12th Sunday after Pentecost – A (Proper 17) LSB #685, 730
Text – Matthew 16:24
Then Jesus told His disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself & take up his cross & follow me.”
TAKING UP YOUR PILLOW
“Six days shall work be done, but the 7th day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the Lord. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day shall be put to death.” (Exodus 31:15 ESV) That sounds like a perfect opportunity to take a break & get some rest. Would any of you like a pillow? No sense getting executed over forgetting to take your nap.
The older I get, the more I’m finding this to be true: “I really like taking naps.” Whether it’s a recliner chair, the couch, or even the floor, naps are peaceful & calm. It’s reinvigorating & brings to life in your veins – new energy. A nap can clear the mind & help you see things from a different, more creative perspective.
Nevertheless, the Word of God commonly has a balancing point, something that tips the scales in the other direction as well. It’s difficult to find one-sided challenges in the Words of Holy Scripture.
So while rest was the prescription for the Sabbath, & death was the penalty for working on one, when Jesus calls you or me to be His disciple, He calls us to sacrifice, to deny ourselves, & the end result of death is the same:
“Then Jesus told His disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself & take up his cross & follow me.’” The cross, though now a popular Christian symbol, was in Jesus’ day always an instrument of death.
The ‘Ice Bucket Challenge’ is raising a lot of money for research right now, & that’s good. Yet, if you compare it to Jesus’ call, it’s a sissy challenge, on the order of taking up your pillow. Jesus calls us to a holy rest on the Sabbath, yet He also calls us to deny ourselves & take up our cross. In the thought world of Law & Gospel this text makes it very easy to preach the Law. These words of Jesus can be pointed like a laser beam to illuminate the dead center of your heart.
However, if I’m to do my job as preacher faithfully, I have to point that laser first at my own heart. So for the purpose of preaching, I was pleasantly surprised about a week ago when I came upon this quotation: “When Christ calls a man,” says Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “he bids him come & die.”
I’ve used Dietrich as an example before, but as the Lutheran pastors in the Lansing area get together almost monthly, during this school year, we’re reading one of his books. I just picked it up about a week ago. It’s titled The Cost of Discipleship, & it has to do with exactly the theme of today’s sermon.
As I read the lead sentence in the forward to the book I knew immediately I’d use it this morning. The type of Christianity Mr. Bonhoeffer is talking about is totally unlike the sort of Christianity being preached in many of the churches across our nation today.
A lot of pastors across the United States are calling people to a sissy kind of Christianity, one more like an ice bucket challenge than a call to take up your cross. In both cases you are denying yourself, yet how long does that denial last as the ice cold water streams off your body? Not very! In the book of Hebrews, chapter 3, we’re called to:
“…exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” (Hebrews 3:13 ESV) Looking at the churches & the people across our land, there appears to be a lot of that hardening going on. Sin’s deceitfulness is having its way because pastors are not calling their people to deny themselves & take up their cross. Instead, we’re watering down Jesus’ teaching & calling our people to just do what they can. As the saying goes, if you aim for nothing you’ll hit it every time. Yes, there is complete forgiveness for our every failure, but that’s only one side of the coin, of life as a child of God. Receiving our Lord’s forgiveness is like taking up our pillow because it’s time for a nap.
We need that rest in order to see things from a different & more creative perspective. Sin deadens our ability to think. However, the other side of the coin, as a child of God, is to deny ourselves & take up our cross. That is how Jesus said we are to follow Him. St. Paul described this ‘other side’ of the coin in the 12th chapter of Romans:
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice…” (Romans 12:1 ESV) That means ongoing, day after day, hour by hour, moment by moment, denying yourself & taking up your cross.
Due to the overwhelming flood of blessings our Lord has bestowed upon our nation, many of our people are able to avoid confronting that reality. They believe they’re living the ‘good life,’ when in fact, avoiding God’s calling, is to become one of the living dead. Jesus described the religious leaders of His day with these words:
“…you are like whitewashed tombs – beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones & all sorts of impurity.” (Matthew 23:27 NLT) There is a time & a place to rest in our heavenly Father’s kingdom. Even Yahweh rested, from the work of creation, on the 7th day. Yet Ephesians 2 tells us that we were created in Christ Jesus to do good works.
