Pentecost 15

Preached: September 25, 2011

What if there were no cross …
Matthew 16:21-26

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Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. The word from God through which our Savior speaks to us is Matthew 16

From that time on Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem, suffer many things from the elders, chief priests, and scribes, be killed, and on the third day be raised again. Then Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Be it far from you, Lord! This shall not happen to you.”

But Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan. You are a trap for me. since you are not considering the things of God but the things of men.”

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life because of me will find it. For what profit is it to someone, if he gains the whole world, but forfeits his soul? Or what will someone give in exchange for his soul?” (Matthew 16:21-26).

This is the word of our Lord.

What if the Japanesse had not bombed Pearl Harbor and the United States had stayed out of World War II? What if the South had won the battle at Gettysburg? What if George Washington had been loyal to the British crown? Sometimes people can spin interesting stories about what-if’s from history. How would our world look today?

Sometimes these stories don’t revolve around world-changing events, but just an ordinary person’s life. What if George McFly punched out Biff instead of being bullied by him in the movie Back to the Future? Or what about the movie It’s a Wonderful Life? What if George Bailey had never been born?

And dear friends, as the Holy Spirit speaks to us through these words of Jesus recorded by Matthew, let’s ask two more what-if’s. What if there had been no cross for Christ? What if there were no crosses for us?

A. For Christ?

What if there had been no cross for Christ? You already know the answer to that. We stand at the vantage point of seeing Christ’s work laid out and completed. We’re like a hiker that’s reached a high outcropping. We can look back and see why the path winds and turns as it does.

But Peter was right in the thick of it. He knew Jesus was the Messiah. He had just confessed it in those wonderful words we pondered last week: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16 NIV1984). He could see the top of the mountain in the distance, Christ reigning in glory and we his people living free from sin and death. Why not strike out straight for the peek? Yes, it still might be a long ways off. Look at the lowly condition they were still in. But at least they should be headed upwards.

Yet Jesus was talking about traveling through a deep, dark valley. “From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law and that he must be killed” (Matthew 16:21 NIV1984). Even though Jesus adds the promise of victory in his resurrection on the third day, Peter can only see the darkness, the suffering, the death. Wasn’t this the wrong direction? Why suffer through the valley of the shadow of death? Why go to Jerusalem to die? Why not head straight for the glory?

He takes Jesus aside. Jesus must be confused. Maybe he’s been working too hard. Maybe he’s a bit down. His faithful followers can’t let him take this path, can they? “Never, Lord! … This shall never happen to you!” (Matthew 16:22 NIV1984), he declares.

Jesus turns, looks at Peter, and says. “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men” (Matthew 16:23 NIV1984). The way of fallen humanity is to go straight for the glory and skip the cross. Do you remember how Satan laid out this same temptation at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry? Jesus had been fasting for forty days in the wilderness facing temptations. Satan takes him to the top of a high mountain and shows him the kingdoms of the world. What glory! He says to Jesus, “All this I will give you” (Matthew 4:9 NIV1984). Here was the glory without the cross. Satan would simply surrender it to him. Why bleed and die for a rebellious people when he could have them for one, simple act of worship. That’s all that Satan asked for.

But Jesus refused Satan’s temptation then. And he refuses now when it comes through his dear disciple, Peter. “Get behind me, Satan! Your trap will not catch me. Yes, I know how great the suffering that awaits me is. I know the burden of the sins of the entire world. I see the darkness, the god-forsaken cross, the depths of hell, the agony, that death. But that is the path my heavenly Father has sent me on. That is the path I will walk. For there are no short cuts to the glory that saves sinners. I will not trigger your trap, Satan. I will do my Father’s will. For his will is mine.”

If there had been no cross for Christ, there would be no glory for us. Only his sacrifice atones. Only his blood redeems. Only his suffering and death turns God’s anger away from us. That’s the enormity of our sinfulness. Only Christ and his cross can save.

Keep his cross as the center, focus, and heart of your faith and life. Think of how we proclaim his death in the Lord’s Supper(1 Corinthians 11:26) and how in baptism you were buried with Christ (Romans 6:3, 4). Even his glorious resurrection points us back to the cross. For how could Jesus rise from the dead, unless he first died? And what good would a living Jesus do us, if he had not paid for all the sins of the world? Just as a dead Jesus with no Easter leaves us no hope, so also a glorious Jesus with no cross leaves us no salvation.

