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Gospel: Matthew 16:21-26 (NIV)
- Hymn CW 600 “All Praise to Him”
- Hymn CW 694:1,2,3 “Jesus, I My Cross Have Taken”
- Hymn CW 831:1,2,3,4 “Why Should Cross and Trial Grieve Me”
- Hymn CW 867:1,3,4 “Afflicted Saint, to Christ Draw Near”
Pentecost 14 September 3, 2023
Matthew 16:21-26 Pastor Ryan Wolfe
“You choose: The Christian Cross or the Unchristian Couch”
The United States of America is the most blessed nation by God in human history. There’s no denying it. Our wealth compared to that of the rest of the world is greater than any country in history. Our military power and cultural influence is greater than any of the world’s great empires. We have more time for leisure, better healthcare, and greater freedoms than anyone in the world.
And the consequences of that wealth and time is killing us. In the middle of wars and political battles and economic worries you may have missed a piece of news a couple weeks ago. The headline called out a dire warning to America. We are a nation losing our health because of our luxury. Over 40% of our citizens are now obese. Not just a little overweight, but dangerously so. It’s a problem I myself obviously have. Why? There are a lot of factors from genetics to stress but one piece of the puzzle is our love affair with the couch.
Americans do a lot of nothing. We watch TV, watch sports, surf the internet, sit in our offices and it is killing us slowly. Satan has taken God’s blessings of peace and prosperity and turned them into something harmful. He’s good at what he does.
He’s also good at getting us to sit on our spiritual couches and sit idly by while the work he has planned for us goes undone. And that’s the kind of idleness we need to talk about today. It’s the kind of danger that Jesus warns about here in Matthew 16. Christians aren’t meant for the couch, they’re meant for the cross. Just like our Savior. Brothers and sisters, we aren’t supposed to take God’s forgiveness and our freedom and use it for ourselves – we’re supposed to be active in serving him and eager to serve others. God’s Word today is a call to action. Jesus reminds us that the cross is his mission, and ours too.
Last Sunday we read from the verses just before this, where Jesus asked his disciples who they thought he was. Do you remember Peter’s wonderful answer? “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!” Jesus must have beamed – the way a mother does when for the first time her baby says, “Mommy.” That divine truth would be the foundation of the whole Church and Peter got it! But today we see what Peter was still missing. He understood Jesus’ identity but his grasp of Jesus’ mission was sorely lacking.
It all derails when Jesus tells his disciples clearly for the first time that “he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” Jesus knew what was coming in his near future, and he tried to prepare his disciples for it. But to Peter, this was too much. The Christ, the Son of the living God, suffering and being killed? That couldn’t be God’s plan. Peter actually takes Jesus aside like you would a little kid and expresses his opinion of the mission, “Never!” Jesus turns to him and says, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
Was Jesus overreacting? Who would want Jesus to die? I’m sure Peter meant well, but here he inadvertently lobs at Jesus one of the temptations Satan himself had used in the wilderness after Jesus’ baptism. At that time Satan had told Jesus that if he wanted to receive glory and honor from all the nations, he didn’t have to bloody himself on the cross. He could just bow down to him instead. Satan was offering Jesus a crown without the cross. But Jesus knew that there could be no crown for us if there wasn’t a cross for him.
Peter really was the mouth of Satan here. You see, Satan would like nothing better than to trap people into the thinking that we can be good enough for heaven without Jesus’ cross. His goal is not to make this world a living hell where murderers and child molesters roam the streets. He’d be quite content to have a world full of law-abiding citizens who mow the lawn for their elderly neighbor and return dropped $20 bills instead of pocketing them. Just as long as those people think that by doing these good acts they don’t need the cross of Christ. Satan loves to tell us that we can have the crown without the cross, and that’s exactly what Peter was tempting Jesus with.
