Intro – Remember Richie Hebner? Played 3rd for the Pirates and Phils in 70’s and 80’s. He was a gravedigger off-season and proud of it. He once said, “I’m good at it. In 10 years no one’s ever dug out of one of my graves yet!” Impressive, right? I wish I could say the same. When we accept Christ, He makes a new creation inside us. Paul says in Rom 6:6, “We know that our old self was crucified with him.” So, if I am a new me, and the old me was crucified with Christ, why does that old me keep digging itself out of its grave? Do you have the same issue? If you’re honest, you know you do. So did Paul. He says in Rom 7:19, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” That old self keeps kicking off the dirt and getting out of the grave. What is going on? I thought the old me was dead!
Well, Paul answers, but first we must understand that death in the Bible doesn’t mean cease to exist. It means separation. The old me is dead in that we’re no longer joined at the hip! It’s not who I am. BUT I can still choose to give him control. Rom 6:6: “We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.” Death to self doesn’t mean old self ceases to exist; it means we are no longer slaves to it. That means there is a war going on inside every believer all the time. Our old self, the flesh, wars against our new self – both vying to get our will to obey them. God says it this way in Gal 5:17, “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.” We are war with our old self. It turns out we are not very good grave diggers. He keeps kicking the dirt off! So what are we to do? Jesus tells us: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”
To be truly saved is costly. It cost God the Father His Son. It cost God the Son a life of suffering and a devastating physical and spiritual death to pay for our sins. It costs us, in simple terms, ourselves. To be truly saved requires 3 things of us. Deny self. Take up our cross daily. Follow Him.
III. What Must I Do?
A. Deny Myself
At some point in time I renounce my old self in favor of His new creation and an unseen, unfelt, spiritual miracle takes place inside me. I become a new creation. But it does not end there. That commitment is only the beginning. For to be truly saved is to be truly changed. It’s just like getting married. It takes as long as it takes to say “I do” to make the commitment. But life is never the change thereafter. When you leave that church, you have a new identity.
B. Take Up My Cross Daily
“Take up” is another point in time action. But this action is to happen daily. Jesus followers must take up their cross daily. Why? Because once I’ve actually accepted Christ, the battle begins in earnest. Was it difficult to accept Christ in the first place? Well, get ready. That battle was nothing compared to what comes next. Now the old self and the new self go to war. And followers of Christ crucify the old self daily. So what does that mean?
1. What it Does Not Mean
Well, it doesn’t mean life’s hardships. We often talk of life’s adversity as one’s cross. So, for example, people talk about their job, or boss, or junker of a car, or mother-in-law, or arthritis as their cross to bear. Any hardship gets this definition. And life does throw us curves that are difficult to deal with – hard to bear. But that’s not what Jesus means here. Yes, we have to deal with those tough circumstances. But that is not what it means to take up our cross daily.
2. What It Does Mean
“Take up your cross daily,” would have conjured up a vivid image. They knew crucifixion was the most painful and humiliating type of execution known to man. It was used by the hated Romans specifically for the worst kinds of criminals – foreigners, enemies of the state, rebellious slaves, spies.
Men condemned to “take up their cross” were beaten and then required to carry the crossbeam of the cross to the place of execution in a final act of submission to the state. Anyone who was carrying his cross was on a one-way journey. He would not be back. This was the utmost in self-denial, for the criminal was now doing everything the state wanted and nothing he wanted. He was very dead to self, even as he walked. Galileans knew all about crucifixion. When Jesus was 11 years of age a man named Judas raided the Roman armory at Sepphoris, 2 miles north of Nazareth. Roman vengeance was swift. Sepphoris was burned to the ground; its inhabitants sold into slavery and 2,000 rebels were crucified along the roadside and left to die and rot in place as a dreadful warning to others. The cross meant submission to a higher authority and death to self. And Jesus is saying, “That’s what it is to be truly saved. Taking one’s cross daily– denying personal agendas in favor of a divine agenda. Submissive to the kingdom of God instead of building the kingdom of Dave or Patty or Lisa or Mike or Diane.”
This separates the pretenders from the contenders. That’s what Jesus meant it to do. He’d have made a poor modern day evangelist, begging people to just come to Christ. He emphasized the price rather than the prize. The reward is great, but the cross is first. Jesus never told it any other way. Saved people have a daily bloodbath to see who is going to rule in our heart – me or Christ. If that battle is not going on, we are not truly saved. We will not be perfect at this! The disciples weren’t and neither will we be. We will have periods like they where we lose more than we win. But the commitment is there – the intent to die to self daily -- or we are not followers of Jesus. We must do voluntarily what condemned men did by force. Take up our cross. Die to self.
