A sermon delivered by Joel Snider, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga., on March 20, 2011.
How different our lives are when we really know what is deeply important to us, and, keeping that picture in mind, we manage ourselves each day to be and to do what really matters most. … We may be very busy, we may be very efficient, but we will also be truly effective only when we begin with the end in mind.
–Stephen R. Covey in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People
To get to the passage from Luke 9, I want to start in the Book of Job. The Book of Job begins with a rather unusual scene. It is God with the Heavenly Host, and Satan is somewhat of a party crasher. Satan comes into the scene and God asks Satan, “Where have you been?”
Satan answered, “I have been walking to and fro upon the earth.”
The implication is that he has been looking for souls to deceive. God says, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is nobody like Job. He is upright, he is righteous, he does everything well, he is a wonderful person. If you really want to see a great example of someone who worships me, look at Job.”
Satan asks this very haunting question, “Does Job serve you for nothing?” I like the King James Version. It is often the way we remember it. It says, “Doth Job fear God for nought.” Zero. For nothing. The answer anticipated is no. Job expected something. Job thinks that worshiping and fearing God is going to result in some good thing in his life. We know that Job is wealthy, Job has a great family, and all these wonderful blessings.
If you are familiar with the Book of Job, you know that his fortune is lost and his family is destroyed. Everything seems to be in ruin, and the rest of the book is the different explanations of Job and his friends as to why these things happened. But there is that question, “Does Job serve God without any hope of getting something out of it?” Does Job expect something? Does Job think there is going to be some extra privilege, some extra blessing, and some protection in his life? The implied answer is, “No.”
Let us ask the question of ourselves. Do we serve God for no reason other than love or do we expect to get something out of it? Do we think that God will protect us? Do we think God will guarantee us success in our ventures? Do we think we will be wealthy and all these other things? Do we think that if we love God there is something in it for us? Our actions give us away.
You do not have to watch TV too long on Sunday morning to hear the prosperity gospel. A few years ago, I heard a preacher say that if you would send a contribution, he would send you a ballpoint pen. He said, “This pen is filled with anointed ink. If you will write your checks with this pen, God will honor those checks.” Of course, there is enough of that on TV that people think. I’ll get something out of it. That is just weird enough that we can separate ourselves from it and think, We would never think that. We would never fall for that. We would never say anything like that. But yet, we all know that question that we ask when tragedy comes, death pays a visit, or the diagnosis is cancer, or whatever it may be. We say, Why did God let this happen to me? I’m special. Why did God let this happen to me? I worship God. I have been faithful to God. I go out and tell people that I go to church and they should go to church, too. They should believe in Jesus Christ. I have witnessed. I have been a good person. I am a Christian. God should not let this happen to me. The implication is that if we are going to worship God, there should be some pay off. We should be able to expect that our children are going to turn out right, and that our businesses are going to be successful. We should be protected from illness, tragedy, and all these things. There should be some pay off for all this.
Have you seen cars and trucks where they have been painted with a product? They look like a bottle of suntan lotion or they have an advertisement all over them for some internet service. People are paid for that. They drive around with the advertising and they get paid. It is as if we think we are wearing God’s brand and everybody should be able to see that we are Christians. We are out there doing good for God and there should be a payoff. It is just like the advertiser not paying the person who drives the car. If we are disappointed in some way or if bad things happen to us, we think, What’s the deal? What good is faith? What good is believing in God if there is not some kind of payoff—some kind of benefit in this that I should get?
Last week, the first Sunday in Lent, we talked about the command that Jesus gives most often in scripture and that is, “Come, follow me.” This week, we look at what Jesus tells us to expect if we do, indeed, follow him. What is the payoff? What do we get? The answer is the cross.
The meditation text today is taken from Stephen Covey’s book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. He says that one of the habits of highly effective people is you begin with the end in mind. You know where it is that you are trying to get and whatever you do today is to get you toward that end. It is a little bit like taking a trip. If you are going to Florida, you don’t begin by going to Chattanooga, at least not from here. You begin with the end in mind. Every step, every road you choose to take, every turn you take is designed to get you south toward the beach. Covey tell us that, in life, we need to know where we are headed when we start. Jesus very clearly tells us that if you apply that principle to the Christian life, the end is the cross.
