"Alice through the looking glass" by John Tenniel
One of Oxford’s famous sons was Charles Dodgson whom we know today as Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice in Wonderland. Dodgson was a teacher at Christ Church, one of the many colleges of Oxford University. His stories were first told to a real, live Alice, long before they were ever put into print. The real Alice was the daughter of the Dean of Christ Church. And some of Dodgson’s stories were told to Alice as they meandered in a boat along the Thames River through Oxfordshire.
Dodgson’s second book was entitled Alice Through the Looking Glass. In it he created a mirror-image world. In that world the characters discover that it is no good trying to walk directly toward the thing or place they want to get to. They have to set off in what seems the wrong direction in order to achieve their goal. If you’ve ever tried cutting your own hair while looking into a mirror then you can imagine the difficulty of living full-time in a mirror-image world.
In our text for today from Matthew 16:21-28, we are going to see Jesus inviting his disciples and us to live in just that sort of mirror-image world. . . .
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.Just like the characters in Alice Through the Looking Glass so too the disciples must here learn how to begin living in a world where everything is a bit backwards of what they expect it to be. The problem is that the world Jesus is inviting them to live in is so close to the world as they know it, but with a twist.
Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”
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.”
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. 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? For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done. I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
Remember that just before this in the Gospel of Matthew Peter has confessed Jesus to be the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. That being the case, one might expect that the disciples were already planning in their minds how they might go up to Jerusalem, take over the temple, and install Jesus as king.
Jesus’ plan is like a mirror-image of what the disciples are already scheming in their minds. “Yes,” says Jesus, “we are going up to Jerusalem.” Jesus is, in fact, going to clear out the temple. He is indeed going to be exalted as the Messiah. But not in the way the disciples expect. In fact, Jesus is going to be exalted in a way completely opposite to all of the disciples’ hopes and dreams. He is going to be lifted up on a cross to die, and then rise again three days later.
Peter is so confused by the looking-glass world Jesus is inviting him to live in that he rebukes Jesus: “No way Lord, this is not how it’s going to be!!”
Then Jesus turns to Peter and says, “Get behind me, Satan!”
Wow! The man Jesus has just declared to be the Rock on which he is going to build his Church is already crumbling to pieces.
The problem is that Peter thinks he knows how things ought to work. He is expecting Jesus to be a conquering Messiah, one who will throw the Romans out of Palestine, and become a successful king, a warrior-hero. But this isn’t how Jesus is going to bring in his kingdom. Jesus’ plan is going to work quite opposite to what Peter expects.
Peter wants to lead because he thinks he knows the way. Jesus instead has to say to him, “Stop trying to lead Peter. By thinking you know the way, and by trying to lead, you are really acting as my adversary.” Adversary: that is the meaning of the word “Satan”. And the most tempting adversaries are those closest to us.
Notice that Jesus doesn’t say to Peter the same thing he said to his angelic adversary in the wilderness. There he said to Satan: “Be gone!” Here Jesus says to his adversary: “Get behind me!” In other words, “Instead of trying to lead the way, Peter, get behind me and start following again.”
You’ve probably heard the story of the woman who faced temptation while shopping for a dress. She saw a beautiful outfit, perfect for an upcoming formal party she was to attend. The only problem with the dress was the price. It was way out of her range and she knew what her husband would say if she came home with the gorgeous, expensive gown.
Just as the woman was about to take the dress off and try another one, she heard Satan whispering in her ear: “But that dress is perfect on you! Sure it’s expensive, but you deserve it. And after all, you can pay for it on your charge card.”
The woman immediately remembered how Jesus handled the temptation posed by Peter and said out loud in the dressing room, “Get ye behind me Satan!” At which point Satan said, “It looks good from the back too!”
As William Barclay has said, “Satan is any force which seeks to deflect us from the way of God; Satan is any influence which seeks to make us turn back from the hard way that God has set before us; Satan is any power which seeks to make human desires take the place of the divine imperative.”
