Sunday, September 03, 2017

"Take up your cross and follow Me"

Matthew 16:21-28
[This message was shared during the worship services of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, on September 3, 2017.]

Our gospel lesson for today, Matthew 16:21-28, begins in this way: “From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”

We Christians have read and heard those words (or words like them) so many times in our lives that we may hardly notice them. Or give them a second thought. But when Jesus spoke them to His original hearers, the twelve apostles, their effect must have been not just jarring, but volcanic!

A few moments before, we read in Matthew, Peter had confessed his faith in Jesus as God’s anointed King, the Messiah or the Christ, as well as God in the flesh, which is what the phrase "the Son of the Living God" means. Peter was saying that Jesus was the Son of God, the very reflection and embodiment of God Himself!

Jesus had commended Peter’s confession, which He said, had come to Peter not from human beings, but from God Himself, the way our faith always does (1 Corinthians 12:3).

And Jesus said that it was on this strong confession made by Peter that “I will build my church, and the gates of Hades [or hell] will not overcome it” (Matthew 16:18).

Peter’s confession of Jesus and Jesus’ affirmation of it must have been an incredible moment for the twelve. For centuries, their people, the people of God, had been waiting for the Messiah promised by God. And here was Jesus confirming what Peter (and probably many of the other disciples) had come to believe. The wait was over. The Messiah, Who would make all things right, had arrived.

The problem was that in the four-hundred-some years since God had given the last book of the Old Testament to His people and the moment of Peter’s confession, an enormous gap between what God means by making all things right for us and what God’s people meant by making all things right had developed.

This gap was caused by the failure to understand on the part of God’s peoplewhat their real problem was.

God’s people had come to see their problem as the Romans. And before that, the Assyrians and the Babylonians. Each had been foreign conquerors. The problem, as God’s people had come to see it then, was these foreigners who had come and taken over their country.

God said that His people’s basic problem wasn’t the people who had conquered them through the centuries. It was that they had forgotten Who their God was.

They worshiped idols.

They worshiped the things of this world.

And because they did, they perpetrated grave injustices against each other and the strangers that were among them, violations of God’s holiness that God had adamantly and repeatedly forbade many times in His Word. It was because of all of this sin that God had allowed His people to be conquered.

To God’s people, including the disciples, the biggest problem they had was all of those other people who made their lives miserable. But God knew that the real problem wasn’t with all those other people.

And the only way that God could make all things right for His people and the whole world was not to give them a strongman king, the people’s version of a Messiah, the Messiah they wanted, who would boot out the foreign conquerors. Why? Because even if the strongman king was successful in routing the Romans and filling the people’s fevered desire for fat pocketbooks, the success of such a king would still only leave God’s people dead in their sin.

The only way that God could make all things right for His people and the world was to send a Messiah Who would deal with the sin into which every one of us--Jew and Gentile--is born.

Our greatest enemy in the world isn’t someone else: It’s not our spouse, our family, our boss, our government, or any of those “other people.” It’s not even the devil, although he hates us and wants us eternally separated from God.

Our greatest enemy is us. It’s us--you and me--who need to be dealt with. We and our sin must be conquered before they kill us off for all eternity.

But this isn’t something we like to hear or wrestle with. Who wants to be forced into saying, “It’s my fault”? Most of the time, those words stick in our throats.

Peter was just like us in that way. Verse 22 tells us that Peter is horrified at the idea of the One he had just confessed as Messiah going to Jerusalem, to be rejected and crucified. Matthew says that Peter rebuked Jesus. “That will never happen to You, Lord,” Peter says to Jesus, telling Jesus, the One he had just confessed to be God that Jesus was wrong. Peter was telling Jesus how to be the Messiah. He was giving Jesus "God lessons"!

In fact, as my son Philip pointed out to me last night, the word used to describe Peter's words to Jesus--rebuked--was in the Greek Septuagint translation of the Old Testament with which Jesus would have been familiar only used of superiors upbraiding or chastising people beneath them in class or authority. Peter is treating the One he has confessed as God and Messiah like an underling!

Look what happens next, starting at Matthew 16:23. “Jesus turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.’”

Jesus calls Peter, Satan! The very name means enemy or adversary. At this moment, Jesus is calling Peter an enemy of God! This is a serious matter.

To try to stand in the way of God and the will and purpose of God makes a person an enemy of God. So, when Jesus uttered this condemnation of Peter, you can imagine how mystified Peter must have felt.

Do we stand in the way of God and His will for our lives?

Are there times when we try to turn Jesus into the king of our dreams, the king who will even go along with us when we’re being selfish or hurtful?

Are there times when we expect Jesus to overlook our sins while we stand in judgment over others for theirs?

Are there times when we insist that the problems in our marriages, our families, or our lives are exclusively the fault of others and not us?

Absent repentance and trust in Christ, if our answer to any of those questions is yes, then Jesus’ words of rebuke and their intrinsic call to repentance and renewed trust in Him, first leveled at Peter apply to you and me too. I know that Jesus' call applies to me many times, too.

But there is good news! King Jesus has come to set us free and make us right. 

Look at what He says, starting at verse 24: “Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.’”

Jesus could have been the king that Peter, the other disciples, and God’s people in Judea wanted. He had the power to do it.

When Jesus was later arrested in the garden of Gethsemane, He said that He had at His disposal “twelve legions of angels,” 60,000 angelic soldiers ready at the direction of Jesus. He could have been a warrior king.

When Satan met Jesus in the wilderness, it was to be precisely this kind of king that he tried tempting Jesus into being. Satan knew that if Jesus relied on raw power, coercive force, to make Himself king, Jesus would have been as guilty of sin as Adam and Eve had been when, in their desire to “be like God,” they ate the fruit God told them not to eat.

And had Jesus been this kind of king, He wouldn’t have been trustingly relying on His Father and His plan, but on violent force.

Our lives could never have been made eternally right had Jesus gone that route.

We could never have been set eternally free from sin and death. Jesus had to go to the cross to take our punishment for sin so that, in rising, He could set free all who turn from sin, that is repent, and surrender trustingly in Him, that is believe in Him.

In the way Jesus chose, He could be King, not of a worldly nation, all of which eventually fail and fall from the weight of their arrogance, sin, and injustice, but the King of a new creation.

Jesus didn’t enter the world to conquer all the armies of the world while leaving everyone in this world dead and separated from God. Jesus came to conquer us with His love and so, give us life that never ends.

The only way for us to appropriate the victory won for us by Jesus on the cross and from the empty tomb is to first, take up our cross--meaning, to acknowledge, in Pogo’s famous words, “We have seen the enemy and he is us.” We need to own the fact that we need a Savior, Someone Who will save us from our sins and ourselves and to save us to be all that God intended for us to be. 

And we need secondly, to follow Jesus. Even when it’s inconvenient. Even when it’s the last thing we want to do. Even when it’s less than popular. Even when it costs us money, time, or our lives.

Taking up our crosses and following Jesus. We Lutherans have always called this a lifestyle of “daily repentance and renewal.” This is the content of the faith in Jesus that Peter, just a few verses before our gospel lesson, confessed: a faith that believes in Jesus as the King that makes all things right, the God Who opens up infinitely more than “we can ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20) to all who dare to surrender to Him.

And how can we know this is true?

That’s the question from the disciples that Jesus seems to anticipate in the last verse of our lesson.

“Truly I tell you,” He says. “some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

Is that true?

Did the disciples see the coming of Jesus’ kingdom?

I mean, didn’t Jesus teach us to pray, “Thy kingdom come”?

The first disciples did see the kingdom of God come when Jesus rose from the dead, “the firstborn of the dead” as the New Testament calls Jesus (Colossians 1:18; Revelation 1:5) and the “pioneer and perfecter of faith” as He’s called in Hebrews 12:2. The disciples saw the kingdom of God when they saw the King after He had died and risen.

And we see--we experience--this kingdom when we too, take up our cross and follow Jesus.

May that be how we live.

How we die.

And, by the grace God bears for all who trust in Christ, may it also be how we will all rise again.


[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

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