If we are expecting a payoff for our faith or if we think there is going to be some benefit for our trouble in following Jesus Christ, the place where we are headed is the cross. Jesus does not offer any bait and switch. He doesn’t begin by telling us something that is going to make us want to jump on it and then say, “O, and by the way, here is the cross.” He is always telling it.
The passage of scripture from Luke 9:21-27 is a part of what we often call the watershed mark in the Gospel of Luke. In the verses just before this, Peter says, “You are the Christ of God.” Everything to this point has been building towards the disciples understanding that Jesus is God’s son and what that means. From this place forward, everything is running downhill towards Jerusalem and everything is running towards the cross.
There are three things that continue to repeat from this point towards the end of the Gospel.
1. Jesus makes demands of people—his disciples and also others he meets along the way.
2. People substitute their own ambitions, their own desires, in place of what Jesus has asked of them. In just a few verses, the disciples who have made the confession, “You are the Christ,” are going to be walking on the road to Jerusalem arguing who is the greatest. “I am going to be more important than you when we get to the king. I am going to have the greater place of responsibility. He is going to trust me more than you.” They are talking about the benefit. They are substituting their own ambitions and their own hopes in place of what Jesus says. There is Jesus’ demand, the substituted ambition of the people who would follow him, and his prediction of the cross.
3. Time and time again, he reminds them when they get off track and start thinking about what they hope to get out of it that they are headed toward Jerusalem where the Son of Man will be betrayed, denied, and crucified. This is the payoff for following Jesus—the cross.
Every Sunday we worship here. From where you sit, we get to look at the cross. It is a beautiful marble cross. Probably you have grown up in other churches where the cross is in stained glass or made out of wood and suspended from the ceiling or someone leads a procession into the sanctuary at the beginning of the service and they are carrying a cross. A cross is in nearly every Christian church in the world because it is the primary and essential symbol of Jesus Christ. It is the visual image that people associate with Christianity. If asked, “Explain the cross to me,” can most of us do it? We know it is about his death.
Let me give you the simplest explanation that I can. This was given to me when I was 22 or 23 years old. It was before I went to seminary, and I have never found a better, simpler understanding of the cross.
The cross stands for whatever is necessary to do God’s will. For Jesus to do God’s will meant to try to bring us, and everyone else, back into a right relationship with God. It was to break down the barrier of sin. It was to provide a means of forgiveness so that people could turn and be healed and their relationship with God could be right again. For him, that meant the cross. He went to the cross, went and did whatever was necessary, to be obedient to God to do what God’s will was. That cross has become the symbol we sing about. We put it in the sanctuary. We think about it. Some people wear it around their neck. You can walk into a Christian book store and buy a cross that is about the size of a coin. You can carry it in your pocket, and if you pull out change, people can see the cross in the midst of your change as you are handing them quarters, nickels, and dimes. It is a witness to our faith and what it means is that, as Christ did everything that was necessary to fulfill the will of God, so we do also.
Did you notice what Jesus says? Luke is the only one to record this story where he says, “Pick up your cross daily and follow me.” That means every day. Every single day is an opportunity to be obedient to God and to do whatever is necessary to do God’s will. If that means denying self, then we deny self and follow him. The obedience that God asks for includes loving the unlovable. It means confronting sin. First, it means confronting our own sin and looking into those places where sin takes up secret places in our hearts that we hope nobody will ever see. After we have confronted our own sin, we are to confront sin and live righteously in the world. It means to deliver a wealth of grace to those who are spiritually poor. It means not to be so much concerned about influencing the strong or appealing to the wise but caring for those that no one else cares for.
The cross is not about privilege. When we think about, What’s the payoff? What is it that I get from following Jesus? it is not about privilege. It is about the opportunity every day to live obedient to God’s will and God’s word.
