“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee was standing and praying like this about himself. ‘God I thank you that I’m not like other people—greedy, unrighteous, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of everything I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even raise his eyes to heaven but kept striking his chest and saying, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner’” (Luke 18:10-13).
Are you a sinner? Because Lent is only for sinners.
“Immediately the Spirit drove him into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with he wild animals, and the angels were serving him” (Mark 1:12-13).
Do you struggle against temptation? Because Lent is all about the struggle.
“Then he began to teach them that it was necessary for the Son of Man to suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, be killed, and rise after three days … Calling the crowd along with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone wants to follow after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Mark 8:31, 34).
Ultimately, Lent is about suffering. Both Christ’s suffering and ours.
The theme for today’s sermon is the Christ, the Cross, and the Christian. Pastor Radunzel made a similar point on Wednesday and it is this: that so close is the Christian to Christ through faith, that our identity is completely wrapped up in him. He is the head; we are his body. He is the living God; we are his temple. He is the chief cornerstone; we are the living stones that make up the church. He is the Shepherd; we are the sheep.
That’s a good thing, right? Of course, it is. It means that we are so close to Jesus through faith, that when God looks at us, he sees Jesus. And when he sees Jesus, he sees perfect obedience. He sees righteousness. He sees his Son. He sees us as his sons and daughters! And so, the Christian is saved. No if’s, and’s, or but’s about it.
There is another aspect of being that close to Jesus though. And it has to do with the fact that we are still living in a sinful world. How was Jesus treated in this sinful world? And why was Jesus treated so poorly by the world? And if we are truly inseparable from Jesus’ identity as Christians, what about in his suffering? If the world hated Jesus, does that mean it is going to hate us too?
Well, yes it does. And this is the part of Christianity that so many Christians conveniently ignore. They want the salvation, but they refuse to embrace the suffering. And yet, as we are going to see today, you can’t have one without the other. Salvation and suffering go hand in hand. That is true both for Jesus Christ as well as for the Christian. And I’m going to make the case today that we wouldn’t have it any other way. For what the Christian wants most of all is Christ and his cross. Isn’t that what you want most of all in life? To be branded with the cross of Christ? Well, yes you do. So do I. Because although it means certain suffering and death, there is an empty tomb on the other side.
Jesus says it very plainly. “Then he began to teach them that it was necessary for the Son of Man to suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, be killed, and rise after three days. He spoke openly about this.” The Greek word for “openly” is “plainly”. Jesus is not minimizing what is about to happen. And Peter doesn’t like what he is hearing. So, he begins to rebuke Jesus. Imagine that! “But turning around and looking at his disciples he [Jesus] rebuked Peter and said, Get behind me, Satan! You are not thinking about God’s concerns but human concerns” (vv. 32,33).
Of course, he wasn’t. God’s concerns are very different than man’s concerns.
That is why I asked you in the sermon last week, “Are the things that bother you in life, actually the things that bother God? And are the things that bother God the things that bother you? For so much of life the answer is, “no”. Peter was very concerned about the Messiah ushering in a kingdom of glory. “Things are going well! We are popular! The people are finally starting to follow you Jesus and get on board!” And all of a sudden Jesus brings the train to a screeching halt. Apparently, God is not concerned about that. What he is concerned about is the Son of Man [Jesus] dying for the sins of the world.
And so also should we.
In fact, so concerned should we be that the central issue of our life is the cross, that Jesus goes on to tell, not just Peter, but the entire crowd that was with him along with the other disciples, “If anyone wants to follow after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (v. 34).
So, do you really want to follow Jesus? Do you really want to follow Jesus according to God’s way of following him, and not your way? Well, maybe, and maybe not.
You see, Lent has to last a while and come around every year if for no other reason than this, that it is so hard for us to get the points made so strikingly in Lent: that salvation and suffering go hand in hand, for Jesus and for us too! There is no other way around it. You cannot be identified with Jesus in heaven if you are not also identified with him here on earth. And if you do identify as a follower of Christ, if you truly do what Jesus says here, namely, to “deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow him”, you are going to suffer.
And I mean really suffer. Because the hardest thing in the world is to not get your way. That is what denying “self” means. It means that God’s will be done and not yours. It means that your sinful nature does not get what it wants! And that is excruciatingly painful. “Take up your cross and follow me.”
Of course, this is not a Precious Moments cross that we hang on our children’s wall. It is not a bejeweled cross that we wear around our necks. Nor is it a cross that is accompanied by nails, thorns, and blood. And it is a heavy cross because there is a lot of sin that weighs it down.
