Summary: Are we willing to bear the cross of Jesus even in the face of persecution?
I have thought long and hard about today’s sermon. This particular topic has been mulling around in my mind for several months. In light of certain incidents over the past few weeks, that “still small voice” down inside told me that now is the right time. Several phrases in today’s gospel reading kept nudging me into finally putting my thoughts on paper and sharing them with you. As is usually the case, a sermon of this type may offend some people. If it does, I now apologize for the offense, however, that being said, we must remember that God’s Word is not always sweet and sugar-coated.
At times God becomes angry with His creation and feels the need to chastise us. God has gone so far as to completely annihilate the whole earth, or, has destroyed complete cities for their wickedness. Because of our self-preserving desire not to be punished, we are easily offended when God’s Word reprimands us. But, why should we take offense at a God that loves us as much as our God does, even to the point that His only Son was crucified for our sake. Does God not have the right to be offensive if He so desires? Should we not be ready to accept these offenses as disciplinary measures from a loving Father?
“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.” As I read and reread this particular verse, I was led to pray extensively over how it applies to me and also to each of you as members of Christ’s Holy Church. What kept coming back to me were these two phrases, “deny themselves” and “take up their cross.” I asked myself:
Am I willing to deny myself for the work of Jesus? What may I be called to do that will require me to deny myself? Just what does “denying myself” mean?
Let us begin by first trying to decide the meaning of “denying myself”. I believe Jesus is telling us that we must be willing to do things that will remove us far from our comfort zones in order to fulfill His wishes. Each of us has an area around us in which we feel comfortable. We are, all too aware of some of the things that are occurring around us but do not directly affect us, so we purposely ignore them. Instead of standing up and doing something, we will put our blinders on and pretend it is not there. That is the exact purpose of blinders.
In the days of horse-drawn wagons, occasionally one would get a horse or mule that was easily frightened, especially by sudden movement in its peripheral vision. To keep the animal from bolting at the slightest provocation, the owner would put blinders around the eyes, in effect giving the animal tunnel vision so it could not see to the sides. The blinders did not stop movement from occurring, it only fooled the horse or mule into thinking everything was all right.
The Church today, and especially our beloved United Methodist Church, is increasingly wearing blinders, to the point that all we are capable of seeing is that which we wish to see and nothing else. If there is a problem involving a stingingly controversial issue, then the blinders come out, and the problem is hidden. This is far from what Jesus had in mind when He said, “let them deny themselves.” Dare I presume to speak what was on Jesus’ mind? If we become familiar with the whole of scripture, and study the life and ministry of Jesus, I firmly believe that we are able, in some circumstances, to understand exactly what Jesus was thinking about a certain subject. This is one of those times. I believe that Jesus expects us to give up whatever may be necessary, no matter the cost to us financially, emotionally, or even spiritually, in order to follow His lead and achieve the Kingdom of Heaven. We have to be ready to step into an arena that is far away from where we feel comfortable and boldly proclaim the truth of God’s Word to any that will listen. We have to be ready to be ridiculed, called vindictive names, cursed, and maybe even physically assaulted, all for our beliefs in the truth of God’s Word. This is when most of our discomfort comes about. It is only when we are capable of assuming this strength to allow ourselves to be persecuted will we then be “denying ourselves” for the love of Jesus. This is my grasp of the meaning of “denying myself.” Whether it is right or wrong I do not know, that will be for God to decide when I stand before Him.