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5th Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 9:23
"Then He said to them all: “If anyone would come after Me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow Me…”

An appropriate one-word description for the Cross might be “suffering.” The picture of the Cross alone can convey to us ALL the pain and shame Jesus underwent in fulfilling Scripture’s prophecies. People’s reactions range from sneering disgust, to horror, to sentimental sympathy, to heartfelt faith. The suffering was necessary, though, according to the Lord’s own plain words identifying the treatment He would receive as a “MUST.”

Our own sinful inclination is to suppress and reject any thought of ourselves or those we love having to suffer, and we even feel twinges of revulsion on occasion when we hear of people we don’t even know falling victim to certain disasters and crimes. Never does it occur to us to welcome or embrace suffering, but that’s the hard lesson Jesus pointed up as a necessary aspect of our Christian faith! We either resist His and our own crosses, or we receive what His Cross was meant to accomplish and respond by taking up our own as well. We refuse faith and its road of suffering, or, with broken self-wills, we become the willing servants of faith’s power to carry us through.

Let’s think then on these three reactions to the Cross: Resisting, Receiving and Responding to it...

In the Church’s early days Christian believers were often accused of worshiping a condemned criminal, or the heathen would taunt that their God had died on a cross. St. Paul acknowledged the sting when he wrote:

“Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ-crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and folly to Gentiles… But God chose what is foolish in the world..God chose what is weak… For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger… The Word of the Cross is folly to those who are perishing…”

To regard the Cross as weak and foolish is to be hostile towards it. Hostility towards its truth and necessity is unbelief. And unbelief is that ultimate, singular thing that falls under God’s condemnation.

Even the Lord’s own disciples found it difficult to understand how He could be who He claimed to be and still die on a cross like a common criminal. Mark’s Gospel tells us that Peter couldn’t believe his ears! He didn’t want to hear it. His Lord would suffer and die? Never! Peter was unwilling to hear all that Jesus had to say because he resisted the idea of suffering. The lowly fisherman then rebuked his Master, and at that moment it found him siding with the very likes of Satan.

Sometime later Peter self-confidently asserted he would never deny His Lord, but, afraid of suffering at the hands of others gathered in the Temple courtyard, he fell flat on his face. We’re really no different! We want pleasure and enjoyment in life, likewise considering pain and suffering to be evil or without any good purpose or result. Yet such resistance is tantamount to rebelling against any possibility that God can use suffering to bring about something good. The simple truth is that we’re weak and want glory without any cross, while Jesus “for the joy set before Him endured the Cross.” He “set His face to go to Jerusalem” and refused to be side-tracked.

Jesus willingly binding Himself to the “path of sorrows” wasn’t just a way He showed us to follow so we could try to get in good with God’s graces ourselves, though. But rather, Christ’s own doing it is what has worked out our salvation!

We teach in Confirmation instruction that God’s Law reflects our sin to us like a mirror. The Gospel is quite distinct from that, in that IT shows us our Savior and His all-forgiving love. The Cross entails the most stark aspects of both Law and Gospel at the same time. It illuminates for us how deadly seriously a perfectly Holy Creator considers the matter of our sin. It reaps His full wrath and punishment! And yet Christ’s crucifixion is simultaneously the singular event whereby the same Holy God demonstrated His unfathomable love for His sinful creatures. Jesus absorbed all the anger into Himself, and we became the recipients of that perfect, unconditional and unchanging love that transcends our comprehension.

Crosses were instruments of torture and pain. They laid a tremendous burden on the bodies, minds and souls of people who were forced to carry and be impaled on them. And beyond the suffering, the ultimate objective of a cross was death!

Consider that God’s Son had a body of nerves, flesh and blood just like ours and that, in carrying and hanging on His Cross, He took all your personal burden, shame and alienation to Himself. And not just “to” Himself but IN Himself: Around His heart and in His soul, on His wounded back and brow, and in His brutally pierced hands, feet and side. He took YOUR DEATH sentence! How depressing and yet liberating at the same time!

But especially liberating(!); because Jesus was awarded His glory-worthy life back again on the third day to prove to us that our sin is most certainly gone, and there is no more punishment for anyone who believes! All who receive His substitutionary sacrifice through faith are not condemned any more!

No one else BUT the sinless Son of God COULD have suffered for our sins, died in our place, or taken away the world’s guilt. And, WITHOUT His suffering, Christ’s mission on earth would have been meaningless. Think it through a little bit here: If Jesus had not SUFFERED, He wouldn’t be the great King who delivered His people from Satan. If He hadn’t suffered He wouldn’t be the great High Priest whose sacrifice could truly provide a ransom for us. If He hadn’t suffered He wouldn’t be the great Prophet who could announce the Good News that our sins ARE FORGIVEN through His blood and death.

With the words of Luke 9:23 Jesus comes and offers also His followers a cross to carry. He offers blood, sweat and tears, as Winston Churchill once did a nation ravaged by war. Jesus never guaranteed a perfect life of health and pleasure here on earth, but He calls us to fight the good fight of faith with readiness and enthusiasm.

We don’t choose our own crosses, just as none of us ever chose our parents or siblings. Vows of poverty and self-martyrdom don’t qualify. Manmade rituals and ways of imposing discipline on ourselves to try to become holier and closer to God end up being useless. It’s rather HE who fits TO us things that we have NOT chosen, but by which He intends to fulfill His will for us. Our own wills can’t merely be reformed or “tweaked” here and there. Our self-will has to be utterly eradicated and put to death, however painful, and the cross is the instrument God has selected as necessary!

We do bear individual crosses in hundreds of ways, though. A young lady gives up a boyfriend whom she very much wants, for example, because in her heart before God she knows that staying with the young man poses a serious compromise of her faith. A Christian couple forsakes a certain ring of friends and their less than pure lifestyle for the same reason. A man turns down a promotion that would require extra work days, because it would mean a significant curtailing of his worship life.

Loyalty to Jesus Christ is the issue, and we can’t fool God about it! We have to be serious about it as God Himself is, in other words. Not only because it’s “the right thing” to do, but because of the Gospel’s glorious outcome: “He who endures to the end will be saved.”

Luther taught that all truly “good” things are hidden in and under the Cross, and that God deals graciously with us BY the Cross. We’re literally called to love and welcome the temporal crosses we bear because, as Luther said, “To hate our cross is to hate Christ’s.” It’s just like Jesus Himself saying: “Whoever does not take up his not worthy of Me.”

There’s no question that our own crosses may hurt, but for our souls they strengthen and exercise our faith. They ensure our continued humble dependence on God. They multiply our thanksgiving for pleasant blessings and direct our eyes to Heaven and off of this world. They are at work to bring about a “far exceeding eternal weight of glory,” Scripture promises.

The key to bearing our crosses victoriously is to squarely identify our own WITH Christ’s. We’re to keep our faith zeroed in on Christ’s Cross like a baseball player keeps his eye on the ball. Our crosses ironically identify God’s CARE for us, and rather than our own struggling to bring ourselves closer to Him, He does it THROUGH them. And anything that DOES bring us closer is God’s tender gift and blessing, no matter what heartache or sorrow may seem to accompany it.

That’s a tough lesson, but we need to lay hold of it as the very truth of God. Peter eventually learned it and wrote that we CAN REJOICE in “suffering various trials.”

We need to repent over our resistance to God’s way of the Cross and suffering, and then through trusting faith we receive the wondrous salvation Christ earned as our Substitute at Calvary’s Cross. THEN we can respond to His incredible act of love by welcoming our own crosses and suffering. We’re to keep our sights on Christ and HIS Cross to receive faith’s outcome: Our very own crown of life!



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