Monday, August 30, 2010

The Father Honors the Servant (John 12.20-26)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
August 29, 2010


(download) **Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**

New: some of the service music
Crown Him With Many Crowns (DIADEMATA)
That's Why We Praise Him (Tommy Walker)
With Me All Along (Terrell/Slade)

Lord, Whose Love (arr. Austell)
This summer we have been considering the “follow me” sayings of Jesus. We have seen more than once that Jesus didn’t wait in the holy places for people to come to him, but went where they were, out in the community to where the people were. He did not hesitate to go even among the so-called sinners to issue his invitation, “Follow me.” We have looked at several key passages describing what it looks like to follow him. It involves a yielded life, sacrifice, and sometimes even at great cost; but we have also heard the claim, from Scripture and from testimonies from some of you, that he is one worth following.

All this has been more or less chronological, following the course of Jesus’ life and ministry. And today we get near the end of his earthly ministry. Today’s passage takes place during the third Jewish Passover recorded in the Gospel of John, marking the last week of Jesus’ life in the 33rd year of his life. And in this text Jesus announces that “the hour has come.” We start to turn to the events surrounding his betrayal, crucifixion, and death. But right there near the end, a group of people come to see Jesus, to see if he will welcome even those outside the Jewish faith, the so-called “God-fearing Greek” who was interested in the God of the Hebrews. Under the shadow and weight of his impending death, Jesus receives these seekers and again speaks of following him.

I found this text hard to follow at first, because there is an overlap between Jesus talking about what he is about to face and his describing what is involved in following him. And yet he offers a simple picture to help explain both. Let’s look. I’m going to key off three short phrases in the passage. The first is in verse 21, where some Greek people of faith say, “We wish to see Jesus.”


“We Wish to See Jesus” (v. 21)

There are several significant things to note about this phrase. First, it was spoken by some “Greeks” (v. 20). These were not Jewish people living outside Jerusalem, but non-Jews who demonstrated interest and faith in the God of the Jews. They were in town for the Passover Festival. While later expansion of the Church would include Gentiles like these, Jesus had primarily focused his ministry on his own Jewish people. It is significant then, that here at the end of his ministry, he speaks to these Greek people of faith about matters of salvation and discipleship. As an interesting side-note, several commentators notice that the Greeks don’t approach Jesus directly, but first approach his disciples, and specifically the only two of the twelve who had Greek names. At any rate, Philip and Andrew come and tell Jesus.

The other thing I’d note is that these people were seeking Jesus. Interestingly enough, many of those to whom Jesus issued the invitation to “follow me” were just doing their thing – fishing, tax collecting, or whatever. But these people came to Jesus, wanting to see him. Nevertheless, his message is basically the same: listen, believe, and follow. And just as Jesus didn’t distinguish between a tax collector and a Pharisee, or between men and women, neither does he between Jew and Greek. Indeed, this encounter anticipates Paul’s declaration later in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Jesus answers in what seems a roundabout way. He first seems to speak of his own death, but eventually gets back to the core message of “listen, believe, and follow.” Perhaps here, near his death, he is proclaiming what will become the heart of the Gospel, that one died for all who believed. Then, having given the Greeks the opportunity to listen and believe in what he is about to do, he invites them to follow.

He first responds in verse 23 by saying, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” Every indication is that Jesus not only knew that he was about to die, but that he understood the spiritual implications of it. In the passage that follows this one, he wrestles with it as an act of obedience. Here he speaks of it as his “being glorified.” That is, something in what is about to happen will bring honor to God the Father. His obedience will fulfill a great and yet unseen purpose.

Granted, that’s hard enough for us to wrap our minds around – can you imagine what it would have been like for the disciples, much less these Greek visitors who were seeing him for the first time? And he also speaks these incredibly hard words in verse 25: “He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it to life eternal. Let me offer several things to understand that. One is that when you hear “love and hate” together in the Bible, it is often (or always?) a Hebrew expression meaning more than and less than. A second thing is that Jesus is first speaking of his own death, which is wrapped up in God’s greater purpose for humanity. A third is that he is not just speaking of physical life. The word here is actually “soul,” which to the Hebrew mind meant the whole person – body, mind, and spirit. He is speaking of the bigger spiritual picture – which we would describe using words like “salvation” and “eternity.” Indeed, he will mention “life eternal” in verse 25. And while there is some overlap with our understanding of our own lives, Jesus is first speaking of what he is about to face. He is the one whose love for his own life is not as great as his love for God’s plan, and it is he who will secure eternal life for all who follow him.

