2 Lent Proper B2
Rev. Dr. D. K. Schroeder
Mark 8:31-38 Sermon
March 1, 2015

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Hymns (from The Lutheran Hymnal):
281 "The Saviour Calls, Let Every Ear"
421 "Come Follow Me, The Saviour Spake"
346 "Jesus & Shall It Ever Be"
409 "Let Us Ever Walk With Jesus"


TEXT (vs. 34 & 38):  And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, [Jesus] said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.   For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

            What is the most important relationship in your life?  Think about it for a minute.  For a lot of people, they would define their most important relationship as the one they have with their spouse, or maybe the person who is going to be their spouse.  Husbands and wives, or boyfriends and girlfriends seem to immediately identify with this word "relationship," most likely because it involves something that is very deep and personal.

            But the term is a lot broader than this.  Relationships define our very existence on this earth, because we have a whole variety of different relationships with virtually everybody we know.  In our family for example, we have the usual relationships between grandparents and grandchildren, parents and children, or however we are related to one as a family.  And when in-laws come into the picture, there is a unique relationship dynamic here; I'd say that it's mostly good; however, we know that sometimes it's rather strained and even adversarial.

            Some of you might be familiar with the TV series called "Blue Bloods," starring Tom Selleck.  The show, which is about a family in various aspects of police work, started back in the fall of 2010, and it is still running today.  The one thing the show does is capture a whole gamut of relationships, largely amongst their numerous family members, as well as their varied professional relationships.

            The thing that impresses me, is that in every show at one time or another, the entire extended family is gathered at the Sunday dinner table, an obvious tradition that has gone on for years.  As a family they attend church; and as they sit around the table, they all join together in unison to say the table prayer:  "Bless us, O Lord, and these thy gifts, which we are about to receive from thy bounty, through Christ our Lord.  Amen."  This is a simple table prayer that many have learned as a child; it might even be familiar to you.  And this TV family says the prayer together.

            It's not often thatHollywoodportrays Christians in a favorable way, but they have done so with this rather popular TV program.  They show a close-knit family who are sincere about their faith.  They're not afraid to give a witness to their faith.  Their faith is evident as they relate to one another.  And as important as their other relationships are, nothing is ever as important as their relationship with God.  They know that he is the central figure in every relationship they have.

            In our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus is focusing our attention upon that one very important relationship in all of our lives.  That relationship is the one we have with him, Jesus our Saviour.  And our text for today gives us a good picture of what Jesus expects from us.

            It's only been several weeks ago that we talked about the Transfiguration of Jesus, the Sunday that was the bridge between Epiphany and Lent.  Jesus demonstrated his glory visibly to Peter, James, and John.  The days ahead weren't going to be that glorious; things were about to change.

            Just before this, Jesus spends six days instructing his disciples, giving them a lot of material in a very short time.  One of the things Jesus teaches during this time is this Gospel text we have before us today.  In fact, it is the very last thing Mark records before the Transfiguration.

            The focus is upon our relationship with Jesus and what that means.  He begins, "if anyone would come after me...."  If someone wanted to be a follower of Jesus, it wasn't going to be just some half-hearted wish on their part.  This is something that was going to take a certain level of personal dedication.

            Jesus was, and is a well-known historical figure.  Even non-Christians know who he is.  Listen sometime to a confirmed heathen when he becomes frustrated or upset.  The first words out of his mouth are often the name of Jesus or some other reference to God.  Oh they know the name all right.  In their homes you might even find a Christmas tree; or this time of year, maybe it is a supply of Cadbury Creme Eggs in a fancy basket.  They might even put on a suit and tie and come to church once in a while.

            But what's missing?  That's right, there's no relationship here at all!  Knowing about Jesus, and having a head full of historical facts about the Bible just won't cut it.  In fact, Satan himself and all his demons know who Jesus is, and Satan knows the Bible very well.  This is not what Jesus means when he says, "If anyone would come after me."  Simply knowing about him is not the same as following him.

            The next words in this sentence are crucial:  "let him deny himself."  This is about the hardest thing for any human being to do.  This requires us to take a real hard look at ourselves, and be honest about it.  We have to recognize what is actually there before anything can be done.  A relationship with Jesus begins with honest self-examination.

            The Apostle Paul is no stranger to this.  In Romans chapter 4, he gives us a rather lengthy discourse of sin and grace, and his struggles with it.  In verse 18 Paul gives us a good example of what it means to deny ourselves:  "For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh."           

            Paul, in denying himself, denies that there is anything good dwelling in him at all.  He recognizes his sin, and he sees it as an insurmountable obstacle in his relationship with Jesus.  In Matthew chapter 5, verse 48 Jesus sets the bar as high as it can get:  "You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." 

            Since there is by nature nothing good or God-pleasing within us, we have to deny that we can please God on our own volition.  We can't go it alone.

            It's when we come to this realization that our relationship with Jesus begins; and from there it grows.  Timothy Keller once wrote:  "The founders of every major [non-Christian] religion said, 'I'll show you how to find God.'  Jesus said, 'I am God who has come to find you.'"  Oh yes indeed, he has found us.  And that's the point where we take up the cross.

            If you notice, the pronoun Jesus uses here is "your."  Take up YOUR cross.  And here is where we need to look at this most personal nature of what Jesus says.

            If you look at the cross, in effect your name is right there on it.  It is your cross, because that's where Jesus paid the price for your sins.  When we take up our personal cross, the payment Jesus made on that cross for our individual sins is ours through faith alone.  Taking up that cross takes our attention away from whatever is messing up our own lives, and turns everything over to God. 

            Our relationship with Jesus is personal, because we are intimately connected with him through the cross.  We follow Jesus because he is our Saviour, and not just another acquaintance that appears in our life.  We follow Jesus because he has actually done something for us, each one of us individually.  He took all of our sins with him to the cross, where they were crucified there with him. 

