Monday, March 02, 2015

Sermon on Mark 8:27-38, 2nd Sunday in Lent, "Self-denial and cross-bearing"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Mark chapter 8, our Gospel reading, is a pivotal chapter. It is the center of Mark’s Gospel, and Jesus challenges His disciples to see His vision and purpose for His own ministry, as well as their discipleship or following after Him. First they need to be clear on who Jesus Himself is—which Peter correctly answers: “You are the Christ.” God’s chosen or anointed One. The Savior long promised and foretold by the prophets. “Christ” is the Bible’s title for that Savior and Chosen One.
But when Jesus turns to explain the “job description” of the Christ—He tells the disciples plainly that suffering, rejection, death, and resurrection were inescapably tied up with His purpose. Jesus puts a “must” in there—He “must suffer” these things. Suddenly whatever glorious image Peter had in mind of the Christ rescuing God’s people Israel, is jarred by what seems to be a completely incompatible image. Jesus describes suffering and death at the hands of the Jewish religious leaders! Peter immediately pulls Jesus aside and tries to rebuke Him, saying that this can never be! Peter can’t comprehend how the picture of God’s Savior, as he imagined it—could line up with Jesus’ picture of suffering and death. And he immediately tries to talk Him out of this plan.
But with sharp, stinging words, Jesus rebukes Peter, saying: “Get behind me Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” Jesus sets the tone. Suffering is inescapably part of His role as Savior. There is no going around it. And to think otherwise is to have your mind stuck in humanly ways of thinking, instead of God’s thoughts. In fact it was the devil that wanted to steer Jesus away from His cross, or interfere with God’s plan. But the cross of Jesus is part and parcel of His ministry on earth. It was the focus point toward with everything else was driving—and Jesus was going to sacrifice everything, even His own life, for us. So He has to get that across loud and clear to Peter and the rest of us, who might think there should be an easier way. The cross is where He accomplishes God’s will.
If the shape of Jesus’ own life and ministry was cross-shaped, then our discipleship will surely be cross-shaped as well. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Today we’re going to look closely at Jesus’ definition of discipleship, to see what He means by denying yourself and bearing your cross.
You might notice that the word “denial” or “deny” comes up often in relation to Peter, as Jesus’ disciple. Here Jesus is telling us to deny ourselves and follow Him, after Peter urges Jesus to avoid suffering. Elsewhere Jesus warned against the opposite kind of denial—that of denying Him before others. This, He warns, will lead to Him denying us before God. Fast forward to the night on which Jesus was betrayed by Judas, and Peter was first to pledge that he would never deny Jesus. He’d stick by Him even till death. A bold statement of loyalty and faithfulness. But hours later, as Jesus foretold, Peter turned cowardly and denied Jesus three times before the rooster crowed. On the night when Jesus was struck and betrayed—all His disciples—even His closest friends abandoned Him. And Peter denied He even knew Jesus.
To deny is to reject or say no to something. Peter tried to disassociate himself from Jesus to save his own skin. Jesus in His mercy would eventually restore Peter; but it was a hard lesson in the fickleness of our own sinful nature—our cowardice when faith comes under fire. So on the bad end of things, Jesus warns Christians against denying Him before men. In other words, don’t turn your back on Jesus in order to save your own skin, your status, your job, your reputation, etc. Rejecting Jesus when you come under pressure for your faith, or someone scrutinizes you and says, “Hey, you’re one of those Christians, aren’t you?!”, may seem like an easy way to avoid the difficulties of discipleship. But Jesus says that those who renounce or deny Him before men, He will renounce or deny before the Father. Or in the words of today’s reading: “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.” So the pointed question is whether we’re proud to follow Jesus, or whether we’re ashamed. This will reflect on how Jesus regards us when He returns. Were we loyal or not?
So if that’s what denial looks like on the bad end of things, what about the kind of denial Jesus encourages us to make? On the good end of things, Jesus says we must deny ourselves. What does it mean to do that? How do we renounce, reject, or say no to ourselves? The book of Titus clues us in in chapter 2:11-14:
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.

