Following Jesus Means Denial

Mark 8:27-35

It is music to our ears when we hear someone say to us, I’m all-in! We love to hear it in response to an invitation to an event we’re hosting. Someone says, I’ll participate. I’m all-in! If you are a leader at work, we love to hear that response from our employees about a project our team has been given. If you coach in athletics, it’s what you love to hear and see from your players. I’m all-in, coach! A hundred percent! Pastors love to hear it from their parishioners when they approach them to take on a mission project or teach a class. I’m all-in, pastor. Or a person hearing it from their spouse regarding their marriage, Darling, I’m all-in living life with you. No matter what, I’m with you.

It appears Jesus wants to hear and see this all-in attitude as well from those who believe in Him. We see it in a statement He made to His twelve disciples in our passage today. After describing what is about to happen to Him in Jerusalem, Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” This is a very high commitment statement.

Jesus says, “You need to deny yourself.” What does it look like to deny yourself? Oftentimes we think of Lent. I’ll deny myself some chocolate for six weeks for the sake of Jesus. But that is not what He is talking about at all.

Jesus is talking about giving up pride and ego. Renouncing your right to go your own way. Giving up your need to be in control. Instead, put Christ behind the steering wheel. Surrender your self-determination and replace it with Christ’s determination. Put your self-centered mindset aside, which seems to rule so easily, and realize that life is not about me. (I have to tell myself that a lot. “It’s not about you, Steve.”)

Jesus says to “take up your cross.” The cross was a cruel instrument of execution representing suffering and death back in those days. It is how Jesus died for our sins. It was a horrific way to die. So what does Jesus mean?

I recall a statement by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Christian who was martyred during World War II. In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, he wrote, “When Christ calls a person to follow, He bids him come and die.”

Someone once said cross bearing is a willing predisposition to the inevitability of suffering with Christ and for Christ as I follow Him. It is basically a willingness to take a hit with Jesus, no matter what. It is a willingness to step up, speak up, and stand up for Him and His kingdom’s cause, even if it might be uncomfortable, even if it might literally mean death.

Here are the facts, folks. A cross will come our way as a direct result of our choice to serve Christ in that way.
• The cross of loneliness might come your way as people shun you for being too religious.
• The cross of ridicule as someone says to you, You believe in that stuff? I thought you were smarter than that.
• The cross of rejection or heartbreak over others.
• The cross of inconvenience, uncomfortable situations, sacrificing time and personal resources to carry out the mission of serving the cause of Jesus Christ in your little sphere of influence.
• The cross of loving the unlovable who may not love you back.

I’m reminded of Nancy, a friend of mine who takes care of an elderly woman. The elderly woman is a tough cookie. She is hard on Nancy. Nancy doesn’t get a penny for this, but she takes care of all her daily needs. She is all there all the time, on call for her. Nancy senses a call to do this ministry, even though it is inconvenient and irritating as can be sometimes. But she has determined that Christ wants her to do this. She takes up her cross daily and gives herself away to this person.

Perhaps your cross is telling someone about the difference Christ makes in your life and then experiencing a certain distance from others who now see you as a religious nut with an agenda.

Taking up your cross is not just a once-and-for-all thing. It is a daily thing. It’s fighting the good fight and running the good race daily as you serve Jesus. It’s praying each day, I’m yours, Jesus. Use me today as you see fit.

Taking up your cross means checking in with yourself constantly and asking, Who am I and what am I really living for today? It is daily dying to your selfish ambitions and desires, and living for Jesus Christ as He becomes your new identity.

C..S. Lewis, a great Christian writer of the last century, wrote in his classic book, Mere Christianity, “Christ says, ‘Give me all. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want You. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half-measures are any good. I don’t want to cut off a branch here and there; I want to have the whole tree down. I don’t want to drill the tooth or crown it or stop it but to have it out. Hand over the whole natural self, all the desires which you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked – the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you My self: My own will shall become yours.’”

Lastly, Jesus says, “Follow me.” I think He emphasized me, not the other way around. We get it mixed up these days. Jesus didn’t come to be our butler, our genie, or our follower. We are to follow His lead, His ways.

Maybe the modern church is to blame for this mixup in people’s minds. After all, the cross and this denial stuff don’t market well with consumer-minded people whose number one question is What’s in it for me? But it is what Jesus said: “Follow me (the cross bearer, the servant, the denier of self.)”

Jesus also says, “Anyone who saves his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” This is a promise! “Whoever loses his life for my sake, will save it, (will have life abundant, a saved life, an eternal life, an abundant, exciting life.)” You’ve seen the bumper sticker – He who dies with the most toys wins. Wrong! I saw another bumper sticker that said He who dies with the most toys . . . is dead! Life is found being all-in for Jesus Christ!

I have found some things that hold people back from jumping all-in with Jesus.

• The fear of giving up control of your life. Where will He lead me? This could be uncomfortable and inconvenient.
• What could happen to me? We want to be in control of our lives. It might be boring but at least we know it’s safe.
• The “me, myself, and I” factor. I want to live for me. Life is about me. Denial? Cross? No way! Haven’t you heard the song, “Girls just want to have fun”? I think You are asking too much, Jesus. It will wreck my life and my dreams.

