There are many great goals in life that are never achieved simply because people are not willing to pay the price. I suppose that for some, following Jesus is like that. Some are not willing to give Jesus a try because the cost seems too high.
So what exactly does it cost to follow Jesus? That is a question not explicitly stated in our text for today, but our text does, I think, suggest an answer.
Listen for God’s word to you from Mark 8:31-38….
Then he [Jesus] began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel,[i] will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words[j] in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
As we saw last week, Jesus had just asked his disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” And Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.”
Now Jesus begins to explain to his disciples exactly what his being the Messiah is going to entail. In short, it is going to entail Jesus going to the cross.
Peter rebukes Jesus for even suggesting such a notion. The Jews had a saying, “Cursed is anyone who hangs on a tree.” How could the Messiah end up hanging on a tree for any crimes? The two ideas, Messiah and a cross, were simply incompatible in Peter’s mind, and I imagine, in the minds of pretty much every Jew living in the first century other than Jesus.
Thus, Jesus in one fell swoop turns the idea of Messiahship, the idea of him being a conquering king, completely on its head. Jesus basically says, “Here’s who I am—the Messiah.” Then he tells his disciples: “Here’s where I am going—to the cross.” And now Jesus says, “Here’s what it is going to cost you if you want to follow me.”
First, Jesus says, you must deny yourself. What does this mean for us today?
Americans have become much more health conscious in recent years. This has been reflected in what some call the “non” lifestyle. Molly O’Neill, writing for the New York Times Service, says,
Non is more than a prefix. It has become a lifestyle. It is the dinner bell: nonfat ice cream, nondairy spread, non-caffeine cola, nonalcoholic beer. It is the mating call: nonsmoking, nondrinking prince seeks sober princess.
However, when Jesus says that we must deny ourselves to follow him, I think he means much more than the non-lifestyle. As Oswald Chambers once wrote, following Christ “will cost an intense narrowing of all our interests on earth and an immense broadening of our interest in God.”
Yes, it costs quite a bit to deny self and follow Jesus. In fact, Jesus says, we must take up our cross and follow him.
Of course, to the people of Jesus’ time the cross did not mean a nice piece of gold or silver jewelry studded with diamonds. To them the cross was the most brutal form of torture ever invented by human beings to inflict upon other human beings. It would have been quite clear to Jesus’ first disciples what he meant: taking up one’s cross meant going to the place of one’s execution.
Clarence Jordan, author of the “Cotton Patch” New Testament translation and founder of the interracial Koinonia farm in Americus, Georgia, was getting a red-carpet tour of another minister’s church. With pride the minister pointed to the rich, imported pews and luxurious decorations. As they stepped outside, darkness was falling, and a spotlight shone on a huge cross atop the steeple.
“That cross alone cost us ten thousand dollars,” the minister said with a satisfied smile.
“You got cheated,” said Jordan. “Times were when Christians could get them for free.”
Yes, times have changed. Christians in America today form a much more powerful and comfortable group than they did in the first century in the Roman Empire. Perhaps that is why we have a hard time understanding what it means to take up our cross and follow Jesus. Yet some in more recent times have understood.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who gave up his life serving in the resistance during World War II, once wrote in his book, The Cost of Discipleship, “When Christ calls a man he bids him come and die.”
Why should we pay such a high price to follow Jesus? Jesus gives us three reasons.
Reason #1 is: because if we try to save our life we will lose it, but if we give it up for Jesus and the gospel we will save it.
So many try to save their lives for themselves, to get what they want out of life, regardless of what it costs others. But living this way means they will eventually lose.
Do you know the story of D. B. Cooper? He was a notorious skyjacker and thief whose life is celebrated annually by fans from Seattle to San Jose to Salt Lake City. His fans believe that D. B. melted back into society after committing the perfect crime—parachuting from an airliner over Washington state with $200,000 in ransom money on November 24, 1971.
The saga of D. B. Cooper began on Thanksgiving Eve 1971, when a man dressed in black, wearing dark glasses, boarded a Northwest-Orient Airlines Boeing 727 at Portland International Airport in Oregon. Once airborne, Cooper handed the flight attendant a note saying he had a dynamite bomb in his brief case. The man, who chain-smoked and who appeared to be in his mid to late 40s, demanded $200,000 in used $20 bills. He collected the money—provided by the airline—during a brief stop at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport where the 36 passengers were released and the four crew members kept on board. Airborne again, Cooper parachuted into a freezing rainstorm at 10,000 feet near the tiny town of Ariel in southwest Washington, wearing only a business suit and loafers. The temperature was 7 below zero, not counting the wind-chill factor at the plane’s speed of 200 miles per hour.
