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“When Losing Is Winning”
Mark 8:27-38
March 12, 2006
Second Sunday of Lent

Dr. H. Mark Ashworth

Up from the ashes, down to the flames
To be willing to trade the loss for the pain.
To give up the ghost to a wild, raging wind
That blows away these ashes
And takes you where loss and gain begin.
(from “Up from the Ashes” by Matt Auten)

Last Sunday we heard Mark’s account of Jesus’ temptation out in the wilderness. Sometimes we refer to that event rather strangely as “the temptation of Jesus.” As if Jesus was tempted out there for 40 days, passed the test, and checked that experience off his list. Whew, got past temptation. Glad that’s over with. Now I can’t speak for you, but from my experience I’m guessing that most folks don’t experience temptation that way. It happened once, and I’m glad it’s over with. No, it’s a lifelong battle. And the reality is that it was a continuing battle for Jesus, too. In the Scripture from Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is being tempted again. But the temptation is a familiar one: to avoid the cross.

The words come from Peter’s mouth. But Jesus recognizes the source of this temptation. It’s the same source that tempted him in the wilderness. The one who tried to get him to take the easy or popular or spectacular route to Messiahship. And so Jesus looks Peter in the eye and says, “Get out of here, Satan.” Harsh words for the one who has just proclaimed him as Messiah. But Peter is the bringer of that same old temptation. To avoid the cross. To try to be Messiah on the cheap. To reject the path of suffering love. There’s nothing new about this temptation for Jesus. Except this. That now it comes from his own inner circle. Most scholars believe that Peter was the main source behind the gospel of Mark. If so, it’s interesting that he didn’t shy away from remembering this story. Many scholars also believe that one of the reasons Mark wrote his gospel was that much of the church in his day had started to ignore the cross. They loved to talk about resurrection and celebrate hope and look forward to life everlasting. Which isn’t bad, of course. But they preferred to downplay the cross. That was just a nasty little episode we’d just as soon not talk about. So Mark, and Peter as well, are concerned to remind people that the cross isn’t just an unfortunate happening. It’s central to understanding Jesus and to understanding what it means to follow Jesus.

Look at what Jesus immediately says to Peter and the other disciples: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” It’s blunt. It’s straightforward. And yet sometimes I think we have trouble being sure what it really means. What does it mean to “deny yourself”? During Lent we may understand what it means to deny yourself chocolate or deny yourself caffeine. But what does it mean to deny yourself? Does it mean to put yourself down, to think that you have no worth, no value, no dignity? No, that isn’t the point at all. If it were, this would be troublesome news, even dangerous news for those who suffer with depression or low self-esteem. But I don’t think that’s what Jesus is talking about at all. The word “deny” here means to renounce your claim. Renounce your claim to your life. Give up the insistence that your life is yours to do with what you want. Deny yourself.

Deny yourself and take up your cross. Well, if we have trouble with understanding what it means to “deny yourself,” we have more trouble with this phrase, “take up your cross.” There is a big distinction between having a “cross to bear” and “taking up your cross.” That phrase, “the cross,” always seems to suggest some kind of suffering. But we need to be very careful. Someone has a chronic illness and they might say, “It’s just my cross to bear.” But that’s not what Jesus is talking about here. Or someone may live in a relationship that is unhealthy or even abusive, and you might hear someone else say that it’s their cross to bear. But again, that’s not what Jesus is talking about here. To tell someone that the pain or suffering they are going through is somehow given to them by God as their quote “cross to bear” is at worst, terribly hurtful, and at best, something we can’t possibly know. Jesus doesn’t say, “Deny yourself and try to bear up under whatever cross you happen to have.” No, Jesus says, “Deny yourself and take up your cross.” This isn’t something that happens to you. This is something you choose. Jesus says, I’m heading toward a cross. Now you take up yours and follow me. To take up our cross is to follow in the steps of Jesus. To take up our cross is to recognize that Jesus’ way will not be easy. To take up our cross is to recognize that following Jesus may lead to suffering. It isn’t that we are to deliberately go looking for suffering. We’re never called to try to make people hate us or to try to be some kind of victim. But Jesus’ way will never be the way of the powerful or the popular. To follow in Jesus’ steps will inevitably set us in contrast to the status quo. And there may be a real cost. It may come in a variety of ways. Not just physical. But financial. Or emotional. Or cultural. Or relationship. Jesus’ way will not be easy. Following Jesus is a risk. It makes us vulnerable. As one person put it, “If you want to follow Jesus, you had better look good on wood.” Well, I know it’s rather unlikely that a literal cross awaits any of us. But that shouldn’t dull the power of Jesus’ words. “If you want to become my follower, then deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.”