Jesus insists that God’s ways are not human ways. We tend to think of Jesus’ way as backwards, though we don’t come right out and say that. But all this stuff about meekness, and laying down one’s life? Come on, Jesus, get real!
But Jesus’ way is the way of reality. He insists that God’s way is the right way of looking at things. We are the ones trying to live in a looking-glass world where everything is backwards. Paul says the same thing: “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror.” (1 Corinthians 13:12)
Once we understand that Jesus is looking at things the right way around then we can understand his call. It is a call that rings like a great bell from the top of a church tower.
One of my favorite things about visiting Oxford is hearing all the church bells, which sometimes ring all at once from all over the city. The joyous sound almost goes right through you.
Jesus’ call is like that. It has been ringing down the centuries. Imagine church bells ringing where you live, calling everyone to: deny self, pick up the cross and follow Jesus. Imagine people coming out of their homes and schools and workplaces to see where the bell-ringing is coming from, or just to listen to the joyous sound. That’s what Jesus’ call is like: it makes everyone sit up and take notice.
Let’s look at that call in detail. Jesus gives to Peter and all of the disciples, including us, three essential guidelines for coming after him.
First of all he says that we must deny ourselves.
We tend to think of self-denial in a very limited sense. We might give up some luxury for Lent. Or maybe we give up eating a certain favorite food while on a diet. But after Lent or once the dieting period is over we go back to our old way of living.
That is not what Jesus has in mind when he talks about denying self. What Jesus has in mind is that at every point in our lives we are to say “no” to self and “yes” to God. Self-denial means getting our self off the throne, along with all of our plans and desires, the ones we think innocent as well as the ones we think wicked, and putting God on the throne of our lives instead. Denying self starts the moment we wake up in the morning. From that moment we must ask the question, “What do you want me to do today Lord?” and “How do you want me to go about doing this or that?” Then we need to spend the rest of the day doing what the Lord tells us, in His way, by His power. In order to do that, we must constantly turn to Him throughout the day for strength.
Secondly, Jesus says we must take up our cross.
This statement gives us a radical picture of the kind of self-denial Jesus is talking about. Jesus doesn’t have in mind that we simply wear a pretty piece of jewelry everywhere we go so that everyone will know we are his followers. Though that may be a good thing to do and may lead to some interesting conversations.
I remember when I first became a Christian. I was in middle school and I had a cross that I liked to wear. I often wore it on the outside of my shirt. People at school would say things like, “Why are you wearing that cross on the outside of your shirt? Don’t you know you’re supposed to wear it inside?” I guess they didn’t like people being so open and forthright about their religious beliefs. At that young age they had already imbibed of the American myth that religion is a private thing, all about what one does in one’s solitude. Rubbish!
Then there’s my friend Doug Gresham who wears a very large silver cross on the outside of his shirt. You can’t miss it. It’s not a polite little statement of faith. It shouts at you. You can see it in every interview that he does, even as co-producer of the Narnia movies. Doug wants everyone to know he is a follower of Christ, and wearing that cross leads to many interesting conversations.
But that is not what Jesus is talking about here. When Jesus made this statement it immediately conjured up an image in the mind of his disciples. When Jesus talked about carrying one’s cross his disciples would have immediately thought of the countless people whom they had seen in their lifetime who were arrested by the Romans, tried and convicted for some crime, and sentenced to execution. Carrying one’s cross was not a pretty sight. Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ, has restored for modern-day viewers a picture of what carrying one’s cross was all about. It meant something brutal and bloody. It meant death.
When Jesus said that we must take up our cross he was telling us that we must take self-denial to the extreme. We must literally die to ourselves. As A. W. Tozer once said, the person who has been crucified with Christ has three distinct marks:
- He or she can no longer turn back to his or her old way of life.
- He or she is facing only one direction.
- And he or she no longer has plans of his or her own.