As I read this passage, I thought of the story of the rich young ruler found in Mark 10:17-31. The rich ruler came to Jesus and asked, “What must I do to inherit life?” Jesus replied, “You know the commandments.” The ruler said, “I’ve kept them all.” Then Jesus looked at him lovingly and said, “You lack but one thing. Go, sell all that you have and give it to the poor. Come and follow me.” What happened next? The man walked away feeling sad because he had many possessions.

Me, myself, and I.

For many it’s a faith issue. Can I trust Jesus’ promise that losing life will lead to new life, a saved life?

Let me remind you, if you’re wondering who is making the ask to be all-in, Jesus said of Himself, “The Son of Man will suffer many things and be rejected and killed, and on the third day be raised.” In fact, He must suffer many things. The Son of Man – Jesus’ favorite title for Himself – is the Messiah, the One from God. He must suffer and die. It is necessary. Your sins and mine must be covered. The separation between God and humankind must be bridged. Sin must be paid for once and for all.

Jesus suffered a great deal at the cross. He experienced wholehearted, meanspirited rejection, just as He predicted. He died a miserable death to pay for your sins. Jesus was “all-in” for you, and He still is as He makes you this promise.

He also says in this statement that He will be raised. He rose from the grave. His resurrection means everything He said is true. God put a stamp of approval upon Him. He is the giver of life and the keeper of life. He knows what makes life work. He is the way, the truth, the life – now and forever. No one is like Him.

This risen Jesus Christ is still looking for all-in followers. How about you? Would you say you are “all-in” with Jesus? I don’t mean simply going through the motions of a Christian – saying you believe in Jesus, you trust Him, and you count on Him. I don’t mean just going to church, singing the songs and saying the creed. I am talking about your personal witness. Does it say that you are truly a follower, not just a fan of Jesus Christ?

After this passage, Jesus went on to say, “Whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory on judgment day in the glory of His Father with the holy angels” (Mark 8:38). Are you telling others about Jesus and what He has done for you, or are you keeping your lips zipped for fear of turning people off and losing relationships? Do you live in fear of rocking the boat? Why?

Does your behavior say you are all-in? Do you live in obedience to doing life His way, even when it makes you stick out like a sore thumb, makes you uncomfortable, or makes you feel like you’re missing out on things? Or are you more like a chameleon – just blending into the surroundings, going with the flow.

Do you consider yourself on call 24/7 to serve Jesus? Are you a shining light for Him wherever you are, whenever you are out there for Him? Are you set apart for Him, ready to go, willing to be inconvenienced, to be made uncomfortable at any time for any one?

Is your giving sacrificial? Does it say, Jesus, I’m all-in?

I love the bumper sticker, “If you’re a Christian don’t honk – tithe. Any fool can honk.”

These are things Jesus is talking about when He says, “Let him come after me. Let him take up his cross, deny himself, and follow me.”

Jesus goes on to say where real life is to be found. It is a promise. In the end, it’s really not a sacrifice, but life. It is a wise move and a life-giving choice.

As we wonder about the truth of this, I can’t help but think of a married couple in my congregation, friends of mine who recently stepped into the world of retirement. They took an early retirement – not because they can afford it, but because they felt called.

There is no sitting around with these two. They spend half their year teaching and discipling orphaned children in a children’s home in Honduras. It is not easy by any means. Honduras is terribly hot and uncomfortable. They use their own money to minister to these children. They are all-in for Jesus and for keeping these kids connected to Him.

Joy radiates from this couple’s faces when they describe the kids and how they are growing in their faith. If you were to ask them if it is really worth it, they would smile and say, Are you kidding? This is the LIFE!

I am reminded of a story Chuck Colson told about his hometown of Naples, Florida, which he called “one of the garden spots of the world.”

(Naples) is an absolute nirvana for all golfers, and they all come there. They’re all CEOs of major corporations, and they retire to Naples, and this is “it” – twenty-seven golf courses and miles of sparkling beach and the best country clubs. I watch these guys; they’re powerful people. They have this New York look on their face; they’re determined. But now, all of a sudden, they start measuring their lives by how many golf games they can get in.

I often say to them, “Do you really want to live your life counting up the number of times you chase that little white ball around those greens?” And they kind of chuckle, but it’s a nervous chuckle, because in six months they’ve realized how banal their lives are, and they’ve got beautiful homes—castles—and when they get bored with that, they build a bigger castle, and they’re miserable. The object of life is not what we think it is, which is to achieve money, power, pleasure. That’s not the holy grail. The object of life is the maturing of the soul, and you reflect that maturing of the soul when you care more for other people than yourself.

I recently read a comment by Malcolm Muggeridge on his life. “I can say that I never knew what joy was like until I gave up pursuing happiness. Or cared to live until I chose to die. For these two discoveries I am beholden to Jesus.”

Jim Elliott, who was martyred as a missionary in South America, once wrote, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” If you get back more than you gave up, have you sacrificed anything at all?

Jesus uses an important word in this passage to those who are listening to Him today. It is the word if. “If anyone would come after me . . .” it implies a choice to be made on the part of people like you and me. Consider this a personal invitation to you today, an opportunity.

What does Jesus want? He wants you! He wants to hear you say with your words and your life, Jesus, I’m all-in. And may you be all-in! Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer