Sermon: "Take up your cross and follow Me" - some thoughts on what Jesus meant
Scripture readings: Ruth 1: 14-18, Mark 8: 31-38
Text – Mark 8: 34b: “If anyone would come after Me, they must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow Me”.
Before I begin with my message this morning, I’d like to do a snap survey and find out who among the congregation seated here this morning is dyslexic? I ask this question, not only because my wife is dyslexic, but also that I’ve been spending some time helping our minister, Rev Michael Stone, with some editing on his PhD that he’s been working on whilst on furlough. Michael, as many of you know, is also dyslexic, and it’s interesting to understand how dyslexics think. For instance, Michael explained that if one had to look at the spelling of the word "cat", a non-dyslexic would come up with the one correct spelling thereof in a split second. However, the dyslexic has to process through the 27 incorrect spellings, by process of elimination, to get to the one correct spelling – all within the same time-frame! As a result, as a dyslexic progresses through the school system and the work becomes more complex, they appear slower but in fact are suffering from severe information overload. Try opening ALL of your computer applications at the same time, and you'll get some idea of what the dyslexic's mind goes through.
Yet dyslexia manifests in sheer genius, if properly channelled. For instance, if my wife and I plan an outing, within seconds she has already worked through all the possible scenarios in her mind – what we will be doing, is there a pool there, what if it rains, is there somewhere else we can go if Plan A doesn't work out ... and packs a bag accordingly. When James was a baby, her nappy bag contained apparatus to clean up every possible emission of bodily fluids imaginable. And she's the only lady I know who can pack a caravan perfectly – and I mean PERFECT: balanced, everything there, not too light, not too heavy – all this without any instruction or even having read any books on how a ‘van should be packed.
Now I understand why Belinda regards Michael as the greatest preacher she has ever heard. As fellow dyslexics, they both start off with a single idea and then branch off in a hundred different directions. And the sentences are often incomplete, but that doesn't matter, since in their minds the idea, and its connection to the next idea, has already been formulated in wide screen, high-definition, vivid colour. The rest of us, of course, often don't have a clue where they are going, because we think in linear patterns. The dyslexic is thinking Midlands Meander, while the non-dyslexic thinks N3.
So this morning I’ve decided that my message will not be starting off at Point A and taking you to point B, but rather that I would share some random thoughts on what Jesus means when He says that we must “take up your cross and follow Me”. Think of today’s sermon as a buffet – different things laid out, so that there will hopefully be one nugget of truth that you can latch onto and make your own. Don’t worry if you don’t pick up everything – the sermon is being recorded, and I’ve e-mailed my notes to the church office, so you can get hold of the detail if you want it.
Right … here goes! “Take up your cross, and follow Me”. “If anyone would come after Me, they must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow Me”. Man – I’ve heard this passage being quoted so glibly by some; so misunderstood by others. And I think that sometimes we oppress ourselves with this passage, because we see it not as a victorious commitment to following Jesus with every fibre of our being, but rather as an oppressive burden that Jesus plonks on our shoulders.
For instance, we often meet people who are going through rough times, and when we ask them how they are coping, they give you this deep sigh, and say, “Well, I’m doing okay, I guess – I suppose that this burden is the cross which I have to bear!” Sorry, folks, but when someone says that to me, I just want to slap them so hard! God gives us challenges to overcome, tests to build us up and make us grow – not to wear like sackcloth! In my cycling days I knew a guy like that. I was just a social rider, but this guy was a top cyclist – small, sinewy, tough as nails, and unbelievably fit. So the one day we did this 100km race. I finished in about 3½ hours; he was expected to do it about an hour faster. So when I saw him at spinning class on the Monday morning, I asked him how it went, and he responded, “I had a puncture”. “So?” I responded. “What did that do to your time?” “You don’t understand. I punctured. That’s it. Race over”. “What?” I replied. “Race over? What do you mean? Don’t you licensed riders know how to fix punctures? You QUIT? You wuss! Fix the puncture, get back on the bike, and finish the race! What’s the matter with you?”
