14th Sunday after Trinity September 1, 2002
351, 421, 423, 370
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
From that time Jesus began to show to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day. Then Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, “Far be it from You, Lord; this shall not happen to You!” But He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.” Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?”
In Christ Jesus, our heavenly Leader, dear fellow Christians:
It had been a great day so far! We had just attended a family wedding in a Minneapolis suburb and were ready to drive to the reception downtown. A number of friends and relatives offered that we could follow them, but, being seasoned urbanites, we were confident we could navigate just fine on our own. We merged onto the freeway, began talking about what a beautiful ceremony it had been, and the next thing we knew, the exit we should have taken sailed right by. We didn’t panic. We unfolded the map and quickly planned an alternate route which looked even better than the one we had been given.
You can probably guess what happened. We ran into a whole series of unexpected complications. There were several lengthy construction zones and a few twists and turns in the road which did not show up on the map. An hour later we had to admit that we were hopelessly lost. What was so frustrating was that it did not have to be that way. We could have been at the reception enjoying ourselves instead of sitting in a rundown part of town if we had done just one thing differently—if we had just followed a leader!
Life can be just as confusing and intimidating as trying to find your way through a maze of unfamiliar city streets. We haven’t been this way before. We don’t know what today will bring, let alone tomorrow or next year. Which road should we take? Where do we turn? What landmarks do we look for? The Lord’s counsel today is: “Follow the Leader.”
But that is not always an easy thing to do, especially if it seems that the leader has taken a wrong turn. Do you keep following or do you go off on your own? That is the dilemma Peter and the other disciples were facing. They had followed Jesus for three years and had just confessed, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” They were convinced that Jesus was the promised Messiah sent from God, and they thought they knew the route which lay ahead. They expected Jesus to one day go to Jerusalem, assume the reins of power from the Romans, and rule in earthly glory over a restored Israel. Naturally, they anticipated that they would share in the glory as the Lord’s closest associates. It made sense to them, and so they were ready to follow.
But suddenly it seemed as though Jesus had veered off course. He announced that He was going to Jerusalem, but not to be crowned, but to be crucified! Now it was not so easy to follow. Peter took Him aside and admonished Him, “Never, Lord! This shall never happen to you!” Peter and Jesus were on two completely different wavelengths. Peter was looking at things from a self-centered, human perspective, while Jesus was seeing things from God’s view. In Peter’s mind, glory and salvation were connected to visible things and worldly advantages, while Jesus had bigger and better things in mind.
Jesus’ goal was not earthly glory and success. He said, “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 NIV). “Being in very nature God, He did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant” (Philippians 2:6-7 NIV). He did not come to be served, but to serve. He could have been rich, famous, and had the whole world serving Him. After all, He is God. But that would not have helped us, and thankfully, that is not the way He chose.
We call ourselves Christians and followers of Jesus. Following Him means having the same kind of attitude He had which puts the things of God ahead of earthly things. That does not come naturally. We are more like Peter. We would like to set our own route and tell the Lord where He should lead us. Look at our prayers. How often don’t we concentrate on personal, earthly advantages such as money, possessions, and health, while at the same time, we ignore our guilt and our desperate need for forgiveness? Many people want a kind of Christianity where the Lord simply rubberstamps the direction they choose for themselves. You hear it in comments like: “If the Lord loves me, He will take me for what I am, and won’t try to force me into a certain mold.” But that is not following is it?
Following Christ means denying oneself. If it sounds extreme, it should, for it is. It means saying “no” to our natural self. It is saying, “I will not listen to myself when my old nature urges me to follow the sinful desires with which I was born. I want nothing to do with that part of me ever again! I disown it!” It is a drastic change from self-love, self-gratification, and self-advancement to love for God.
It is a change which we can never bring about or even desire on our own. Only God can effect it within our hearts. Through Baptism He puts to death our old self and re-creates us as His own special people who desire to follow Him above all else. “We were therefore buried with Him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Romans 6:4 NIV).
