14th Sunday after Pentecost – A (Proper 17) LSB #’s 869, 783, 861
Text – Matthew 16:25
For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
Cemeteries are not exactly a hot spot for get togethers. Normally, people gather there only to lay a loved one to rest. On Memorial Day people gather to remember the sacrifice that so many of our military members gave during times of war. Other than that, it’s not the kind of place where people go to have a picnic, or hold a family reunion.
However, cemeteries are still an important place to visit. The Apostle James wrote: “You do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time & then vanishes.” (4:14 ESV)
There isn’t a better place to receive such a critically important reminder. Nothing speaks about life & death so eloquently in their silence as row upon row of headstones. And nothing speaks of eternity beyond the grave more powerfully than these words of Jesus:
“I am the resurrection & the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, & everyone who lives & believes in me shall never die.” (John 11:25-26a ESV) Finding life – it’s how people spend a lot of their time. It’s what people are constantly seeking. We go to parties & sporting events, or concerts & sky diving to find life.
People take meth & cocaine to feel more alive. They take cruises or go mountain climbing. People travel to places all over the world in search of fulfillment. They strive to fight climate change or racism or abortion, & others endeavor to save stray pets or endangered species of wildlife. There are as many ways of striving to find life as there are human beings.
The examples I listed, & the countless others that people have invented, all have one thing in common. They are centered in the efforts of human beings, & not a one of them will achieve the goal of finding life that is lasting & meaningful. That’s the point the Apostle was making when God’s Spirit inspired him to write, “For you are a mist that appears for a little time & then vanishes.” (James 4:14c ESV) King Solomon wrote almost the entire book of Ecclesiastes to make the same point – we strive to find life & then we vanish. All is vanity of vanities.
Jesus came to earth to correct that, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:25 ESV) There are still quite a few people in this country who claim to be Christian. I wonder how many of them are actively losing their lives for Jesus’ sake?
When things take a bad turn in your daily affairs, do you complain about it? When you do, you may be turning away from a chance to lose your life for Jesus’ sake. When I complain about events in my life it’s because I feel like I’m getting cheated out of what’s rightfully mine. In other words, I’m trying to save my life, to save what I feel I deserve. Jesus warns of that:
“For whoever would save his life will lose it…” (Matthew 16:25 ESV) It’s uncomfortable to consider how readily each of us falls into that trap which Satan sets. It’s why this text from Matthew hits home as powerfully as Jesus begins to speak of His suffering, death & resurrection. Peter complains that it cannot be true because he’s feeling like he’ll be cheated:
“Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” (16:22 ESV) Peter had given up every worldly thing that mattered to a Jew in order to follow this Christ & now that Rabbi is speaking of suffering & death. The words were so shocking Peter did not even hear the final result – “…& on the third day be raised.” (Matthew 16:21 ESV)
When events take a bad turn in our lives, do we remember those words? We should, because the Easter morning resurrection changed the entire trajectory of human history. Yet, Jesus had to die to get there. Ever since Adam & Eve rebelled against their Creator, suffering & death have been the lot of all God’s creation. Sin brings suffering & death & that has been our fate as long as human beings have lived. That is why we have this constant urge to find life. Sin is also why you are never satisfied in your search for life that is lasting & meaningful. On your own, no matter where you go, no matter what you do, life will always be hollow.
As Solomon wrote, “All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.” (Ecclesiastes 1:8 ESV) The prophet Jeremiah put it like this, “Why is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed? Will you be to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail?” (15:18 ESV)
In his “life” of suffering, Jeremiah is struggling mightily to trust the promises of God. You & I have those struggles too. Thousands of years ago, Solomon & Jeremiah & Peter had those struggles. Your friends, family & neighbors have those struggles. Cemeteries are not the place to go when you are searching for life, & yet, they can be a good place to start.
Cemeteries ground us in the reality of death; death even for the only-begotten Son of God. If we do not begin our search there, we will always be searching for life in the wrong places. It’s not wrong to enjoy parties & sporting events, concerts & sky diving, cruises or mountain climbing, but we do need to remember that we will never find life in them.
Anything that is centered in the efforts of human beings will fail, because all of those efforts are ruined by the inherent corruption of sin. It is only in Christ, as God’s Spirit works through us, that anything good can come of our efforts. If that seems to you, overly harsh, consider the response of Jesus to Peter’s objections:
“Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” (Matthew 16:23 ESV) In regard to our efforts to find life, we could restate the latter part of that response, “For you are not setting your mind on the efforts of God, but on the efforts of man.” You & I do not need to work at focusing on our own efforts. That comes naturally & we see the failed results of that every single day of our lives. We are born self-centered. So was the apostle Peter, & the prophet Jeremiah & king Solomon. Yet each of them was chosen by God & given a specific role in His plan of salvation.