Confused? It’s okay – it’s hard for me to follow, too. What is wonderful is that in the middle of this talk about being glorified and dying for life eternal, Jesus offers an illustration – a word picture to explain. And it’s much easier to understand. These life and death matters are like a seed which only blossoms or flowers or bears fruit when it is put into the ground. So it will be with his own life and death, bringing more than they could see at that time. In fact, the seed is such a helpful analogy for us, even 2000 years later. Have you ever planted one? You could keep it with you in your pocket, and always know it was there, but it wouldn’t bear fruit. When you put it in the ground, there is an element of faith, right? You no longer see it, but you trust (or at least hope) that it will sprout and bloom. So it is with Jesus – both with his own death and our faith in him.


You Must Follow Me (v. 26)

After this theological excursion, Jesus comes full circle back to the Greek seekers in verse 26. There he says this, clearly addressed to his listeners now: “If anyone serves me, he must follow me….” Finally, we are to those words that we’ve been studying all summer.

So what does it mean to follow Jesus?

Verse 26 answers this question most directly. To serve is to follow. Not only is ‘serve’ part of the core meaning of worship, it is also something Jesus spoke of on many occasions. We are to serve the Lord; we are to serve one another. Serving means putting others before ourselves, or put most famously, it is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.” It is how we apply in our lives what Jesus has just taught about life itself. If we cling to life on our own terms, with ourselves as most important and serving ourselves, then we have missed the purpose and the glory of life just as surely as carrying a seed around in our pocket misses the purpose and beauty of seeing a seed blossom and bear fruit. Rather, if we give our lives away in service of God and neighbor, we will both discover our purpose and bring glory to God.

There is some overlap between what Jesus did and what we are to do, because he is the one we follow. We are not to die on a cross for the sake of the world, but we are to follow his example of living for God and others rather than living for self. That’s what it means to follow him.

What does that look like? Let me offer two questions to ask yourself:

1. In what I am about to do or say, what would most honor God?
2. In what ways do I live for myself alone and in what ways can I live for others in a way that honors God?

Mind you, we can twist that “living for others” into something very unhealthy, so hopefully the “in a way that honors God” helps guard against co-dependent or other damaging interpretations of that idea.

In addition to a servant-life being one of purpose and beauty, Jesus ends by mentioning two other explicit blessings.


Where I Am, You Will Be (v. 26)

When we serve God by serving Him and others, one blessing is that we will be “where Jesus is” (v. 26). This can be understood in two ways. One is that when we serve God and/or others in Jesus’ name, Jesus is present with us. I believe that is true. But I think the particular wording here is even more pointed. We have said and seen that God is still living and active today. And just as Jesus went out of the holy Temple and down among the people, so God doesn’t dwell in temples made by human hands, but moves over all the earth and among all the peoples. I believe this sentence is a challenge – our challenge – to seek where God is at work and go THERE. We are to follow Jesus THERE in service to him, so that where he is, there his servants will be also.

Somehow we’ve gotten this whole thing turned around. We have said that becoming a follower of Jesus means asking Jesus into our heart, where we are. And that is how we express and experience faith in him. But following Jesus also means FOLLOWING him where he is and where he goes. So if his heart is for the folks down the street who can’t buy a jacket this winter, then that’s where we must go. And if his heart is for six guys across the street who are trying to learn how to live in a world that’s just a little bit beyond them, then that’s where we must follow. And if God’s heart is to see people of every background, reputation, and opinion come to know him, then that’s where we must follow. Where he is, there his follower will be.

Secondly, Jesus says that the Father will honor this kind of service. That is what is pleasing to the Lord.

One of my favorite lines from the movie, Chariots of Fire, is a quote from athlete and missionary, Eric Liddell. He said, “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.” That is also a picture of what Jesus said in this text. God has made each of us for a purpose, and he made us to be worshipers, those who serve in faith and love. When we do that, when we fulfill that purpose, we will feel the pleasure and honor of God.