S. D. Gordon wrote a book way back in 1903 called Quiet Thoughts on Prayer. In it he said, “In every heart there is a cross and a throne and each is occupied. If Jesus is on the throne, ruling, self is on the cross, dying. But if self is being obeyed and so ruling, then it is on the throne. And self on the the throne means that Jesus has been put on the cross.” That’s what it means: “take up your cross.” Is it me on the cross today, or is it Jesus? Has self escaped the grave, or is he dead and buried today. The Christian life is a one-time decision, that’s true. But it’s a one-time decision that results in a lifetime change. No change; no salvation. Personal motives aimed at self-promotion must die daily. That’s what needs to be crucified daily in favor of God’s will in our lives. We are either living for self or Him. Which is it?
Ted and Bill are hunting. Ted falls in a dead feint. Bill calls 911 and blurts, “My friend just dropped dead! What should I do?” A soothing voice says, “Don’t worry, I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s really dead.” There is a brief pause, then a shot rings out. Bill comes back on, “Okay, he’s dead, so what’s next?” That’s just how brutal we must be in taking up our cross daily.
C. Follow Jesus
V. 23: “And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” “Follow me.” Present tense, constant, ongoing action. Literally “to come behind” someone. Do you remember “Follow the leader”? That’s the idea. When we were leader we used to try to dream up things that others might not be able to do. But everyone had to try to imitate the leader. That is the sense here. “Follow me.” Jesus is urging us to constantly do as He does, think as He thinks, prioritize as He prioritizes, speak as He speaks, be as He is. “Follow me.” Always.
This is the most unnatural thing in the world. We naturally follow our own self-centered instincts. We naturally seek our own desires. We naturally seek our own pleasure, ease, advancement – our own will. We may pattern ourselves after someone we admire, but only to the extent that it furthers our own ambitions. But when Jesus says, “Follow me,” we have reached a crossroad. This is an invitation to leave “Self Street,” and turn onto to “Christ Road.” It is a radical departure from all that is natural. We choose daily – which way today.
“Follow me” is an invitation to join Jesus in serious, heartfelt, consistent prayer where we find Him at every decision point and of His earthly existence. “Follow me” is summarized in John 4:34, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.” In other words, the thing that sustains me, the attitude that nourishes, fills, and satisfies me is to do the will of the Father. John 5:30, “I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me.” In John 6:38, He tells us what drives every move, every decision and every attitude that He takes: “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me.” It’s pretty clear, isn’t it, that to be following Jesus is to be actively rejecting the will of me in favor of the will of the Father. This is what tells us that we belong to Him. We care far more about His agenda than we do our own. It’s a matter of eternal life and death. Jesus says in Matt 7:21, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” This is the one who follows Jesus lead as He prayed in Gethsemane, “not my will, but yours, be done” (Lu 22:42). That is a heavy challenge, is it not? And costly. To follow Him is to suffer as He suffered. John 15:20, “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” Don’t be surprised. Expect it! To follow Jesus is to have a farewell party for my own ambitions, plans, expectations and desires in favor of His will. You can’t lose in this deal – but it can hurt for awhile.
But this level of commitment can never be out of a sense of duty. Some of us are like the old Quaker who discovered a burglar in his home late one night. The thief was emptying the contents of the safe when the Quaker tiptoed up and announced his presence: “Friend, I would not harm thee for the world, but thou shouldst be warned that thou art standing where I’m about to shoot.” Often we feel that God has that weapon aimed at us. There is some command that infringes on our rights. We don’t want to love that person who has wronged us. God’s command “Love your enemies,” feels like a giant imposition, wrongfully imposed. Then when He goes on to say, “Pray for those who persecute you,” it feels like there is a loaded gun at our back. If we obey it is out of a grudging sense of duty. But, listen, “Follow me” isn’t about obeying because there is a loaded gun to our head; it is about obeying because we love the One issuing the command. “Follow me” is about loving Jesus more than we hate the enemy. Do you see? Most of us have that exactly backward. We hate our enemy more than we love Jesus. We’ll never get it right out of a sense of duty. It must be out of a sense of love.
Jesus says in John 14:31, “but I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father.” Did Jesus love to go to the cross? No! He went because He loved the Father more than he wanted vengeance. And now He asks the same of us. John 14:13, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” There’s the secret. