“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self?” (Luke 9:23-25).
The human side of me wishes this weren’t in the Bible. It’s uncomfortable, it makes me nervous, because I think I realize that if I really believed it and lived it, my life would look a lot different than it does – and to be honest, I like my life the way it is.
But then again, Jesus had a way of making people uncomfortable with their lives the way they were. He challenged their priorities, their beliefs, their lifestyles, and he made demands that were, from a human point of view, outrageous.
There was that moment in John 6, when Jesus made one of those outrageous statements. He said, “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” John tells us the response to that: “From this time many of disciples turned back and no longer followed him.”
The interesting thing is that Jesus doesn’t make apologies for being so demanding. He doesn’t temper it by saying, “don’t worry, though, we can work out some kind of compromise.” If you are going to follow Jesus, it will be on his terms, and his terms always lead us back to the cross, and that’s where I want us to spend some time this morning – at the foot of the cross, talking about some of its implications for what it means to be followers of Jesus.
Now, let’s step back and put this in context. We began a journey together a few weeks ago – a journey toward spiritual formation – “until Christ is formed in you.” Our desire is to be transformed into the likeness of Christ. We talked about a time of daily devotional – drawing near to God in his Word and in prayer. We talked about becoming servants, because that is the identifying characteristic by which Jesus chose to be known – “For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
This morning, I want us to talk about Jesus’ call to follow him to the cross. The path to spiritual formation will be one in which the cross plays a prominent role. So what did Jesus mean when he said that I must deny myself and take up my cross daily and follow him?
Paul wrote something in his letter to the Romans that speaks directly to what this means in our lives: Romans 6:3 “Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”
Perhaps I should have started with this step. Paul says this is where it begins. A death to self. If there is no death there is no life. It echoes what Jesus said - if you want to save your life you will lose it, if you are willing to lose your life for his sake, you will save it. Life – real life – begins with a death – a death that is represented in baptism.
If you have not died to self, then anything else we might say about spiritual formation is irrelevant and meaningless. If you have not died you cannot be raised to live a new life. And that’s what this is really all about. And if you think I’m stepping on your toes, then I probably am. We need to tell the truth – unapologetically – otherwise, we’re just playing church.
Paul says it began at baptism – you were baptized into his death. That is the moment eternal life began in you. But it was not the end, just the beginning. Yes, we die to self in baptism – that is when we come face to face with the cross in our life – both its promises and its demands. But Jesus said something interesting there in Luke 9. He said you must deny yourself and take up your cross daily. What begins on the day of your baptism becomes a daily part of your life.
Now before you get a picture in your head of some monk wearing a scratchy robe and whipping himself in some form of ritual penance, that’s not what we’re talking about. It’s not a new set of rules to restrict your life and make you miserable. Paul had to deal with that very impulse in the Colossian letter: “Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of the world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: ‘Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!’ These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence” (Col. 2:20-23). It might sound spiritual, but it’s only more of the same. There has to be more – something that connects us with Jesus in our desire to be like him.
And there is more. Dying to self, rather than eliminating our life creates the environment in which Jesus can fill us and enable us to live the abundant life that he promised. But don’t confuse abundant life with the commonly preached health and wealth gospel of the televangelists, who tell you that when you come to Jesus your problems disappear, you will never suffer, you’ll grow wealthy and prosperous. That’s not the gospel of Jesus. Jesus said, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Lk 12:15).
How many times did Jesus echo his words in the Sermon on the Mount, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
But we live in a culture that has convinced us that happiness is going to be found in acquiring and accumulating more – more money, more things, more… Instead, Jesus said joy is going to be found in giving it away – in being generous, in caring for needs, investing in God’s kingdom. That’s where abundant life is found. Not in a bigger house, a newer car, a larger bank account, but in using what we have to glorify God.
That’s tough in our culture, because we’re swimming against the current, we’re going against the common wisdom. We’re told that if we want something that we can get it… now. You don’t have to wait or save – put it on that new credit card with your face on it – after all, it’s all about you.
And it’s not just possessions – it’s in our relationships. The current culture says why wait? Virginity is ridiculed, monogamy is old-fashioned – there is an ad campaign that promotes adultery – their campaign slogan is “Life is short, have an affair.” Why should you have to restrict yourself to one man or woman for a lifetime? Indulge yourself, satisfy yourself, do what you want, when you want, with whom you want. And it’s guilt free, because after all, it’s all about you.
In Colossians 3:5, Paul writes, “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.”