How will you follow Jesus this week?

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Roll of Honor (Hebrews 11-12)

Guest Preacher: the Rev. Dr. Anne Hilborn (Associate Pastor, Carmel Presbyterian)
August 22, 2010
(download) **Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**


Tuesday, August 17, 2010

My Sheep Know My Voice (John 10.22-30)

August 15, 2010
Youth Mission Sunday

I further shortened the planned sermon in the midst of so many significant and scriptural youth testimonies. You can hear the audio of those and my message with the audio players below. My originally planned sermon manuscript follows after that.

New: Some of the service music used
  • I Could Sing of Your Love Forever (Smith)
  • How He Loves (McMillan)
  • Mighty to Save (Morgan and Fielding)

Morgan Shuler (John 14:15-18)


Kathleen Katibah (Romans 8:28)


Will Dolinger (Matthew 22:37-40)


Mid-High Testimony (taken from video)


Karen Katibah (Deuteronomy 31:6)


Robert Austell sermon (John 10:22-30)


Maddie Shuler testimony and song


(download) **Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**

Today’s sermon is a little shorter than usual, but we’ll still be looking at one of the “follow me” sayings of Jesus. It is not framed in those words as in other places, but is still an important piece of understanding what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

Today’s text comes from the Gospel of John and is an exchange between Jesus and a group that gathered in the Temple during one of the Jewish feasts. The exchange is really just a question on their part and an answer on Jesus’ part, but Jesus imparts so much for such a brief answer, for those with ears to hear. In fact, having ears to hear is exactly the point he makes.

Let’s look at the exchange and then consider several direct applications for those who would follow Jesus today.

Question and Answer

At this point in Jesus’ ministry, his reputation is growing. There are some who are declaring him to be the Messiah, or “Christ” in the Greek language. And so at the Jewish feast some people ask him directly, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.” (v. 24)

So that’s the question: is Jesus the Christ, the Messiah or “anointed One?”

Listen carefully to his answer: “I told you, and you do not believe; the works that I do in my Father’s name, these testify of me.” (v. 26)

Basically, Jesus is saying that he has already answered their question, they are just too deaf and blind to realize it. He says that he has told them, but they don’t believe. He says that his works (such as the miracles) provide witness to his identity, but they can’t see that.

That would be sufficient answer to their question, but he presses on further. Having said that their not listening and not seeing result in their unbelief, he explores that situation further using an analogy. He compares himself to a shepherd. Note that he has already been teaching on God and himself as Shepherd earlier in this chapter, so this is not out of the blue. And now he does two things with that analogy. He tells them that their unbelief identifies them as being not of his sheep. And he goes on to identify the characteristics and benefits of being of his sheep. Let’s look at those briefly.

Jesus says that his sheep HEAR his voice and FOLLOW him. This is just the opposite of what his questioners have done. And tied to that listening and following, Jesus adds that he KNOWS his sheep. What does it mean to be a Jesus-follower, a Christian? It means listening to and following Jesus.

While one might argue from this passage that one is predestined to be of his sheep or not, that would be a distortion of the full biblical witness. God indeed does know His own, but He also issues the invitation to come to Him and believe, and I think that invitation is implicit in this text. In answering these questioners in the way he does, Jesus doesn’t just tell them off, but invites them to a new way of relating to him. I believe he invites them to follow him – to identify as one of his sheep.

Jesus goes on. Those were the characteristics of a Jesus-follower. The benefits are these: Jesus gives ETERNAL LIFE to them and that identity and life are SECURE (v. 29). What a great and reassuring promise! Let me pause to note that this salvation, this security and eternal life, are not just tied to a verbal profession of faith, but to ongoing obedience and discipleship. That is one of the very important applications of this passage.

And finally, Jesus grounds all these statements in the authority of God the Father. In fact, when he concludes by saying, “I and the Father are one,” the crowd picks up stones to stone him for blasphemy. He has given them a clear answer, despite their unbelief, and they have persisted in unbelief and turn on him.

