This sermon was preached at St Matthew's Lutheran Church, Maryborough, 8.15am, and Grace Lutheran Church, Childers, 10.30am.
Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father, and from our Lord Jesus Christ.
If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.
Prayer: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Our Gospel reading today is a particularly wonderful passage where Jesus teaches us what it means to be one of his disciples. The conversation in our reading today between Jesus and the disciples comes between two very important events, both of which we have read in church recently. Just before this reading, we have the passage where Jesus asks his disciples: Who do people say that the Son of Man is? And also he says: Who do you say that I am? And Peter says: You are the Christ, the Son of the living God. We learn from this passage that Jesus, the Son of Man, is the Son of God. Jesus praises and commends Peter, and says to him that the church will be built on this rock, this confession of faith that he has made. He also says to Peter: Flesh and blood have not revealed this you but my Father who is in heaven. What Peter had said to Jesus was not something that was the product of his own thinking and his own heart, but was shaped and formed and inspired by God the Father himself.
Now immediately after our reading today comes the Transfiguration, where Jesus stood on the top of the mountain with Moses and Elijah, and his face and clothes shone with wonderful, brilliant light. So our reading today is sandwiched between these two amazing conversations: a conversation between Jesus and Peter about who Jesus is, and a conversation between Jesus and Moses and Elijah on the mountain.
Today’s reading begins where it says: [Jesus] began to teach [his disciples] that the Son of God must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. In an amazing way, Jesus shows us here that he is both true man and true God. Jesus demonstrates that he is a real human being, by telling his disciples how he will truly suffer, and truly be killed. Jesus will actually feel these things and endure them and go through it all. However, Jesus is also true God, and he knows exactly what is going to happen to him in advance, and that he will miraculously rise from the dead with all of his divine power.
So what is it that Jesus prophesies here and predicts and foretells is going to happen to him? He says: he will suffer, be rejected, be killed, and rise again. This almost sounds like the Apostles’ Creed where we say that Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried. He descended into hell. On the third day, he rose again from the dead. We recite these things and learn them and speak about them regularly in the creed because they are of the utmost importance. So Jesus predicts and prophesies his sacrifice, his atonement and payment for your sins, his death and resurrection for your salvation, and puts these things right at the front of his and his disciples’ minds. It is of the utmost importance, and this is why he came.
Jesus also prophesies which people will reject him: the elders and the chief priests and the scribes. These three groups of people are significant: the elders are Jewish leaders, known and chosen for their wisdom. The priests were appointed to make sacrifices in the temple. The scribes were the scholars, the bible-experts. And yet, Jesus prophesies that despite all of their learning, righteousness and wisdom, they will not tolerate Jesus, but will reject him and kill him. You see, Jesus is our Wisdom, he is our sacrifice and our high priest, and he is the Word of God who speaks living words from God, and he brings all the wisdom of the elders, all the sacrifices of the priests and all the learning and scholarship of the scribes to nothing.
But then Peter jumps in and we read: Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. He says: Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you. Even Peter doesn’t understand. He thinks: If Jesus is the Son of God, he can’t be rejected! He can’t suffer, and be killed, and die, and be buried! It seems like a contradiction to him, and so he goes and tells Jesus off about it.
Now sometimes we carry on in much the same way. In our church, we believe that the Scripture doesn’t have any mistakes in it. In our congregation and our parish constitution, and at a pastor’s ordination, we confess that the bible is “inerrant”, meaning “without errors”. If the church makes a faithful confession and follows the Scripture and confesses the truth, then the church also will teach no errors. Paul wrote to Titus that God never lies. It should be our primary goal and our greatest desire to learn the truth, because when we go against the truth of God’s Word, we go against God himself. Jesus said to his Father: Sanctify them in the truth, Lord; your word is truth. St Paul tells us to: speak the truth in love. And he also says: Love does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Now when we find something in the Scripture that we don’t like or understand or agree with, we often go to Jesus and tell him off. We say: Don’t be so silly, Jesus. Don’t talk such rubbish!