Did you hear the connection Paul makes between sexual sins and greed? And then what he sums it up with – “which is idolatry.” Idolatry – making something else god in your life. Letting something else take control and rule your life. You don’t think so? Back in the SoM, Jesus continued his thought from earlier, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.”
When we die to self, what we are really saying is, Jesus is Lord of all my life – not just my Sunday mornings, but my Monday mornings and my Saturday nights and every moment in between. I surrender every moment, every penny, every impulse, all my energy to his will and purpose.
And I did that on the day of my baptism. But I have to keep doing that – every day. I put the old man to death, but the flesh’s will to live is strong, and so every day I have to throw another shovelful of dirt on the grave. I need to remind myself who is Lord and recommit myself every day.
Illust. – old man shouting at city gate… you’ll never change them… I don’t want them to change me.
There are some disciplines and practices that help us to live a life of denial and sacrifice. Not as rules and restrictions, but to remind us of who is in control.
Tithing – the OT standard of giving was a tenth. Not to remind you how much to give to God, but how much God has given you. Tithing is a practice that reminds us that it all belongs to God – we are stewards, care-takers. God has entrusted it to us, and our tithe is that weekly reminder of whose it is. Make your offering an offering – not just your dues to keep the building heated and the ministers paid. Remove yourself from the transaction – don’t pride yourself on how generous you are, or feel resentful at how you could have had more to spend on yourself. Let your offering truly be a reflection of God’s gifts to you. And let your giving be sacrificial, not just what you can spare from the leftovers, but from the first fruits. There have been times we came up against the end of the money before the end of the month, but the first check we always wrote was to the Lord. And he has always blessed us by providing for our needs. It has always been our first priority in our budget. I believe you will be blessed also if you give regularly and sacrificially.
And I want to challenge you to go beyond a tithe. Look for opportunities to bless others with the resources God has put in your possession. When you see a need respond to it – whether it is with your money, your home, your talents, your time. Listen to what Paul wrote: “For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.” I want to challenge you to see yourself as an extension of Jesus – serving others in his name and with the resources he has entrusted to you.
Delayed gratification – We have bought into the expectancy that we should have everything we want and have it now. Why save up to purchase something when you can put it on a credit card? Why wait for marriage when you can have sex now? There is great spiritual value in being able to say no, and not yet. It is trusting God to provide. And instead of robbing us of some pleasure or joy, it increases that joy when we wait on God’s timing and his provision.
Fasting – most of us don’t miss many meals. We eat what we want, when we want, and as much as we want. And don’t get me wrong – there is nothing wrong with food – God hasn’t put restrictions on what we should eat – he has created it all both for our nourishment and our enjoyment. But there is a practice that we see throughout the Bible – OT and NT of fasting. Fasting isn’t a practice to show how holy and spiritual we are – Jesus condemned the Pharisees for making a show of themselves. But fasting is a practice engaged in in the Bible to focus attention and clarify thinking and provide the setting for concentrated prayer and devotion to God. When Jesus spoke about fasting in the SoM, he didn’t say “If you fast…” but “When you fast…” It was an important part of the spiritual lives of God’s people.
Fasting took several forms – an absolute fast (no food or liquid at all – it is rare in the Bible and divinely sustained – Jesus, Moses), a partial fast (Daniel, “I ate no delicacies, no meat or wine entered my mouth, nor did I anoint myself at all”) – sometimes partial fasts involve not eating food, but still partaking of fruit juices. The regular mode of fasting would be to abstain from all food and drinks except for water.
Sometimes the fasts were individuals exercising spiritual disciplines, but the vast majority of called fasts were community and congregational fasts – groups of people who united together to fast and pray for deliverance, for guidance, for healing. The group fast can be a wonderful and powerful experience provided there is a people who are of one mind and purpose.
Remember the image I used a few weeks ago of pruning? My first instinct was to think that cutting something off would hurt the tree. But instead, by cutting it back, it made the tree healthier and more fruitful. That is the nature of denying ourselves and taking up our cross daily. It seems like we would be losing something, that our happiness would be diminished by pruning things from our lives. But the truth is that exactly the opposite happens. We become healthier and more productive in our faith.
Let’s go back one more time to Romans – 12:1 “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship.” In dying to self, we become a living sacrifice to God. That is the kind of worship that pleases God. Do you want to experience real life, abundant life? It begins with a death – a death to all that we once knew so that we can become all that God has created us to be.