Sunday, April 24, 2011

I am Convinced that Redemption is Available

Mark 16:1-8

Today is the day that we celebrate the empty tomb; Jesus is alive! Death can’t defeat him, and the grave can’t hold him. This is the reason we have church, because we serve a risen Christ!

Over the past seven weeks, we have been studying through the Gospel According to Mark, specifically, we’ve been looking at how Mark looks at spiritual warfare. This series was conceived by my pastor cluster group, and we came up with the weekly scriptures and sermon titles and a Bible study to go with each week’s message. We called our series: Convinced because we have looked at it all with the reminder: I am convinced that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. We saw Jesus baptized in the Jordan and tempted by Satan in the wilderness. We saw Jesus casting out demons and empowering his disciples to do likewise. We were reminded that God is the source of all strength when dealing with spiritual warfare… or anything else. Through everything, we’ve been reminded that we can be confident that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus!

Today we conclude this series with a powerful statement: I am convinced that redemption is available. In our day and in our culture, it can be easy to forget the surprise of Easter. It can be easy to take for granted what came as a shock. We have grown up in a place where most people at least know about Easter. I was honestly shocked when I was in seminary and a little neighbor boy asked what Easter was all about and I told him that Jesus had risen from the dead, and he had no concept of who Jesus was or even who God was – that there even was a Creator, let alone One with a Son. It shocked me because we’re used to starting from a point well beyond point A when it comes to scripture.

But think of the wonder of Easter. Dead people just don’t come back to life. We see death not only as the great equalizer, but as the eventual winner. People live and then they die, and that’s it. Maybe their memory remains, or maybe they’re forgotten. But Easter changes everything.

But before we get to Easter Sunday, we have to have Good Friday. Before we get to the resurrection, we first have to go through death. Before we get redemption, we have to see failure. I’ll be open with you that one of my greatest fears is the fear of failure. This is an area where God is working on me. As a bit of a perfectionist, my natural tendency is that if I don’t think I can succeed in something, I shouldn’t even try it. After all, who wants to be known as a failure?

Take Bill Buckner, for example. If you’re a baseball fan, the name Bill Buckner is synonymous with failure. Over 2500 games played in 22 seasons with a lifetime batting average of .289. 174 home runs. Though Buckner committed only 128 errors in 13,901 chances, many people remember him for one thing: it was game 6 of the 1986 World Series, Boston was up 3-2 in the series, and a routine ground ball went through Bill Buckner’s legs, scoring the winning run. Boston ended up losing that game and eventually lost the series, all because of one error.

What would it be like to be remembered for an error? What would it be like to be remembered for something that went wrong?

I want to look at two such characters from the scriptures: Jesus and Peter.

Back in Mark 8, Jesus began to teach his disciples that he would suffer, be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. (Mark 8:31) From this point on, Jesus’ ministry and mission is shaped by this truth and everything moves toward the cross.

When Jesus rode into Jerusalem a week ago, he fulfilled Messianic prophecy. His friends and followers excited about the coming King. Finally God was working on their behalf! Now God would redeem his people! But Jesus went about it in a different way than they expected. He continued to tell them that he would be tortured and die. He began telling them about the signs of the end of the age and told them to keep watch. As he was warning his disciples what would happen, the chief priests and teachers of the law were looking for some sly way to arrest Jesus and kill him. (Mark 14:1). And Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, went to the chief priests to betray Jesus to them. They were delighted to hear this and promised to give him money. So he watched for an opportunity to hand him over. (Mark 14:10).

Jesus celebrated Passover with his closest friends, declaring that the broken bread they ate was his body, that the cup they drank was his blood, poured out for many. He predicted that all of his disciples would fall away, that even his close friend Peter would deny him three times.

And Jesus was arrested, betrayed by Judas, deserted by his friends. He went to a trumped-up trial full of a parade of false witnesses whose lies didn’t even match up. But Jesus never refuted their lies. When the high priest asked him if he was the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One, Jesus answered, using the name of God: “I Am.” Jesus, the one who was supposed to be the Son of God, the King of Kings, was taken to the Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate. This puppet ruler not only sentenced Jesus to crucifixion, but also had him tortured. And Jesus was crucified, a horrible death, and he was buried.

Such a shame. Such a great teacher who cared so much. And that’s where some would leave him, yet another religious martyr.