The trend in popular Christianity today is to downplay the cross. Don’t follow that crowd, dear friends. See the cross blackened by your sin. See the cross reddened by your Savior’s blood, shed for you. See the cross, the symbol of God’s love, where he gave his Son up for you so that you may live with him forever. Only Christ and his cross saves. He’s the One we follow.

B. For us?

Now, since we follow him who walked the path of the cross, what does that mean for us and our lives? Or to revisit our theme and pick up the second question. What if there were no crosses for us?

Here again, I think you know the answer. But it’s not so easy to come to grips and truly believe deep down inside what we know to be true. No matter what my mind keeps telling me, there’s a gut feeling that says my life would be better with fewer crosses.

What do we mean by a cross? One way to think of a cross is anything that challenges my faith so that I learn to rely on Christ’s promises rather than my powers. Some crosses are direct challenges, such as when others ridicule your faith or penalize you for doing what is right in God’s sight. Often, though, the challenge can be indirect. For example, disasters or sickness are not crosses in and of themselves. Even unbelievers, who cannot carry a cross since they do not follow Christ, suffer such things. But they become crosses for us believers when they become challenges to our faith. Why would the loving God let a disaster like famine claim the lives of so many children in the Sudan? How is the Lord going to take care of my family when money is so tight? Wouldn’t I be able to serve Christ better if I wasn’t so hampered by this disease or sickness? And deep down inside my gut wants to say, “Yes, I could bring so much more glory to my Savior if I didn’t have these crosses to bear.”

But what does Jesus say? “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24 NIV1984). I must deny that gut feeling that feels that I know best. I must deny that inclination that wants to have a say in what’s good for me. I must deny that vision that dreams of me bringing so much more glory to God if he would only give me more skills, more time, more money, more influence, or the like, as if his grace were not sufficient for me at this point (2 Corinthians 12:7-9).

I must deny those gut feelings, inclinations, and false dreams. They try to convince me that there is the way to save my life and bring glory to God without the crosses. And you too, dear Christian, deny those gut feelings, inclinations, and false dreams. Take up your cross and follow Christ even though it leads to hardship, struggle, suffering, and death. Hold to the words of Jesus, no matter what your insides may be saying to contradict it. Hold to the words of Jesus even when your gut shouts out that you are losing out on life. For “[w]hoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it” (Matthew 16:25 NIV1984), Jesus promises.

How often we’re tempted to think that we’re losing out on life if we follow Jesus too closely! We imagine that we can follow him without the crosses if we just make the right compromises. But even if those compromises could gain you everything you desire in this life, listen to what Jesus says: “What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Matthew 16:27 NIV1984). And once we walk that path of compromise, we keep on fooling ourselves into thinking we have not lost anything important, even though when we forsake our cross, we leave Jesus and his cross, losing our soul.

So deny those kinds of thoughts, feelings, inclinations, and dreams even if they come from deep down in yourself. Hold to Jesus’ words. Deny yourself by making your will match his, just as Jesus’ will matched his heavenly Father’s, so that he followed the path to the cross. What God ordains is always good. Take up your cross and follow Christ. Follow him even though at times, like Peter, you may well wonder why we’re not heading more directly toward the glory of the heavenly Jerusalem on the mountain top. Why follow this path filled with twists and turns, descending into dark valleys, struggling through thick brush and bramble? Why these crosses that I have to carry? Why this path, Jesus?

I think someday when we are in the heavenly Jerusalem looking back on the path Jesus led us on, we will more easily understand why, just like we can see more clearly than Peter did why Jesus had to walk his path to the cross. But now is not the time to reason why. Now is the time to follow -- to follow as we deny that desire to demand to know why. Rather we follow in faith, clinging to those words Jesus, such as the words he spoke to the Apostle Paul as he struggled with that cross he called his thorn in his flesh. “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). Follow in faith, like sheep listening to their shepherd’s voice, following him even through the darkest valleys and the heaviest crosses. For your Shepherd is with you, going on ahead of you. His goodness and mercy follow behind you. Follow in faith that prayers with the hymn writer: “Jesus, lead us on Till our rest is won; And although the way be cheerless, We will follow, calm and fearless. Guide us by your hand To our fatherland” (Christian Worship: A Lutheran Hymnal, 422:1, “Jesus, Lead Us On”). Amen.

The peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Pastor Gregg Bitter

St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church
859 5th Street
Hancock, MN 56244
(320) 392-5313