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    Take Up Your Cross and Follow Him!

    2nd Sunday of LentGrace, mercy, and peace be yours from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!  In the name of Jesus, dear friends in Christ, there are some things in life that simply go together.  There are some things in life that go hand in hand.  A church has pews.  A school has children.  A grocery store has food.  Northern Minnesota normally has cold and snow.  Some things simply go together.  Well that’s also true for something else: suffering and salvation.  In Jesus’ case it was necessary that He suffer in order to win salvation for us.  Well the fact is that Jesus’ sufferings actually spill over into our lives as well, we call them crosses.  Our crosses serve a different purpose than Jesus’ cross.  Jesus’ cross paid for sins once for all, it’s done, and it’s completed.  God uses our crosses or sufferings for His Name to focus us and keep us focused on Jesus’ cross for our strength in life, for the forgiveness of our sins, and for the assurance of final victory in heaven with Him.At the time of our text Jesus is in His later ministry, likely in His final year.  The opposition to Jesus and His message has been increasingly mounting.  During this time Jesus spends more time privately teaching and repeating key truths to His disciples.  The first part of Jesus’ ministry made it clear to people by both what Jesus said and what Jesus did (all the miracles) that Jesus was really the Son of God who was promised from the Old Testament.  So just before our text Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say I am?”  And their answers varied: John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets.  And then Jesus asked them, “but what about you?”  And Peter spoke up for all of them as said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  Wow!  They got it!  Right on!  And yet, just like in our lives there are high points, points of strong and living faith, there are also low points and struggles, the same is true of Peter.This is where our text picks up.  Jesus first spells out for the disciples and for us the essence of the Gospel: “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected (literally “cast aside as useless”) by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again.”  There we have it: no cross, no crown, no cross, no glory, no suffering, no salvation.  Jesus must suffer, Jesus must be put to death, Jesus must take the punishment of all sins upon Himself and bear the full load upon the cross in order to save sinners from their sins.  And you can almost picture Peter take Jesus aside and say things to him like, “Now, now, it’s really not that bad, you shouldn’t talk that way, nobody is going to arrest you, and you’re not going to be put to death if I can help it.”And there is really a part of us that wants what Peter wants too.  Who of us wants to see our God, our Savior suffer, be abused, mistreated, arrested by people, and crucified and say, “That’s our God, that’s whom we follow!”  Perhaps there’s a part of us who would like to see Jesus ride into Jerusalem on a blazing white stallion with a sword flashing and 72,000 angels showing His power and might and glory by decimating every one of his enemies before they can even lift a finger.  But, what an awful thing for us had he done so!  If Jesus didn’t carry the cross and suffer, then we wouldn’t have a Savior.  If Jesus didn’t suffer for us, we’d be hopelessly lost having to pay for our own sins with an eternity in hell!  So Jesus suffered for us.  He took the road that was fraught with trouble and suffering, He carried the cross because through it He bought people from their sins and opened up eternity.After rebuking Peter, Jesus called the crowd, and His disciples, and part of that crowd is you and me, (and note well that Jesus is talking to Christians, believers here) and said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”  Can you imagine being there and hearing these words for the first time?  Notice that Jesus does NOT say, “If you want to follow me, take up your great popularity, your luxury yacht, your calm, peaceful, easy, happy and painless life, and follow me.”  Rather, what does He say?  If you want to be counted as one of my followers, you must DENY self, deny your wants and your desires and your things, deny that you’re the #1 important thing of your life, and pick up your instrument of torture and follow me.  If you want to follow me, be ready for what that means.”  A servant isn’t above his master, if the Master suffers, His servants will also.Jesus continues, “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.”  If someone loves their earthly life, the pleasures, the things, the toys, an easy life free from being confrontational, free from being attacked for their faith, free from a connection with Jesus, they will lose their eternal life.  On the other hand, anyone whose life is crucified with Christ, whoever can say, “‘I no longer live, but Christ lives in me,’ and there is nothing in this life that can make me deny my faith or deny my Savior, be it death itself,” that person’s life is saved for eternity.  How precious is one’s eternal life, their soul?  “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?  Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?”  Permit the impossible for a second.  