Two teenage girls are looking through the latest issue of a Hollywood star magazine’s list of the “Most beautiful people on the planet.” While flipping the pages they come to a picture of Justin Beiber, and one of the young girls says to the other, “Isn’t he just gorgeous? He’s to die for!” Across town, two adults are talking on the phone about a shiny new car they both want to buy one day. It is way too expensive for either of their budgets, but they dream and wish anyway about the day one of them could just walk into the car dealership and drive away in this cherished chariot of their dreams. Says one to the other, “Oh how I wish I could drive up to my High School reunion in that car! It’s just to die for!”
So, “Just what are you willing to die for?” Of course, no one would really die for the chance to be with a handsome movie star, or to drive an expensive new car, no matter how impressed one’s friends and former classmates would be. But it is an important question to ask ourselves, “Just what is big enough, important enough, that I would give my life for it?” The instinct to protect one’s life is powerful, and should be so. No one should take their life lightly, since it is a precious gift from God. It is good and right that a person takes care of their health, avoids dangerous situations, and keeps a vigilant eye to any threats to life and limb. But as important as self-preservation is, it should not be a person’s highest value. If a person does not have some values in life that are worth dying for, that are more important than just self-preservation, than that person is vulnerable to a life that is dominated by fear and selfishness.
Our reading from Maccabees illustrates the point. In this story, set during the second century B.C. occupation of Israel by the Syrian ruler Antiochus Epiphanes, seven Jewish brothers and their mother are captured and brutally tortured, one by one, in an effort to break their loyalty to their Jewish faith and customs. It is a gruesome scene, as each brother is slowly killed in the presence of the remaining family members. But each brother and their mother chose death rather than betray their faith. And so they endured the ultimate sacrifice of martyrdom, bearing witness to their faith in God’s ultimate justice against their enemies, and their faith in the resurrection from the dead. Centuries later, their story was still being told, and they are even listed in the roll call of faithful saints in Hebrews 11:35.
And what, you may ask, did the Syrian ruler ask the family members to do, that would be worth this sacrifice? Did he challenge them to curse God? Or tear up a scroll of scripture? No. He just wanted them to eat a piece of pork. Simply to make one small break in the Kosher laws of Judaism. It was not such a big thing, when you think about it that way. Just a slice of bacon on a BLT, or a piece of sausage with their breakfast. And for many Jews in that day, the expedient thing to do was to make this one small concession, rather than lose one’s life. But for this family, even that one small departure from the laws of Moses represented a denial of the whole of Jewish faith. So for this family, this was the line in the sand where they would take their stand.
So, again, what is important enough to you and to me that we would die for it? Is there anything big enough to live for that is important enough to die for? For some, it has been the ideals of freedom and country. The example of Pat Tillman, the NFL player who gave up a multi-million dollar contract playing football, choosing instead to serve his country in Afghanistan, and ultimately losing his life there, is a case in point. Others would say that they would readily give up their life to save the life of their children or spouse, or maybe even the life of a stranger in distress. We still speak with hushed awe over the 9/11 firefighters in New York who ran into those dying buildings in the effort to save people they never met.
In her song, The Rose, Bette Midler sings, “It’s the one afraid of dying, who never learns to live.” She is right. Whether or not we ever face the crucial decision of martyrdom, it is important to decide that there are some things that are worth dying for. Until we have identified those values, we have not begun to live fully, for we are locked up behind the bars of fear.
This week, learn a lesson from the Maccabee children. Spend some time in prayer identifying that for which you are willing to die. Stay with it, make sure that you name at least one thing that matters so greatly that you would be willing to die for it.
And then, here is the catch – ask the important corollary question: How am I, even now, LIVING for that which I am willing to die?”