So let me ask you a question. How many of you have given up something for Lent? I’m not going to ask what it is that you have given up – but I am just curious how many make a practice of giving something up.
I’ve gotta tell ya, I’m not a big fan of the giving something up for Lent thing. Nothing wrong with doing that. Absolutely nothing wrong with that – especially if it’s something you probably ought to be giving up on a permanent basis anyway. And there are also those who like to make jokes about it – like the guy who said, “I think I’m going to give up going to church for Lent.” Funny – but not a good idea.
However – the whole idea behind the practice of giving something up for Lent might very well have something to do with what Jesus says to us today in our reading from Mark’s Gospel, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, and take up their cross, and follow me.” I think this is where the practice of giving something up for Lent comes from. But I’m really not sure about that because we Lutherans have never made a big deal about giving something up for Lent.
But still Jesus says that as his followers we are to deny ourselves. But notice that Jesus isn’t telling us to deny ourselves something – like giving up something for Lent. No. He is telling us to deny – ourselves.
Now today’s reading from Mark’s Gospel should be well known to most of us. Or at least I think it should be. These words of Jesus should be familiar anyway because – well – it seems like I’m preaching a sermon at least once a year – every year – where we hear Jesus talking about denying oneself and taking up one’s cross to follow him.
And I think that we know these words because – well, not only do we hear them at least once a year – but when we hear them they tend to stick with us because – we really don’t like to hear them.
To quote that great theologian Mark Twain: “Many people are bothered by those passages in Scripture which they cannot understand; but as for me, I always noticed that the passages in Scripture which trouble me most are those which I do understand.” And all God’s people said, “Amen.”
Apparently Peter understood what Jesus was saying, because after Jesus quite clearly predicts his own eventual suffering and death by the religious leaders in Jerusalem, Peter not only doesn’t want to hear it, he rebukes Jesus for saying it. By the way, apparently Peter missed that part about Jesus being raised on the third day. Either that – or more likely – it was another one of those things Jesus said that he didn’t understand.
So Peter speaks up because he understands that suffering and death part. And he wants none of it – either for himself or for Jesus.
But that – as we follow the story of Jesus – is indeed what happens to Jesus. It was the cost that Jesus counted and thought not too high a price to pay for you and for me. That will be the message that we will hear in Holy Week. And as we will hear and discover on Resurrection Sunday –otherwise known as Easter – just five weeks from [today] [tomorrow] – Jesus IS raised from the dead.
But for now, what we need to pay attention to is what Jesus says to Peter – and the disciples – as well as the crowd he’s talking to. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, and take up their cross, and follow me.”
You know, we talk an awful lot about making disciples – being disciples – around here. Not just church members – even thought that is what we are – but far, far, far more importantly – the understanding that we are disciples of Jesus Christ. But at what cost? What’s the cost involved to do what Jesus says when he says we are to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses and follow him?
At what cost? In some parts of the world taking up a cross for Jesus Christ just might get you killed.
So how we define what taking up one’s cross means – and how we put that into practice as 21st Century American Christians is a far different cry than the way some of our Christian brothers and sisters in other parts of the world would of necessity not only define it – but live it!
I wrestled with displaying a picture of what I mean on the screen, but decided against it. The picture I had in mind I’m sure most of you have seen. It s a picture of a row of men dressed in orange clothing, kneeling on a beach in Libya with black hooded men standing behind them. Do you remember seeing that picture somewhere on the news or on social media? The men in orange were all beheaded by their black-hooded captors. What was their crime? They were Christians. That was their “crime.” Their last words were, “Lord, Jesus Christ,”
Or did you hear about the 100-150 Christians – old men, women and children – that were kidnapped earlier this week in Syria by members of the same group that beheaded the men I was just talking about? Or the 100 men and boys kidnapped in Iraq this week? Their crime? Again – for being Christians.
In some parts of the world taking up a cross for Jesus Christ just might get you killed. It is my hope that such acts of terror will soon come to an end. But until then, may these brothers and sisters find the faith, strength and courage to stand strong for Jesus Christ. Amen?
Although it is highly unlikely that you and I in this country will ever have to face such horror – I hope you can also see that being a Christian isn’t for sissies. I also hope you can see that the way we define bearing a cross in this country is something far different from the way Christians in the Middle East understand it.
I think way too often we define our cross as a burden that is not of our choosing – like some illness, or the loss of a job, or some tragedy that has occurred in our lives. These are burdens – and they can be tragic, and they can be difficult to deal with. But they are not the crosses that Jesus is talking about.
So a burden is something that we bear that is not necessarily of our own choosing. The cross we bear on the other hand – is the cross we bear because we choose to bear it. A cross is something that we choose. The cross we choose we choose for the sake of Jesus Christ – AND it is something we choose for the benefit of someone else.
I think that’s what Jesus is talking about when he talks about denying oneself. A recognition that it isn’t all about me. Life isn’t all about me.
So let me share with you a story. It’s a story about “…a kindergarten class where the teacher frequently reminded misbehaving children to stop being a WAM. W-A-M. The kids straightened up as soon as their teacher pointed out they were being a WAM.
“What was a WAM? Why was being a WAM so bad? The teacher explained that WAM stands for “What About Me?” She was training the children to be less self-centered. She wanted them to think of others' needs, not just their own. So, she taught them that no one liked a WAM, a self-centered person who only asked, “What About Me?”
“Instead, this teacher was teaching the children to be a WAY, W-A-Y, or as she explained it, people who ask, “What About You?”
Folks, did you know that in the early church Christians were known as people of the Way? The Way of Jesus Christ? “You and I are people of the Way. People of the way ask, “What About You?” And yes, I know, sometimes we forget about that. Sometimes we forget who we really are. We forget and we become a WAM. But today what I hope you hear is that Jesus is calling us to be people of the WAY. People who ask, “What about you?”
Let me say this again. Being a Christian is more than just going to church on Saturday/Sunday. I hope you are beginning to see, if you haven’t seen it already, that being a Christian is serious business. It is a way of life and it will cost you something – in a life lived for Christ in service to others.
Because being a Christian isn’t for sissies. Which means we do have a choice. And I am glad that we have a choice. None of this is being shoved down anyone’s throat, including mine. We have a choice – to live for ourselves as a WAM – and nobody like s a WAM – or to live our lives for Jesus Christ by serving others as people of the WAY.
So a cross is something you and I are free to choose – or not. Will we find the strength and the courage and the faith – like Christians in the Middle East – to endure to the end? I hope so.
So forget about giving something up for Lent – which I am guessing really isn’t costing you much of anything at all – but instead, how about taking up something. I’m asking you to count the cost and to take up your cross, and follow Jesus.