This is an edited version of a sermon I once preached (though I’ve not edited it much). It’s a true account, though the lesson I was taught took a while to formulate and wasn’t delivered to me in the divine monologue that I have written here. However, I knew that when I told this story I wanted to present it as something personal that took place between God and myself, because it was…
I used to play a lot of video games. I would fund this hobby by selling games when I was done with them, and using the money to buy new games. Once I was selling quite a few games on eBay and I had plans for the money. I wanted to get this one particular game – a rare and (relatively) expensive game.
That was my plan anyway.
On the day that the eBay auctions were due to end, I was in a good mood. It looked like I was going to end up with enough money to buy not only the game that I wanted, but another rare and (relatively) expensive game that I also had my eye on.
That morning, I was praying.
“Your eBay auctions are doing well, aren’t they James?” said God, out of nowhere.
“Oh no, God. I’m not going to talk to you about those auctions. Let’s talk about something else. How about the weather? It’s a nice day, isn’t it? Good job on that, by the way,” I said.
God ploughed on. “I’ve got an idea. Why don’t you give away all the money that you make from the auctions?”
“I knew it!” I said. “This is why I don’t talk to you about this kind of thing! I knew you were going to say that!”
“Well aren’t you the clever one. So what about it? I think you’ll learn something from it.”
All day I wrestled with this, but I knew there was only going to be one outcome.
“OK. You win, God,” I said.
That evening the auctions ended, and they ended with me making enough money to buy at least two and a half rare and (relatively) expensive games. There I was with this money, which was God’s, and all these games that I had to ship off to people who had no idea how miserable they had made me.
God must have noticed that I wasn’t my usual bubbly self.
“Something wrong, James?”
“You know what’s wrong, God.”
“What’s the problem? It wasn’t as if it was a huge sum of money, was it?”
“It’s not the amount, God. It’s what it was for. I really wanted that game. I know it’s silly. I know it’s only a little thing, but it mattered to me. If you’d asked me to just give, even double that amount, I would have done it without even thinking twice, but that particular money was mine. I had plans for it.”
“Ah. I think we’re getting somewhere,” said God. “You know, Jesus pointed that out to his disciples. Do you remember the widow who gave her penny to the Temple? Compared to the many who were dumping wealth into the Temple treasury her gift was nothing, but Jesus knew that it was something, because to give that meant that she had to go without. In other words, it meant something to Jesus because it cost her something here. And a long time before that, David, my servant knew this too.
“The land of Israel had wandered from me, and David had been a part of this. I brought my punishment on the people, and David recognised that it was his fault, his responsibility. So he said ‘God, let me make reparation,’ and went to make a sacrifice to appease me. Araunah offered him a piece of land to build an altar, to worship me. But David said ‘No,’ because David knew. David knew that it wasn’t about the altar, it wasn’t about the worship, and David knew that – as the king, as the guilty party – the cost had to be his. He couldn’t make appeasement from what was left over after he had his fill. It had to mean something to him. It had to cost him something here. You know what he said, James? He said ‘I will not offer to the Lord my God burnt offerings that have cost me nothing.’ He was saying, ‘I will not bring to my God worship that isn’t a sacrifice.’
“You see, the sacrifice is not measured in its size or how elaborate is is. The sacrifice is measured in what it costs you here. You’re right. It hurt you to give that particular gift. For many people what I asked you to do wouldn’t be a sacrifice, so I wouldn’t ask them to do it. I asked you because I knew that it would cost you something, truly, where it mattered. Right here. I knew that you would be giving something that you didn’t want to give. I knew that you couldn’t just do it on automatic pilot and throw out a gesture – you needed to make a conscious decision to put me first. That’s the measure of a sacrifice. I know that what it would hurt one person to give would be no big deal for another. If it’s not a big deal, then it’s not a sacrifice. If it doesn’t hurt you to give a million pounds, then it’s not a sacrifice. If it doesn’t hurt you to give up a holiday, then it’s not a sacrifice. If it doesn’t hurt you to follow me, then it’s not a sacrifice. If it doesn’t cost you something here then it’s not a sacrifice. And if it’s not a sacrifice, why should I see any merit in it? Do you think I’m a bird and that you can feed me with the crumbs of what you have left over? Why should I consider it a gift?
“You know, you can’t ever judge the sacrifice of another human being without knowing what it’s cost them here. You can be judgemental, but you can’t judge. You can look at something and say ‘That’s no big deal,’ but only I know whether it’s a big deal and therefore only I know the sacrifice. And I know that it cost you to give me that small sum of money. I know that it really cost you to go without a toy that would hold absolutely no interest to the vast majority of sane, rational people. I know this, and that’s why it was a sacrifice and that’s why it pleased me. That’s why you pleased me. David knew this. David knew it in his heart – and now you know it. This is what you’re getting in return for that money. Not a game, not even two or three games, but this knowledge. Fair trade?”
“Yes God,” I said, “Fair trade. Thank you.”