So in just a few verses, Jesus has covered a broad distance. He has explained why some do not believe. He has described why some do believe and what that means for them. He has issued an invitation to that kind of living faith. And he has identified himself, not only as the Messiah but as the Son of God, one with the Father. What application can we take from this rich exchange?


Listen Carefully!

Broadly, this passage holds out an invitation to come to Christ and an invitation to grow in Christ. In order to be a Christian, we must not only believe that Jesus was who he said he was – the anointed Son of God and one with God; we must also listen to him and follow him where he leads us. To tune out his words and actions are to tune him out.

I think this passage is directly illustrated through the mission experiences of our youth. I can’t speak for them, but I remember my own experiences of short-term missions. ONE of the most dramatic and tangible elements (there were many others) of a mission trip was leaving music, computers, games, and in some cases, friends, back home. In short, I found that I was able to tune in to God more clearly on the mission trip because all those distractions were missing. There is nothing magic about the mission field; rather the time away was an opportunity to break out of habits and focus on God. Sometimes I struggled to remember the lesson when I got home, but eventually it sank in. The reason those distractions hurt me were that they so often kept me from listening to God, which in turn kept me from following God. But the trips were just a wake-up call.

The challenge is incorporating those lessons into every-day life. One of the hopes I have for the youth sharing with you this morning is not that you’ll just think, “How nice for them,” but that you will be challenged – perhaps even have your own wake-up call to something like this. After all, Jesus could not have made the point much more strongly. If you listen to and follow him, you will have eternal life; if you do not listen and follow, you are not his sheep! Remember that distinction in Scripture? Even the demons believe … but they do not follow! A Christian is one who follows. And to follow we must listen; to listen, we must believe.

So how do we reduce distractions, listen more carefully, and follow more obediently?

Here’s a starter list of two for simplicity’s sake – you may well hear other ideas from the youth or think of your own.

1. Scripture: it’s the #1 way we can hear and know God’s Word today. Read it; study it; pray it; soak in it. Come to Sunday school or participate in a Bible study. Don’t just think, “I learned all those stories long ago.” I learn something new every single week – it is a living, breathing Word that God speaks freshly into our lives if we will listen and obey. Make time for it and give it your attention like your life depended on it!

2. Silence: turn off the TV, radio, iPod, and other distractions. Read scripture and then sit and let God breathe into your life. Pray but don’t just rattle of a list of wishes, but be still before the Lord and don’t rush on. Give yourself time to ponder, process, and ingest. After a sermon or a song or a scripture, stop and think through what you have heard and how it applies to you before moving on to the next thing. Be an active learner; that’s what equips you to be a faithful follower.

Remember the big question I keep coming back to: “What is God doing in and around you and how can you be a part?” That question presumes the lessons in today’s text. In order to answer it, we must see and hear what God is doing and then respond and follow in obedience. Take some time today – during lunch or after lunch. Think through this text or what you’ve heard some of the youth say. Ask yourself what you will take away and what you will do with it.

And if you are inclined to let me know, I’d love to know! Amen.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Possessions and the Poor (Mark 10.17-31)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
August 8, 2010
(download) **Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**
New: some of the service music used (not live - all from youtube)
  • Come Thou Almighty King (ITALIAN HYMN)
  • More Precious Than Silver (Lynn DeShazo)
  • Wonderful, Merciful Savior (Wyse/Rogers)
  • He is Jesus (Altrogge)
  • Be Thou My Vision (SLANE)
We are continuing to look at Jesus’ “follow me” sayings. For all the hot topics out there about sex, politics, religions, and war, I think today’s text has the potential to stir us up the most because it hits so close to home.

To say it most briefly, the man in the story is a rich man who keeps God’s commandments. I am sure most of you can identify with efforts, however imperfect, to keep God’s commandments – in our words, to be a “good Christian.” Where we run the risk of missing God’s Word here is to think that any of us are not rich. I recently read a study that asked people in increasingly higher income ranges whether they were “rich” and each one said “no,” pointing to folks who made just a little (or a lot) more than they did. But the reality is that in contrast to the 300 million people living in our country, much less to the 6.5 billion people in the world, we who live in south Charlotte are rich. Or perhaps an equally persistent trait of Americans defines us: we often try to live beyond our means, living richer than we actually are.