We would prefer to think that being a Christian is about respect. When a respected person in the community passes away and an obituary is written in the newspaper, typically, it will mention where they went to church. In our culture, it is a part of the respect that we owe people, but I will tell you that if you push the envelope of obedience, you will find that it doesn’t always earn you respect. People will actually look at you suspect. Push the envelope of obedience to the hard places and find out what people think about following Jesus.
If you don’t believe me, try this. If you are in a prayer group, next time you meet suggest that you pray for terrorists, not just Help them to see the wrong way, but Bless them. Offer a prayer for terrorists offering to bless their lives and that God would do something good and grant them grace. If your prayer group meets at Chick-Fil-A, next week when you go, you will probably find out that they moved to the Waffle House and didn’t tell you.
Easter is not too far off. At Easter, a lot of times we gather with family like we do at Thanksgiving. Perhaps there is a special Easter blessing around the kitchen or the dining room. Everybody come in and hold hands and we are going to pray. Then your mother is going to tell us how to fill up our plates. As you pray, offer a prayer for a child molester. Child molesters have distances that they cannot live close to places where children are, etc. People are always being forced to move because it is hard to live some place that falls within the restrictions, and they almost have to move to the wilderness. Just say, As we pray today, we are so blessed that I would like to offer a prayer for those who have no home because they have molested children. I promise you that somebody in the family circle is going to drop hands. When you say Amen, and look up, they are going to be looking at you like you have lost your mind.
This is a true story. I have a friend who used to be a preacher. He became convicted about the scripture that says, “If you have two coats, give one to someone who has none.” He and his wife have children at home. He and his wife went around the house and counted chairs, and they said, “How many chairs do we need to sit down if we have company?” Then they put all the other chairs aside. “How many sheets do we need to put on the beds? How many towels do we need?” Then they put all the rest of the linens aside. “How many shirts, pairs of pants, and pairs of shoes do we need to dress a limited number of days?” Then they put everything else aside. “We really only need one car.” They put the other car aside. They sold everything they had put aside and gave the money to the poor. He has some respect, but some people think he has lost his mind.
You push the envelope when you pray for your enemies. You push the envelope when you care for those who are unlovely and unlovable—the people that nobody else wants. When you really push the envelope of obedience, you will find out what scorn and rejection really mean. That is when we begin to understand the cross.
For most of us, these things just mean people talk about us and don’t like us anymore, but in the history of the church, it has often meant that people followed Jesus to die.
There was a time when the church controlled whether or not people could have the Bible in their own language. John Wycliffe, the great English translator, translated the Bible into the language of the people and they were preparing to burn him at the stake for that. In obedience to God, he felt God’s will was for him to put the scripture into the hands of the people so that they could read it, know it, and live it. As they were preparing to light the fire, one of his companions was beginning to shake and show emotion from the strain. Wycliffe looked at him, bound to the stake, and said, “Mr. Ridley, play the man. Today, we will light a fire in England that no one will ever put out.” It was an opportunity to do whatever was necessary to do the will of God in scorn of consequences.
Some people think it sounds like a death wish. If you start praying for terrorists and child molesters, somebody may take you out. If you start acting like your enemies are people you should pray for and tell people they should forgive each other, people will think you are strange.
It is not a death wish. It is a God wish. It is a wish to be near the source of life. It is to be obedient to the one who has forgiven us. If we are looking for payoff, we have already received the benefit. We have already received the salvation of Christ, and we think there is something else that God is supposed to do for us.
In the 6th chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus is teaching the crowd, and it is a hard teaching. The crowd listening to it begins to go away. They begin to filter off into different places, turn their backs on Jesus, and go home. Jesus turns, looks to the disciples, and says, “Will you go away also?” Peter who always seems to speak for the group says, “To whom shall we go? For you have the words of life.”
That really is the choice, isn’t it? It is the cross. It is the opportunity every day to be obedient to God and to do whatever is necessary or it is to lose life.
Then he said to them, “If anyone want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross daily, and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.”
The cross. If you want to know what the payoff is for following Jesus Christ, it is the opportunity every day to be obedient to God and to know that being obedient, and that alone, is life.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.