Taking Up Your Cross

Sermon preached at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, Lewis Center, OH, the Second Sunday in Lent, March 8, 2009.

If you would like to listen to the entire sermon, usually a bit different from the text, click here.

Lectionary texts: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Psalm 22:22-30; Romans 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-39.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

What is the Human Condition?

Good morning, St. Andrew’s! This month our preaching theme is discipleship and today we continue that theme in the context of Lent. In this morning’s Gospel lesson we read of a story with which we can all identify. Peter goes from hero to goat in under 60 seconds. In the passage prior to today’s lesson, he has just confessed Jesus as the Messiah, God’s Anointed One. Then when Jesus begins to teach the disciples that he must suffer, die, and rise again, Peter rebukes him in front of the others. He does so out of a deep love for his Lord but also because he was ignorant of God’s will and we can certainly relate to that, can’t we. Who among us, despite loving the Lord, is sometimes not ignorant of God’s will for us because we do not spend enough time and effort in seeking it?

In response, Jesus turns to Peter and rebukes him sharply. “Get out of my sight, Satan!” The verb Mark uses for rebuke is the same verb Jesus used when rebuking and casting out demons (see, e.g., Mark 1:25, 3:12). So one minute Jesus calls Peter a “rock” (Matthew 16:18) and the next, “Satan,” because out of ignorance of God’s will coupled with his great love for Jesus, Peter had opened the door for Satan to tempt our Lord just as he had done in the desert. This is a warning to us that when we argue with God’s Word, we open the door for Satan’s lies and that is why Jesus rebuked him so harshly. I don’t know about you, but it would make my heart grow faint and my blood run cold if the Lord Jesus turned to me and told me to get out of his sight. What a fearsome thing to hear!

Where is God’s Grace?

But it is to the glory of God that this isn’t the end of the story. Jesus did not reject Peter as a person, but rather rebuked him for allowing Satan to get his foot in the door to tempt him. So what did Jesus do? He didn’t kick Peter out of the club or reject him forever. Instead, he turned Peter’s blunder into a teachable moment. For you see, God’s way is to transform suffering into glory while Satan’s way is to promise glory without suffering. Which way you accept will determine how you live and how you serve, and Jesus wants every one of us to live. The great 19th/20th century English evangelical preacher, Dr. G. Campbell Morgan, said, “The [person] who loves Jesus, but who shuns God’s method, is a stumbling block to Him.”

So Jesus turned to the crowd and told them that whoever wants to be his disciple must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow him. Let us look carefully at this passage because it has direct implications for us as we move through this season of Lent with its emphasis on self-reflection and denial. 

First, it is important to notice that Jesus does not tell us to take up his cross, but rather our own. The image he evokes is one of a condemned person on his/her way to his/her execution and left to our own devices that describes our situation perfectly, doesn’t it? Christ took up his cross to atone for our sins and make it possible for us to live with him forever. It is our one and only hope of having life that lasts forever and it is the main reason we want to love him.

When we take up our cross, like Christ choosing to follow God’s will and die for us, we choose to follow God’s will for our lives rather than our own selfish and sinful desires. We choose to take up our cross because we want to grow in our relationship with the Source and Author of all life, and because we have hearts filled with love and gratitude for what God has done for us on the cross. Taking up our cross is not an easy thing to do and it is very costly to us because it means we have to put to death everything inside us that wants to rebel against God and put ourselves in his place. Taking up our cross requires a lifetime of daily commitment but it does not require that we live mistake-free lives. 

We can see this illustrated in today’s OT lesson because God essentially told Abram to take up his cross when he told him to be blameless. The Hebrew adjective for blameless, tamiym, does not mean to be without sin. Instead it means to have wholeness, integrity, and singleness of purpose. It is how God described David to his son, Solomon, and urged the latter to be like his father (1 Kings 9:4). This is absolutely remarkable considering that David was both a murderer and adulterer. When we attempt to be blameless, we acknowledge our own sinfulness but also find God’s mercy to cover it as we seek to give our whole selves over to him.

