Preached: March 4, 2012
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. The word from God through which Jesus speaks to us is Mark 8
Jesus began teaching his disciples that it was necessary for the Son of Man to suffer many things, to be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and teachers of the law, to be killed, and after three days to rise. He was speaking this message plainly.
Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. Turning toward Peter and seeing his disciples, Jesus rebuked him and said, “Get behind me, Satan. For you do not have in mind the things of God but the things of men.”
When he had called together the crowd with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone wants to follow after me, let them deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, and whoever will lose their life for me and the Gospel will save it. For what benefit is it for person to gain the whole world and forfeit their soul? What could a person give in exchange for their soul? For whoever is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them, when he comes in his Father’s glory with his holy angels.” (Mark 8:31-38).
This is the word of our Lord.
“In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33 NIV1984), Jesus told his disciples on the night he was betrayed. And he was not just talking about the eleven there. He was talking about his followers throughout all of time. He was talking to you and me. “In this world you will have trouble.” “In this world you will bear the cross.”
Society would not choose this as a recruitment pitch. It doesn’t have the same ring as: “Be all that you can be.” “Aim high.” “The few, the proud, the Marines.” But Jesus makes it clear again and again that following him is not the easy life. “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20 NIV1984), Jesus said. “All men will hate you because of me” (Matthew 10:22 NIV1984). “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace on the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34 NIV1984). Just think about how Jesus was treated and later how the Apostles were treated to see just how true those words are.
Now as Jesus tells us of the trouble to come, he isn’t simply being realistic, warning us not to get our expectations too high. He’s promising trouble as a good thing for you and me. Do you remember how he closes the Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount? “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me” (Matthew 5:11 NIV1984). Our crosses are blessings. So take up your cross, dear Christian. Take up your cross by denying yourself so that you are driven to Christ’s cross. That’s the theme and parts today. May the Holy Spirit through his Word and Sacraments lead you to take up your cross by denying yourself and to take up your cross so that you are driven all the more to Christ’s cross.
“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself …” (Mark 8:34 NIV1984), Jesus tells us. What does it mean to deny yourself? Especially during Lent you may hear of people denying themselves a certain kind of food, a certain luxury, a certain pleasure. Even fasting has come back into vogue. And we don’t have the time here to discuss the benefits and dangers of such customs, because Jesus isn’t talking about those things. Notice he does not say: “Deny yourself this or that thing.” He says: “Deny yourself.” Period. Deny your very self, your inborn thoughts and desires and wants. He’s saying so much more than give up this or that for Lent or even for the rest of your life, dear friends. Rather give up your very self. Yes, deny yourself.
As he continues, he clearly brings this out. “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:35 NIV1984). Doesn’t my inborn desire want what’s best for me, that instinct for self-preservation to put me first? But to follow that natural desire loses everything, our life, our soul -- everything. So Jesus says, “Deny yourself. Deny your inborn desires. Don’t put yourself first. For whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.”
So even if putting yourself first could gain you the whole world: all it’s riches and pleasure, all its popularity and fame, all its power and prestige -- is it worth it? “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36), Jesus asks. So why do it for that small portion of the world you call your own? Rather, deny yourself.
And when Jesus asks what can be given in exchange for your soul, he’s not talking about some occult contract or deal with the devil. He’s talking about the day-to-day decisions we make. Do our choices in life deny ourselves or do they exchange our soul for the convenience of the moment? Do we try to fit in to the crowds of this world so that others don’t ridicule us and try to shame us for following Jesus? Are those the choices we make? Or do we deny ourselves?
Now how does this denying of self show up in our lives? When we deny ourselves, we put others before ourselves, denying that inborn desire to be number one. Isn’t that the essence of loving your neighbor as yourself? Isn’t that what the Lord calls on us to do in whatever roles he’s given us as husband or wife, parent or child, student or worker, as citizen and church member? He calls on me to put aside my selfish desires and put forward my spouse, my family, my job, my neighbor, country, and congregation? And do this, dear Christian, because of Christ and his Gospel. Remember when Jesus talked about losing our life, he said for him and for the Gospel, not for our own selfish interests. Deny yourself and place others ahead of you not to get praised for your self-sacrifice or counted as a good person. That’s not denying yourself. That’s indulging your selfish desires for thanks, appreciation, credit, and the like. Do it because of Christ who sacrificed himself for you. Do it because of his Gospel that brings to you the Good News that eternal life is yours as a free gift through faith alone, faith in Jesus who died for your all sins and rose on the third day, just as he promised right before he said these words.
But won’t others take advantage of me? Won’t they ridicule me as a naive pushover? Won’t they criticize me for being too religious? Yes, they will try to make you ashamed of Jesus. That’s the cross. Take up your cross by denying yourself, by putting forward others and their best interests.
