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Pentecost 15, “Take Up Your Cross and Follow Him”

Pastor Gary Wong, September 13, 2020

Matthew 16:21-26

21 From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. 22 Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. "Never, Lord!" he said. "This shall never happen to you!" 23 Jesus turned and said to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men." 24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. 26 What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?

Most of us are familiar with the childhood game, “Follow the leader.” This game has one simple rule: everyone must go wherever the leader leads—walking across a log, climbing a tree, crawling through a tunnel. It can be a really fun game or not so fun, depending on what kind of leader you are following. Today’s lesson speaks about following our leader, Jesus Christ. Our Savior encourages us to follow him on the path that he has laid out in his Word. At times, we might get discouraged as we stumble along life’s sometimes rocky road, or even be tempted to give up. Jesus, however, promises that he will be with us every step of the way. More than that, Jesus assures us that whoever follows him in this life will have eternal life in heaven. Jesus took up his cross to save us; let’s take up our crosses and follow him.

In Chapter Four of his Gospel, Matthew describes how Jesus called his first followers, or disciples, as the Bible describes them. When Jesus was walking along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, he said to Peter and Andrew, “Come, follow me and I will make you fishers of men” (Mt. 4:19). They immediately left their fishing nets and followed Jesus. James, and John, the sons of Zebedee, left their father’s boats and also followed their Savior. These former fishermen from Capernaum followed wherever Jesus led them. Over the span of nearly three years, all of Jesus’ disciples had witnessed his miracles and had heard him preach and teach about the kingdom of God. They were beneficiaries of Jesus’ masterful leadership even as Jesus was training them to be future leaders. Jesus had even given them a taste of what life was going to be like as full-time ministers of the gospel when he had sent them out to be his witnesses and to perform miracles in his name. How did it go for Jesus’ disciples as they tested the waters for the first time? The results probably exceeded even their wildest expectations. Their enthusiasm was evident as they returned with joy and reported to Jesus, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name” (Lk. 10:17).

At this point, Jesus’ disciples were on fire for the gospel and certain of their calling as disciples of Christ. But perhaps they were too confident. Perhaps their early success had lulled them into a false sense of security. Up till then, things had gone so well and so easily that the disciples might have mistakenly thought that following in Jesus’ footsteps would always be easy. Yes, the disciples had experienced a few bumps in the road—such as the time when they had not been welcomed in a Samaritan village. That incident, however, failed to dampen the disciples’ spirits. As far as the disciples were concerned, that incident was nothing more than a mere pebble along the otherwise smooth path upon which Jesus was leading them. As they continued following Jesus, larger and larger crowds came to see and hear the young rabbi who taught about the Scriptures with such authority. Moved by his message of repentance and the forgiveness of sins, more and more people became Jesus’ followers. At this point, then, there is little doubt that every one of the disciples would have told Jesus, “I will follow you wherever you go.”

Among the apostles, few could rival Peter in his zeal for the Lord. When Jesus asked them, “Who do you say I am?” Peter was the first to declare, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:15, 16). Jesus praised Peter for this beautiful confession of faith. By faith, he was convinced that Jesus was the Anointed One whom God had promised would come to redeem mankind. But did Peter’s confession mean that he truly understood what Jesus’ mission was or how he was going to carry it out? The answer is “No.” When Jesus bluntly told his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life, Peter objected. In a classic case of role reversal, Peter, the student, presumed to rebuke Jesus, his teacher: “Never Lord! This shall never happen to you!” (Matt. 16:22). Jesus would have none of it. Jesus rightfully rebuked Peter, saying, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men” (v.23).

Why did Peter object so strenuously? Well, up to this point, Jesus had said and done everything that Peter had expected of the Messiah. The problem was that Jesus’ revelation about his suffering and death didn’t fit into Peter’s pre-conceived ideas about the Savior. Like many of his fellow Israelites, Peter assumed that the Messiah was going to throw off the yoke of the hated Romans and restore the nation of Israel to the pre-eminent position that it had once enjoyed. The many miracles that Jesus had performed were proof positive that nothing and no one could stop Jesus from marching into Jerusalem and then ruling from the throne of David.

The only problem with Peter’s idea was that it didn’t agree with God’s plan! Jesus was not going to Jerusalem to establish an earthly kingdom. Rather, Jesus was going there to die. Because of his great love for us, it had always been God’s plan to send his Son to save the world from the consequences of sin. So, the Son of God left his home in heaven to live on earth as the Son of Man. Jesus humbled himself by becoming a human being and subjecting himself to the law. Jesus could have taken the easy route and used his almighty power to fight Satan’s efforts to get him to sin. Instead, Jesus set aside his divine power; yet, he successfully resisted every temptation that the devil threw at him. Jesus kept God’s law perfectly in our place.