Let’s run through those words one more time. Jesus says, “If you want to become my follower, then deny yourself.” Well, OK, we have to think about that a little to try to be sure of what it means, but OK, I think I can understand that one. And Jesus says, “If you want to become my follower, then take up your cross.” And again, we want to be clear about what Jesus means there, but OK, I think I can understand that one too. And Jesus says, “If you want to become my follower, then FOLLOW ME.” And guess what? This one isn’t hard to understand at all. I don’t have to work to figure this one out. And I’m reminded that in the end, the call of Jesus isn’t to sit around trying to figure things out so that we’re satisfied with our explanations. The call of Jesus is to get up off our duffs and get moving. If all of our thinking and talking don’t lead to a change in our living, then they are worse than useless. If you want to be Jesus’ follower, then follow him. As I said last Sunday, this is not something that you can do once and you’re through. Imagine you and someone else are supposed to be going to a particular place in, let’s say, Greensboro. Each of you is driving. But you’re not entirely sure the best way to get to this place. So your friend starts giving you directions. And the more he talks, the more complicated the directions get until finally he says, “Just follow me.” And you say, “OK.” So you get in your cars and start out. The next day your friend calls you and says, “What happened? How come you never got here? I thought you were going to follow me.” And you say, “I did follow you. I followed you until we drove past my house, and then I remembered some stuff I had to do, so I just stopped there. But I did follow you.”

Discipleship isn’t a matter of following Jesus for a little while or until something better comes along or until something else catches our attention. I think I’ve mentioned it before, but I really like Eugene Peterson’s definition of discipleship. He defines discipleship as “a long obedience in the same direction.” We don’t ever finish. We don’t ever arrive in this life. The Danish philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard once wrote: “It is well known that Christ consistently used the expression “follower.” He never asks for admirers, worshippers, or adherents. No he calls disciples. It is not adherents of a teaching but followers of a life Christ is looking for. . . . What...is the difference between an admirer and a follower? A follower is or strives to be what he admires. An admirer, however, keeps himself personally detached (at a safe distance). He fails to see that what is admired involves a claim upon him, and thus he fails to be or strive to be what he admires. . . . Christ’s life...makes it manifest, terrifyingly manifest, what dreadful untruth it is to admire the truth instead of following it.” Of course, if a Danish philosopher isn’t straight enough for you, there are the words of that old Georgia preacher Clarence Jordan. Jordan once said: “We’ll worship the hind legs off Jesus, but never do a thing he says.” Jesus calls us to follow, not to admire from a safe distance, not to come and worship him then go and live like we want. Do you want to be a follower of Jesus? Then follow him. Plain and simple.

In a sense, it’s a matter of focus. Where is the focus of your life? To briefly quote from Kierkegaard again: “Purity of heart is to will one thing.” Purity of heart is to will one thing. One thing. You remember that Jesus once said that no one can serve two masters. At the time he was referring specifically to God and possessions or money. But the truth remains. We can’t serve two masters. God and ourselves. It can’t be done. Let’s try a little exercise. I want you to look very closely at the microphone on the pulpit. Really look. Now I want you to look very carefully at the second stained glass window from the front on the piano side. Look closely. Now—I want you to look at both of them at the same time. Really try. You can’t do it, can you? This little exercise might seem pretty silly. And it is. Except for one thing. That’s precisely what you and I try to do. We sing “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus,” and “Wherever He Leads, I’ll Go.” And while we’re singing, we even mean it. But then we leave and we go back to the everyday stuff of life. And we handle all our decisions on our own. We take back our claim on our lives. We all do it. We all struggle with trying to serve two masters. So one of the main challenges I would suggest for all of us this morning is simply to admit that, to recognize our struggle. Because otherwise, we have become content just to be admirers, when Jesus calls us to be followers. Jesus said “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

These words from Jesus are pointed and blunt. Frederick Buechner has said “Before the gospel is good news, it is bad news.” It’s bad news for our efforts to save ourselves. Jesus comes to say, “Folks, I’ve got good news and bad news. First the bad news: “those who want to save their life will lose it.” Jesus’ words are not a threat, they’re simply a fact. If you insist on trying to live life your way, if you insist on playing it safe and just admiring me, if you refuse to take the risk of following, then you’re never going to find real life. It just won’t work. But here’s the good news: “those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” The song I sang earlier ends with these lines: “to give up the ghost to a wild, raging wind, who blows away the ashes and takes you where loss and gain begin. In poetic form, that’s the call. To give up the ghost, to die to ourselves, renouncing our claim on our own lives. And by the power of the wild, raging wind, that Spirit-wind-breath of God, to be moved to that place where loss and gain begin. At the same time. Loss of our insistence on traveling a road that will lead nowhere, and gain of real life. Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. May that wild, raging Spirit-wind of God sweep over us and give us eyes to see, ears to hear, and courage to follow. This day, and every day. Amen.

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