We can debate your and my richness more if you like, but I’m going to move on. The definition of richness is not going to be the key factor so much as your and my willingness to loosen our grip on wealth and the pursuit of it. So let’s press on and look at the text.

Narration: What Shall I Do to Inherit Eternal Life? (vv. 17-22)

So the main encounter unfolds in verses 17-22. Notice some of the detail: as Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man RAN up to him and KNELT before him. This is not an academic or philosophical question, but someone seeking something very specific from Jesus. He asked, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” The verse that follows can throw us, because Jesus responds, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone?” Seeing what question Jesus asked next, it seems clear that Jesus was preparing to challenge the idea that human “goodness” was sufficient to attain the Kingdom. So he’s answering the question… in a way specific to the man’s needs.

So Jesus next lists several of the ten commandments, interestingly focusing on the “horizontal” commandments 5-9 rather than the first four having to do with worshiping God alone (or the 10th, having to do with wanting things). That is another clue to understanding the “No one is good but God alone” comment. Jesus seems to recognize right away that there may be a competing ‘god’ in the man’s life.

The man responds that he has been diligent to keep these laws all his life. Notice verse 21: “Jesus felt a love for him.” This is no Pharisee, stirring up Jesus’ righteous indignation; rather he is someone who has sought Jesus out and is earnestly seeking eternal life. But Jesus also recognizes that a key piece is missing in the man’s life. And here’s where I want to be careful with you. Jesus’ response is all one piece, one statement: “Go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” There’s the “follow me” invitation we are focusing on.

Has the man lived a pretty good life and Jesus is telling him the one more thing he needs to do to be good enough?

“Just sell your things and then you will inherit eternal life.” No.

“Just give to the poor… take care of the poor… and then you will inherit eternal life.” No, though God certainly commanded us to love neighbor, particularly including the poor among us.

Those actions lead to the key action – key because Jesus has said that no one is good – there is no threshold of human goodness that purchases eternal life. Rather these actions lead to the key action of following Jesus. One must trust and follow Jesus in order to inherit eternal life – a gift of God to and through Jesus Christ, our gift (and inheritance) as adopted children through Christ. And these things are what stood in the man’s way, as demonstrated in verse 22: “At these words he was saddened, and he went away grieving, for he was one who owned much property.”

Was it the wealth in and of itself that was the problem? I don’t think so. It was the grip he had on it – like the trap I understand is sometimes used to catch monkeys – they put their hand in the trap to grab onto a piece of fruit and are trapped by the fist, not ever willing to let go of the treasure they’ve found. The man had been so eager to speak to Jesus and ask about eternal life. How important then his wealth must have been to turn away from this clear answer in grief.

Explanation: The Impossible and the Possible (vv. 23-31)

We don’t always get an explanation of Jesus’ teaching, parables, or interactions. But this is one case where we do. In verses 23-31, he turns to his disciples and offers commentary and explanation on what has just happened. So let’s look at that explanation to help us understand the stakes before we try to engage in application.

Jesus begins in v. 23, “How hard it will be for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God!” Does that statement surprise you? Mark tells us that the disciples were amazed at these words.

“How hard is it,” you might ask?

Jesus answers in v. 25, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

How are we to understand that? Maybe you’ve heard the thing about a small gate in Jerusalem and one would have to take all the bags and pack off the camel for it to go through – unfettered by possessions as it were. Well, I have heard that many times and went to look it up and apparently that gate wasn’t built until medieval times. As nicely as that illustration would be to help us out, I think it actually falls short of Jesus’ full point here.

What is left, then? It’s impossible. A camel can’t fit through the eye of a needle. And that was the disciples’ conclusion in v. 26, “Then who can be saved?” Notice two things here. There is a specific point regarding the rich man and a broader point regarding all people. Jesus actually said it twice. First, in v. 23, “How hard it is for the wealthy…” and then in v. 24, “How hard it is to enter the kingdom…” And the disciples didn’t ask, “Then how can such a man be saved?” They asked, “Then who can be saved?”

Here’s what I’m trying to highlight. Jesus is making a specific point about the rich man. His “good works” were not sufficient to save him, particularly with grip he had on the idol of his wealth. But neither would anyone’s “good works” save them. It was not enough to keep the Commandments; it is necessary to trust and follow Jesus.