Even if you could have the whole world, everything in it is yours, all yours; it doesn’t even come near how precious your eternal soul is and how precious eternal life is!Just as Jesus was serious about His work and was not ashamed to set aside his glory in order to save humans, so He’s dead serious about people not being ashamed to be connected with Him: “If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”  One of the most dreaded things for any person alive is to feel ashamed, to feel dumb, to be looked down on.  But this makes sense to even human standards: if someone is ashamed of Jesus, ashamed to be a follower of Jesus, ashamed of what Jesus says, then it makes perfect sense that in the end when Jesus returns as King of kings and Lord of lords that HE be ashamed of them for being so foolish.These are certainly hard words from our Savior to swallow.  But before we start applying them, notice a couple things.  These words are coming from our Savior, who came to save us from our sins completely on His own and did not leave one thing left for us to do, He did it all, and these words are coming from our Savior who loves us and wants more than anything for us to stay in the faith and enjoy eternal life with Him forever.  So he tells us some things we need to hear about our life on earth.  This is the fact: you believe in Jesus, you will bear a cross.  What is a cross?  It’s not all suffering; rather, it is anything and everything that you suffer because of your connection to Jesus.If we don’t think we bear the cross today, then we’ve only fooled ourselves.  Don’t think that the world around us is going to get any more accepting of God’s Word or for us Christians who follow Christ.  Gay marriage and the acceptance of homosexuality are only going to become more mainstream, abortion and the lack of respect for human life is only going to be more and more tolerated.  As people in our world move further away from God and His Word they will move further away from you as well.  For standing up for your faith you will be marginalized, labeled “old fashioned,” “intolerant,”  “out-dated,” and “out of touch.”  Yet, that’s not it.  There are also inward crosses that we bear inside of us.  We bear an inward struggle against sin and temptation that the unbeliever simply does not.  There’s that old, unconverted sinful flesh that sits inside of me until the day that I die which tempts, harasses, and causes no end of trouble.  How could your loving God allow this medical trouble to happen to you?  If God really loved you, would He really say it’s wrong to sleep with your boyfriend or girlfriend?  If God really cared about you, wouldn’t you be very successful at work, popular, and enough money to do the things you’ve always wanted to do?  If God really has forgiven you, would you still be haunted by all those horrid sins and failures of your life?But why?  Wouldn’t it be so much nicer to not have to bear a cross now?  To get glory now?  Wouldn’t it be so much nicer to be free from all the troubles that plague me?  To be successful, courageous, free from problems, to enjoy all the things of this world.  That Christianity would dominate the world, that we would be the respected ones, the popular ones, the ones in power!  That people would look to me for the answers in life!Why doesn’t God allow that to happen?  Why?  Because He knows us all too well.  If He were to take our problems away we would have no use for Him, no reason to find salvation and strength in Him.  You see, without the cross as a constant in our lives we would break our arms patting ourselves on the back.  We would forget about God and our need for God.  We were conceived and born in sin and we’ll never run out of the desire to become God, to have things our way, to do our own thing.  But it is in suffering, in bearing the cross, that we begin to doubt our own strength, our own ability to save ourselves, we remember our sin, our frailty, our constant, total, absolute need of our Savior.  You know how it is.  When things are going great in your life, personal Bible study falls away, prayer becomes rare, worship also becomes rare.So God uses crosses to drive us to our knees and say, “God be merciful to me a sinner”  “There is nothing good that lives in me, in my sinful nature…what a wretched person I am!”  And then God brings us to the glorious reality that He bore the cross first for us, He took upon himself the punishment we deserve, all our iniquities were laid first on Him, by His wounds we are healed, the punishment that brought us peace was upon Him!Think about all the things that drive us to our knees today, that refocus our attention off of the things in this world, that cause us to look for peace and safety outside of ourselves and rather in our Savior Jesus, are we going to be complaining about them in heaven?  Are we going to be upset with those things that caused us to focus on our dear Lord and Savior in heaven?  Are we going to be troubled by all of the problems that made us give up our worldly security or self-security for hope and security in Christ alone, when we’re in heaven?So we actually rejoice in our crosses, rejoice to suffer for our Savior.  Why? Because it is our sufferings that point us away from ourselves and to our Lord and Savior Jesus.  Sufferings point us to Jesus and the cross He bore.  They point us to Him who bore all of our sins upon Himself on His cross, who paid for us in full.  It is in Jesus’ cross where He gives us the strength to bear our crosses and it’s in His cross where we have the assurance of glory in eternity with Him forever.  So my fellow believers, take up your dear cross and follow Him!
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