Now before you rush outside to slash my tyres, please, I’m NOT making light of illnesses, disabilities, or bad things that happen, but they are NOT the cross you have to bear! I knew a young lady in our church back in Joburg – always smiling, ready to crack a joke, loves Jesus with all her heart, was a youth leader, led our worship team, was president of her Toastmasters club – and she is blind. Now she could have gone and sat in a corner and sulked about her blindness being “the cross I have to bear”, or she could think about taking up her cross in the sense of, “right, Jesus has come into my heart, I have a mission to carry out in response to His love, and so I need to get on with it!”
Let’s have a look in Scripture to see what it means to “take up your cross and follow Jesus”, and the answer is found, not in the Mark 8 passage, but waaaay back in the Old Testament – in the story of Ruth. Wendy read the passage for us this morning from Ruth 1: 14-18, but let’s pick up the story from the beginning so that the stage is set: Ruth was a Moabite who was married to an Israelite, but sadly after 10 years of marriage her husband died. Her mother-in-law Naomi, an Israelite, was also a widow, and because she had lost her husband and both of her sons, she had nothing really to live for in Moab, and wanted to return home to Israel. In fact, Naomi was probably thinking that her state of life at that stage had become “the cross which she had to bear”, and so she just wanted to go home. Ruth was instructed to go home to her people in Moab, but Ruth had other ideas, and so Verse 15 is where we pick up the story.
15 “Look,” said Naomi, “your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.” 16 But Ruth replied, “Don't urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. 17 Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.” 18 When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her.
Let’s look at a few things and see how this relates to “taking up our cross and following Jesus”:
Firstly, we need to understand that Ruth was not forced to go to Israel with Naomi. In fact, Naomi offered her the easier path. “Go back to Moab. Be with your people. Worship their gods. No-one will think badly of you – in fact, that’s what would be expected of you.”
How often do we as Christians hear this: “Why do you need to do all that religious goody-goody stuff? Go on, have a beer – there’s nothing wrong with it. Everybody enjoys a drink now and then. And that hot woman over there? She wants you, man – go for it. Come on, you’re out of town – no-one’s going to find out. Your wife’s probably doing her own thing, any way. You did what – you entered your actual kilometres travelled on your tax return? And they weren’t enough, and now you have to pay in? Don’t be silly, man – pad them a bit. Those dof guys at SARS will never know any different. Besides, the Government is corrupt – they’re only wasting your tax money anyway.
Not Ruth – she willingly chose to go with Naomi, irrespective of whatever hardships she was likely to face as a widow in a foreign land. Taking up your cross and following Jesus is hard, but it’s not forced on us. It’s a free choice we make.
Secondly, we can view taking up our cross in the same way as a marriage commitment. Look at what Ruth says: “I will go where you go; where you stay, I will stay; your people will be my people; your God will be my God; where you die, there I will be buried”. This is a total, life-long commitment. One of the sad things about marriage today is that it’s too easy to bail out. Marriage is tough – and it’s meant to be. You want to ride bicycles, you have to take the up-hills as well as the down-hills. The punctures will happen – often when you least expect them – or when you try to get clever. I cannot think the number of times I’ve said to fellow cyclists, “Man, these Continental tyres are the best – I haven’t had a puncture in six months…” Pssssst – flubba-flubba-flubba. It’s easy for my wife to love me when I’m showering her with gifts, giving her money to spend, and showing her a good time. It’s a lot more difficult to love me when I do crazy things like give up a lucrative accounting career to go into the ministry, or when I’m lying in bed sick with a cold and being a total pain in the backside like only us guys can be – right, gents? Same with our commitment to Christ – there will be times when the demons flee before us, times when it seems that people are healed as our shadow falls on them, just like Peter – but there will also be times when the storms come, when we are in the desert at the mercy of Satan, and when all we have to hold onto is “It is written…”. Those are the times when we need to “vasbyt” and hold on to Jesus, our Lord and Saviour, who loves us and sustains us. Those are the things that build character!
Thirdly, let’s look at what Ruth means when she is saying, “I will go where you go”. Are we prepared to live like Jesus has called us to live? I mean, really live as Jesus wants us to live? Let’s look at Verses 36-38 of our Mark passage.