If that doesn’t all seem clear, look at Jesus’ response in v. 27: “With people it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God.”

Indeed, it is impossible for a wealthy person to inherit eternal life. But so it is also with all people. It is not we who save ourselves, but God who saves.

By all means don’t miss the specific application, for our pursuit and prioritization of wealth can provide an extra hurdle to keep our attention from God. We in the most affluent culture in the world need to take that application seriously. But also don’t miss the broad application: salvation does not come from us, but comes from God through Jesus Christ. Only God can do the impossible.

The last part of the text is a kind of testimony to the truth of what Jesus is teaching. Peter pipes up and says, in effect, “Is this not what we (disciples) have done?” And Jesus affirms him, saying that God indeed is doing that “impossible” work in them as demonstrated and lived out in their discipleship.

Application: Discipleship = Sacrifice

So what application would we make from all this?

We must look to God for salvation through Jesus Christ. But we would be wise to also guard against turning wealth into an idol.

Now it is rare to have these things face off at a single point of decision. In a way that would be so much simpler. “Sell your house and live; keep it and die.” Most of us could figure out the best course of action there. But reality is so much more complicated and the pursuit of wealth so much more insidious than that. It is more likely that we justify our pursuit of wealth one bit at a time, with it slowly winning our attention, allegiance, and service.

“I need to make this much to support my family… I really need a little bit more so my kids will have toys and clothes comparable to their friends… I really need a bigger house or a safer neighborhood or a second vehicle.” We confuse needs and wants and often live beyond our means. And it always seems like “a little bit more” would solve so many problems. And my guess is that our grip on our wealth (or desire for it) gets tighter and tighter and tighter.

Wasn’t Jesus saying that it’s impossible anyway and we needed to rely on God to do the impossible? Well, yes. But what does that look like? It would look like God loosening our grip and growing us in spiritual maturity to cling less and less tightly to wealth. Otherwise, God would have left Peter and the other fishermen on the boat and saved them in spite of their decision to stay and fish. But God’s miracle in them overlapped their following of Jesus. That’s just it – it is the following that is both the human decision and the indication of God at work.

So, given that none of us will probably face a single moment where we have to choose, what would it look like to loosen our grip on wealth and make the kind of move that Jesus describes in this text?

The most helpful indicator might be to look of signs of idolatry or signs of stewardship. Very few (or none!) of us have arrived at perfect stewardship or complete idolatry. Rather, we are likely headed one way or the other.

Are you in a cycle of accumulating more and more or do you look for ways to simplify and share and give away wealth?

Do you tend to regard your personal wealth and resources as YOURS or as GOD’S?

Do you perceive giving to the church as a bill to be paid or as investment in God’s mission? “What’s God doing?” Are you interested in what God is doing?

These are important questions to wrestle with, and I will be the first to say that I have not arrived at godly, mature stewardship. I won’t even claim to be in the front of the pack headed the right direction. Many weeks I kind of circle around, distracted by this or that thing I think I need.

Next Sunday we will hear from the youth who participated in summer mission trips. I don’t know what they will say, but I bet more than a few youth and adults experienced the disorienting and FREEING experience of living without the usual distractions for a week. That perspective can be life-changing. Indeed, it often brings one face to face with just how trapped we can be in our wealth.

I invite you to listen carefully to our youth next week. I invite you to dig deeply into today’s text. I invite you to consider your own view of wealth. Following Jesus does involve sacrifice and obedience. It does involve putting God first. It does involve putting others ahead of ourselves. And that discipleship – following Jesus – is both a choice Jesus invites you and me to make and it is a sign that God is at work in our lives.

“Come, follow me,” says Jesus, “for with God all things are possible.” Amen.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Take Up Your Cross (Matthew 16.24-28)

August 1, 2010
Sermon by: Robert Austell
(download) **Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**
New: some of the service music used (not live - all from youtube)
  • One Pure and Holy Passion (Altrogge)
  • The Wonderful Cross (Watts/Tomlin)
  • Offertory Music: I Will Not Forget You (Ben and Robin Pasley)
  • Have Thine Own Way, Lord (ADELAIDE) - not our service, but close in style :)

We are continuing in a series of looking at Jesus’ invitations to “follow me.” We’ve looked at the contextual out-in-the-neighborhood invitation to the fishermen. We’ve looked at the focus on the lost and needy in the invitation to Levi. Last week we looked at Jesus as a Lord worth following, even into the wind and the waves or the valley of the shadow.