            So, thanks to the Holy Spirit, we have denied our own self-righteousness and our ability to save ourselves.  We have taken up the cross of Christ by joining with him in faith.  And thus, we now have a relationship established with Jesus our Saviour.  This is more than just knowing about Jesus, or knowing a head full of Bible verses.  Our Christianity and our faith in Jesus isn't just a religion; it's a relationship.

            Before I continue on, I should address a common misconception about this section.  When people hear those words, "deny yourself," they will think that being a Christian means you have to give up everything you like or that gives you pleasure.  So you'll hear things like, "Oh, if I become a Christian, I have to throw out all the beer in my fridge.  I can't go to the movies or have fun with my friends.  I can't play cards any more.  I have to give up hunting and fishing.  I have to give up steak and start eating tofu."  And the list goes on.  You have probably heard laments like these too.

            And now we add to that the "take up your cross" part.  So we get a picture in our minds of Jesus dragging his heavy cross through the streets ofJerusalem, beaten and bloody with a crown of thorns and an old purple robe.  And people will start picturing themselves doing this instead of Jesus.

            When this happens, the objections start popping up all over the place.  People will add these misconceptions together and say "no thank you."  If that's what it took to be a Christian and a follower of Christ, I can't imagine that people would be forming a queue around the block to join up.  That's not a pleasant picture at all.  But that's one of those old tricks of the Devil; he wants to make people think the worst about every situation.

            When having to deal with an adversity in life, people will often sigh and say with resignation, "Well, that's just a cross I have to bear."  Of course this is a figure-of-speech people use to describe those negative things in life they feel that can do nothing about.  But it doesn't apply to this text, because Jesus says to "take up" your cross, and not "bear" the cross.

            So often, people look at the Christian faith as some sort of burdensome chore, walking around all sad and stoic, acting super pious, and looking forward to an eternity dressed in a long white nightgown, sitting on a cloud, and playing a harp. 

            But that's not what a relationship with Jesus brings.  One of the texts I like to quote when it comes to being a Christian and following Christ is from Matthew chapter 11 verses 28-30 where Jesus says,  "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."  

            I don't think I'll ever get tired of hearing or sharing these words, because they offer a great deal of relief and comfort.  There's nothing there that would indicate that Jesus wants us to give up all the pleasures of life and start dragging a heavy wooden cross through the streets.  Jesus says that his yoke is easy and his burden is light because that describes our faith relationship with him.  He wants to take our burden from us, and not encumber us with more weight.  He wants us to take all of our worries and cares of this life and give them all to him, so that we can enjoy the peace that only Jesus can give to us.

            Finally Jesus asks us to follow him, to keep our relationship strong with him, to seek to do God's will, and to be prepared for opposition.  Now comes the time for having to endure various issues in our lives because of our faith.  But as one of his followers who have a relationship with him, we know that he will continue to give us strength in those times so we can remain faithful.  Following Jesus is a privilege for us, and not an oppressive burden we have to bear.  We follow him because of what he has done for us.

            It's at this point that Jesus addresses what true value is.  In verses 36-37, listen to these interrogatives:  "For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?  For what can a man give in return for his soul?"   Do these words have a familiar ring?  They should, because this isn't the only occasion Jesus makes this point.

            In Luke chapter 12, Jesus tells the story about the rich fool who had so much abundance that he decides to tear down his old barns and build bigger ones so he could store his crop.  He was very comfortable within himself, so much so that he was blind to the fact that his days on earth were numbered.  In verse 20, we hear what God thinks.  "But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’"

            The soul is indeed a priceless commodity, and God has full control as to what eventually happens to it.  In verse 28, Jesus makes no bones about this:  "For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels."

            When we have a relationship with Jesus, and we follow Jesus, then it only stands to reason that we are proud.  We aren't proud about ourselves and who we are or what we have done, but we are proud of our Saviour who loves us and has rescued us.  We are proud of Jesus Christ whose name we bear.  In 1 Corinthians chapter 1 verse 31, Paul quotes these words:  "Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord."

            Paul was certainly a person who not only had a great relationship with Jesus, he was very much "out in front" with his witness of the Gospel.  In Romans chapter 1 verses 16-17 he writes:  "For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.  For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, 'The righteous shall live by faith.'"

            Have you ever been in a circumstance where it is difficult to stand up and defend your faith in Christ?  I'm sure you have, because it happens to Christians all the time.  And when you consider all of the heat Christians have to endure in today's society, it just gets harder all the time.

            But you know what?  We have a relationship that has been firmly established, that relationship between Jesus and ourselves.  And we are promised that he will never leave us nor forsake us.  When times of trial occur, we can be thankful that Jesus has given us a faith of which we can be proud, and not ashamed.

            At the beginning, I used the TV show "Blue Bloods" as an illustration.  Here is a family with a lot of individual and unique personalities all coming together at a dining room table to share their relationship with each other.  It's interesting how the show's writers have been able to do this in a realistic manner.

            But the thing that I find most striking is how Hollywoodhas been able to put Jesus right into the middle of this.  And then, they take it even further as they show that it's this family's faith that makes the bond as strong as it is.  And I sense no shame at all from these actors as they sit at the dining room table, bow their heads, and fold their hands, and say in unison, "Bless us, O Lord, and these thy gifts which we are about to receive from thy bounty, through Christ our Lord.  Amen." 

            We have a wonderful relationship with our Saviour whom we follow.  We have a faith that brings us no shame, a faith that we share with others.  In a world that seeks to squash or ridicule Christianity, we are not ashamed of Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.  And we can be eternally grateful that Jesus is not ashamed of us either.