But telling Jesus that the cross wasn’t necessary is like telling the insurance company that it doesn’t need to pay for the damage to your house after a fire. Your house is in ruins. If the insurance company isn’t going to pay, then who is? You are. If Jesus hadn’t died on the cross, we would still be on the hook for our sins. Only the difference is that while you might be able to scratch up enough for a new house, we can never earn enough to make up for our sinful hearts and lives. Ditch the cross and leave us sinners to fend for ourselves? Jesus wouldn’t think of it. The suffering and the cross were his mission. To sit on the couch in comfort would be disaster for all mankind.
But Jesus continues and tells his disciples that the cross isn’t his mission alone. It is the mission of every believer. “Whoever wants to by my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?”
So what does Jesus mean when he’s talking about the crosses we need to take up? People think of burdens like migraines, loneliness, a learning disability, unemployment, family problems, a bad back… And while those are challenges that God allows into our lives, they are not the crosses Jesus is talking about. Look carefully again at verse 24. How does Jesus say a Christian takes up his cross? “[they] must deny themselves and…follow me.” You follow Jesus and deny yourself by making your will second to his. I’ll be honest, it means spending more than one hour a week with God. It may mean spending less time in the woods or on the lake or yes, even on the couch. Think of the way you spent your time last week, or the way you plan to spend this one. Where is God in it? Do your plans include a time to praise him, hear him, and serve him? Are you following him or are you expecting him to follow you?
I worry about Christians in America because this is hard to do in the land of the couch. I worry that we’re far too much like the lukewarm Laodiceans of Revelation. The ones who knew Christ but grew apathetic. God told them he wanted to spit them out. And I see that lukewarm-ness in us. Christians who sing God’s praise for an hour here in church and ignore him the rest of the week. Christians gifted with talents and time but not putting them action in service. Members who see church membership as a place to visit and not a people to serve with. I know how easy it is to take our faith for granted and sit on the spiritual couch. How hard it is to deny ourselves and how easy it is to become self-absorbed. Because I’m right there with you. I’d rather spend my time on me too.
I’ve got a thousand things still not done at home. I haven’t even unpacked all my boxes. There are a hundred people vying for my time and attention. It’s hard. Living out faith isn’t easy. But that’s why Jesus compares it to carrying a cross and not to lounging on a couch! Denying ourselves is hard because by nature my first concern is me, not you. We try to justify it to ourselves: We tell ourselves we’re working for our family. We deserve a little rest. We’ve earned some time off. But hear Jesus’ warning again, “whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?”
Brothers and sisters, this is the Church God wants. A Church of people who celebrate forgiveness because we know what Jesus gave up to carry the actual cross for us. And a Church of people who respond by taking up the crosses he gives to us in service to him. After a year of being at Salem, I’ve gotten to know many of you. I’ve gotten to know our church. We are a people who know the first part of that. We know Jesus, and we celebrate what he’s done.
But we are also a people who don’t always realize that the work that needs to be done in our church and our community is work that we all share in doing. Don’t look at Salem as just a place for others to serve and speak to you, but a place for you to serve and help others. And be bold in it. Don’t wait to be asked to serve, step forward. We have far too many gifted and faithful members to struggle the way we do in finding greeters and ushers and Sunday school teachers. God has given you the time. He’s given you the gifts. And he’s given you the opportunity. If it means saying no to some things you want and desire, take up that cross with me and serve. If it means missing out on a day out or a night in, take up that cross and put someone else’s needs first.
Had Peter really listened to Jesus that day he would have known that while the cross defined Jesus’ mission, it wasn’t the end. Jesus plainly said that after he was killed he would rise again on the third day. Our crosses aren’t the end for us either. Yes we suffer for our faith. And yes, denying ourselves and following Christ means giving up our time and our treasure. But in the end those who carry Christ’s cross also receive Christ’s crown. A crown of unending joy with the Lord in heaven. Hear God’s call to action today. Take up your cross. Get off the couch. And follow our Savior all the way to glory in heaven. Amen.