Two sermons on the blessed cross in two weeks. I can’t recall ever preaching on texts drawn consecutively from Scripture (I’ll try and post the previous week’s sermon soon.) It was an intimidating thought to begin with, but once I actually considered the texts and thought ahead, it actually turned out to be immensely illuminating. Instead of wondering what I would say each week, preaching on subsequent texts forced me to consider the individual features of each text more closely. The end result was better sermons, because I had to focus on what made each text unique. The early church used lectio continua (reading straight through a book of the Bible on succeeding Sundays), and in some quarters preaching straight through a book of the Bible is the usual practice, but Lutherans have typically keyed off the Gospel of the day, which changes every week, as the main text of Scripture to be preached and pondered. Maybe someday I’ll take a few weeks and preach my way through a book.
Like many things in Christian experience, the cross is something that has to be experienced before you can talk about it intelligently. Those who haven’t felt it think that those who talk about it are exaggerating, but we know we’re not. It’s real and it happens, even in our sophisticated and “tolerant” age.
There’s so much that could be said about the Christian’s cross that I can’t possibly cram it into two sermons. I was able to expound just a handful of facets of the cross, but it’s an exceedingly important doctrine to consider and to teach. It’s eminently practical because it teaches people what to expect and how to react. It’s also a criminally under-taught doctrine in the church today — when was the last time you mentioned Joel Osteen mention anything even remotely like the Christian’s cross? (Hardly never, that’s when.) It doesn’t sell and it doesn’t make sense to your flesh, but it’s a vitally important doctrine that cannot be taught or stressed too much. It helps you make sense of your life as a Christian. Lutherans pretty much stand alone in presenting this key element of Biblical teaching. I’m happy to be proved wrong, but I don’t think it would be too easy on that point.
May Jesus bless you with the joyous results of His cross as you bear your own cross after Him. Amen.
“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35For I have come to turn
“‘a man against his father,
a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—
36 a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’
37 “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38 and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
40 “He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives the one who sent me. 41 Anyone who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and anyone who receives a righteous man because he is a righteous man will receive a righteous man’s reward. 42 And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward.” (matt 10.34-42 niv84)
What would it take for you to stop being a Christian? A dirty look? A mean word? Whispers and rumors behind your back? Excessive fees and taxes, just because you’re a Christian? Having your career stall? Losing your job or your home? Having your parents turn their backs on you? Having your children turn their backs on you? Being betrayed by a member of your own family? Having your livelihood and your family’s wellbeing threatened? The threat of physical violence? A gun to your head? Someone thumbing back the hammer?
Sometimes people get the idea that being a Christian means that all your problems will be over, you’ll be prosperous, healthy, and well-liked, and everything will be great. The truth is not so uniformly sunny. Following Jesus isn’t like children’s books or greeting cards make it look. Being a Christian isn’t hugging children or cuddling little lambs. It’s blood and conflict and heartache and hard choices. It’s losing things you love and hold dear. It’s being willing to sacrifice everything – literally everything that the world holds dear — so you can hold on to Jesus. We don’t have a children’s storybook Christianity. We have a faith that sometimes asks us to say goodbye to a good relationship with relatives, to pass up wealth and advancement, to bow our heads beneath the sword and let them do to us what they wish.
Some people get confused by this. They think that their lives should be outwardly peaceful if they’re Christians, and if they’re not, then something’s wrong. Didn’t Jesus come to bring peace? Didn’t the angels sing, “Peace on earth, good will to men” when He was born? Didn’t Isaiah prophesy that the Child to be born would be called the Prince of Peace? Even Jesus Himself said, “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give you.” So why does He say, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace on earth, but a sword”? Jesus is talking about the results of His coming here. He rebuked the sins of the world with His words, and even with His presence on earth. The way He lived His life and served God with good works was a slap in the face of all those who didn’t trust in God. They didn’t belong to God, and Jesus wouldn’t let them forget that. They hated Him for it.
We rebuke the sinful world around us. Just by the way we live our lives as Christians, we point out everything wrong with the people of the world around us. Do you love your husband or your wife? That reminds the people of the world of their own selfishness. Do you treasure your children? That reminds the people of the world how they haven’t done all they could for their own children. Do you work hard at your job? That reminds the people of the world how they’re lazy and greedy and shirkers. Do you help others and show care for them? That reminds the people of the world how they only care about themselves. Just by the way we live our everyday lives, we rebuke the sins of the world – and they don’t like that.
That’s why Jesus says, “I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law – a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.” There’s always been a division between those who trust in Christ and display the fruits of their faith, and those who don’t. Those divisions can cut right across the ties that are supposed to be tightest. What is tighter than the bond between a parent and a child, for instance? Yet if one of them is an unbeliever, or lives like it, then there’s going to be friction. Often the worst betrayals, the deepest wounds, come from those who should love us the most. They should love and care for us most tenderly and deeply, but instead they do the worst damage. And so those who do not obey the gospel of God are separated, put a million miles away, from we who do, even if they’re our closest friends, or our children, our siblings, our parents. It’s worth noting that this division comes because of God’s Word. That’s especially the kind of division Jesus is talking about. Families fight about all sorts of things, but what Jesus says here applies only to division for the sake of God’s Word.