But the cross goes even deeper into our soul. We’ve talked about denying our desire to love ourselves more than others. But even deeper in our souls are those desires to make ourselves right with God, to save face before him, to have his ways make sense to us and meet our standards. Deny yourself. Give up those desires. For they are the opposite of loving God with all our heart, soul, and mind. They are the opposite of fearing, loving, and trusting him above all things.
And as we deny this natural way of thinking, this desire to deal with God by our standards, this wanting to be like him on our own terms not his -- as we deny those thoughts, desires, and wants, then the internal crosses come. Crosses like these: We face the death of a loved one and ask why God. Or we see our loved one’s lingering suffering and ask why he doesn’t take them sooner. We see disaster or tragedy strike both the good and the bad, sometimes striking quite close to home, and ask why. We see churches that faithfully proclaim his word struggle to survive and those that let anything go prosper. “Why God? Aren’t you in control? Don’t you care?” What a cross come with that question “Why?”!
How often don’t past sins creep back into our conscience to accuse us especially when faced with a trouble in life: “Did this happen to me because God is finally giving me my due for the wrong I’ve done?” Or sometimes just in the silent quiet of the night, Satan accuses, “Do you really think God wants someone like you as his child?” What a cross!
And what about that ongoing realization that I am nothing but dust and ashes. Even my righteous acts are filthy rags. From the very beginning of my life I was sinful, empty of good, filled with evil desires, unable to rescue myself. “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51:5 NIV1984). The good I want to do, I don’t do. They evil I don’t want to do, that I keep on doing. How wretched I am! How devastating this truth! What a cross!
Yes, dear Christians, those crosses will crush and destroy you if you grit your teeth, dig down deep inside, and try to bear up underneath them with all the strength you can muster. They will crush you. That’s not what it means to take up your cross. For you don’t have the power or the strength to bear your crosses. You heard me correctly. You do not have the strength in yourself. Jesus says, “Deny yourself. Deny your imagined strength to do it.”
And that’s why your crosses are such a blessing! For since I cannot bear my cross, it drives me to Christ and his cross. Deny your own strength and power. Deny yourself and run to Christ. Cling to his cross alone. That’s how we take up our cross and follow him. That’s what the theme is all about.
Does God really care about you? Run to Christ’s cross. He did not spare his own Son. He did not spare him any pain, any suffering, any punishment. He forsook him, abandoned him, left him there on the cross in the agony of all the world’s sins. And he did that for you, dear friend. He did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all. How will he not also along with him graciously give us all things (See Romans 8:32)? Yes, he cares!
Can any hardship, disaster, suffering, loss, or heartache erase what God has already done at the cross? Of course not. Rather all those things that could lead us to question God’s love and power now drive us to the cross. And even as my soul cries out, “Why God!?” Christ’s cross quiets my cry telling me, “You don’t need to know why. What you need to know is that I love you and will shepherd you through even the darkest valleys. No one can snatch you out of my hand. Nothing can separate you from my love.”
And when the accusations of Satan lie heavy on your heart, run to Christ’s cross. For as great as your sin is, Jesus is greater. He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. That must include all of your sins, dear friend. See the Lamb, Jesus Christ, slaughtered on the cross as the sacrifice for all the sins, for every one of your sins -- the big and the small, those you know of and those you aren’t even aware of, those you’ve already committed and those that still lie in the future -- every last one of them. Come eat his body and drink his blood, remembering that he has died for you. And that same Jesus who sacrificed himself on the cross for you is now at the right hand of God interceding for you. Satan’s accusations, do not stand a chance.
And each day as you and I carry the cross that realizes how sinful and helpless we are by nature, that drives you and me to Christ’s cross again and again. While we were still godless sinners, helpless and rebellious, Christ died for you. You heard that promise in the Second Lesson today: “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly … God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6, 8 NIV1984). While we were his enemies, God gave us his Son. Now that we are reconciled to him through Christ’s blood, now that we are his children through faith in Jesus, we take up our cross, denying ourselves knowing and believing that everything depends on our God. He alone saves.
In some ways, our crosses are like a sheep dog. Remember that dogs and wolves are closely related. And as a sheep senses that dog behind it, nipping at it, there must be some degree fear and apprehension, such as when we feel our crosses. But the sheep dog is under the command of the shepherd and all its seeming fierceness is meant to keep the sheep close to the shepherd, just like our crosses.
Take up your cross so that you are driven to Christ’s cross. That’s why our crosses are blessings. That’s why in the Second Lesson you heard Paul say, “we also rejoice in our sufferings” (Romans 5:3 NIV1984). Our crosses drive us to Christ’s cross as we deny ourselves, as we deny our own power, our own thinking, our own desires and wantings, and cling only to Christ and his cross. Amen.
The peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.