That new life moves us to deny ourselves. And so we say “NO” to our own goodness as a means of salvation, and instead trust in Christ’s righteousness alone. We say “NO” to the popular lifestyle which gives in to the sexual desires of human nature, and instead we exercise self-control and Christian discipline in our lives. We say “NO” to spending our entire paycheck on ourselves, and instead with a grateful heart and before anything else, offer the Lord a generous portion. We say “NO” to using our time only for our own purposes, and instead gladly give hours to the Lord and our neighbor. In every area of our lives, may we continue to deny ourselves and follow our Leader!
While following Christ means saying “no” to self, it means saying “yes” to something else—the cross. When Jesus spoke of His death by crucifixion, the disciples were horrified. They did not want to think about it. They could not imagine any good in it. Peter’s words to Jesus were literally: “May God in His mercy spare you from this!”
Yet Jesus was determined to go through with it. He spoke of it as a divine necessity. He must do it. But why? It was because of who God is and because of who we are. God is holy, not just good by human standards, but absolutely perfect by God’s own divine measurement. On the other hand, we are not anywhere close to that holiness. We are sinful from conception. Because God is holy and just, He cannot ignore sin or leave it unpunished. But at the same time, He was determined to rescue us from the curse of eternal damnation which sin brings. His answer was to transfer the guilt from us to His Son and punish Him in place of the world. Without Christ’s suffering and death, we would be destined for hellfire. Satan used Peter’s objection to try to detour Jesus from the saving course which had been decided upon in eternity.
What does that mean now in our lives as followers of Christ? The Lord says, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” The cross of Jesus earned our forgiveness once and for all, but now there is another kind of cross which each believer has to carry. That cross is the trouble which comes to us because we belong to the Lord.
If people hated Christ, they will hate you too. Point out sin in our society, such as same-sex marriages, abortion, and assisted suicide. Say that these practices are wrong, and you will be hated by those who refuse to acknowledge any moral absolutes or accountability toward God. Speak of Jesus as the only way to heaven and you may be accused of being insensitive to other religious traditions. Confront a co-worker with his or her dishonesty on the job, and you may suffer retaliation. Show Christ-like consideration toward others and you may be taken advantage of. If Christ suffered all these things, we can expect the same when we follow Him.
So why follow Jesus? If you had a choice between driving on a straight, smooth, six-lane expressway or a washboard gravel road full of switchbacks, which would you pick? Many look at the route of self-denial and the cross which Jesus maps out, and choose the freeway instead. But in this case, the rough, less attractive road leads to the most glorious destination. Jesus says, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:13-14 NIV).
The Lord does not force anyone to follow Him, but He warns: “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.” We don’t have to deny ourselves and say “no” to our old nature. We don’t have to carry the cross which comes with following Jesus. We could save ourselves from all that and concentrate on getting possessions, having fun, and living for self. But finally, what would we have? Even if you could have the wealth of a Bill Gates, the fame of a superstar, and the power of the US presidency all rolled into one package, what good would it do? Would it give you peace? Would it provide deep-down contentment and joy? Would it prevent you from dying? Would it impress God on Judgement Day? No! Our efforts at saving our lives would backfire. We would forfeit the life which means the most for a few temporary benefits.
Now look again at that rough, rocky route which is ignored by most. It is not an easy way. It is often lonely. But look where it is going. That is what the disciples missed. They heard the part about Jesus’ death, but He added more. He told them that He would not stay in the grave. He would rise again on the third day.
Jesus beat Satan, death, and the grave, so that everyone who follows Him could share in His victory. In following Jesus we may lose many outward advantages, as the disciples did, but we gain treasures that will last forever: forgiveness, peace with God, strength to meet every trial in life, resurrection from the dead, and a reserved home in the beauty of heaven.
We finally did make it to the wedding reception, but not until we stopped and got a new set of directions. In the future under similar circumstances, we will follow someone right from the start. Let’s not make the same mistake on our spiritual journey. As we go through life we don’t have to wonder which road to take, where to turn, or where we are heading. We have a leader who has been this way before. He humbled Himself for us, laid down His life in payment for our sins, and rose again for our justification. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Let us then gladly deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Him all the way to the heavenly reception waiting for us! Amen.
I walk with Jesus all the way;
His guidance never fails me.
Within His wounds I find a stay
When Satan’s power assails me;
And, by His footsteps led,
My path I safely tread,
In spite of ills that threaten may,
I walk with Jesus all the way.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations marked (NIV) are taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. NIV®. Copyright© 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.