So when Peter tells Jesus off, what does Jesus say? Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man. Amazing! Peter thinks that if Jesus is the Son of God, he can’t suffer and die. But this is just empty human logic. Jesus had just commended Peter when he had spoke the truth and said: You are the Son of the living God. Now Jesus tells his disciples why he has come: to suffer and die for your sins, and to rise and destroy death. And Peter rejects this. Jesus says: Get behind me, Satan! Jesus says: Before when you spoke the truth, God spoke through you. Now you speak lies, and it is Satan who is speaking.
Sometimes Satan leads people into wrong. Satan knows that when Jesus suffers, dies and rises, Jesus will destroy all of Satan’s power. Not long before he was arrested, Jesus had said: Now will the ruler of this world be cast out. And so Satan leads Peter into speaking error, and he doesn’t want Peter to understand the great power of what Jesus says. And yet, as soon as Peter says this, Jesus does him a great favour, and tells him exactly where his sinful, human thinking came from. It was from Satan. Satan has a friend and an ally in our sinful hearts, and can easily mislead us into error. Martin Luther said it very sharply: Every one of us by himself is a devil, but in Christ we are holy. Jesus speaks truth, Satan speaks lies.
Now sometimes people say that the devil made them do something. And it’s true that the devil does lead us into temptation. But sometimes people mean it in such a way that their sin wasn’t really their fault. Sometimes we laugh at Adam and Eve, and say that they didn’t take responsibility for their actions. “The woman made me do it!” “The snake made me do it!” But this is not what Adam and Eve said. Eve said: The serpent deceived me, and I ate. Satan did something, but also I did wrong, it was completely my fault. So, in Genesis chapter 3, when God deals with Adam and Eve, he kicks the devil first, and promises that his head will be crushed. Then he deals with Eve and with Adam.
And so, let’s remember here Jesus’ wonderful prayer for his disciples and also for us: Sanctify them in the truth, Lord; your word is truth. The truth actually makes us holy. Today many people will say that there’s no such thing as truth, and that it’s arrogant to say that what we speak is truth. People say: “What’s true for you isn’t true for me!” Remember what Pontius Pilate said to Jesus when he put him on trial. He scoffed and said, “What is truth?” It’s not arrogant, but it’s a precious and humble thing when you find the truth that you believe it! What if the merchant who found the pearl of great price would have looked at the pearls and said: “These pearls don’t exist!” Or if the someone found hidden treasure and said, “There’s no such thing as gold!” Truth exists, Jesus speaks it, it is a precious thing.
Jesus says: Sanctify them in the truth, Lord; your word is truth. Jesus says: I am the way, the truth, and the life; no-one comes to the Father except through me. Jesus is the truth, the words he speaks are truth, and he will make us holy and sanctify us with the truth. St Paul wrote to Timothy that the church is a pillar and buttress of the truth. A church with no truth is no church. A church that cares nothing for God’s word and for the truth, stands on sinking sand. And we need to be willing to fight for the truth, so that people who are looking for the truth can find it.
Now, we come to the next part of our reading: 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.” Jesus teaches us many wonderful things, especially the gospel, which is the good news that Jesus has won salvation for us. But before we can hear the Gospel, Jesus teaches God’s law, his commandments, his expectations, his standard, his word of judgment against sin. The bible teaches that people don’t just do bad things every now and then, but, we read in Genesis 6, that every intention of the thoughts of [our] heart [is] only evil continually. This means that sin taints everything completely. Only God can see the difference between you and your sin, and when you die, he will remove your sin from you. But before that, sin taints everything and we need the word of God for us even to recognise it.
And so, Jesus teaches us: If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself. Jesus teaches us to deny ourselves not because this denial earns our salvation. Jesus already won our salvation for us by denying himself. He prayed to his Father: If it be possible, take this cup away from me. Yet not my will, but your will be done.
