Sunday, July 29, 2018

Take Up Your Cross

A few weeks back I mentioned, in passing, the Scripture that we’re going to look at today. It is, I’m sure, a saying of Jesus that you are familiar with. But, as with the rest of Scripture, there are depths here that we will spend an eternity examining. We’re going to spend a little time working on that this morning. Listen as I read it with a little context.

And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, [Jesus] said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” Mark 8:34-35

Jesus is clear. If you want to be one of His disciples, then you’ll need to take up your cross. There are no exceptions. Take up your cross.

The first thing that I want to do is spend a little time explaining the imagery that Jesus is using here. What does Jesus mean by this cross business? Israel was, at this time, a part of the Roman Empire. And that Empire made liberal use of capital punishment. The primary method that they used was crucifixion. And as part of the humiliation of that punishment, the victim had to carry his cross to the place of execution. You’ll remember that Jesus had to do this until He could carry it no further. Seeing someone carrying his cross was a clear message to the watching crowd. This person was on his way to death. And, as you can appreciate, the conquered Jews despised it.

It is this hated image of death that Jesus uses to define a key element of what it means to follow Him. All those who would be His disciples needed to understand that they were being called to death for His sake.

It is worth noting here that, according to what has been passed down to us, all of the apostles, except for John, died as martyrs. So, at least in some cases, Jesus is speaking of a literal, physical death.

But it’s also worth noting that Jesus also used this image of cross-bearing more broadly. If Jesus could call for a literal, physical death, then any suffering, any more limited taste of death is also included in Jesus’ call. It all depends on what Jesus wants from any particular disciple.

Or to say this differently, Jesus is being up front in His recruiting. ‘If you are going to be one of my disciples, then your life is mine to do with it as I think best.’ This is the basic idea that Jesus is conveying in this call to take up a cross. 

Now, let’s develop this a bit. If it’s not a martyr’s death, what other things might this include? What might Jesus require of a disciple? We don’t have to guess. We have in the Scriptures examples of hardships that were imposed on God’s saints.

Let’s start with what is most familiar: Job. He lost his money, his health, his children. As I have reflected on Jesus’ ways with me, one thing that I would find especially painful is if something happened to one of my kids; if one of them died. That would be especially hard. Is it possible that Jesus would call me to suffer that loss? Yes, it is. Jesus’ call to bear the cross could mean something like that for me - or for you.

Then, there is the man of John 9 who was born blind. Why was he afflicted? Jesus said that it was that the works of God might be displayed in him. Could Jesus decide to do something like that to you? Could He decide that you should lose your sight or your ability to walk or your hearing or something similar for the rest of your days? Could that be included in cross-bearing? Yes, it could.

Let’s consider the man of Psalm 42. That Psalm begins,

As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. ​My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God? ​My tears have been my food day and night, while they say to me all the day long, “Where is your God?” Psalm 42.1‑3

Could it be that Jesus would cause you to feel abandoned by your God, and, as a result, fall into a deep depression like this man? Could that be included in cross-bearing? Yes, it could.

And then, as one last illustration, there is Paul’s thorn in the flesh something that never left him. We don’t know what this actually was. But it is a good placeholder for any other affliction. Could it be that Jesus would decide to afflict you in some terrible way and then refuse to heal you, though you cried out for it?  Could that be included in cross-bearing? Yes, it could.

If Jesus defines following Him as being ready to die, then He includes in that all sorts of hardships, any of which He might cause you to experience. This is what it means to be a Christian, a disciple of Jesus.

This leads to a pressing question. Why? Why would Jesus do these sorts of things? Why the call to cross-bearing?

It is important to remember that we are in the midst of a war. That is the basic context for every life on this globe. We are all in the midst of a war. Remember what God said to the serpent back in Genesis 3.

And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel. Genesis 3:15

Enmity. That’s just a synonym for war. Every person is either on the side of Jesus or on the side of Satan. It’s a war.

I enjoy history. And one particular aspect of history that I have spent some time reading about is warfare. In the days of my youth, I was intrigued by the glory of war. No longer. I am all too aware of the ugliness of war, the evil of war. No one goes off to war and returns untouched. Even if a combatant suffers no wounds, his life is dramatically changed. Killing people and seeing your buddies being killed changes you. I have wondered about the commanders, those who sent men into battle. General Eisenhower oversaw the invasion of Europe, D-Day. He sent over 150,000 men into harm’s way. And he did that knowing that all of them would be deeply affected by what they were going to experience. Thousands would suffer painful wounds and thousands would die. And yet, he still did it. Why? He knew that Nazi Germany had to be defeated - had to be. And the Normandy invasion was the best way to do that even though many would suffer terribly.

Is it any different with Jesus as He fights against Satan and his demons? In any war, there is always a cost. That was true in World War II, and it is true in the war that Jesus is pursuing. He sends His disciples into harm’s way. He knows that all will be deeply affected. But Satan has to be defeated - has to be.

