Take Up Your Cross, Not Your Pillow
A sermon based on Luke 9:18-24
Sunday, June 19, 2016 – Pentecost 5C
When a certain college student who studying to become a pastor (and, let's let this hypothetical student remain nameless, shall we?)… when he would whine and complain to his professor about his work load—he already had 40 lines of Greek to translate, 10 lessons of Hebrew grammar and vocabulary to study for a test of Friday, and an essay to write for his lit class tomorrow, and now—on top of all that!—his German prof gave him another 4 pages to translate by tomorrow too?! Well, that that particular prof would inevitably remind his students, "Boys, remember: Our Savior didn't say, 'Take up your pillow and follow me,' ja? What did he say? Oh, yes! 'Take up your cross.' Go. Translate." And with that he sent us… er… I mean… the students off to lunch.
Jesus didn't say, "Take up your pillow," but "Take up your cross." That was our professor's way of reminding us that if we were to follow Jesus and live to serve him and his people, then we certainly shouldn't expect that life would be all fun and games, all rainbows and unicorns. No. It would be hard at times. It would be difficult. But we should expect nothing less. For Jesus himself suffered nothing less for us. Indeed, he suffered so much more…
And now, because Jesus didn't take up a pillow but a cross for us, we, in turn, can take up our crosses and follow him. Listen as Jesus gives that reminder to his disciplies in Luke 9:18-24…
18 Once when Jesus was praying in private and his disciples were with him, he asked them, "Who do the crowds say I am?"
19 They replied, "Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, that one of the prophets of long ago has come back to life."
20 "But what about you?" he asked. "Who do you say I am?"
Peter answered, "The Christ of God."
21 Jesus strictly warned them not to tell this to anyone. 22 And he said, "The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life."
23 Then he said to them all: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it."
I. Jesus Took Up His Cross
The most important question that anyone can answer in this life is this: "Who is Jesus?" You'll notice that everyone had a high regard for Jesus: "Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, that one of the prophets of long ago has come back to life." It was obvious that Jesus was a good guy and even that he was sent from God. But those answers weren't good enough. For if Jesus is only a good man, one of the prophets come back to life, then… well… to put it bluntly, we're all doomed to an eternity in hell. That's not enough.
And the disciples themselves needed some clarity in answering that question: "Who is Jesus?" So Jesus made it more pointed by asking them not just what popular opinion was about him, but what they believed. "But what about you?" he asked. "Who do you say I am?" And Peter, as the self-appointed spokesman of the group, answered for them all: "The Christ of God."
"The Christ." That's the Greek word for the Hebrew, "Messiah." Both words mean "The Anointed One." And that was a good answer. It was right. But there was still a lot of confusion regarding what the Christ, or Messiah, had come to do. Most thought the Christ would be a hero who, with the aid of God, would ride out in glory to conquer the Romans and all who dared to oppose the Jews. It would be a blood bath. But then, after the war, he would bring about an era of peace and prosperity, comfort and luxury, a life of peace and ease for all who followed him. In other words, they thought he would bring heaven to earth.
And that's exactly why Jesus strictly warned his disciples not to tell anyone who he was. Their idea of what the Christ had come to do was way off. And Jesus needed to set them straight.
He said, "The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life."
No, Jesus would not ride out in glory. He wouldn't fight the Romans. Instead he came to suffer. He came to die. He would not take up his shield and his armor. He would not take up a sword or a spear so that later he might take up his pillow and take up his cup. No. He would take up a cross— that instrument of suffering and pain, that instrument of violence and gore, that instrument of death of by torture.
Why? Why would he do that, when, as true God, he could have stopped it at any time? You know the answer: To save us from our selfishness and sin.
Who do you say Jesus is? Sure, we all know he's the Son of God as all the Gospel accounts clearly describe. We know he's the one who did all sorts of miracles and wonders, helping the sick and poor, even raising the dead! And we know that he's our Savior.