If you know from experience what Jesus is talking about, then know that it’s not your fault. If you’re clashing with family members over God’s Word, remember that it wasn’t your idea. They’re not reacting negatively to you personally – they’re reacting that way against Jesus. “Whoever hears you hears Me,” Jesus promises us, and that’s still true even when we’re struggling with family members. Jesus tells us here it would be this way.
The great temptation in those situations is to let go of Jesus and what He says in order to hold on to the family member. That’s why Jesus speaks so specifically in verses 37 and 38: “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me; and anyone who does not take up his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me.” Those are hard words to hear. We can’t love our families like we want? Aren’t you being a bit harsh and extreme here, Jesus? First, it’s good to remember that Jesus says, “More than Me” – He’s not saying we can’t love our families at all. Of course we love our parents and our children. The Fourth Commandment, especially, teaches us that. The problem comes when you love your parent or your child more than Jesus. Secondly, it may sound harsh but Jesus is exactly right to say this. If you love your father or mother more than Jesus, you’re saying they matter more to you than Him. You’re choosing those other people over Jesus. That’s idolatry. Those other people, even if they’re family, have displaced God in your heart.
Sometimes people say, “I don’t want to push them away by insisting on what God says in His Word. I don’t want to lose them.” But think about it: if they’re living contrary to God’s Word, they’re already on the way to being lost. What’s the worst that could happen? If you don’t speak up, they’re going to keep doing what they’re doing and their path away from God is unchanged. If you do say something, there’s at least a chance that they will come around. We need to take the long view and look ahead to the person’s eternal welfare. That’s more important than short-term peace based on not talking about things, which won’t be peace anyway because nothing was addressed. These are hard words of Jesus to hear, but we need to hear them.
So far we’ve been focusing on what you could lose when you follow Christ. But what could you gain? Jesus says, “Whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” If you trust in Jesus so much that you’re willing to let everything else go, Jesus promises that you will find far richer repayment in the kingdom of heaven. You will have far better and more lasting possessions stored up for you in heaven. Jesus promises you an eternal and infinitely precious reward in heaven when you value Him over everything this world has to offer. And what is that reward? Jesus Himself – and when you have Him, you have everything. You have forgiveness of sins, real and sure. You have answers for all your prayers. You have His promises to provide for you and to protect you. You have a gracious God, the Creator of heaven and earth, as your Father. When you suffer for your faith, you really find out how much Jesus means to you. You find out how precious God’s promises are when those promises are all you have. When you have nothing left to lean on, nothing left to count on except Jesus, He becomes everything to you. You find out firsthand that Jesus is the only thing you ask for out of life, and then you can say, “It doesn’t matter what else they take from me, as long as I have my Jesus – my Lord.”
Someone like Yousef Nadarkhani knows that very well. Who is Yousef Nadarkhani, you ask? He’s a Christian pastor in Iran. He was arrested and sentenced to death for apostasy from Islam. His crime was being a Christian. He’s been sitting in a prison ever since November 2008, waiting to be executed. He could be released if he recants and denies his faith, but it doesn’t look like he’s going to do that. Most people would look at him and say, “Just give in already! What’s the point of being so stubborn, especially when they’re going to kill you?” Or they might even try using their reason: “Hey, think about all the people you can tell about Jesus if you’re still alive. Dying as a martyr will do nobody any good.” They couldn’t be more wrong. It does Yousef a lot of good, because he will be rewarded for his faithfulness by his Lord in heaven. It does others good too. A martyr’s death is unmistakable, visible testimony to Christ, who is unseen right now. God uses that level of trust and that fearlessness to draw people’s attention to the saving Word. That’s what He did in the early church, and He still does it now. If it’s worth dying for, it must be important, people think, and then God’s Word has an opening to work.
So whatever you face, whether it’s snide remarks or the hangman’s noose, don’t be afraid. Trust that Jesus will do everything He’s promised and bring you to Himself in heaven. Our lack of fear is a sign to those who oppress or persecute us in any way that they will be destroyed and we will be rescued. “Be faithful even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life,” Jesus promises. The victor’s crown belongs to everyone who lets the world strip them of everything except their faith in their Savior.
They may ruin our earthly lives. They may take and destroy everything and everyone we hold dear. They may make us poor, destitute nobodies, the laughingstock of the world. So be it! The world is not worthy of us. But they cannot destroy our faith. They cannot destroy our Lord Jesus, for He lives and can never die. They cannot destroy Jesus’ promises to us, or ruin the good things He’s prepared for us. So stand fast! Let nothing move you. Give yourself fully to the work of the Lord, because you understand that your labor in the Lord is not in vain. He who has promised is faithful, and He will do it. Amen.