Ralph Himmelsbach, the retired FBI agent who spent nearly a decade investigating the crime said,
This guy had all the markings of an ex-con. This was a desperate act you wouldn’t expect from a normal man in his mid-40s. This was something you would expect from somebody who had nothing to lose.
Himmelsbach is convinced that D. B. Cooper plummeted to his death because in 1980 some boys playing in the Columbia River found $5,200 in crumbling $20 bills that turned out to be from Cooper’s loot. Either Cooper landed in the Columbia and drowned, or died in the mountains and the money was washed out, according to Himmelsbach.
But D. B. Cooper true believers are not convinced. Many turn out every November at anniversary celebrations at taverns named D. B. Cooper in Salt Lake City and San Jose and at the little bar in Ariel, where, legend has it, Cooper paid an anonymous visit during one party in his honor.
What is it that makes people celebrate the life of someone like D. B. Cooper? I think it is the common hope that we can somehow live for ourselves, or live at least part of our lives for ourselves, and get away with the loot. But, as Jesus said, “If you try to save your life for yourself, you will lose it.”
What a contrast there is between Cooper and someone like Jim Elliot, who gave up his life trying to reach a remote tribe in South America with the good news of Jesus. Elliot once wrote, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” His widow, Elisabeth Elliot wrote a year after her husband’s death:
We have proved beyond any doubt that He [God] means what He says—His grace is sufficient, nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. We pray that if any, anywhere, are fearing that the cost of discipleship is too great, that they may be given to glimpse that treasure in heaven promised to all who forsake.
Reason #2 that Jesus gives for paying the price to follow him is: because it is no good to gain the whole world and lose your own soul. You can’t buy back your soul. What can you give in exchange for it. Yet, we often sell our souls for pleasures of this world that do not last.
John Ortberg writes:
When we take our children to the shrine of the Golden Arches, they always lust for the meal that comes with a cheap little prize, a combination christened, in a moment of marketing genius, The Happy Meal. You’re not just buying fries, McNuggets, and a dinosaur stamp; you’re buying happiness. Their advertisements have convinced my children they have a little McDonald-shaped vacuum in their souls: “Our hearts are restless till they find their rest in a happy meal.”
I try to buy off the kids sometimes. I tell them to order only the food and I’ll give them a quarter to buy a little toy on their own. But the cry goes up, “I want a Happy Meal.” All over the restaurant, people crane their necks to look at the tight-fisted, penny-pinching cheapskate of a parent who would deny a child the meal of great joy.
The problem with the Happy Meal is that the happy wears off, and they need a new fix. No child discovers lasting happiness in just one: “Remember that Happy Meal? What great joy I found there!”
Happy Meals bring happiness only to McDonalds. You ever wonder why Ronald McDonald wears that grin? Twenty billion Happy Meals, that’s why.
When you get older, you don’t get smarter; your happy meals just get more expensive.
Reason #3 that Jesus gives for paying the price of following him is: because if you are ashamed of Jesus and his words, he will be ashamed of you when he comes in his Father’s glory.
Here is the key question: What matters most in the end? What others think of us, or what Jesus thinks? Isn’t it worth paying the price of following him and then having him say to us one day, “Well done thou good and faithful servant.”?
These words of Jesus can seem rather harsh in our ears today. That’s why I am glad I had a preaching professor in seminary who taught us that every negative statement in a sermon could be turned into a positive statement.
The same is true of these words of Jesus. Matthew gives us the positive corollary to Jesus’ words in Mark. In Matthew 10:32 Jesus says, “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven.”
Wow! Can you imagine that? Whenever you acknowledge Jesus before other human beings, whenever you admit that you know him, Jesus will admit the same before his Father in heaven. Jesus will acknowledge that he knows you, that you are one of his!
Allow me to close with this thought….
Back in October, in our church’s electronic newsletter, the Quest, I asked: what does taking up our cross today look like?
Then I mentioned that one of my favorite authors is Henri Nouwen. In his book, Bread for the Journey, Nouwen says,
Jesus does not say “Make a cross” or “Look for a cross.” Each of us has a cross to carry. There is no need to make one or look for one. The cross we have is hard enough for us! But are we willing to take it up, to accept it as our cross?
Maybe we can’t study, maybe we are handicapped, maybe we suffer from depression, maybe we experience conflict in our families, maybe we are victims of violence or abuse. We didn’t choose any of it, but these things are our crosses. We can ignore them, reject them, refuse them, or hate them. But we can also take up these crosses and follow Jesus with them.
Someone once said that in the cross of Jesus, a minus is turned into a plus. I wonder: how might the taking up of our crosses and our following Jesus turn a minus into a plus in our lives?
I believe Jesus offers us a tremendous opportunity: to offer our crosses to him and see what he will do with them….