Peter was one of Jesus’ best friends. A few weeks ago, we looked at Mark 8, in which Peter correctly identified that Jesus wasn’t just a prophet, that he was the Christ. Other accounts include that Jesus specifically identified Peter as The Rock, upon which Jesus would build his church. Peter was one of Jesus’ closest friends; they were a foursome, Jesus, Peter, James, and John. These were the ones who went to the mountain of Transfiguration. After celebrating Passover with his disciples, they all went to the Garden of Gethsemane, but it was Peter, James, and John who Jesus invited to go along with him to pray.

But upon Jesus’ arrest, Peter denied that he even knew Jesus. He began to call down curses on himself, and he swore to them, “I don’t know this man you’re talking about.” (Mark 14:71) Luke’s gospel includes the detail that just as Peter, for a third time, denied even knowing Jesus: The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. (Luke 22:61a). This is the last time we hear Peter’s voice before Jesus is crucified. Denying that he even knows “this man.” What a way to conclude the great career of being a disciple. He would forever be known as the guy who followed Jesus and left him in his time of need.

Another failure.

Thomas Jefferson was one of our founding fathers, and was famously a Deist. He believed in a God who created and then set his creation loose. In order to substantiate this position, Jefferson had to cut out parts of the Bible that contradicted his beliefs, including all of Jesus’ miracles. The account of Jesus’ crucifixion in the so-called “Jefferson Bible” is maybe the most depressing thing to ever read. The work ends with the words: “Now, in the place where he was crucified, there was a garden; and in the garden a new sepulchre, wherein was never man yet laid. There laid they Jesus. And rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre, and departed.”

To be honest, if the Gospel ended here, honestly, it wouldn’t be gospel at all, because Gospel means “Good News”. But the story doesn’t end in a grave! Jesus was not just a martyr. Because on the third day, on Sunday morning, when the Sabbath was over, the women came with embalming spices to anoint Jesus’ body. It comes as a shock when they reach the tomb and find the stone rolled away. Knowing something was amiss, they went into the tomb, and they saw an angel. The angel tells them not to be alarmed: Jesus has risen! He is not here! This is good news!

Some of us have experienced failure. We have failed God. We have failed our friends and family members. We have failed ourselves. And until Mark 16, we see only failure. But into this world of failure comes a new message: Redemption is available!

The angel gives the women instructions: But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’” (Mark 16:7)

Not only has Jesus overcome death, but he has more to do. He is continuing on to Galilee. And not only is he going ahead of them into Galilee, but he invites his disciples to meet him there. And he specifically mentions Peter, the same one who denied that he even knew Jesus. While John’s Gospel includes Jesus’ explicit reinstatement of Peter, Mark is subtle and to the point: “Go, tell his disciples and Peter.” Jesus is saying that he wants Peter there, too. Knowing what Peter had done, Jesus still wants him in his inner circle. I am convinced that redemption is available!

And the women fled the tomb, trembling and bewildered. I don’t think I ever really noticed this. I’ve studied the book of Mark – I even took a whole seminary class on it – but I don’t think I ever noticed the women’s response to the empty tomb. Not excitement. Not a rush to tell everyone. Nope. Fear. If you’ve been reading through Mark’s Gospel, it might not come as a shock. In Mark 4:41, after Jesus had calmed the storm at sea, his disciples were terrified.

In Mark 5:15, Jesus had cast a “legion” of demons out of a man, and the response of the townspeople upon seeing the man, sitting, dressed, and in his right mind: fear.

In Mark 6:50 the disciples saw Jesus walking on water, and they were terrified. His response to them: Immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”

In Mark 9:6, the author includes a parenthetical explanation for Peter’s irrational behavior on the mountain: He did not know what to say, they were so frightened upon seeing Jesus transfigured before them and seeing Moses and Elijah show up.

And in Mark 9:36 as Jesus told his disciples about his upcoming betrayal, death, and resurrection, the disciples didn’t understand what he was talking about and were too afraid to ask him.

Every time when Jesus has revealed his divinity, people are afraid. Jesus shows that he has power over nature. His disciples are afraid. Jesus shows that he has power over demons. The townspeople are afraid. Jesus is transfigured; his closest friends are terrified. Jesus pinpoints his mission; his disciples are afraid. So now, when the women find the empty tomb and hear that Jesus has risen, their response is not great joy and wonder, but fear and trembling. You might have thought that all fear would be gone by now, but Mark focuses on their fear to conclude his theme of discipleship. Every time that Jesus revealed his divinity, the response is fear.