The next part of Jesus’ journey was the most difficult step. In order for mankind to be saved, God demanded that payment be made for every sin. What is that payment? The Bible teaches, “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23a). So even though Jesus had never committed a single sin in thought, word, or deed, Jesus’ next steps took him to the cross at Calvary. He knew what lay in store on the cross. Jesus knew that he would suffer the most agonizing death imaginable. He knew that he would be suffering the physical agony of crucifixion; worst of all, he would suffer hell, forsaken by his own Father. Once again, Jesus could have followed a different path. At any time, Jesus could have used his divine power and saved his own life. But that would have left mankind forever separated from God’s love. So, Jesus stayed the course. He didn’t stumble or take a single miss-step. Jesus knew exactly where he was going and what he was going to accomplish once he got there. Jesus suffered death and hell to pay for the sins of the whole world.

If Jesus’ journey had ended with his death on the cross, Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, would be considered the ranting of a mad man, and anyone who would follow in Jesus’ footsteps would be considered one of the biggest fools on earth. We know, however, that Jesus earthly journey did not end in the grave. Just as Jesus had told Peter, Jesus was raised to life on the third day. Jesus’ resurrection assures us that Jesus is truly the Savior of the world. And because he lives, we too shall live! Now, that’s a Savior worth following!

Now, let me ask you a question. Does the fact that Jesus has paved the way to heaven with his perfect life and innocent death mean that following Jesus is going to be easy? As Peter would find out, the answer is “No.” Because we are sinful people living in a sin-filled world, our road through life is difficult. Jesus himself reminds us, “broad is the road that leads to destruction …but narrow the road that leads to life” (Matt. 7:13). Unfortunately, our sinful natures always look for the path of least resistance—even if it means that we may be speeding down the highway to hell! How, then, can we stay on the narrow road that leads to heaven? Jesus gives us the answer in our text. Our Savior says, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24).

How are we to understand our Savior’s directive? The first thing he tells us to do is deny ourselves. What Jesus means is that we are to say “No!” to our sinful natures and the evil desires of our sinful hearts. Just as Jesus battled the devil in the desert, we are to fight Satan’s temptations with God’s Word. The next thing Jesus tells us to do is to take up our crosses. The question is, “What is the Christian cross?” Perhaps the best way to answer that question is by saying what the cross isn’t. The Christian cross is not suffering and hardship that is common to both believer and un-believer alike. Rather, the Christian cross, as Luther put it, is “suffering for the sake of the Lord ,,,[and] for his Word.” As Christians, we shouldn’t be surprised if we are suffering for our faith—when we are mocked for believing that there are only two genders, or when we lose friends because we speak out against abortion, gay marriage and unmarried couples enjoying God’s gift of sex.

The Bible tells us that “we must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). How, then, should we respond when God allows suffering to come into our lives? First of all, don’t despair. God does not send crosses to punish us. Rather, he sends them to strengthen our faith. So, when a cross comes, don’t complain or run away from it. Willingly take it up, just as Jesus willingly took up our sins. Pray for patience and courage to bear up under the weight of your crosses. And remember that the crosses we bear here on earth will become a crown of righteousness we will wear in heaven.

Friends, because of sin, we were once lost and condemned creatures. We could not find our way through this life, nor could we save ourselves from the everlasting fires of hell. Fortunately, God rescued us when he sent Jesus to save us. Jesus followed the path from heaven to earth, from the cross to the grave, and from the grave to the sky. Jesus has opened the door to heaven for all who believe that he is their Savior. He is the road that leads to eternal life. He lifts us up now and will carry us to our heavenly home when our earthly journey has ended. Since Jesus took up his cross to save us, let’s take up our crosses and follow him. Amen.

“Come Follow Me, the Savior Spoke” (CW 453)

Text: Johann Scheffler, 1624-77, abr., st.1,3,5; Geistliche Lieder und Lobesgange, 1695

“Come, follow me,” the Savior spoke,

“All in my way abiding.

Deny yourselves; the world forsake;

Obey my call and guiding.

Oh, bear the cross, whate’er betide;

Take my example for your guide.

“I am the light; I light the way;

A godly life displaying.

I bid you walk as in the day;

I keep your feet from straying.

I am the way and well I show

How you should journey here below.

Then let us follow Christ our Lord

And take the cross appointed

And, firmly clinging to his Word,

In suff’ring be undaunted,

For those who bear the battle’s strain

The crown of heav’nly life obtain.

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