You see, the call to sinners in Lent is a serious call to struggle. But it’s not a Roman Catholic type of struggle where you give up meat for Lent. Big deal! You just go to the local fish fry on Friday. Some would say that’s even better. No, the struggle of Lent is the struggle to deny our sinful nature. How much is there in your life that God would say, “That’s sinful.” And do you struggle with it?
Now, let’s not misunderstand. Our struggling DOES NOT cause our salvation. You could struggle for a thousand years in purgatory and still you wouldn’t be able to pay off your sin. That is because you and I are incapable of completely denying our sin, of perfectly resisting our sinful nature. Nor is our death capable of paying off the debt of our sin. Only Jesus’ death is capable of satisfying God’s righteous judgment against sin. And so, Christ’s cross saves, and his cross alone saves!
But the Christian’s cross is necessary in life too, NOT as a cause of salvation, but rather as a necessary consequence of salvation. This is a little difficult to understand, so pay attention. It’s what I said before. Because our Christian identity is 100% wrapped up in Christ—it’s even there in the name “Christian”—if you are a Christian, people are either going to love you (if they love Christ), or they are going to hate you (if they hate Christ). And if they are ambivalent about Christ, then they will also be ambivalent about you. But it is all about their attitude towards Christ.
And so, the Christian needs to understand (and this is what so many of us don’t understand) that our life on earth will mimic Christ’s life on earth. Not entirely. His cross, after all, is different than our individual crosses. But we still suffer. And the fact that Jesus calls our crosses a “cross” means that the suffering is real, and therefore it hurts. So why does he give us crosses?
Well, here is where the Truth really galls our sinful pride. It is because we are so sinfully perverted that if there were no cross, that is, if there were no suffering or pain that God sent our way, we would wander away from Jesus and his cross altogether. Why would you even consider a Savior if there was no daily reminder that you are a sinner? Why would you ever long for heaven, if it wasn’t for the foretaste of hell on earth. Crosses remind us of our weakness against sin and the devil. Crosses remind us to repent. Crosses remind us that we need to be rescued from this sinful body of ours. And so, what happens in practical living is that the crosses we bear drive us to Christ’s cross. And it is there and there alone that we find our comfort.
Let me just give you a real example of this. Think of Jacob in Genesis. Jacob was a bad man. He was a deceiver. He wanted his own way, not God’s way. And because he had such a difficult time denying his sinful self, he ended up making a mess of his life. Jacob was not humble before God. Jacob did not wait for God’s timetable and let God be God. He lacked faith.
So, God taught him. He used Jacob’s sins to force him from his father’s house and flee all alone to his Uncle Laban’s. So alone was Jacob on that journey that all he had was a rock for his pillow and the ground for a bed in the middle of nowhere. And it is there, in the middle of that lonely night, that Jesus, himself, comes to him.
What is God teaching him? Well, first and foremost: grace. Jacob did not deserve to be identified as a child of God after what he had done, much less one of the forefathers of Jesus, the Savior. And yet, Jesus comes to Jacob and says, “I still want you. I’m not giving up on you.”
Jesus is also teaching Jacob that if you don’t deny your sinful ambition, if you don’t deny your sinful wants, you will be all alone, and that’s not good. But if you deny yourself in favor of me [Jesus]. If you trust me and my will for your life, well then even if you do end up all alone in this world, you’ll still have me!
Do you see how that works? With the ground for a bed and a rock for a pillow, and yet Jacob has heaven! Why? Because Jesus was there that night at Bethel. And so, what did the details of Jacob’s future really matter? He had Jesus! And therefore, the future would be okay. Do you believe that? You may have nothing but rejection and abandonment as a result of following Christ faithfully in this world, but you will never be alone. You have Jesus, and therefore you have heaven! That is the promise! And so, what do the details of the future matter?
Jesus puts it this way, “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of me and the gospel will save it.” (vv. 35-37)
And so, the hymn writer sings: “Take the world but give me Jesus, Sweetest comfort of my soul. With the Savior watching o’er me, I can sing, though thunders roll” (CW 355, stanza 2). And yet, if I take Jesus then I must also necessarily take the cross. Is that bad? Is that good?
Sounds like a pretty good deal to me.
Because wherever the cross is, there is Jesus and his salvation. And so, we call it the blessed cross, not a cursed cross. This is something only the Christian can grasp. We see suffering that results from being faithful to Jesus as a blessing and a gift from God, not as a punishment from him. No! Jesus was the one punished by God for our sins. God does not punish you and me for our sins. We are forgiven! And so, he wants to keep us on the straight and narrow. He wants to keep us close to Jesus and his cross. If we wander too far away, you can be sure that God will lovingly frustrate your plans so that you don’t get too far. So that you come back to him. To the place you really want to be. Amen.