2nd Sunday in Lent

Alicia Vargas—March 15, 2006

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Psalm 22:22-30
Romans 4:13-25
Mark 8:31-38

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.

“DENY OURSELVES” Well, I learned to deny myself in Sunday school during Lent. No M&M’s for 40 days! A BIG sacrifice! M&M’s—Uhmm—I couldn’t even have one of my very, very favorite candy. It has been many years since I was in Sunday school, but I still think it was a little tricky of my teacher to first ask us to say aloud (while she wrote on the board), what was our most favorite treat to eat BEFORE SHE TOLD US THAT WE MUST GIVE THAT VERY THING UP during Lent. I had said “M&M’s” just because it was the truth, it was my most favorite candy, but I wished later that I had said “marshmallows,” or “salt water taffy” because I could take or leave those anytime.

Giving up something you like or enjoy for Lent… we do that—and for some good reasons. But we choose what to give up, or how much of it to give up. Like this lady that says every year that she will give up one cup of coffee a day for Lent. So she’ll drink only one instead of her usual two cups, but uses her extra large cup during Lent.

In any case, what we choose, and how much we choose to give up during Lent has to do a lot with our will. We ask ourselves: what are we willing to give up? We decide what and how much—unless you get a Sunday school teacher like mine who tricks you.

Well, I think the point Jesus makes in this passage from Mark, does not mean exactly to give up something outside of ourselves. Jesus is calling us here to deny not things to ourselves, but OURSELVES to ourselves. “Denying ourselves” here does not mean not eating M&M’s or drinking one cup of coffee instead of two. Nor does it mean to hate ourselves, or disrespect ourselves, or harm ourselves either. Choosing to do without self-care or proper boundaries revolves around our will, it is determined by us, and this is not what the text is about. But what this text is calling us to do is that IF we are to become Jesus’ followers, Jesus’ disciples, we must deny OUR VERY WILL, and abandon ourselves to God’s will for the sake of the Gospel.

That was what Jesus did, and that is what he was trying to explain to his disciples. He was trying to tell Peter and others that he must follow his Father’s will for him unto suffering and death and resurrection. Peter did not want Jesus to suffer, he did not want Jesus to be rejected and much less to die. Peter had just heard Jesus say “quite openly,” our Gospel reading says, that “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” And Peter told Jesus that he did not want that to happen. And Jesus had told Peter that he was setting his mind in “human things” and not in “divine things.” Peter was so distraught about the suffering, rejection, and death part, that he probably missed the part about the resurrection!

It’s natural to cling to our own self and our human will, the one that wants, the one that desires, the one that prefers and decides what is good. We usually do not want what is bad, and wrong, and evil (sometimes we even want that), but we certainly want what is good. As Oswald Chambers puts it, the problem is that the “good” that we want for ourselves: security, popularity, recognition, has a problem with the “best” that God wants: forgiveness, justice, transformation, peace. And the “good” that we want, is not even close to the “best” that God wants. Peter wanted Jesus to keep living, certainly a good thing, not to die—he does not seem to get the part about the resurrection, the “best” that God willed out of Jesus’ death. Jesus rebukes Peter telling him he’s stuck on human things, instead of setting his mind on the things of God. Our will or God’s will, that is the question here. And to follow Jesus, we must deny our will, our very self.

Only denying ourselves, we could really pick up the cross of suffering and rejection and death for the sake of the life-giving Gospel. And only dying to our own wills, we can follow God’s. Dietrich Bonhoeffer in The Cost of Discipleship says:

As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death—we give over our lives to death…. When Christ calls [a person,] he bids him [or her] come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But is it the same death every time—death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old [person] at his call. Jesus’ summons to the rich young man was calling him to die, because only the [person] who is dead to his [or her] own will can follow Christ. In fact every command of Jesus is a call to die, with all our affections and lusts. But we do not want to die, and therefore Jesus Christ and his call are necessarily our death as well as our life. (P. 99)

It is significant, I think, that our text says that the cross that Jesus invites us to pick up is “ours.” “Let them deny themselves and take up their cross.” Jesus is not telling us that we must pick up his cross, the one that redeemed us. Jesus is not telling us to take up his cross, but ours. We do not take our cross to redeem ourselves, he did that for us—Lutherans have that straight! We take up our cross to live in God’s will in communion with Christ… to talk about, to proclaim, to model, and to be molded by God’s will for us and for the world, and to be open to it in our lives.

Carrying a cross everywhere may make one a bit unpopular. People can even reject the cross-bearer as a weird or unrealistic, or idealistic, or just as a plain delusional or contentious one-track-mind troublemaker. God’s will seems to be unrealistic, doesn’t it? Peace in this world of war? Really? Justice in the midst of ubiquitous injustice? Really? Love instead of apathy toward the plight of others? Really? Status, reputation, recognition: not important? Truth in the midst of denial and fear? To go against the current, within our very selves and in our world, and be open to God’s will, and do it, and proclaim it, will gain rejection and suffering for Jesus’ followers. It certainly got rejection, suffering, imprisonment, and even physical death for so many of Jesus’ original disciples, and for the apostle Paul, and other apostles and evangelists across the ages, and for Jesus himself, and Martin Luther King, Jr., and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and many, many other unnamed followers who have been and are ridiculed, ostracized, killed, persecuted, imprisoned for the sake of the Gospel that calls us to radical love, forgiveness, hope, reconciliation, peace, justice. To walk out of ourselves, to walk against the formidable human interests and selfishness, to walk against the unholy status quo in ourselves, and in our world, and even in our church, is a difficult sacrifice… one that we are called to undergo, taking our own cross, denying ourselves, in the shadow of the big cross, the redeeming cross, Jesus’ cross, the one that gave us life. Only on the resurrection side of Jesus Christ’s cross, we can see the life that comes out of the death of our own will.

I am so glad Jesus did take up his cross, because for us it is so much easier to give up M&M’s or one cup of coffee than to give up ourselves. In the grace that pours down from Christ’s cross we live, as we ask for God’s help to see the “best” of God’s will beyond our own “good.”

May God help us in becoming and remaining open to God’s will always.