Every step of the way, God has had to reassure his people not to be afraid. I found 74 times in the Bible where God tells his people “do not be afraid.” When God calls Abram, he says, “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward.” Genesis 15:1

God tells Isaac, Abraham’s son: “Do not be afraid, for I am with you.” (Genesis 26:24)

When Joshua was taking over for Moses as the leader of God’s people (in Deuteronomy 31:8), Moses says to Joshua, “The LORD himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.”

Why does God have to continually tell each generation not to be afraid? I think it’s natural to be afraid. There is so much to be afraid of. We’re trained from a young age that the world is a scary place and there are all kinds of things to be scared of. There are all kinds of things that are out of our control, and it’s frightening.

The women left the tomb bewildered and troubled, not knowing what would come next. And that’s how the earliest manuscripts of Mark end. Mark leaves the story unfinished. Most Bibles include a disclaimer that “The most reliable early manuscripts and other ancient witnesses do not have Mark 16:9-20.” Later, what happened after the resurrection was filled in (and, as an aside, I believe it wholeheartedly), but Mark left it unfinished.

Why might that be? We know what happened next – that Jesus appeared to the disciples, that he reinstated Peter, that he commissioned them to go and make disciples of the whole world, but what we don’t know is how each one of us will respond. Only God knows what will happen next in our lives. God is telling us, just as he told the women (through the angel), that Jesus is alive and that he has a plan for us.

How will you respond? Are you afraid? The Apostle Paul later reminds his young protégé, Timothy: God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline. 2 Timothy 1:7.

Are you still stuck back in the failures of the past? Until he rose from the dead, Jesus looked like a failure, but when he rose victorious over sin and death and Satan, he made redemption available for everyone. If you are in Christ, you are no longer defined by those failures. You are defined by His triumph! Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! (2 Corinthians 5:17)

So as we go from this place, recognize the gift Jesus gave us on the cross, the gift of victory over sin and death, the gift of redemption, the gift of a new beginning. I am convinced that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.


Sunday, April 17, 2011

I am Convinced that Faith Works

Mark 9:14-29

It was shortly after midnight, New Year’s morning, 1994, and we were broken down on the shoulder of I74 between Champaign and Danville, IL. We were on our way home from Urbana 1993, an amazing missions conference, where we had been for the past several days. The songs from the amazing New Year’s Communion service we had just celebrated were still dancing in our ears, the amazement of God’s tangible presence in the midst of 17,000 college students, all celebrating Communion together. Cars, vans, and buses rumbled by endlessly, all of them coming from the same incredible missions conference we had attended, and nobody stopped.

As I walked to the next exit, the wind gave way to a rainy snow, and still nobody stopped. We spent the rest of a sleepless night at a truck stop, waiting for my dad to pick us up. In a few short hours, I went from an incredible mountaintop experience to the valley.

The same happened in today’s scripture. Immediately before what I read today, Jesus and his closest friends, Peter, James, and John, were up on the mountain, where Jesus was transfigured. His clothes became dazzling, unbelievably white, and Moses and Elijah showed up, and God’s Shekinah showed up and God spoke in an audible voice.

Peter wanted to build some shelters up there – he wanted to stay on the mountain in God’s presence. I wonder if he had some kind of notion that something was going to happen once they left. And when they got down, they walked right into the middle of it. I am convinced that Satan works overtime when we’ve been to the mountaintop with Jesus.

Have you ever had one of those experiences? You’ve met with Jesus. You are encouraged, excited, blessed, full of joy. Maybe it was after a conference or a camp. Then Satan attacks. Jesus comes down to find his disciples in the middle of an arguing crowd.

There is a man whose son is tormented by a demon, and the disciples haven’t been able to do anything for him. This has to be frustrating for the disciples; after all, we read a few weeks ago how Jesus sent them out, two-by-two, with authority over evil spirits, and Mark 6:13 tells us that They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them. But they’ve run into a brick wall this time.

Has this ever happened to you? You know God has worked in such and such a way in the past, that God has honored your requests, that you’ve gotten through, and suddenly you’re faced with something you can’t do anything about?