Today we look at Matthew 16, where Jesus goes into some detail about what is involved in following him. It involves denial, the cross, and even life-and-death. Last week we saw that following Jesus involved counting the cost. This week Jesus helps spell out that cost. Finally, each of us must ask, “Will I? Will I follow and will I go where he leads me?”

The next logical questions are: What does it take to be a Jesus-follower? Is it simply joining a church? Is it learning the Lord’s Prayer? Is it giving money to the church? Is it doing good works? If God is still doing something in the world, how can I be a part of that? What do I need to do? And WHY? Those are the questions answered in today’s text from Matthew 16. And we will keep coming back to that question, “How can I be a part of what God is doing in and around me?” That may be THE key application question around discipleship, once we’ve decided that Jesus is a Lord worth following and we’ve begun to follow. 

Why Should I? (4 reasons)

I’ll start with the WHY, then move to the WHAT. The reasons Jesus gives for following him are all-or-nothing kinds of reasons. They have to do with life and death. Following him is not a casual, take-it-or-leave it, or fun hobby kind of thing. It’s the difference between really living or being really lost.

Here’s the first reason to really follow Jesus: you are saved for something. He says, “For whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it; but whoever loses his life for my sake shall find it” (v. 25). It’s a bit of a play on words. “Losing your life” here means both dying and losing sense of the purpose of it. And that overlap is intentional. Further, there is the seeming contradiction of losing life in order to save and/or find it. What Jesus is saying here is revolutionary to the kingdom of self. In order to really follow him, we have to give up control of our life and direction to him. As long as we are trying to save our life, steer our ship, find ourselves (you pick the metaphor), we are rejecting the complete authority of God over our life, and rejecting Jesus as Lord. We may have claimed him as Savior (our rescuer), but in denying his Lordship or authority, we are missing the purpose of his salvation. Why follow Jesus? Because following him means you are saved for something.

Second reason: you can’t take it with you. I don’t mean to sound so cliché, but that’s basically what he’s saying next: “For what will a man be profited, if he gains the whole world, and forfeits his soul?” (v. 26). Nothing else in this world lasts. Wealth, power, status, reputation – it will all fade away. But your soul is eternal. God made you to live forever. After your body becomes frail and dies, your soul lives on. And your soul is YOU – you either live eternally with God in Heaven or in eternal separation and suffering in Hell. What good is accumulating stuff for 30, 40, 50, even 100 years, if you neglect your eternal soul? That’s the question and another reason Jesus gives for truly following after him.

Third reason: the worth of your soul. Building on the second reason, Jesus asks, “Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” (v. 26). What is your soul worth? Is it worth trading for anything? Many a book and movie plot has explored that question. And the answer, from scripture to the most secular version is that nothing is worth losing your soul. The sweetest deal is always regretted when the final reckoning comes. If anything, these stories point out our short-sightedness, grabbing the sugar candy waved in front of us and giving up the infinitely more precious welfare of our eternal soul.

Fourth reason: there will be a reckoning. Interestingly, Jesus goes on to the same concluding reason often found in our secular stories of soul-bartering. There will be a final judgment or a reckoning, and it is there that the eternal fate of our souls will be far more important than anything else from our brief life. Jesus says, “For the Son of man is going to come in the glory of his Father with His angels; and will then repay every man according to his deeds” (v. 27). On the surface, this sounds like a straight out appeal for salvation based on good deeds. And the Bible does teach that our deeds matter – and that we should do good deeds. But here’s what else the Bible says about our good deeds: no one is good. No one is righteous enough to purchase salvation for their soul. Only Jesus was perfect and sinless and good. It is because he has purchased salvation that we can stand before that final judgment and “pass.” It is only because we are “with him” and “in him” that God will look at us and repay us for HIS good work. That is why following Jesus is so important – it’s how we know and demonstrate that we are with him and in him. If we go off our own direction, will he say, “I never knew you?” Or said another way, when Jesus stands at the judgment to say, “She’s with me” will you actually be there as one who followed him? Or will you be MIA? 

