Worship Theme: The Church God Wants: A Church That Lives Under the Cross
Sermon Theme: The Preaching of the Cross
Did it surprise you to hear Jesus talk the way he did in the gospel for today from Matthew 16:21-26? Instead of gratifying self, he spoke of denying self. “The preaching of the cross” delivers to you the good news of the One who denied himself, took up a cross and along with it, every one of your sins, and followed perfectly God’s plan to save you. September 3, 2023.
Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.” You heard what Jesus said, and now I have to ask you: Any takers? You hear this word from Jesus, and you ask yourself, Is he serious? I mean, doesn’t he want followers? He must not know how things work in 21st century America, and really the humans have not changed one bit since 1st century Israel, when Jesus spoke these words. Deny myself? I thought self-care was the thing nowadays! Take up a cross? Well, frankly, that sounds like no fun! Follow Jesus? Right along with every human since Adam and Eve started having children, we cry out, “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul!” Glaring theological problems aside, this is the only sensible path for making a way through life in this world. Stay away from pain, avoid hardship at all costs, and when it comes to death? Don’t even touch that with a ten-foot stick. It’s only reasonable, and personal experience will even tell us it’s desirable, to shape and fashion our lives to look like that – with all things painful, hard, or deadly at a distance, while we safely surround ourselves with comfort, ease, and good things. So, did it surprise you to hear Jesus talk the way he did in the gospel for today? He didn’t mention a couch, but a cross. Instead of gratifying self, he spoke of denying self. And to life as the humans define it, Jesus calls us to die. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Matthew tells us, 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 and on the third day be raised to life. From that time on. It’s been seven days for us since we last gathered in this place to hear the bold confession of St. Peter, the rock on which the Church is built. “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” It’s been seven whole days for us, but it seems only a matter of minutes for those disciples of Jesus. As spot on as Peter’s confession was, he and the others would need to learn exactly what that meant. Jesus is quick to teach that you can’t divorce the confession of who Jesus is from the confession of what he came to do. This verse in Matthew’s gospel marks a major turning point in the narrative. Now instead of thronging crowds surrounding Jesus, there’s more alone time with the Twelve to prepare them for what’s coming. And what was coming? Nothing good, it seemed. With alarmingly specific detail, Jesus outlined what was coming his way. And, what’s really astonishing, not only does he understand the rough outline of what’s going to happen, but he names names elders, chief priests, and teachers of the law. He knows the names and faces of his killers. But what’s most amazing of all is that, even though he knows all of this, he goes anyways – for you. These things aren’t just “coming Jesus’ way,” no, Jesus is marching toward them himself! Jesus is heading to Jerusalem – to a middle cross on Calvary and an empty garden tomb three days later – and nothing was going to stop him. But Peter sure tried!
Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” Jesus lets his disciples in on God’s divine plan for saving the world, themselves included, and Peter proposes an alternative plan. Jesus, don’t you know that we’re supposed to avoid all that kind of stuff? Pain and suffering, death and decay, never, Lord! Not to mention, Jesus, you just acknowledged that you are the Christ, the promised Savior from God, and this, THIS is how you’re going to build something that not even the gates of hell can overcome? Peter pulls Jesus aside and rebukes him, he scolds the Savior, “Now, Jesus, we don’t talk that way!” Rebuking Jesus and trying to dissuade him from what he’s going to do is, generally speaking, a terrible idea. But before we come down too hard on Peter, the patron saint of telling God how he should do things, what he’s saying makes some sense, doesn’t it? I mean, a crucified and dead rabbi Messiah doesn’t offer much in the way of hope and a kingdom that stands forever. What Peter missed in Jesus’ prediction is the promise we’re too quick to forget as well. This wasn’t just Jesus predicting his death…but his resurrection. From the very first time he let his disciples know what was going to happen, Jesus saw the end from the beginning. He knew where this would end, and it wasn’t a cross; it was an empty tomb.
Jesus turned and said to Peter, “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.” In just the span of six verses in the Bible, Peter goes from Blessed are you Simon to Get behind me, Satan! It sounds harsh, but that’s exactly where that kind of thinking comes from – the devil himself. Do you remember another time when Jesus said something like this and to whom he said it? Flip back to Matthew 4, to the account of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. The devil came to him, showing him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. With an empty promise the tempter tested Jesus, “It can all be yours, Jesus, if you just bow down to me! You can have it all…without the cross!” It makes all the sense in the world why the devil would try to prevent Jesus from going to the cross; it would shipwreck our salvation. Unwittingly, Peter was encouraging Jesus to do the same thing. But Jesus, so committed to his mission and dedicated to the necessity of your salvation, rebuked Peter and sent that idea straight back to hell where it came from. Not unlike Peter, we want to take the lead, and tell Jesus how things should be. Maybe not overtly taking Jesus aside and giving him the what-for, but perhaps secretly harboring in our hearts the simple, satisfying, yet sinful thought that things would be so much better, if only I were in charge. If only God would get on board with my plan, then things would be so much better in my life (as though it’s really yours to begin with!). So short-sighted, so curved in on ourselves, so focused on the things of men are we humans – we want Jesus to follow our lead rather than the other way around. To disabuse us of such things, Jesus is quick and clear to point out: Christianity isn’t about avoiding the cross. Christianity is all about the cross; a cross for Jesus, and for you.