The disciples are reduced to helpless bystanders in this passage. They can’t do anything, and they’re left to argue with the religious leaders. The boy’s father is at the end of his rope, and most of us who are parents can relate to that: there’s nothing worse than seeing your child suffer. Which reminds me of this: 6Satan doesn’t fight fair. When we take a firm stand for Jesus, he will attack, and he doesn’t limit his attacks to just the one who is standing firm against him. He will attack our families and loved ones.

And it can be overwhelming.

Jesus ministers to the father, who tells Jesus what the evil spirit is like. It tries to kill his son and has done so since he was little. This is Satan’s character. He comes only to steal, kill and destroy (John 10:10). The father is grasping at straws here. As any parent might be. If there’s anything Jesus might be able to do, it’s worth asking him. His disciples haven’t been able to do anything, but maybe he Himself can.

Before I get to Jesus’ interaction with the father, I recognize that some of you have been suffering with various afflictions for a long time. I can’t imagine going through what some of you have gone through for years. There are times when it can be easy to get frustrated and angry with God over times when it seems like he is ignoring you, when you’ve asked for healing or for a situation to be cleared up, but it hasn’t happened. There are times when God actually allows us to be afflicted, and he has a reason for it. The Apostle Paul talked about that in his second letter to the church in Corinth: To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. (2 Corinthians 12:7-8) You’ve been there, haven’t you? Satan torments you. We don’t know what Paul’s “thorn” was, but many of us can relate. There’s some area where Satan is driving you crazy. Maybe it’s something physical. Maybe it’s an addiction. Maybe it’s a person or group of people who just won’t leave you alone. Maybe you’re the victim of bullying or gossip.

Did you notice Paul’s attitude about it? He had pleaded with God to remove it, to take it away – we’re not talking about a simple, “Hey, God, if you don’t mind…” but a true pleading. And God didn’t. But Paul took it as a way for God to keep him humble. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9a).

I wonder if this might shed some light into the verdict Jesus gave the disciples about their inability to drive out the demon, that This kind can only come out by prayer.(Mark 9:29) Some manuscripts also include “and fasting” here; fasting especially is all about focusing on God and relying on Him for absolutely everything. I wonder if the disciples had forgotten where their power came from. Exorcism had become easy. Healing was easy. And they forgot to depend fully on God for everything.

It can be easy to pile on the disciples, who Jesus calls an “unbelieving generation” or “faithless people.” I find myself shaking my head at how dumb the disciples are, but when it comes down to it, we often find ourselves in the same spot. We as a church have been a faithless generation.

We have coasted. We have allowed a couple of people to carry us spiritually. We have relied on our own strength instead of Jesus’. We have been more concerned with keeping ourselves busy with things that don’t glorify Jesus than with things that do. We have confused busyness for godliness. We have left evangelism to “other people” and to programs. And we haven’t prayed.

This is the same thing that Jesus rebuked his disciples for. In their eagerness to do what Jesus sent them out to do, they forgot whose power it was. I remember being in a healing prayer service and someone asked me to pray for him. He had various physical ailments, not least of which was a shoulder that was extremely sore after he had slipped and fallen on ice earlier that week. I prayed for him. A week or so later, we went to lunch and he told me, “You don’t have the gift of healing. My shoulder feels worse than ever.” But then he was talking about what he had done over the weekend; that he spent all day on Saturday with a post-hole digger, digging fence post holes! Hmmm. Sounds like someone got healed…

But I’m glad that he told me I didn’t have the gift of healing, and I accept that comment itself as a gift. Why? Because now if I pray and someone is healed, all of the credit goes to God, because “I don’t have the gift of healing!”

OK, I told you we would get back to the father. He had every right and every reason to doubt that Jesus could deliver his son. After all, his disciples, who were sent as extensions of himself, had been unable to do it. Would Jesus be any different? So he’s hedging his bets. “If you can do anything…”

Jesus responds that everything is possible for the one who believes. Listen to what Jesus later tells his disciples.  “Have faith in God,” Jesus answered.” I tell you the truth, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart but believes what he says will happen, it will be done for him. Therefore, I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” (Mark 11:22-24).

The very fact that we all struggle with this scripture demonstrates our faith levels. So I love the father’s response: Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). Are you willing to express the same sentiment?

