Summary: Following Christ means following him to the cross.
There are basically two kinds of sermons on the Christian life. The first type of sermon views the Christian life as a kind of puzzle to be solved, with the message going something like this: Life is full of hardships, and frustrations, and obstacles. But if you do this one thing; if you understand this “one weird trick” (whatever that may be), then you can unlock the secret to living a victorious Christian life. That secret may be any number of things: prayer, or tithing, or fasting, or regular devotions, or Bible reading, or “name it and claim it”, but the gist of this kind of sermon is that once you put into practice whatever it is that’s being promoted on that particular Sunday, your life as a follower of Jesus Christ will be simpler, and easier, and more fulfilling. Obstacles will fall away. Frustrations will vanish. The life of faith will be transformed into a daily adventure filled with joy and delight. I’m exaggerating, but you get the idea. The theme of this kind of sermon is that if your life as a Christian is hard, or frustrating, or less than fulfilling, then you’re doing it wrong. That’s the first kind of sermon on the Christian life. It’s very popular.
The second kind of sermon is different. This kind of sermon says that life isn’t hard because you’re doing it wrong. Life has been hard ever since Adam and Eve bit into that apple. Our lives on this earth are often painful and disappointing. We go through times when just making it through the day requires all of our willpower, and joy is hard to come by. Things often don’t work the way they should. People don’t keep their promises. The promotion you worked for never comes. The lab results come back and they’re not good. Your family is in conflict. Or maybe nothing’s really that bad, but you just feel vaguely dissatisfied, and impatient for something better. And that’s life. That’s reality. As Westley, aka the Dread Pirate Roberts, says to Buttercup in The Princess Bride, “Life is Pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”
But this life isn’t the whole story. In fact, it isn’t even most of the story. There is much more to come, an eternity to come, once we “shuffle off this mortal coil”. And in the meantime, our faith can help to sustain us in a world that ranges from very bad, to not so great, to just OK, to pretty good. In the end, if we continue to trust God, and listen, and follow, we will find that it was all worth it. That’s the hope and the promise. Every choice to continue believing, every choice to continue obeying, every choice to continue persevering in the midst of whatever circumstances we find ourselves, in the midst of whatever mental and emotional state we find ourselves in – every act of faithfulness will be rewarded. And someday not so far from now we will look back on all of this; all the toil, and suffering, and heartache, mixed with joy, and gladness, and times of refreshment, and we will testify that it was all worth it, every bit of it. The good and the bad, the happy and the sad.
That’s the second kind of sermon on the Christian life. That one’s not quite as popular. But that is the kind you will hear this morning. I really don’t have any choice. Because at the core of today’s Bible passage are Jesus’ recognition that he is about to die, and his teaching that we, like him, must embrace death, to the point even of “hating” our life in this world.
“23 Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. 25 Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me.” – John 12:23-26
It’s hard to spin that into a sermon on having Your Best Life Now.
Please don’t misunderstand me. There is real value in things like prayer, and tithing, and regular devotions, and Bible reading. Our faith does bring a measure of joy and peace. Christianity does relieve us of many burdens, burdens that God never intended us to bear. The burden of guilt. The burden of shame. The burden of fear of death. The burden of thinking that we have to earn God’s acceptance by doing good things, and thinking good thoughts, and saying good words – which often translates into trying to please all the people around us, an effort which is doomed to fail. Faith in Christ does relieve us of many burdens. There are real benefits in this life to following Christ. But we can’t escape the fact that following Christ means following him in a journey to the cross.