And what did Paul live to do after being crucified with Christ? He tells us in Acts 20:24. “However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace.”
Of course one of the most tortuous things about death by crucifixion is that it was a slow death. Carrying one’s cross meant going to the place of one’s execution. For us, carrying our cross is a lifelong process. And as Oswald Chambers once said, “We don’t get to choose the scene of our sacrifice.” Or as William Barclay has said, it may be that the Christian “will discover that the place where he can render the greatest service to Jesus Christ is somewhere where the reward will be small and the prestige non-existent.”
Thirdly, Jesus says that we must follow him.
I have a retired friend who says that every morning when he gets out of bed and his feet hit the floor he says to the Lord, “Guide my feet where you want them to go today.”
What would our lives look like if we thought about where Jesus would have us go, what he would have us do, what Jesus would want to say through us, every day, to others? I think life would become more of an adventure if we followed where Jesus was leading us every day. Without Jesus we simply exist. With Jesus we discover life in all its fullness.
And that means a life that isn’t safe. Jesus says, “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.”
I think this means that if we are searching for safety, security, ease and comfort then Jesus’ way is not for us. But if we choose to make every decision from “worldly-wise and prudential motives” then we will be missing out on the life that is really LIFE. Winston Churchill once said, “Play for more than they can afford to lose, and you will learn the game.”
One of my favorite parts of C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia is where the children first learn who Aslan is. . . .
“Aslan?” said Mr. Beaver, “Why don’t you know? He’s the King. He’s the Lord of the whole wood . . .”
“Is—is he a man?” asked Lucy.
“Aslan a man!” said Mr. Beaver sternly. “Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea. Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion—the Lion, the great Lion.”
“Ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man. Is he—quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
“That you will, dearie, and make no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver, “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”
“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”What a perfect description of Jesus: he isn’t safe, but he’s good. And following Jesus isn’t safe, but it is the best way to live.
For after all, as Jesus asks, “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?”
That was the question of Jesus which bored its way into my father’s soul and led him to quit organized crime. He had gained a good bit of the world’s wealth working for Mickey Cohen, but he realized he was losing his soul. And once you have lost your soul nothing can take the place of it.
One day Jesus is going to return to this earth, in all of his Father’s glory, with all of the angels of heaven accompanying him. And when he comes he is going to reward each of us according to what he has done.
I’m not so much concerned that when Jesus comes he will judge my life to have been downright evil and send me to hell. I am concerned that he might find my life to have been mediocre. I don’t want to settle for less than the best which God has for me. With the time I have left on earth I want to pursue all that Jesus has for me to do so that one day I can look him in the eye and hear him say, “Well done thou good and faithful servant. Thou hast been faithful in a little, thou wilt be set over much.”
But what of Jesus’ promise, that some standing with him would not taste death before they saw the Son of Man coming in his kingdom? If Jesus meant that his second coming would be during the lifetime of his disciples then certainly he was wrong. That has led New Testament scholars to wonder whether Jesus was referring to the Transfiguration. Or was Jesus talking about Pentecost? Personally I think this phrase—“the Son of Man coming in his kingdom”—refers to Jesus’ vindication following his suffering. Jesus was exalted to his throne in heaven and began his kingdom reign when he ascended. And the really exciting thing about this is what Paul tells us in Ephesians 2:6-7 and Ephesians 4:8,
And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus....
When he ascended on high,Jesus has begun his kingdom reign. He has given us gifts. And we have the privilege of reigning with him. Not only that, but we can extend his reign over all the earth as we use the gifts he has given us to declare the good news of Christ to others.
He led captives in his train
And gave gifts to men.
Wow! That’s something worth losing your life for. That’s an adventure worth living. But it is an adventure which comes only to those who: deny self, take up their cross and follow him. If we choose to follow him it may sometimes seem like we are trying to live in a “looking-glass” world, and sort of upside-down. But if we do follow Jesus then on that day we stand before him we will know that we have been living life right-side up all along.