“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.” Take up your cross. It’s about as common of a Christian (and sometimes non-Christian) expression as you can get. But what does it mean? Is the cross just hardship in general? Well, no. Even unbelievers get cancer, lose their jobs, and endure pain. So, what is it? Listen again. “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.” The cross consists of the hardships we endure for the sake of Jesus and his gospel good news of sins forgiven and heaven won. The cross is what comes our way because we’re disciples of Jesus, not the other way around, as though my faithful cross-bearing will finally earn me the title of “disciple.” The cross is the constant denial of my will and desire in favor of what Jesus says. It’s the struggle against getting my own way when dealing with God and others. It’s the willingness to bear shame and abuse as long as the good news of Christ crucified and risen for sinners is going out into the world. Here’s the tricky thing – if you hear Jesus’ threefold imperative to deny self, take up cross, and follow and your first thought is, “I can do that!” then you’ve already missed the point, because there’s something standing in your way. In order for any of this to happen, there’s something that needs to get out of the way. Do you know what that something is? It’s you.
Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself.” So, don’t eat junk food? Don’t sleep in? Maybe, in a broader, social way, to lose my individual identity in favor of the community, or line up to confess whatever privilege I’m perceived to have, so that now I can be a fully realized follower of Jesus. But do you notice the common thread that runs through each of those? They’re still all about me! Jesus said deny yourself – not just some parts, not just sometimes, not just some things – deny yourSELF! This has got to be the least manipulative call in history, because it runs completely counter to every inkling of human self-driven self-interest. This call to deny myself and take up the cross doesn’t find its end in me, but in the other; aimed not at my comfort, but at my neighbor’s need. This is the reality of the Christian life. It’s not a Sunday stroll in the park, but a constant exercise in denying myself, and picking up not just a heavy weight, but a cross. And what do you do with a cross? You die. It’s interesting that Jesus’ first mention of a cross isn’t talking about his own, but that of his disciples (both then and now). And it’s not just a neat coincidence; people in the first century Roman world knew what a cross was used for. There was nothing metaphorical about the picture Jesus used to communicate what it means to be his follower. Something’s in the way here, and something (better, someone) has got to die here. As we follow Jesus, who carried his cross, we know it’s leading only one place – and it’s not death, but life. Nothing is going to stop Jesus from going to Good Friday and Easter. Nothing will stop Jesus from going the way of the cross – and he’s bringing you with him! You see, your life as a Christian is inextricably linked with Jesus and his death on Calvary. Where he goes, you go. He leads. You follow. When he died, so did you. But, by his grace you know that’s not the end of the story, because you know what’s coming next.
And to encourage you until that day comes, Jesus shows you what you already have in him: “What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?” Everything else pales in comparison to this treasure that Jesus gives in his gospel promise. Jesus highlights that point by taking this discussion to its most absurd, utterly impossible conclusion – “Let’s say you’ve gained the whole world; it’s all yours! What does that really do for you if it means that your eternal life is lost?” Now do you see how the cross takes my eyes off my present sufferings that aren’t worth comparing with the glory God has waiting? It shifts my focus from what I only perceive as bad or painful or hard in my everyday life right now to the eternal day when I’ll see my Savior face to face. Every day in every way, returning to my Baptism to drown the old Adam, I get to die to my expectations, my presuppositions, my ideas about how God should work, myself, and everything in this world (because those are all passing away), and I am raised to new life in Christ. Recently I heard someone say, “If you want to know how to live, first you need to learn how to die.” The cross gives us the answer. Dead to the old and alive to the new, I hear Jesus’ call, and the heart of faith can’t think of anything it wants more than to be close to Jesus and follow him – not lead him, but follow the One who wouldn’t think for a second of shirking his cross, because that would mean he couldn’t save you. The preaching of the cross isn’t Jesus handing you a checklist to complete in order to be called a disciple. He’s showing you, by faith, who you already are as his follower, and where he’s leading you.
So, this whole business of discipleship and being a follower of Jesus isn’t about me; it’s about Jesus. When we deny ourselves, we’re really embracing him. When we take up a cross, it’s not a self-chosen, self-inflicted, generic kind of hardship, but it’s holding onto his cross and all that he’s won for us. When we follow him, rather than try to lead him in our way, we are taking hold of life that comes from a God who knows only how to give good gifts to his children. “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.” The preaching of the cross delivers to you the good news of the One who denied himself, leaving behind heaven’s glory to take on your humanity; took up a cross and along with it, every one of your sins, and followed perfectly God’s plan to save you. The preaching of the cross proclaims to you the promise of the One who gave up his life on Calvary and found eternal life for you. The cross is not an existential dilemma about the problem of evil or suffering, or the question of whether God could really love me in spite of all the bad things that happen in life. Oh no, the cross is proof that God is good – with Jesus’ full cross and empty tomb, he saved you for all eternity. With your cross, puts to death your sinful flesh, raises you to new life in him, and draws you ever closer to himself and his word of promise fulfilled. This is the preaching of the cross: the cross is proof that God is good. Amen
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