God has not left you out of that plan. Your Lord has given you a role to play, & He has given you a place to begin. Verse 21 of the Gospel reading stated, “From that time Jesus began to show His disciples…” Jesus has never stopped showing. Each & every day of our lives, Jesus is constantly at work showing you & me, our friends & our family, where to find life.
That life is found only in Jesus Christ, the crucified & risen from the dead Savior. Whenever you lose your life for His sake God will give you life that is lasting & meaningful. So, how do you go about losing your life for Jesus’ sake? The Epistle reading from Romans 12 gives examples. First off is to abhor evil, & we should allow God, not our culture, to define evil.
Through rejoicing in the hope of the resurrection we are to be patient in tribulation & constant in prayer. Only in the certainty of the resurrection do we have any reason to be patient in anything. Contribute to the needs of the saints & seek to show hospitality. In this way we counter our sinful tendency to feel cheated when we don’t get everything we want.
“Bless those who persecute you; bless & do not curse them.” (12:14 ESV) What sinful tendency might that counter? Paul gives the answer, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God…” (12:19 ESV) Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. We should never just write off the joys or the sorrows of those in our community.
Paul wraps up with a general guidance, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (12:21 ESV) Those are some ways in which we can lose our lives for Jesus & in so doing He promises that we will find life. He’s referring there to our saintly nature. Certainly our sinful nature still rebels against the sort of life we find in Christ. Part of losing my life for Jesus’ sake involves telling myself, “No!” We are not greater than our Master & our lives will also not be lives of earthly triumph & prosperity. Our lives, especially as we are faithful to Jesus, will be touched with echoes of the scorn directed at our Savior.
Jesus is rejected rather than embraced & this continues today as it has throughout earth’s broken history. This suffering is not accidental, nor is it coincidental. It is inherent in Christ’s life & calling, therefore in our lives as well. Yet, even as we lose our lives, we are gaining true & eternal life. The difficulty of following in Jesus’ footsteps underscores how fragile faith is.
It’s far easier to follow a leader who promises visible & tangible success such as healing for every disease, money for every want & desire, time for every hope & dream. People follow leaders & devote their lives to them because they expect to gain in the relatively near future. That is painfully obvious in the political realm.
Up until now Jesus’ ministry had been about parables & miracles. There was an occasional confrontation with the religious leaders thrown in for good measure, but it was the kind of ministry that attracts many followers. Then, Jesus drops the bomb, He will be rejected, arrested, suffer, die & finally rise from the grave.
That got too personal & many of His early followers decided that isn’t what they signed up for. It’s like going on a first, long anticipated date & realizing you’re being taken to a cemetery. You certainly will not find life there.
Many people lose interest in attending church because they don’t see what it does for them. They don’t see a direct benefit like becoming healthy, wealthy & wise, so they drift off, drop out, & disappear. Comfort, ease, pleasure, happiness, those are worth pursuing, say the preachers of this world. Suffering is not. Do whatever you must to avoid it. In Christ, however, God’s children see suffering differently. Like addicts in need of detox, we return regularly to the Lord, repent of our false conception of the world, & allow the Holy Spirit to reset our minds on the things & on the efforts of God. We suffer because of sin, of which all of us are guilty. Jesus suffered because He was holy & could pay the price of sin on our behalf.
As God spoke through Jeremiah in verse 21, “I will deliver you out of the hand of the wicked, & redeem you from the grasp of the ruthless.” That’s not simply a reference to other people. God will also redeem us from our own sinful nature which is just as ruthless & sinful to us as anyone else may be.
In a general sense, the resurrection of Christ changed the entire trajectory of earth’s history. More important to each of us personally, it changed the entire trajectory of our own lives. This life, is nothing to cling to in desperation because you have another life to come, one that is perfect & holy, filled with joy & with gratitude eternally. As Jesus said:
“I am the resurrection & the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, & everyone who lives & believes in me shall never die.” (John 11:25-26a ESV) That is the hope which puts everything about this life into its proper context, even the picture of row after row of headstones. Amen.
Take my life & let it be consecrated, Lord, to Thee; take my moments & my days, let them flow in ceaseless praise. Take my voice & let me sing always, only for my King; take my lips & let them be filled with messages from Thee. Take my will & make it Thine, it shall be no longer mine; take my heart, it is Thine own, it shall be Thy royal throne. Amen.
LSB 783:1, 3, 5.
Pastor Dean R. Poellet