Sermon from Rev. Zickler for September 3, 2017

20170903 Sermon Proper 17
September 3, 2017
Matthew 16:21-28

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen. This morning we meditate upon the Gospel Lesson previously read. Amen.

Ah Peter. What a roller coaster for him. Last week we heard Peter making that great confession of faith, we heard him speaking that creed, “You are the Christ the Son of the Living God.” And we heard Jesus encouraging him in that, telling him that God Himself had revealed this to Peter and that upon that very confession the Church would be built. In fact, not only that, but Peter—and we see in Chapter 18, all of the apostles—would receive the authority to bind and forgive sins. You can imagine Peter felt pretty good about himself after that. I would guess he would want to deny it, but that there might have been a bit of puffing up and of pride at that point. But then this. Then Jesus goes on to describe the events of his death, and Peter says he won’t allow it. In Peter’s mind we can imagine that in his pride he was probably picturing himself sacrificing his own life in place of our Lord’s at the hands of those elders, chief priests, and scribes.

Of course, we know that when the time would come, Peter would be utterly humbled in his denial of Jesus before men, but even here there’s some significant humiliation, isn’t there? What does Jesus say to him? “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” Such a rebuke from the Christ must surely have been crushing. Jesus, the Christ, the Son of the Living God looking at you and calling you Satan. Like we said with the Canaanite woman being called a dog: not a compliment.

But of course, Jesus goes on from there. He goes on and addresses all of the disciples—a so-called teachable moment, I suppose—and he explains: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” If anyone wants to follow me, he has to be serious. He has to be willing to deny even his own life and come after me. But to ask that Lutheran question, “What does this mean?” What does it mean to deny ourselves, to pick up our cross and follow Jesus?

To start, what does it mean to deny ourselves? Well on the most basic level, this is repentance. In our minds we always have justification for ourselves and our actions. We have our pride and our arrogance, and we have to crush that. We have to deny that we are in fact good. Something I often speak about is how we underestimate the effect of sin on our world, even on ourselves. A part of denying ourselves comes from grasping that there is nothing good in us, not of ourselves. There is nothing in us that should cause God to want to love us. There is nothing in us that should cause us to be God’s children. There is nothing in us that deserves anything but God’s temporal and eternal punishment. That’s hard to hear, and it’s hard to say—it’s even harder to believe—but this is what the Scriptures mean when they say that our righteous deeds are like filthy rags and that no one does good. So we have to deny ourselves and realize that only sin is in us when it comes to our standing before God. This can be confusing because we see people doing good and helpful things in the world, but we’re not talking about that. We’re talking about our goodness before God which isn’t there. So, we deny ourselves, and we deny our own goodness, and we repent of that wickedness.

As a part of this, then, we have to understand Jesus’ words when He says, “you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” This would be like last week, when we heard Paul calling us to not conform to this world, but to be transformed by the renewal of our minds. We are to see things as God sees them, not as we do. And how is that? Well, first and foremost, we think of things selfishly. In fact even when we do good things, then we think we now deserve something good in return. We think that if we send money to help those in need, then God will certainly have to bless us in one way or another! Likewise, we think about what we want and how we want it!

Now as I say this, this is hard isn’t it? After all, think about the Frank Sinatra song. How did Ol’ Blue Eyes do it? He said he did it, “My way,” right? Or think about the old Burger King campaign, how could you have it at Burger King? You could “have it your way.” In fact, as I speak about advertising and the media in this way, you may recall I spoke a couple of months ago about a presentation by Pastor Jonathan Fisk about the Church’s Response to the Post-Modern World. I specifically referenced Pastor Fisk’s explanation about the philosophical underpinnings of our current culture, but he also talked about the media, and that’s very pertinent for this. He made the point that something we have to be careful about is how the media works into our thoughts in ways we don’t even realize, how we have to be aware of this, constantly examining everything. Now, as I say that, we perhaps think of something like our worldview, and how we need to still cling to the truth of the Bible and the existence of God and all of that. And that’s important, but Pastor Fisk made the point that there are also equally insidious subtleties that come through the media as well. And as I say this, I don’t mean to say that we need to throw out our TV’s and computers and live in caves, just that we need to be aware of this.

