February 13, 2011

First a Cross, Then the Glory

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This Epiphany we’ve been examining the ministry of Jesus in the book of Luke. Today we’ll be reading the first half of Luke chapter 9.

One of todays readings tells about how Jesus VISIBLY revealed His glory as God the Son. This was a unique event in Jesus’ life. Usually, He covered up His visible glory. He did this because His life was about humbling Himself, even to the point of dying a horrific death – so that sinners, like us, now stand forgiven of all our sins.

For Jesus, the dark road of the cross came first, then came resurrection and restoration to glory at the Father’s side. In today’s readings Jesus reveals that this is the same path His forgiven followers must walk – first the dark road of life, then resurrection and glory at the Father’s side.


Luke 9:18-22 (NIV)

18Once when Jesus was praying in private and his disciples were with him, he asked them, “Who do the crowds say I am?”
19They 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.”
21Jesus strictly warned them not to tell this to anyone. 22And 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.”

How would you like to be a celebrity? Maybe an important politician, a billionaire, a movie star or a sports icon. These things are glamorous, but celebrity comes with a price tag. We’ve all seen pictures of celebrities moving through a bustling airport with a hat on, big sunglasses and baggy clothes. For celebrities, simple travel requires a disguise.

Celebrity opens some doors, but closes others. Imagine being a single celebrity seeking a meaningful relationship. Any date would inevitably come with all sorts of preconceived ideas about who you are, drawn from the movies you’ve been in, or the sound bites that the media has plastered on the front page of countless newspapers and magazines. People would figure that they know you, but really, they wouldn’t. And maybe they couldn’t know the real you without a lot of work.

Now imagine the celebrity status that Jesus had to face. He was the predicted Savior of the world. His entire life had been foretold by God’s prophets long before He was ever born. And even though the prophets had conveyed a perfect image of what the Savior would be like, the people who read these prophecies often misinterpreted the details, constructing their own version of the Savior. They thought they knew Him, but they didn’t.

This was a big problem for Jesus. The whole purpose of His life was to save sinners from divine punishment for their sins. To do this He had to suffer and die in their place, and he also had to get the people to realize that He was the Savior, so they would believe and be saved. But how could He teach them anything, when they already THOUGHT they knew what He was all about?

Jesus’ solution to the problem of celebrity was to duck it. To avoid it. He spent 30 years of his life simply growing up. Living in the little backwater town of Nazareth. Not doing anything particularly astonishing. Not preaching. Not healing. Not proclaiming Himself to be the promised Christ.

When it came time for Jesus’ ministry to begin in earnest, He was perceived as an everyday-Joe, just like everyone else. Even when Jesus started preaching and teaching and healing he kept it low-key. In fact, He didn’t even call Himself the Christ. He called Himself the “Son of Man”, an obscure Old Testament reference to the Christ.

When Jesus cast demons out of possessed people, they sometimes tried to ruin Jesus’ “disguise” by yelling that they knew Him to be the “Holy One of God”. But Jesus shut them up quickly with a stern command.

When Jesus healed a leper, the Bible says He told the man not to tell anyone what He had done. This was Jesus’ regular mode of operating. In one town when He raised a little girl from the dead. He did this miracle in private, with only three of His disciples and the parents of the girl as witnesses. Afterwards He told the little girls parents to keep quiet about it.

All of this secrecy was meant to sidestep the obstacle of celebrity. It was meant to enable the people to see the Christ for who He really was, and what He really was really about before they even knew it was Him. But still, the people misunderstood Jesus.

When Jesus asked his disciples who the people thought He was, there was a range of answers. Some said He was John the Baptist. Others, Elijah, the prophet from the Old Testament. Some figured Jesus must be some other Old Testament prophet back from the dead.

The people were actually doing pretty good. They recognized that God’s hand was at work in the ministry of Jesus. They were on the right track.

After Jesus was crucified and raised from the dead, many would come to believe that He really was the Christ, and their Savior from sin. Those two events were the events that Jesus’ ministry was constantly headed for. Crucifixion and resurrection.

These events were foretold clearly in Old Testament prophecies like those found in Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22. But until those events came to pass, Jesus insisted that the apostles remain quiet about His identity. Like it says in verse 20...
‘20“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Peter answered, “The Christ of God.”
21Jesus strictly warned them not to tell this to anyone. 22And 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”’ (Luke 9:20-22 NIV).
The Old Testament prophecy said these things had to happen to the Christ. Even so, they had a hard time accepting that Savior whom the Old Testament sometimes depicted as being so glorious, would win the victory for them through dying a humiliating death.

Even after Jesus had been raised from the dead on Easter morning, people found this message hard to accept. The apostle Paul wrote,
“...we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23 NIV).
To the Jews, the idea of a Hero who dies a humiliating death was foreign to all their preconceived notions of what the Christ would be like. They figured He’d be a glorious king right away. They didn’t understand that the cross must come first, then the glory. Humble service, then elevation to glory by the very hand of God the Father.