I remember a few years back when I was betrayed by some people who were close to me – I thought they were my friends, and I’d shared a lot with them, and they used it against me. For literally a year and a half, I had weekly nightmares about them, but during Lent that particular year I was doing a 40 day prayer exercise, writing down my prayers. I was honestly getting a little bored praying the same things every day (which I realized I was doing when I took the time to write them down), so one day as I was running, I was asking God what I needed to pray about, and I felt like He responded, “You need to forgive those people.”

You may be someone for whom forgiveness comes easily, but I often find it hard, and in the interest of full disclosure, I didn’t want to forgive them. I felt justified in my righteous indignation against them, and, after all, they’d hurt me. But I knew that God was right; I needed to forgive, even though I didn’t want to, and I had to first want to. So I prayed that God would help me want to want to forgive. Wouldn’t you know, God did it. And I haven’t had a single nightmare about those people since.

That paralleled how the father responded to Jesus. I do believe. Help me overcome my unbelief! Can this be our prayer? Most of us here believe in God. We believe in Jesus. We believe in the Holy Spirit. We believe in the Bible. But do we believe believe?

You should know that I am praying that God will do something here in Millersport that only He can get credit for. Do you believe that He can? Do you believe that He will? We are uniquely situated where we can do amazing things for Him, but we cannot do it in our own strength. We cannot be of two minds. We cannot focus on all sorts of other things when He is calling us to do one thing. Think about it this way: we as a church are called to be the Bride of Jesus Christ. Can you imagine a bride coming down the aisle, focused on everything but her groom? Sure, there are lots of people you haven’t seen in a while and would like to reconnect with, but can you imagine stopping on your way down the aisle to chat with them? That would be ridiculous. If we’re not totally focused on Jesus Christ, then we’ve lost our true calling. But if we focus fully on the Trinitarian God, Father, Son, Spirit, I am convinced that faith works, and that God will do amazing things right here.

Monday, April 11, 2011

I am Convinced that Sacrifice is Required

Mark 8:27-38

Today is the fifth Sunday in Lent, and we are continuing our series: Convinced. My clergy cluster group (Tim Reeves, Blaine Keene, Becky Piatt, Wendy Lybarger, Rob Turner, and Ryan Bash) decided to look at spiritual warfare through the book of Mark with the reminder that God wins; we don’t have to get all worried about how strong the devil is, because as Christians, we have God Himself, in the Person of the Holy Spirit, living within us, and God gives us victory. And I am convinced that there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus! Isn’t that a comforting thought? No matter what you’re going through, no matter where you’ve been, no matter what you’ve done, no matter what you’re up against, you can count on God’s love. Today we see, however, that sacrifice is required.

The setting itself in today’s scripture is important. Caesarea Philippi was a city famous for its pagan god worship. A cave near the city is supposed to be where Greek god Pan was born, you know, the half goat, half man. Here were a temple to Pan, some fourteen temples for Baal worship, and a temple to Caesar, built by Herod the Great. You know, the one who tried to slaughter Jesus when he was born. Herod’s son, Philip the Tetrarch built the city and named it after… himself. And Caesar, of course.

It is in this setting where Jesus gathers his disciples together. He asks them an important question: who do people say I am?

His question is very important, as is the setting in which he asks it. This is where Syrians had worshiped Baal. This is where Greeks worshiped Pan. This is where Herod paid tribute to Caesar and where Philip worshiped himself.  And here Jesus is, sitting in the center of idol worship, asking who people say he is. It’s an important question today, as well, as is our location.

We are in a center of idol worship as well. We live in a materialistic society. We worship beauty. We worship youth. We worship athletics. The biggest worship center in our state is called “the Shoe.” We worship self. And Jesus asks us who we think He is.

How would you answer His question? Who is Jesus? The disciples echoed the sentiments they’d heard; people say he’s John the Baptist, Moses, or one of the prophets. And in today’s culture, Jesus is often reduced to a good teacher or just someone who we can learn from or, even worse, a metaphor. So who do you say Jesus is?

Peter stepped in and set the record straight. Jesus is none other than the promised Messiah, the One whose advent had been prophesied and awaited by the Jewish faithful. We pastors always get a little sentimental and pretty excited when we read Peter’s statement, because he finally gets it! Everyone else has a wrong picture of who Jesus is, but Peter gets it right! Let me stop for a moment and affirm this: Jesus is the Christ, the promised Messiah, the One prophesied from ancient times, the Son of God, the second Person in the Trinity, the Prince of Peace, the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords, the only Savior of humanity.