However, the Christian life is marked by self-denial. The way to heaven is not through the wide gate, the easy way. Jesus says: For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few. Jesus doesn’t teach us this to scare us off, but to warn us. Many times, we will read in the word and hear in the bible something that we then only learn later in our day to day life. And Jesus teaches us here, that “this obstacle along the way does not mean that you should run away from me, but it is an invitation for you to trust me”. And Jesus knows the way, and he will not let you go. As we learn Jesus’ word more and more, we learn to say like John the Baptist: He must increase, but I must decrease.
Jesus says: If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. Our Christian life is a life of self-sacrifice. Just as Jesus prophesied that he would suffer, be rejected, be killed, and rise again, so also Christians in this life many times will be called to suffer, and be rejected by people, even be killed. But then like Jesus, we will rise with him. We will not be abandoned. But Jesus doesn’t call us to carry his cross, but our own cross. The cross Jesus calls us to bear is just a little one in comparison. We are not dying for the sin of the world. We are just walking with Jesus, and learning from him the depth of the world’s sin and the even greater depth of his victory over it.
Many Christians today don’t like this kind of talk. Often we just want glitz and glamour. There are plenty of preachers and tele-evangelists who will tell you that your best life is now, and that God’s desire for you is to be healthy, wealthy, rich and influential. Some Christians tell sick people that if they’re not healthy, or if they’re about to die, it’s because their faith isn’t strong enough. Or sometimes people think that because Jesus rose from the dead, Jesus’ death doesn’t matter, and that it’s just nothing. They make Christianity into a little cabaret show, or a bit of light entertainment. All of this is just people doing everything they can to avoid denying themselves and taking up their cross. They think they’re following Jesus, but they delude themselves.
Instead, Jesus says: Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. The gospel, and everything that is true and good, must be protected and secured at all costs. Even if it costs us everything, the glory of the world is nothing by comparison. Better to have nothing and have Jesus, because when we have Jesus we have everything in heaven and earth. And we also learn here that whatever we give will not be in vain. Jesus will repay everything. If only we trusted him not to let us be lacking in anything. If we want to keep our life and compromise our faith, we will lose everything. Jesus will never let us down!
Jesus says in our reading: What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul? Jesus puts our soul on one side of the balance, and the world on the other. Jesus has bought you with the price of his blood. Your soul was purchased with such great a price, and it was purchased by such a faithful Saviour. St Paul writes: Jesus died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. He also teaches: Love does not insist on its own way. Why would we want our own way, if Jesus has given us his way?
In the last part of our reading, Jesus says: For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels. On one hand, we have Jesus and his words. On the other hand, we have this adulterous and sinful generation. Where would you rather be? On which side of the fence do you want to stand? Would you tell Jesus off, to stop talking such things, just so that you can appear more palatable to people around you? Are you afraid of being rejected by people, even though you know that Jesus’ words are holy, and they are an adulterous and sinful generation?
And yet, on the other hand, we learn a wonderful, amazing thing from this passage. In the end, Jesus will return. Just as Peter and James and John saw Jesus on the top of the mountain with his face glowing with bright, white light, and his clothes shining through the night, Jesus will return one day, and bring this troubled world to an end. Jesus says: They shall see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and majesty and great glory. When Stephen the martyr was being stoned to death, we read that he looked into heaven and saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God. He will come again, and rescue you, and save you, who in all your weakness and all your sin have clung to him and his word, the word that speaks to you a promise from heaven itself: Your sins are forgiven. Today you will be with me in Paradise. And he will repay you for every loss that you have suffered, every hardship you have endured, and every cross that you have had to carry. This is the wonderful thing that we have to look forward to.
We know that in this life, we are nothing, we have nothing, and we can do nothing, but we have a Saviour, who is everything, who has everything, and can do everything. And no matter what valley of the shadow of death we walk through, no matter what cross we have to carry, Jesus will never let us down. He is our faithful Saviour: and just as he prophesied, he has suffered, he has been rejected by the elders, the priests and the scribes, he has been killed, and on the third day he rose again.
Heavenly Father, sanctify us in the truth; your word is truth. Lead us by your Holy Spirit wherever you will, since we know that your Son Jesus is with us. In his name we pray. Amen.