The phrase “underscore sacrifice” is lifted from the General’s 2013 message on this blog page, which is titled “WE NEED OFFICERS”. Sacrifice for her (Linda Bond) means “availability” and “mobility”, that is, “to be prepared to serve sacrificially, anywhere and everywhere, whenever and wherever, The Salvation Army requires.
To my way of thinking there are two sides to sacrifice.
The first is: that it’s a way of expressing one’s deepest appreciation to God. So it is that humanity has always asked the question: What can we give to God to express our appreciation, and the thing that was most precious to people in prehistoric times was a child.
It’s against that background, that we see Abraham starting out with Isaac in the biblical story, preparing to make a sacrifice. Abraham believes, according to the best light of his day, that this is the offering he must make to God. That’s one side of sacrifice: it’s a gift of gratitude.
The other side is this: sacrifice is God’s way of fulfilling life’s greatest possibilities. When we say it’s God’s way we mean that it’s written into the nature of things. There’s no use asking why it’s that way, or why God didn’t choose some other way. We don’t know why; all we know is that this is the way.
For example, how much real family life can there be without sacrifice? The parents of children sacrifice a great deal of their independence and freedom, their time and money, and often their peace of mind, and in the end the child goes off and leaves home and it seems as though they also sacrificed the child.
Again, look at a person, who launches out on a career. One has to cut out one thing – in order to have something else. One may have to give up the blessings of a family for example, in order to bind oneself more closely to one’s work.
Or think of a person, who is going to be a great artist: one cannot pursue one’s own private pleasures and, at the same time, be the channel of the great creative power of the living God. One must have one or the other; one of them has to be sacrificed.
So while there is about sacrifice, a kind of voluntariness, something excessive, over and above, uncalculated, that streams freely, gladly, cheerfully from a person’s heart who wants to express gratitude to someone else, there is also a kind of compulsion about sacrifice.
Furthermore, the story of Abraham and Isaac makes clear that there is more than one kind of sacrifice. Abraham, knowing what he’s about to do has all the necessary equipment for a burnt sacrifice: his son and the wood for the fire.
You can see why this story was included in the records of the Jewish people. It marks a great step forward in humanity’s growing concept of God. The story was told to sanction the custom of substituting an animal for a person in a sacrifice.
Put the other way around, and it means something like this: that God didn’t want people to sacrifice their children. When God sent a child into the world, God wanted the child to have every opportunity to live and grow, bloom and flourish in the fullness of his or her potentialities.
In this story then, we find two kinds of sacrifice, a child and an animal. Later on, there was still another substitution. The prophets of the time began to see the unreality of sacrificial ceremony in which there was no moral meaning, and they said to the people: Why are you offering all these animals? God doesn’t need the best of your flock; God wants you!
If you and I are thinking of something we can give God we had better look within: “for the sacrifices of God are a broken and contrite heart.” God wants our will, our mind, our pride, our ambition, our desires, so that they can be refined and made as instruments of creative purpose.
Finally, there are two ways of looking at this story. One can look at it with a kind of sophisticated superiority and say how primitive it is, or look at it and say how profound it is. For it is a truism that we are still making the mistake that Abraham almost made, of sacrificing the wrong thing, our children instead of our selves.
How many officers’ homes are there in which people are sacrificing their children in order to fulfill the demands of their careers; being available to go anywhere when marching orders arrive? It doesn’t seem to matter to the organization how many times their children have to be uprooted from their schools and friends, and even sometimes, being left behind to fend for themselves.
How many mothers are there who sacrifice their children to their own needs, smothering them, keeping them tied to their apron strings, never letting them go to their own life? And how many fathers are there who seek for their sons and daughters to follow in their steps, to carry on the Army tradition, when the child is in no way prepared to do it, and wants something entirely different?
We’ve not gone so very far, still sacrificing the wrong thing.
One of the great poets of the First World War was Wilfred Owen. In one poem he took this old story of Abraham and Isaac and used it as a parable to show the way in which people, still make the wrong kind of sacrifice and offer their own children.
“Abram bound his son Isaac with belts and straps and built parapets and trenches there and stretched for the knife to slay his son. When lo! An angel called him out of heaven saying: Lay not your hand upon the lad, neither do any harm to him. Behold, a ram caught in a thicket by its horns. Offer the ram instead of him. But the old man would not so, but slew his son, and half the seed of Europe, one by one.”
The story of Abraham and Isaac, old-fashioned, primitive, comes to us with all the warmth of a human narrative born down there in the depths of a parent-child relationship – of which there can be nothing on earth more wonderful, not even serving the Army, or the Church! And it comes to us with a solemn and sober reminder, that we had better sacrifice the thing that God really wants: us!
Dr. John Sullivan
Dr. John Sullivan