God’s grace leads us to renounce or deny ungodliness and worldly passions, so we are self-controlled, upright, and godly. To deny myself is to say “no” to my sinful nature and its desires. It’s to reject my old identity as a slave to sin, and to embrace the new identity that I have been given in Christ Jesus. Redeemed and purified, set to do good works.
Self-denial is also a departure from the “thoughts of men”, and moving toward the “thoughts of God.” If I’m trying to take control of my life and identity, rather than acknowledging that God is in control—I’m thinking only in a human way. Our sinful nature has this one overriding instinct, of self-preservation. We try to build security through wealth, approval of others, status, possessions, or we long for them. But Jesus is warning us that discipleship can risk, can endanger all of these things. We are seeing around the world how people lose jobs, lose homes and possessions, lose status, and even their lives in some cases, because of their Christian faith. Jesus says, “whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? For what can a man give in return for his life?” Jesus is warning that staking your security on any of these things comes at the cost of risking your eternal security. And no one can trade anything for their life or soul.
The only way—Jesus tells us—the only way to save our life is by losing it to Him. Total self-denial. Denying everything that might promise security for the sake of eternal security in Him. Jesus is the only one who can compensate us for the loss of body, possessions, and our earthly life. By believing in Jesus, He promises us eternal life. So the second part of discipleship comes into view—take up your cross and follow Jesus. That means bear with the difficulties that come with following Jesus. Accept the bruises, the insults, and the persecution that may come on account of Jesus’ name—accept this as your cross to bear.
It’s only by looking to Jesus and His cross, that we have any strength to bear our own. Jesus does all the “heavy-lifting” when He tells us to come to Him when we are weak and heavy laden, and offers us His light and easy yoke in return. Otherwise we’d be crushed under our burdens. The burdens of our sins, the guilt, the burdens of persecution and hardship that come from the enemies of Christ. These are greater than we can bear alone—and thank God we don’t bear them alone, but Jesus bears them for and with us. But one thing is for certain—there will be crosses to bear, and there is no easy way around it, as we might hope. But Jesus is committed to bearing our greatest and heaviest burdens, and He invites us to cast our worries and cares on Him.
Self-denial and cross-bearing are inescapably at the heart of what Jesus does for us. He did not insist on His rights or status as the Son of God, decrying the injustice of His sham trial and innocent death—but He humbly bowed His head to the scourge of injustice and sting of mockery, and bore it patiently without hatred or reviling in return. He denied the instinct of self-preservation, even as mockers encouraged Him to “save Himself” if He was really able to save others. But He denied the chance to save His own skin.
But if His enemies, if the devil, thought for all that, that Jesus had simply thrown in the towel, given up, or lost—they were dreadfully mistaken. Jesus’ death—His losing everything—even His own life, was the only way for Him to gain it back not only for Himself, but for all of us. By innocently going to His death, He broke the iron grip that death holds on us. God returned His life to Him, and death no longer has power over Him! Jesus’ bearing the cross was not embracing defeat, but taking the desperately hard road to victory. And the only way that victory and life stands at the end of our crosses, is because Jesus won the victory on His cross.
Whatever cross threatens your life, your security, or tests your faith, if you are faithful until death, God will give you the crown of life. Gaining our life is by trusting in Jesus, following Him with our crosses, and letting God direct the outcome of our life to His glory and our salvation. Thinking the thoughts of God is accepting the way of the cross, and leaving it to God’s hands how we will suffer or be blessed in this life. It’s trusting God to give us the strength to bear whatever crosses He may assign us. Some Christians have incredibly difficult crosses to bear, and we can only wonder at how God gives them the strength to bear it. And yet He does. Since Christ bears His cross, we can bear ours by His strength. He will carry us through. Lean on Him, and do not be afraid. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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1.      In Mark 8:31-33, what is it about Jesus’ predictions that Peter objects so strongly to? What did he not want to have happen to Jesus? Why does Jesus even more strongly rebuke Peter? What does He say Peter is thinking? V. 33. What was Satan’s interest in Jesus’ plans?
2.      What do the “things of God” plainly include for Jesus’ ministry? V. 31. What do they plainly include for the walk of discipleship, after Jesus? V. 34-35.
3.      Read Mark 8:34-35. What is involved in the “self-denial” that Jesus calls us believers to? This denying of ourselves is central to discipleship. To do the opposite, to deny Jesus, Matthew 10:33, is the opposite of discipleship. What is it about ourselves that we are to deny? What happens if we deny Jesus? Mark 8:38.
4.      If we claim with our mouths to know God, what can prove otherwise, and show that in reality we actually deny Him? Titus 1:15-16; 1 Timothy 5:8; 2 Timothy 3:1-5; Jude 3-4. How instead are believers to demonstrate that their faith is sincere? 1 Timothy 1:5
5.      What does 2 Peter 2:1-3 warn is yet another way that some will deny Christ? What will their false teaching bring upon them? Conversely, what is promised to those who confess Jesus before the world? Matthew 10:38-39. If we lose even our life for the sake of Jesus and the Gospel, what do we gain? Mark 8:35.
6.      The call of Jesus to “take up our cross and follow” Him, is a startling wakeup call for us as disciples. Will our walk of discipleship be easy? Is there a great reward to be had in following Jesus? What does God accomplish through our sufferings? Romans 5:3-5.
7.      Since self-denial and cross-bearing are the “things of God” to which Jesus pointed Peter—how was this true of Jesus’ own life? Who did Jesus do that all for?

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