At the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:10-11)

So it’s really odd that Jesus tells his disciples to keep it to themselves.

I think the reason Jesus tells them to keep quiet is the same reason that he started explaining things to them. He wasn’t the kind of Messiah the disciples were expecting. They were expecting a King in the line of David, a conquering King who would overthrow Rome and make things right. But Jesus explained his mission differently.

He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again.

“Wait a minute! This isn’t who we signed up to follow!” Conquering Kings don’t suffer! They aren’t rejected! And they most certainly aren’t killed! This went completely against everything the Jews thought about the coming Messiah. So we read that [Jesus] spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter.

Peter lost sight of Jesus’ mission. He had his own ideas of what a Messiah should do, none of which included his own sacrificial death. So he rebuked Jesus, and Jesus rebuked him right back. Jesus calls out one of his closest friends. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.”

One of Peter’s problems was that he had in mind what Jesus should be doing in order to fulfill his own (Peter’s, that is) preconceived notions of what a Messiah should do. These didn’t actually match up with Jesus’ actual mission. If your picture of Jesus isn’t a picture completely shaped by the Bible, then you might have a wrong picture of Him. Don’t just take my word for who Jesus is and what he did and does – read it for yourself in your Bible.

Jesus is not some invisible cosmic Santa Claus, just waiting for your wish list. He’s not a weak sissy who hangs out with sheep. I get pretty tired of hearing Jesus described as a push-over whose mission is to simply make us feel better about ourselves. Revelation 19 describes Jesus as having eyes like blazing fire and a tattoo on his thigh and a sword to strike down the nations. This is not the little wimpy guy with soft blonde hair who I grew up seeing pictures of.

Unfortunately some of us have a sad misconception of who Jesus is and what his mission is. If the mission of our church isn’t the same as Jesus’ mission, then we’ve lost our way. Do you want Jesus to have to say to us, “Get behind me, Satan!  You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.”

What will Jesus say about our church? What do we have in mind? Are we following Jesus wholeheartedly, with everything we are, or are we inviting Jesus to come along and after-the-fact bless what we’ve decided we want to do? There’s a huge difference. Left to our own devices, most of us will choose what’s most comfortable to us; we choose the things we enjoy. We choose familiarity. We choose the easy road. But Jesus was pretty clear about what it takes to follow him.

Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.

Following Jesus is not an easy road. When I was a little kid, we used to sing a song in children’s church that drove me nuts. Of course it had motions, but the words were, “I’m in-right, out-right, upright, downright happy all the time… since Jesus Christ came in and cleansed my heart from sin, I’m in-right, out-right, upright, downright happy all the time.” Guess what. Even as a child I knew that was a lie. Being a Christ follower isn’t about being happy all the time. Full of a joy beyond all expectation? Yes. Steadfast and sure, even in times of trouble? Yes. Marked by the Holy Spirit and set apart for salvation? Absolutely! But that doesn’t translate to “I’ve got an easy life and things always go my way.”  Jesus actually says something quite different. He says if you want to follow him, you’ve got to deny yourself. What does that look like?

It might mean that you give up some of your time to serve someone else. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t have vibrant ministries reaching out to the community, but here’s what happens: something gets started and people start getting territorial. There’s nothing new about this; when Jesus came on the scene, who was it who got bent out of shape? It wasn’t Rome. It was the chief priests and scribes; the Pharisees and Sadducees, the religious leaders. Jesus was changing things. Jesus was challenging their traditions. And it’s the same here; when our traditions are challenged, we get riled up. There are some who say, “I already put in my time, so it’s time for someone else to serve.”

I’ve met quite a few Christians who simply want things their way. I’ve been over this before, but it bears repeating. Our way is the path to the grave. We cannot save ourselves; otherwise Jesus wouldn’t have even come to earth. When we’re so concerned with getting our own way, with doing everything we want, Jesus is asking: What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? There are people in this community who are bullies. If something doesn’t go their way, they’ll strong-arm their way into getting their way. They’ll tell all kinds of lies to whoever will listen, and they know just the ears to bend. So you’ve gotten your way – is your way so important that people’s souls don’t matter anymore?  

And for the rest of us; we can have a lot of fun, live life comfortably, and have things the way we want them, but ultimately we will be held accountable for how we stewarded Jesus’ message. Did we share it with our community, or did we hide it? And are our eternal souls worth earthly comfort?

