Brothers and sisters, we are now solidly into the season of Lent. Lent is that time of the Christian year where we remember own sin, our own deep need for a savior. We remember we’re made of dust, and we’re going to back to being dust. Perhaps you’re giving something up for the Lent this year…
Christianity Today compiled a list of some of the most popular things people are giving up on Twitter.
You know what the number one thing people are giving up for Lent is on Twitter?
School. It’s understandable. You know you’ve been there.
The number 3 thing was Twitter (not a bad choice).
The 5 thing was social networking (I’ve done this before…it’s quite refreshing).
Of course the usuals like chocolate, alcohol, fast food, and so on were popular. Then there are the people trying to be clever.
Giving up Lent for Lent came in at number 14, and right ahead of that was simply the word “you.”
As in, I’m giving up you for Lent (yikes!).
You know, on the one hand, I’m encouraged that the culture at large is at least aware of the season of Lent, and is at least interested in the idea of denying themselves in some way. I do wonder, however if even those of us in the church really have a clear understanding of what it means to deny ourselves the way Jesus talked about it.
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34 ESV)
What does this mean? What does this look like in our day to day lives?
Self denial isn’t giving up chocolate
First, let’s talk about what self denial and taking up our cross isn’t. The kind of self-denial that Jesus is talking about is so much more than giving up chocolate for Lent. Giving up sugary snacks might be an admirable form of self-discipline and could be a way to deny an unhealthy sort of pleasure. But I don’t think this is exactly what Jesus had in mind when it comes to discipleship. I once heard on a sermon on Ash Wednesday in which a priest made this statement: “a great proposal demands a great response.”
When someone proposes marriage to another, they are offering a great gift: their entire life. Yet, to accept this gift, you have to say “yes,” which means giving your whole life as well in response. This is how it is with God. He has made a great proposal by sending us Jesus. This proposal demands a great response. If our practice of self-denial is limited to chocolate, I’m not sure we’re getting what the Lenten season is all about…or what following Jesus is all about.
When it comes to taking up our cross, we often speak as if merely enduring inconveniences is somehow giving glory to God. “Poor Amber has to listen to Nathan’s jokes every day. That’s just her cross to bear.” I don’t think so.
Don’t you think real denial of self, a real taking up of one’s cross has to be more than this?
What self denial really looks like
When we think about denying ourselves, we often become self centered. We think about not swearing, or drinking too much or gratifying some other desire of our flesh. We deny ourselves the pleasures of the world, and we do it to try to increase our own personal holiness.
Don’t get me wrong, personal holiness is important, but you can’t stop there. Jesus was perfectly holy, perfectly righteous, but he still went to cross. Aren’t we called to imitate him in this?
Jesus didn’t take up his cross for himself–he suffered scorn and shame and death for you and for me. So our self-denial has to move beyond just personal holiness become self-sacrificial in character. We have to deny ourselves and pick up our cross and follow Jesus for the sake of others.
Let me offer your three examples of what it looks like to deny yourself, pick up your cross, and follow Jesus:
1) Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. Thomas Cranmer was the Archbishop of Canterbury at the time of the English Reformation. It’s primarily because of him that we have the liturgy in English that we worship with today. He risked his life to reform the Church, and was ultimately burned alive for his commitment to the Word of God.
2) Recently 21 Christians were killed in Libya by radical Muslims. The brother of two of the men prayed for their murderers publicly on television, thanking them for publicizing their profession of faith in Jesus, and saying “This only makes us stronger in our faith because the Bible told us to love our enemies and bless those who curse us.” This man set aside any desire for revenge and retaliation for the sake of even of those who killed his own brothers!
3) My parents, Jeff & Renée. Both of them left established, comfortable careers to become missionaries in Africa. My mom was playing violin for world-class orchestras. My dad was minister of music at a large church. Things were going well. They gave up safety, security and all kinds of certainty to take their young children with them and plant churches in one of the least-reached places on the planet.
Do these examples sound radical?
Do they sound extreme?
I hope so.
“Deny yourself, pick up your cross, and follow me” is a radical, extreme statement. Remember…a great proposal requires a great response. How are you living a radically sacrificial life for the sake of others?
But…what if you are not a Reformer? What if you are not in physical danger because your commitment to the Word? What if you are not called to be a full-time missionary?
First, you are called to be a Reformer. You are called to stand firm on the Word of God and be constantly reforming your life to that standard. And believe me, that will always entail risk. Perhaps not to your physical person (at least in the short term in the United States)…but it will entail relational risk. It will mean changing your life in ways that may be scary to you. In ways that will be unsettling and profoundly uncomfortable at first. And you are called to embrace that, and lead others into it.
Here’s the thing: if you’re following Jesus, sooner or later will be presented with your opportunity to take up your cross and join in Christ’s suffering. I will go so far as to say that suffering with Christ is a necessary part of the Christian life. The Apostle Paul reminds us,
The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. (Romans 8:16-17 ESV)
If you are living a life of habitual risk-avoidance you will certainly suffer less. But you will also miss out on really following Jesus.
What do you really believe?
Please don’t get me wrong. I never want to encourage suffering for suffering’s sake. That would be sick and perverse. We don’t embrace suffering because it is inherently good…it’s not, and we rightly pray to be relieved of it. But when we are suffering for the sake of others and for Christ we can see God’s hand it in, we can see it’s worth it because of what is waiting for us on the other side.
“For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” (Mark 8:35 ESV)
This is the counter-intuitiveness of the Gospel, and Jesus is crystal clear here. What he calls us to may look like death, but only in the short term.
Do you believe this? I mean, really deep down do you believe it? Because if you do, you will act on it!
You remember how Paul said it…
“For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” (Philippians 1:21 ESV)
Paul believed it, and acted on it.
In order to deny yourself, to take up your cross, and to follow Jesus you’ve got to believe the believe it deep in your soul when you pray,
“You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” (Psalm 16:11 ESV)
This is the truth.
And this is our hope!
And we are fools if we cave in to our own selfishness and the lies that the world will tell us.
“For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” (Mark 8:36-38 ESV)
Not reserved, but radical.
Not self-centered, but self-sacrificial.
Not grudging, but giving.
Not haughty, but holy.
Not only a promise of life forever, but an invitation to die today.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote,“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
The great proposal has been made. Jesus lived and died and rose again for you and today, and he has spoken to you..
What’s your response?
Will you come?
Will you die?
Will you truly live?