This week we continue our Lenten series on the Power of Sacrifice as we look at a statement from Jesus that comes at a turning point in His interaction with the disciples. I’ve often said that the Gospel of Mark is like the Reader’s Digest condensed version of a Gospel. Here in the opening verses of this morning’s lesson, his writing is even more terse – if possible. It’s almost like Dragnet’s Joe Friday: Just the facts, sir. Just the facts. Mark describes the whole exchange, where the disciples first recognize Jesus as the Messiah, in four verses comprised of five sentences:
Jesus: What are people saying about who I am?
Disciples: Some say this, some say that.
Jesus: What about you guys?
Peter (for the disciples): You’re the Man!
Jesus: Mum’s the word.
Of course, the words that Jesus proclaims on the heels of that riveting conversation are perhaps some of the most difficult words that He will preach over the course of His ministry. They are difficult because He reiterates, multiple times, His call to “come and die” for the sake of the kingdom. One interpretation of this call is to understand that Jesus was calling His early disciples to literal martyrdom, something that many of them would ultimately experience.
But the Christian tradition has always understood an even more difficult meaning beneath the surface of these words. Jesus’ call is to “lose their lives for the sake of [Him] and the gospel,” which means lose their self-centeredness for the sake of manifesting the more beautiful world that God desires. This call is, in many ways, more difficult than the call to martyrdom. It’s one thing to physically die – I’m not saying in any way that it is easy, only that it is one and done; it’s another to live a life in which one continually dies to one’s own self-interest for the good of one’s friends, neighbors, and even enemies.
Before we go any further, I should point out that Mark tells us Jesus spoke to the crowd as well as the disciples. Jesus invited the crowd to BECOME His disciples and He encouraged His disciples to ACT like disciples. Now that you’ve heard His words, you are part of one of those groups. I’ll leave it to you to decide which one.
Jesus makes it clear He is speaking of self-sacrifice rather than martyrdom when He goes on to say: “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” Jesus says that there are those who gain “the whole world” – meaning, of course, wealth, notoriety, success, relationships, and so on – but in so doing “forfeit their soul.” By the way, if your Bible translation says “forfeit their life” – the Greek can mean soul or life – that’s really no better.
All of us, at the core of our being, know that the pursuit of earthly gain is ultimately unfulfilling and will leave us longing for more. We see stories of celebrities and billionaires who have everything that all of us have conditioned to desire, but end up spinning out of control because they have discovered the lie that is at the heart of the modern American dream. Wealth, fame, sex, and success do not lead to true and lasting joy. In fact, they leave a gaping hole that no thing can fill.
Denying self requires us to sacrifice anything that we would want or seek that would hinder our doing the will of God. This does not mean that, if we want something, it is necessarily wrong. It means we must take our wants and desires down from the throne and place Jesus and His will as the governing power in our lives. There is room in each life for only one master. In Matthew 6, Jesus tells us: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:19-21).
At one time, when we were very young, most – if not all – of us said to an older sibling or a playmate or, if we were really brash or really stupid, to a parent: “You’re NOT the boss of me!” And as we have gotten older, most – if not all – of us have never fully lost that attitude. The broken human in us says, “This is MY life, God. Don’t tell me what to do!” But that’s exactly what Jesus accepted. In the Garden of Gethsemane, He looked at God and said, “Not my will, but yours be done.”
We live in a selfish, instant gratification world. Fast food restaurants weren’t fast enough so we got drive-thru’s. Bank drive-thru’s too….still not fast enough, give us ATM’s…and lots of ’em! Don’t wanna have to look too hard to find one….you wouldn’t want to be inconvenienced, would you? After all, isn’t it all about me? Aren’t I the center of everyone’s universe? Perhaps we should quit worrying so much about ourselves and worry more about the cross.… “deny” ourselves, if you will.
As we said, Jesus makes it very clear that focusing on the things of this world is a losing proposition. EVERYTHING we are worried about down here on earth will be destroyed. Got a nice house? Have to skip out on church sometimes so you can take care of it? Cut the grass? Paint? It will be destroyed! Got a new car? Do you have to cut back on your tithe to be sure you can make the payments on it? Proud of it? I guess you’d better enjoy it now, it too will be destroyed! Oh, by the way, everything that we are so proud of…Jesus said thieves can break in and steal it all from you! He also said at the end of those verses in Matthew: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Take up your cross and follow Jesus-
A lot of people think this means bearing burdens and suffering hardships for the Lord. Surely such hardships will at times be required, but there is a fuller meaning if we consider the context.
What is a cross for? It was not just a burden to be borne. Far more than that, it was an instrument of death and total sacrifice. Jesus said take up our cross and follow Him. He bore a cross and we must bear our cross and follow Him. But where was He going with His cross? He had just said He was going to die. In the next verse Jesus said we must give our lives for Him. Then He asked what good our lives would be to us, if we are unacceptable at the judgment.
Hence, “taking up your cross” is a more specific way of saying, deny yourself; give your whole life to God, as Jesus was about to give His life for us. This involves bearing burdens, but it is deeper than that. It is a total dedication of life. Our whole life is given to His service in anything He says. This will lead us to willingly deny self. Following Him then requires us to live as He lived His life
In Luke’s telling of this encounter he adds “take up your cross daily” (Luke 9:23). While Mark does not use the word daily, the tense of the verb “to take up” is such that a continual process is indicated. There is a sense in which Christians must give their lives to God every day. This is not necessarily a physical death as Jesus died for us (though such might be required), but a daily total sacrifice of self to do the will of Jesus. Following Christ is not saying, “I’m a Christian,” and then living an uncommitted life. Christ expects to be obeyed.
Christ does not ask for a modest adjustment in our lives but a complete overhaul of our behavior. God refuses to accept a minor role in our lives; He requires a controlling place. We have to learn to say, “Not my will, but yours be done.” Whatever He wants with my life is what must be done with it. What I want no longer matters, but I give myself for Him, just as He gave Himself for us despite the fact His human nature did not want to have to do it. Yes, Jesus had to deny Himself too…and it was hard on Him as well… remember in Gethsemane He also prayed to let this cup pass from me if possible.
Jesus is teaching us that by giving up our attachments to material gain and turning from selfishness to selflessness, we actually can find the peace and meaning that all of us are looking for. All of us know that this is true, but few of us have the faith actually to give up our selfish pursuits of whatever we think will bring us joy and begin sacrificially serving others. Perhaps this is the more challenging and more transformative posture for us to take this Lenten Season. Let’s make Lent not about giving up certain foods or habits but, rather, about daily turning our attention off of ourselves and joyfully, sacrificially serving others. As difficult as this practice will most certainly be, we have the promise of Jesus that we will “save our lives” and experience “abundant life” if we make this pursuit of dying to ourselves through sacrificial service our regular practice.