dualistic imagery—light/darkness, love/hate, sin/righteousness and yet rather than being esoteric theological concepts they inherently point to the core of all that exists—sacrifice or the lack thereof.
What are light, love, and righteousness as they are found in the trembling and frail frame of a human being? It is a conscious choice to sacrifice oneself for the sake of others. It is to obey the new commandment of Jesus Christ to “love one another even as he has loved us” (John 13:34-35), for in the words of Paul such “love is the fulfillment of the law (Rom. 13:8-10; Gal. 5:14).
What are darkness, hate, and sin as they are embodied in human beings? It is a conscious choice to sacrifice others for our own sake. The opportunity to do so presents itself daily—through trivial gossip or slander to insidiously elevate one’s own reputation at the expense of another, through the objectification of others to placate our own ravenous lusts, to idolize success and embrace the dog eat dog mentality of the world—clawing and climbing over others in an insane scramble for the ‘top’ of the food chain.
But wait, these only reflect the horizontal dimension of the concepts mentioned above, where is God in this picture? As I mentioned earlier, the seeds of the kingdom are hidden within the everyday folds of our lives.
To reject sacrifice on the behalf of others in favor of sacrificing others on the altar of our own needs and desires betrays a fundamental idolatry at the core of our being. It is a rejection of the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world (Rev. 13:8; 1 Pet. 1:18-20). It is a rejection of the nature of God revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is a rejection of the liberating power of the Holy Spirit that indwells all those that believe, the very presence of God Himself invigorating our spirits that once again we might reflect His image in the world. Essentially, it is a rejection of the very heartbeat of the Trinity, both the source and the sustaining power of all that exists.
The Mosaic Law revealed the scope and the nature of sin, that humanity fundamentally chooses to sacrifice others for our own sake. The author of Hebrews indicates that the annual sacrifices of ancient Israel were intended as constant reminders of both the gravity and the cost of sin—loving sacrifice both covers and confronts sin (Heb. 10:3-8)
In the fullness of time, God sent His Son as a loving once and for all sacrifice that both covers and confronts our sin. His life revealed with clarity what was required of all that are called by His name, a life of sacrifice modeled after his own, empowered by his very own Spirit (1 John 3:17-18; 4:7-12; 5:2-4).
In grasping this truth we forsake the illusory and transient wisdom of the world and lay hold of the unshakeable foundation of all that is and all that will be. This is neither fantasy nor is it beyond the grasp of every man, woman, and child. This is not something to be promoted in theory yet abandoned in practice. This is the narrow road. This is what it means to deny self and to follow Christ daily. It is the sacrificial love revealed through everyday people in everyday life. People like Sameer, people like you and me. The choice is simple yet simultaneously excruciatingly difficult… a refrain that echoes through the pages of the Bible, one that even a child could remember, and it is the choice that I lay before you today-
“I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him” (Deut. 30:19-20)
“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)