Last week I told you that pastors are to be examples to their flocks. That will always include suffering. So, Stephen is killed by angry men hurling rocks at him with all their might, a painful death. And what happens next? Paul is converted. There is reason to believe that the one event, how Stephen died well, prepared for the other, Paul becoming a Christian. Much later, Paul and Silas are beaten bloody and imprisoned. But with bodies that were in great pain, they sang hymns. Do you really think that that had no effect on the jailer who was then converted?

Jesus calls us all to suffer, and some to suffer death. But He uses our suffering to push back against Satan and those with him. He uses our suffering to conquer. It’s war.

There are other reasons why Jesus calls us to cross-bearing and its suffering. It is by suffering that we can see our sin more clearly and thus actually want to repent of it. Again, consider Job. After his suffering, he sees himself differently, he sees God differently.

I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes. Job 42:5-6

His experience of suffering helped Job to see reality more clearly.

Or as one of the Psalms puts it

            It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes. Psalm 119.71

The suffering of cross-bearing can also wean us from this world and its lies. So, John writes,

Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world — the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life — is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever. 1 John 2:15-17

The pleasures of this world are, at best, partial and fleeting. It is no sin to enjoy them as such. But it is sin when we think that real happiness, lasting happiness, can be found here. That’s when we are fooled by Satan’s lies. Jesus helps us to see this world more clearly by sending suffering our way. That’s when we learn to long for the real and lasting pleasures of the age to come. And as a result, we focus the energies of the rest of our days more wisely so that the Gospel is revealed through us and the kingdom spreads.

These are some reasons why Jesus calls us to bear a cross.

Now, for the practical question. How are we to deal with the difficulties of this calling to be His disciples by bearing a cross? Here are three Christian virtues that answer that question.

The first is faith. But I’ll use a synonym that will work better here. Trust. When Jesus brings us into suffering of whatever sort what we need to say in response is simply this. ‘Lord Jesus, I trust You.’ That simple sentence reflects our belief that He really does know what He’s doing with our lives as He pursues His goal of conquest.

We do not pray that sentence with our eyes closed to reality. This is not some mythical blind faith. Quite the opposite. It is expressly because we see reality that we are able to trust Him. Let me remind you of some aspects of reality that I’ve preached on recently.

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? … Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? … No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. Romans 8.31, 35, 37

That is the nature of reality for every one of Jesus’ disciples. And it is as we learn to trust Him more according to that reality that we are able to endure well whatever it is that He sends our way. And the result is the conquest of the world by the Gospel.

Here’s a second Christian virtue that makes it possible for us to deal with the difficulties of cross-bearing: love. If someone’s idea of being a disciple of Jesus is only a matter of agreeing with some religious doctrines then, sooner or later, it will get to the point where that person will conclude that it just isn’t worth it. It will become clear to him that it’s just too hard. And the fact of the matter is that life really is hard.

That is something that so many just don’t grasp. Life is hard. Being a Christian doesn’t change that. Life for us is hard, too. And if someone’s goal is a life of comfort and ease - here think of what retirement means for so many these days - then the last thing he will want to do is to become a Christian. If, as I suspect, life is going to get more difficult for American Christians, then, when that happens, there will be many in churches today who will either give up any profession of faith or redefine discipleship so that there will be no cross-bearing.

But there will be those who will keep at it. They will continue to work at being faithful disciples, continue to work at faithfully bearing their cross. And they will do this because of the bond of love that exists between them and Jesus. He is more than a religious concept for these people. Their working at bearing their cross is simply their response of love to Jesus’ own love for them. When you love someone, you will do things that others without that love will think crazy. We will do ‘crazy’ things because we love Jesus.

Then, here’s this last Christian virtue: hope. Remember the definition of hope: waiting for God to keep His promises. Those who have a lively hope, a lively expectation of promises kept, will continue to work at it when it comes to bearing the cross that Jesus places on them. It’s what you do while you wait.

Here is one Scripture that I have found most encouraging when it comes to cross-bearing in hope.

For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. 2 Corinthians 4.17-18

Notice how Paul describes this life: affliction. That’s singular and not plural. Paul isn’t referring to the particular instances of hardship sprinkled throughout life. It’s his way of talking about all of life. Paul tells us that this afflicted life is actually doing something. It’s producing a life in the age to come that will be amazing, a life filled with ‘an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison’. What we do now is closely tied to what happens later. Faithful cross-bearing creates a life in eternity that goes beyond what we can imagine. That is what we hope for. That is God’s promise that we are waiting for Him to keep. And He will keep it for all who do not give up.

So, trust, love, hope. And do you know one result of living in this way? Rejoicing. We rejoice in what Jesus is doing through us as He pursues His plan of redeeming the world. Yes, it costs us. Yes, it hurts. Yes, there are parts of cross-bearing that feel like they are just too much. There will be tears and crying out to God. But we trust Him, we love Him, we hope in Him. And that is why we are able to rejoice in what He is doing.

As I have done in other sermons, let me suggest a prayer that you might want to offer in light of what I have told you. This is a disciple’s prayer.

Lord Jesus, I am Your servant. Whatever You want to do with my life is fine with me. Just give me the grace to be able to endure it.

Jesus calls us to follow Him by bearing a cross. I would encourage you to pray that prayer so that you would follow Jesus in the way that He defines it, by bearing your cross.