- Verse 36: “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” That was me in 2002 – living for the job: long hours, chasing the buck, kiss-up-and-kick-down. Who’s backside do I need to kiss? Whose head do I need to crush? How much harder can I work? And if I can’t look good, how can I make my colleagues look bad?” Corporate life – if you’ve been there, you know what I’m talking about!
- Verse 37: “Or what can a person give in exchange for their soul?” We bargain with Jesus. If I attend both services each Sunday, serve on every committee in the church, and make myself totally indispensible, then I might … just … make it into heaven. Now God wants us to worship, and He wants us to serve, but we don’t do these things so that we can curry favour with God. We do them because we respond to the love of Christ, and because we want to serve Him.
- Verse 38: “If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the son of Man will be ashamed of them when He comes in His Father’s glory with the holy angels”. How many of us are ashamed of the Gospel? Now before you square up in indignation and say, “Not me”, let me ask you how many of your friends or work colleagues know you are a Christian? Does your lifestyle reflect your Christianity? Do your ethics reflect a commitment to Christ? Do you tell people who invite you out that you will be at church on Sunday evening, or do you say that you have a “prior engagement”? And let me not get sanctimonious here. I need to pop out to the shops after church – do I go in dressed like this, or do I go home and get changed first? On this note, a colleague and I went to Midlands Mall on Wednesday on behalf of our fellow seminarians to buy a farewell gift for Neville Richardson, who is about to retire from the Seminary, and we happened to have our collars on. You should see the looks on the faces of the people when they see two penguins walking through a shopping centre! You see, I’m not talking about pounding people to death with a ten-pound Bible, but I’m asking, does the light of Christ shine through us?
Finally, Ruth says to Naomi that “your people will be my people”. Who are “our people”? Like Jesus asked the rich man, when telling the story of the Good Samaritan, “who is your neighbour?” Fellow Christians? Our families? “Nice” people? Who are “God’s people”? In Peter Storey’s book “And Are We Yet Alive”, he writes that when a Christian prays for Jesus to come into their heart, that prayer alone can never be enough. When we pray, “Come into my heart, Lord Jesus”, he responds by saying, “Can I bring my friends?” “Hold on, Lord – you don’t understand. My intention is that You come into my heart – be my Lord and my Saviour”. But again Jesus replies, “Can I bring My friends”.
We look at those clustered around Him, and groan. “Oh my God, no – not them, please, not them! They’re all different colours, and their cultures are so different from mine, and they talk languages I don’t understand. They come from places I don’t want to go to, and some of them have done things which I was taught were not very polite and nice. Lord, do you really want me to let them into my heart as well?” And He says, “Yes”. And we say, “What about those we managed to keep under for so many years, because they were black and brown?” and He says, “Close friends of mine”. And we say, “what about those we like to have baking cakes for church meetings but not in leadership positions in the church?” and He says, “Some of my best friends are women.” And we say, “Lord, surely we’re allowed one respectable prejudice? What about gay people? You’ve robbed us of most of our favourite prejudices, but we can surely still hold onto this one? You don’t want them, do you, because you know, Lord, that there are verses in the Bible that allow us to denigrate them?” And Jesus says, “Well, actually, they are also my friends”.
And so we say, “Jesus, is having all these people in my heart the only way I can have You? And Jesus says, “If you love Me, then feed My sheep. To love me, you also need to love My friends”.
So in closing, what does it really mean when Jesus tells us to “take up your cross and follow Me?” By God's grace, if we are to be a genuine believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, these are the things what we need to do (Source: Steve Camp):
- Believe that Jesus is the Christ. 1 John 5:1 – “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves His child as well.”
- Be an overcomer of the world. 1 John 5:3-4 – “This is love for God: to obey His commands. And His commands are not burdensome, for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith.”
- Stop practicing sin. 1 John 3:9 – “No-one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in them; they cannot go on sinning, because they have been born of God.” 1 John 5:18 – “We know that everyone who has been born of God does not sin; the One who was born of God keeps them safe, and the evil one cannot harm them.”
- Practice righteousness. 1 John 2:29 – “If you know that He [Jesus] is righteous, you know that everyone who does what is right has been born of Him.”
- Love others. 1 John 4:7-8 – “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.”