In particular, Pastor Fisk focused on the fact that the media creates expectations for us. It creates expectations for what we think our lives should be like. It creates the expectation of consumerism. Think about this, because it affects us even in the church. Have you ever thought about how much you like a certain hymn, or don’t like another? Or have you ever been frustrated that a pastor doesn’t pick a certain hymn or style of music for hymns that you wish he would? Now to be clear, I don’t mean to say that we can’t like some hymns better than others, but we have the expectation set for us that we come to church to consume hymns to our liking. Or we have the expectation that the Liturgy is an option we have in worship that we follow because it fits our tastes of consumptions. Christians, when we think this way, we’re missing the point! We have had our minds confused to think that it’s about our liking! It’s not! It’s about God’s Word! It’s about confessing who Jesus is! It’s about reminding and teaching us that it’s not about our goodness, but about Jesus and His love and sacrifice for us!

Of course, this isn’t just something we see in consumerism, either. Look at that passage from Romans. Think about how much of this is contrary to how we think. “Bless those who curse you?” “Associate with the lowly?” “Repay no one evil for evil?” Is that how the world speaks? No. When someone offends you, you stick it to them. When someone hurts you, you get them back, and you avenge that. But Christians, deny yourself that right! And it is a right, we’ll admit that. When someone harms you, you have the right for eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. But what does Jesus say? Deny yourself that right. Forgive them. Think about this like your God who has come into this world and forgiven you before you could even think about saying you’re sorry to Him. Deny yourselves and pick up your cross to follow Jesus.

And as I say that passage again, I think it’s clear what it means to deny ourselves, but what about picking up our cross and following Jesus? What does that mean? Well to start, think about the cross. Now, we see crosses all of the time, don’t we? They are all over the place. Sometimes we see them empty, sometimes we see them with Jesus on them—which as an aside, I’d love it if we had a crucifix in the Sanctuary here to remind us of His sacrifice for us, but I digress. So, with or without Jesus on them, we see those crosses on walls, on banners, we even wear them around our necks. Have you ever thought about what the cross was? Someone pointed this out to me. The cross was an instrument for killing criminals. What would you do if you saw someone with the electric chair on a necklace? And yet that’s what the cross is. In fact the cross was even worse, more brutal, more violent, bloodier, and more painful. It was an instrument of pain, suffering, and as I said, death.

So when we pick up our cross and follow Jesus, we are dying. We are following Him to the tomb. We are denying what we want and heeding His call to turn from our sin and selfishness toward the love of God and our neighbor. And this is good. It’s good because as we die, our sin dies. As we head into Christ’s tomb our sin is nailed on the cross with Him and buried in that tomb with Him. When that rock rolls over the opening and slams shut, it slams over our sin as well. And as it does that, then as Jesus rises to new life, we are raised with Him.

Christians, this call to follow Jesus, to follow Him to death is nothing other than baptism. It is nothing other than that call to hear that you were therefore buried with Him through baptism into death in order that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father you too walk in newness of life.

And of course that’s an odd thought, isn’t it? The thought that your death would mean life. That if you want to live you have to die, that in order to gain your life, you have to lose it? But this is thinking about things like God. This is setting your mind on the things of God, and not on the things of man. And this is good, because you can give nothing in return for your life, but Jesus has given all for it. This means that when He returns He will not look upon your sin, after all that has been buried with Him. Instead, He will look upon His righteousness that covers you. You see when He speaks of repaying each according to what he has done, literally according to his praxis, there’s a negative connotation there. There’s the connotation that these praxes are the works of sin, and the payment will be only judgment. But those praxes, those evil deeds are gone for you. They are gone for you in the denial of yourself and in the drowning of your sinful nature in daily repentance. They are gone for you as you live in that humility that this requires.

This is what Peter learned as he was humbled by Jesus. May we always learn that same blessed lesson. For, as we die, as deny ourselves, we live. As we follow Christ to death, He raises us in His resurrection. He raises us because He has taken up His cross. He has taken up and carried the cross of our sin. Amen.