Sunday, March 4, 2012

True Discipleship, True Satisfaction, True Life

 Texts:    I Corinthians 10:1-17; Mark 8:27-37

    WHAT WOULD YOU DO IF you were a young man of 34, with a beautiful wife and two young children, you had your whole life ahead of you, and the authorities said you must hang?  And not because of any crime you'd committed, but because you were a practicing Christian and pastor who helped others live their lives as practicing Christians? If the authorities told you you could save your life if you denied Jesus Christ, would you do it?  What if they told you you didn't even have to revile Jesus, you could say Jesus was a great prophet but not the eternal Son of God who shed His blood on the cross for sinners, and that'd save your life.   Would you do it?  For the sake of your wife and children, would you compromise the truth about Jesus your Lord?   For the sake of your own life, would you be ashamed of Him and His word and deny that He is your Saviour and the only Saviour of the world?

    Or would you take up your cross and follow Him?

    This is the decision faced by Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani in Iran, but for him, it is a decision he has made.   He has decided in the face of all earthly pains and earthly joys to follow Jesus his Lord and Saviour, even if it means the death of his flesh in this world.

    Our Scripture texts for this morning ask us, can we, will we, make the same decision?  Brothers and sisters, it's useless for us to say that we aren't like Pastor Youcef, that we don't live under a cruel Muslim regime where converting to Christianity is a capital crime.  Even if we lived under the most Church-friendly government possible, we'd still have to decide whether to take up our crosses.  Because denying ourselves isn't something that starts with facing death for the sake of Jesus Christ and the gospel; no, it's something we have to do every day.

    In 1 Corinthians 10 we read how our spiritual forefathers came out of Egypt.  They were all followers of God through Moses.  They all shared in the blessing of God's people.  They ate the manna the Lord gave from heaven.  They drank the water that sprang miraculously from the rock in the wilderness.  But their hearts were committed to the Lord and His will.  They weren't willing to trust the Lord and His servant Moses to lead them into the Promised Land.  In the desert, not certain where they were going, the children of Israel were called to deny themselves and follow God through hardship to true satisfaction and true life.  But as St. Paul reminds us, most of them chose to deny God instead.

    He summarizes how this played out: They committed idolatry, worshipping the Golden Calf, claiming it was a statue of the Lord Yahweh who'd brought them out of Egypt.  They committed sexual immorality.  They doubted God, even the Lord Christ, and put Him to the test as if God could somehow come up lacking.  They grumbled and griped about the food and the conditions, even though the Lord never let them go hungry, never let their shoes or clothes wear out, even though He worked amazing miracles in their sight and over and over assured them that He could always to be trusted.

    "Idolatry" truly describes all these sins, for what is idolatry?  It's worshipping anything or anybody more than the triune God who made heaven and earth.  Idolatry is selfishness, especially the selfishness that goes against what we know God wants for us.  It's gaining the whole world though it should cost us our souls.  Idolatry puts loyalty to ourselves, our wants, even to our fears ahead of faith in the God who made us.  We don't have to be following a pillar of cloud around in a barren wilderness to be tempted to idolatry.  It happens every time the will of the Lord and our will comes into conflict.  And tragically, like the Hebrews in the wilderness, we give into the temptation.  We know the Lord wants us to do good to another and we can do good to that other person, but we choose not to because it's inconvenient.   We let our anger and annoyance boil over because it's so satisfying to "express ourselves," instead of showing forgiveness as the Lord Jesus has forgiven us.  Idolatry is at the heart of the current debate over government-funded contraception. Idolatry claims us when we eat or drink more than we should, when we watch too much TV or surf the Internet too long though we truly have better things to do.  It's idolatry when we snipe at and gossip about one another because it's so satisfying to feel superior to those we're complaining about.  And I know exactly how it is because I am guilty of many of these things myself.

    Like St. Paul, I don't remind you of these things to make you feel down or discouraged.  Rather, like him I speak to you as sensible people who have the mind of Christ.  The first thing we need to accept is that we will be tempted to deny our Lord for the sake of ourselves and our own satisfaction.  But as we read in verse 13, "No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man."  When you are tempted, there's no need to panic and say, "Oh, no one has ever faced this issue before, God cannot help me overcome it."  And there's no excuse to say, "This temptation is entirely new; God hasn't come up with a plan for this one."  No, God is faithful and God is strong.  He will not let you be tempted beyond your ability.  He will provide you a way of escape, so you will be able to endure the temptation and not give in.

    In our Gospel reading from St. Mark It's significant that our Lord warns His disciples and the crowds about taking up their crosses and following Him shortly after Peter has confessed that Jesus is indeed the Christ.  If He were not the Christ, this command would be meaningless.  He'd have no right to ask us to override our own wills and even give up our lives for Him.  Peter would have been justified in trying to deter Him from going to Jerusalem and certain death.  If Jesus were not the promised Messiah and King, He could offer us no help and no reward when we take up our crosses daily for Him.  But Jesus of Nazareth was and is the Christ, the Son of the living God.  His blood did take away the sins of the world.  He is truly the One who has life in Himself, who can give it to all who believe in Him.  He is worthy that we should override our wants and desires to obey and give honor to Him and Him alone.

    Last night as I was putting the final touches on this sermon, I read online that Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani had indeed been executed, yesterday afternoon.  The report was not yet confirmed, but if it is true, our sadness for our brother is mixed with joy.  He has lost his life for Jesus' sake and the sake of the gospel, and therefore he has saved it.  You and I probably will not be called upon to shed our blood for our Lord.  Nevertheless, taking up our crosses begins and continues every day as we choose to love Him and our neighbor more than we love ourselves.  This would be too much for us, but it is not too much for Him.  Jesus Christ is He who took up the great cross for you, and He is with you always to help you carry your cross for His sake and the sake of the gospel.  In our time of decision He gives us everything we need to choose Him over ourselves.  We have the word of Christ to read and remember and apply to our own situations.  We have the Holy Spirit to strengthen us when we are weak and failing.  We have His sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper, where we can see and feel and taste the truth of His love for us, where He renews in us the sacred reality of His death that wiped away our sins and His resurrection that gives us life forever more.

    Since this is so, come to the Table Jesus spreads for you.  Trust Him and know that even as you can taste and swallow the bread and the wine, just as surely His broken body and shed blood has purchased the forgiveness we need every day.  Come and take part in Jesus Christ and all His blessings, won for you on the cross.  Here with joy submit yourself to Him as His true disciple, and receive a foretaste of the true satisfaction and life that awaits you when the Son of Man will come in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.  In thankfulness and joy, decide for Him, for in grace and love Jesus Christ denied Himself and decided for you.  Amen.