In summary, Jesus avoided celebrity so the people could listen to His message with minimal distractions. He avoided celebrity to allow His crucifixion and resurrection could speak for themselves.

But, there was another reason Jesus moved humbly through His life on the way to the cross and glory. Jesus’ life was to be a pattern that His believers would follow.

Listen to the second half of our sermon reading.

Luke 9:23-27 (NIV)

23Then he said to them all: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. 25What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self? 26If anyone is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. 27I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.”

I said it before, and I’ll say it again: Jesus moved humbly through His life on the way to the cross and final glory. He tells us openly that if we follow Him, this pattern will be imprinted on our lives also. First comes self-denial and cross carrying, then comes final glory in the kingdom of God.

Jesus isn’t being cute here. He’s laying it all on the table for His disciples to see. The Christian life is hard. Just look at the figure of speech He uses to describe it, “daily cross carrying”. When a criminal was condemned to die by crucifixion, it was a horrible, humiliating thing. He was flogged and then forced to carry his own instrument of torture to the place of crucifixion. He was forced to take up and carry the very thing that would cause his death. This isn’t a pretty picture.

People today sometimes talk about carrying their own crosses. Christians and non-Christians alike might say, “Well, that’s my cross to bear”. We’ve heard people say that, right? Usually they’re talking about some problem or hardship in life that they can’t just shed. They have to carry it, and they accept that. But it’s hard.

It might be something like cancer. Or some other disease or physical problem. It might be a responsibility like caring for a loved one who is hard to care for. It might be some personal addiction like alcoholism or drug abuse that must be constantly avoided and fought.

That’s how people today talk about “cross carrying”. It’s a general term for any on-going struggle we have in life. But when Jesus speaks of picking up our own crosses, He’s zeroing in on the burdens that we bear BECAUSE OF HIM. He says, “whoever loses his life FOR ME will save it” (Luke 9:24 NIV).

What crosses do you bear BECAUSE you follow Jesus? What bad things happen to you BECAUSE you follow Jesus?

Maybe it’s being ridiculed for believing that God created the world in six day like He says in Genesis. Maybe it’s being called exclusive and judgmental because you believe, like the Bible says, that Jesus is the only way to heaven. Maybe it’s not doing what your heart tells you because you know that it’s not what Jesus would have you do.

The crosses that we bear BECAUSE of Jesus are hard because they involve DAILY DENIAL of the here and now, in favor of the future that Jesus promises.

Do you watch game shows? Television game shows often have a similar twist. There’s a point where the contestant can take the money they’ve already got and go, or they can risk it all for the jackpot. What would you do? Take a couple thousand, or hang in there for a chance at a billion?

Jesus presents the life of a Christ follower in similar terms. In the game show of life we can take the small payoff offered by the sinful world, or we can hang in there for the massive fortune of eternity with the Living God.

The only difference is that the eternal fortune Jesus promises His followers is guaranteed.

In this section, Jesus makes it clear that His followers can’t ride the fence. They can’t serve two masters, sinful self and the sinless God. We can’t live our lives with one foot dancing in the sinful world, and one foot standing in the kingdom. It’s one or the other.

Following Christ means rejecting our sinful selves, willingly picking up our cross for Jesus, and persistently following with final glory in our sights.

Jesus presents these truths without a sugar coating. But He also teaches us that the weight of these heavy burdens is nothing compared to what we would carry apart from Jesus.

In Matthew 11, verse 29 Jesus says…
‘28“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy and my burden is light”’ (Matthew 11:29-30 NIV).
The cross that Jesus places on His followers is light and easy when compared to the ghastly weight of our own sin that it replaces. Think about it like this. Apart from Jesus we would have to carry our own guilt and sin to the foot of God’s throne. And there, without Jesus, we would be condemned to bear that weight for eternity apart from God and all His goodness.

But through faith in Jesus, our cross of sin is removed. The cross of following Jesus ends in complete forgiveness and renewal on the Last Day. When Jesus comes in His own glory and the glory of the Father and with the holy angels, the faithful not be condemned, but embraced.

The writer of the book of Hebrews sums up all these ideas in Hebrews 12.
“1Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:1-2 NKJV).
First a cross, then the glory. That was Jesus’ life, and the life of those who follow Him. First a cross, then the glory. May God give us all the strength of faith that we may follow His rough path with resolve.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, we can talk to You now because after Your suffering and death in our place, the Father raised You back to life and glory. Help us never to try to live our lives with one foot in the world and one in your kingdom. Strength our resolve so that the piddly treasure and celebrity that this world offers look pathetic to us because our eyes are focused on YOU . Thank you for forgiving us all our sins by Your humiliating suffering. Lead us to gladly take up our own crosses, the ones we receive because we trust in You. Help us to lose ourselves in You, Lord Jesus, and thus gain that which has eternal value. Amen.

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