Moreover, when Paul describes Abraham as the Father of all who have faith, this is likewise quite remarkable, given that Abraham, at Sarai’s urging, had a baby with her servant Hagar after God had promised him he would be the father of innumerable offspring (Genesis 15:4ff). That hardly sounds like a faithful act and is another indication that walking before God blamelessly requires a lifetime of effort! Yet the very desire to want to please God is a powerful and tangible sign that we are attempting to walk blamelessly before the Lord, even when we fail like Abraham and David did.

No, what God wants most from us is to love him with everything we have and trust him for Who he is. And if we do, he promises us joy that transcends all that life (and death) can throw at us. That should be the basis for wanting to take up our cross daily because we love him and want to grow to become like him (Ephesians 4:13).

Furthermore, he has given us great signs and wonders of his trustworthiness and the Bible is packed full of them to help us believe he is trustworthy and true to his promises. Of course, the most wondrous of these signs and wonders is the death, resurrection, and ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ and Paul reminds us in today’s epistle that our Lord’s resurrection is just one more sign God has given us to help bolster our faith that by his death on the cross, he has conquered death.

Second, if choosing to take up our cross signals our desire to want to follow God’s will rather than our own, then we must clear away all that would prevent us from doing so. This is where denying our selves comes into play. Denying ourselves is not the same as acts of self-denial, although there is a relationship between the two. When we deny ourselves, we consciously put to death our sinful desires and fallen nature, or as Paul puts it, we crucify our sinful nature (see, e.g., Romans 6:6, Galatians 5:24) so that we can obey God’s will instead of our own. Crucifixion was a long, slow, torturous process; death did not come quickly and its victims suffered excruciating pain. Likewise when we commit to deny ourselves we commit ourselves to the long, slow, and difficult process of obeying God’s will, not ours. 

Acts of self-denial can help us in this process because they are aimed at helping us ultimately deny our sinful selfish desires. They are battles, if you will, in the broader war of putting to death our sinful nature and that is why Lent, with its emphasis on penance and self-denial, is a good season to begin. 

For example, I am choosing to fast this Lenten season because I am bedeviled by gluttonous tendencies. Gluttony is a problem because it betrays a sinful selfishness that can only interfere with my willingness and ability to obey God’s entire will for my life and consequently I am working on overcoming my gluttony so that hopefully it will contribute to my overall fight to deny myself and say yes to Christ. I am not doing it because I think it will make me look more favorable in God’s sight (it won’t, but I do think God blesses all honest efforts of self-denial and uses it for our benefit). I am doing it because I love the Lord for who he is and what he has done for me, and I want to grow to be just like him; I want to be around him forever. And if, by God’s grace, I can eventually overcome my gluttony, there will emerge another battle I need to fight in the war of denying self. This business is long and difficult, but thankfully we can count on the presence of the Holy Spirit to bless us and help us in our struggles (see, e.g., Romans 5:5, 8:26).

Where is the Application?

What about you? Do you love the Lord sufficiently and trust in his promises to make you want to find and obey his will for your life? If you do, you must be prepared to take up your cross each day, and deny yourself and follow him. This means engaging in the disciplines of daily Bible reading and prayer to help discern his will for you and your life. It means getting together with other faithful Christians in small groups to engage in this messy business of putting to death our sinful nature. It means bringing your hurts and your brokenness to the altar each week to feed on Christ’s Body and Blood to strengthen you for the tasks at hand. It means practicing acts of self-denial, not only during Lent but throughout the year, because acts of self-denial help in the overall process of denying self. 

Most of all, taking up your cross and denying yourself requires a deep and abiding love and trust in God for what he has done for you in Jesus Christ and an unshakable belief that our crucified and risen Lord is available and willing to walk with you every step of the way to help you in your struggles to become more like him. And if suffering is required of you, take heart and hope. The One who loved you and gave himself for you promises to be with you in all your struggles and to transform your sufferings into eternal glory. That’s good news, folks, now and for all eternity. 

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.