How Can I Be a Part? (what it means to come after Jesus)

So those are the reasons Jesus gives for following him as a disciple. What then does it look like to follow after him? What does he mean by “come after me?” (v. 24). Jesus says three things; let’s look at them.

First, he says, deny yourself. This is, perhaps, the easiest to understand and the hardest to do. Another way to say that is, “It’s not all about you.” Denial of self in order to follow Jesus means taking self out of the driver’s seat, off the throne of your life (again, pick your metaphor). It basically means your life is not your own, but belongs to God. Does that sound radical? It is! But it is not without precedent or analogy. When you undergo major surgery, you put yourself and your life in the hands of the doctors and nurses. Once they put you under, you are not in control; you have yielded your own control, sometimes to save your life. That’s what is at stake here. And the stubborn insistence that “I will not undergo surgery because I will not be in control” can well cost you that same life. From an early age we are taught to be independent, in control, and look out for #1. Following Jesus is counter to that; we are to be dependent, in His control, and answering to him as #1. As with anything, we can err in either direction of what God teaches. It is possible to warp this verse into a system of self-deprivation that harms the temple of the body and turns deprivation into a religion. That’s not what Jesus is teaching. Rather, he is teaching that we cannot follow him if you or I are in the lead. We must yield and come after him.

Second, Jesus says take up your cross. This teaching reminds us that being a Christian is not about comfort, nor should it be a comfortable thing. There is often suffering involved; there is a cost to following Jesus. For some early believers and even still today, following Jesus literally costs them their lives. I am far too caught up in my own comfort to want to consider that, but I would hope that God would give me strength to face whatever following Jesus costs me. Said another way, taking up our cross means that we will bear whatever following Jesus requires us to bear, even as Jesus bore all that he was required to bear as he carried his cross. Thankfully, God gives us what we need to be faithful.

Put in a more modern and everyday context, don’t expect following Jesus to be a vacation. It may well involve suffering, struggle, and sorrow. But know, too, that there is no better and more joyful place to be than in God’s hands as we follow obediently after Him in Jesus Christ. One illustration of this from common life is the familiar scene of children asking parents for dessert. “Can I have some ice cream?” they ask. When the parent replies, “No, not until you eat your veggies,” a child might plead, “But don’t you love me?” The parent replies, “Of course I love you – which is exactly why you have to eat your veggies first!” What we struggle to learn as children is the same thing we struggle to learn as Christians – that there is no better place to be then in obedience and trusting our parent. While that is mostly true for imperfect human parents, that is always true for our perfect Heavenly Father!

Third, Jesus says follow me. He began by saying, “If anyone wishes to come after me” and it is in this third explanation that he defines that as following. Following implies paying attention, staying close behind, and obeying. Following Jesus is not a casual hour a week at church kind of thing. It is an intentional, costly, minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour, and day-by-day commitment to Jesus as Savior, Lord, and Teacher. Imagine if you were dropped in the middle of an active war zone and all you saw was one battle-toughened friendly soldier nearby. As you stammered, “How will I ever get out of here?” he responds, “Follow me” and begins marching towards the woods. Are you going to try to figure out your own plan, or follow him? And yet we try to out-think, maneuver around, and make our own plans on the sovereign, all-wise, and infinitely compassionate Lord of the universe.

If you have any interest in getting through, getting home, and the well-being of your soul, follow him!

Jesus has given good reasons to follow, but ultimately, follow him because he has shown himself to be who he says he is and he has done all that he said he would do.

What do you need to deny yourself? What is getting in the way?

What suffering or cost might be involved for you to follow? How can you see and seek God’s presence and love in the midst of those challenges?

And how can you closely follow? That’s what this whole series seeks to help you answer. You must decide whether to follow, but I hope God is opening your eyes and strengthening your resolve to follow decisively where Jesus leads.

These are not just rhetorical questions. I am interested in your answers. As you find them, would you let me know by giving me a call or sending me an e-mail or note? I would love to encourage you and pray for you and be encouraged by you as we ask together, “How can I be a part of what God is doing in and around me?” Amen.