A couple of weeks ago, we had a great preschool Sunday, where our kids came and sang and presented their artwork. I love what Chanie and Brenda and Heather are doing for these little ones – these little children are sharing Jesus with their families. Plenty of the parents and grandparents who came to worship with us have their own church homes elsewhere, but others don’t, and several people thanked me for creating a time and place where their loved ones at least got to experience Jesus once.

I overheard someone talking about how great it was to have a full sanctuary and how they loved having all the children here, and don’t you wish it was that way every week? OK, if we want to have regular ministry like that, we’re going to have to have regular, intentional ministry to children. Not just expecting “someone else” to do it; it’s not just Chanie, Brenda, and Heather’s job to minister to children. It’s not enough to just have VBS and a Night in Bethlehem. It’s our job, church, to have a regular ministry to children, and we’ve fallen asleep on the job. I know everyone has their ideas about what ministry we “should” be doing, and some of you are already doing too much, so if you’re already doing something here every night of the week, you don’t need to add one more thing. That said, there are plenty of us who are doing nothing for the Kingdom of God. What was it Jesus said about denying self and taking up a cross?

We are in a society that is busier and busier all the time. We all have organizations we are involved in and meaningful activities that take up our time. It’s time to evaluate the activities we’re involved in, as individuals and as the church. Are we bringing Jesus glory? Are we making Him known?

Jesus continued by saying: If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.

Are you proud to follow Jesus? Then say so! Does everyone around you know that you love Jesus? If so, how do they know? If not, why not? Are you ashamed of him?

Our church has a serious reputation problem in the community. We have carried a reputation of being a country club church, one that doesn’t require much of its membership, one that suggests that socializing and being seen are the top reasons for showing up. I realize that there are some young Christians who first came to church because of who was here; you were invited by a friend or family member, and you found friendly people who welcomed you. But that’s not the end goal of the church. That’s not our full purpose. We, the church, are the bride of Jesus Christ! Our goal, our purpose, is Him! We are the bride, on the way down the aisle to meet our Beloved, for whom we would do anything. And He calls us to deny ourselves, pick up our cross, and follow him.

I want you to notice something critical. After Jesus and Peter had their little run-in, before Jesus says the “deny yourself” part, there’s an important phrase at the beginning of verse 34: Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples. Jesus wasn’t just telling the disciples that they had to deny themselves. He was telling everyone who would follow him. This has significant meaning in today’s church: this is not about clergy being the only ones who are supposed to do this. We all are called to the same thing.

I hear two different things all the time, and frankly, both of them make me sick. First is: “the pastor needs to…” Yes, everyone has their expectations of what I should be doing. Implicit in a lot of those expectations is that the rest of you couldn’t do it because only a pastor can… Jesus tells all of us to shoulder the burden of ministry.

The other thing I hear is this: “We should just have volunteers do…” (and then fill in whatever ministry we’re not currently doing). I have heard this a lot since Rudy announced that he’s leaving. And you’re right; we should have volunteers volunteering. But those “volunteers” aren’t named “someone else” and they’re not named “some other person who is already ministering.” Jesus calls each one of us to do ministry.

All of this is great as long as we can leave it on a theoretical level, but Jesus’ instructions aren’t theoretical. There are people who believe he only metaphorically rose from the dead, and I suppose that they would at least be intellectually honest if they then left his instructions on a theoretical level. But Jesus, denying himself, really, physically took up his cross. And he calls us to do something about our faith. His brother, James, says: What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.(James 2:14-17)

If you’ve got faith, do something about it. I will give you a couple of concrete ways you can exercise your faith. You all know about the food pantry; you can sign up to serve there.

Additionally, we need to be thinking about various ways we can serve our community. Your job is to come up with ways to do just that, not how other people can serve, but how you can, and how you can invite other people, groups of four or five, to serve alongside you.

I mentioned children’s ministry earlier, and if we are going to serve our community, it’s going to start by ministering to children. Right now we have one awesome Sunday School class for children, but nothing else. We need leaders and volunteers. We need people who will pray for children’s ministry and for the children of our community. If we aren’t willing to minister to children, we have to accept that our church will die off. That is our choice.

We need to have in place a true children’s ministry at latest by the beginning of Fall. Will you be a part of it?