Like in all wealthy civilizations before, Christianity has grown soft in the United States. As demonstrated by the beheading of reporter James Foley, the radical Muslims will not allow a soft Christianity to stand. Even Yahweh Himself states in His book of Revelation: “…because you are lukewarm, & neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.” (Rev 3:16 ESV) Whenever God’s people grow soft, in their practice of faith in Christ alone, He sends discipline for the purpose of turning them back to Christ. When they refused to turn back, the nation of Israel faced the Philistines & the Assyrians. The nation of Germany faced Adolph Hitler & for his opposition to Hitler, pastor Bonhoeffer was executed.
What will our nation be faced with for the purpose of turning our hearts back to our Savior? In our own personal lives, what challenges will come our way to teach us the importance of remaining connected to the life-giving Vine, which is Jesus Christ?
In the Gospel of St. Matthew, up until the point of today’s reading, the life of Jesus has been about miracles & parables with the occasional confrontation with the leaders of the church thrown in for good measure. Those actions & words of Jesus enabled Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.
In the Gospel reading for today, & for the benefit of His disciples, Jesus turns the world absolutely upside down & inside out: “From that time Jesus began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem & suffer …& be killed, & on the third day be raised.” If this could happen to the Son of God, these things could also happen to those who follow Him.
That puts a little different twist on the question, “Do you believe in Jesus?” Who are you today, as a child of God? Are you one who strives to follow Christ by taking up your cross? Or, when other people look at you, when your heavenly Father looks at you, are they more likely to find you with a pillow in hand, than with a cross?
Those are questions we should consider. Our Lord & Savior wants us to think them through because there does come a time in everyone’s life when their faith is challenged. For some people it’s a lot more than once. The truth is, if we are striving to do the good works Jesus prepared in advance for us to do, then our faith is going to be challenged at least every day, if not every moment of every hour. Just on a practical note, can you name the last time you denied yourself anything in the name of Jesus Christ? Our Lord & Savior calls us to think the very thoughts of God, & to will the very will of God. That is Jesus’ call to us right here, right now. But the denial we’re called to is a denial of our will, not of our life.
The cross to which we are called is one of sacrifice & generosity to our neighbor. It is a cross that knows the sin which so controls this broken world. However, the cross that Christ calls us to is also well aware that Jesus’ cross has redeemed us from this broken world. Having been redeemed, we are now enabled like Peter to confess Jesus as our Lord & Savior.
That knowledge is given us by the Holy Spirit & He then empowers us to serve others. We give up the things of this earth, in order to receive the things of heaven. We are called to lose our earthly honor & life for the sake of the Gospel. We then gain true honor & life in the resurrection from the dead.
The eyes of faith recognize that as a glorious trade. Our physical eyes struggle mightily to see. Like Peter, we too set our mind on the things of man rather than the things of God. So we should ask ourselves: “On this weekend in which we celebrate, & take a holiday for, our ability to do physical & mental labor, what kind of work is it that we do for Christ?”
Finally, the question we ask, which enables us to do God’s work, is this, “What has Christ done for me?” He’s done everything & given it all to us freely, even His own life. It’s in that good news that we truly find rest for our soul. Amen.
Let us suffer here with Jesus & with patience bear our cross. Joy will follow all our sadness; where He is, there is no loss. Though today we sow no laughter, we shall reap celestial joy; all discomforts that annoy shall give way to mirth hereafter. Jesus here I share Your woe; help me there Your joy to know. Let us gladly die with Jesus. Since by death He conquered death, He will free us from destruction, give to us immortal breath. Let us mortify all passion that would lead us into sin; & the grave that shuts us in shall but prove the gate to heaven. Jesus, here with You I die, there to live with you on high. Amen.
Pastor Dean R. Poellet