But do we sometimes have the same misunderstanding of who Jesus is that his first disciples had? Do we always understand what exactly he came to save us from? Or have you ever thought, "If Jesus really loved me, then I'd have a job." Or a better job! "If Jesus really loved me then I wouldn't be sick and in so much discomfort and pain." "If Jesus loved me, he'd keep these problems from me. He's keep my family close. He'd make things easier, my life happier, less painful and more comfortable! If only he came to take up his pillow and hand it to me."
But that's not why he came—thank God! Thank God that Jesus didn't come just to take up a pillow and hand it to you, to make life easier or happier for you. Thank God that instead Jesus came to take up a cross for you. Because there on that cross Jesus endured hell itself to save us from our own selfishness and narcissistic obsessions. There he took away every self-centered action, every loveless thought, every whining complaint we've made against God! There he took away every time that I was so self-absorbed that gave no concern to the hurt or pain of someone else. There he took away every one of my sins and every one of yours. There he made us sinless and holy in God's sight. That's why he came!
And you know the answer to the most important question that anyone can ever ask: "Who is Jesus?" You know that he is the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of God, who took up his cross, not to save us from poverty, from sickness, or from boredom, but from sin and selfishness and satan, to save us from death and darkness and despair.
II. We Take Up Our Crosses
And now, understanding who he is and what he's done for us, we're not so concerned about our comfort and convenience as we once were. We don't always need to ask, "What's it in for me?" We don't need to reach for the remote or for the pillow, but we too, reach for the cross. In thanks to him, we will gladly serve him. We'll gladly suffer for him. We'll gladly crucify our selfishness and put it to death. We'll gladly die for him. After all that's what cross is used for: to torture and kill.
Then he said to them all: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me."
You see, many people interpret this "cross" as some burden they must carry in their lives, like some strained relationship, a thankless job, or a physical illness. With self-pitying pride, they whine, "That's my cross I have to carry."
But when Jesus hung on the cross of Calvary, no one thought of it as something symbolic. When Jesus' disciples heard him speak of a cross, they thought of an instrument of death by torture. Imagine if Jesus were to say, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and [sit in his electric chair] daily and follow me."
No. To take up your cross doesn't mean to just suffer a setback or two or face a few problems. It means to be willing to die by torture in order to follow Jesus. It means to deny oneself, said Jesus, to give up what you want most in order to serve him.
So deny your desire to sit on the couch and veg out when the dishes still need to be done. Deny your desire to be popular and cool when your classmates or friends need to hear the truth about themselves and about Jesus. Deny your desire to be financially secure with a huge stockpile when you have opportunity to support the work of God's Church. Deny your desire to avoid physical pain and torture should you someday be called upon to testify to the truth with the same consequences as those first disciples. Take up your cross with daily self-denial as you follow Jesus even to the point of death.
Why do it? Why give up your life for Jesus? Not to win your salvation. Jesus already won that for you. But to thank him for the salvation he's given. Because we know that, "Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for [Jesus] will save it."
Radio talk show host, author, and financial advisor, Dave Ramsey, encourages his audience to, "Live like one else today, so you can live like no one else tomorrow." Don't be like everyone else, buying whatever you want while ignoring what you can afford. Deny your impulses and live below your means so you can save. Then tomorrow (or, I guess, really a few dozen years from tomorrow) you can live like no one else. No one else will be debt free like you, financially secure like you, and able to give like you.
In the same way, Jesus says to us all, "Live like one else today, so you can live like no one else tomorrow." Take up your cross, not your pillow. Deny yourself and your sinful nature. Lose your life for Jesus and you'll save it. And tomorrow (or a few dozen years from tomorrow) you can live like no one else in the glories of heaven. For you know how your Jesus took up, not a pillow, but his cross to rescue you from you sin. Now take up your crosses and live for him in thanks. In Jesus' name, dear friends, amen.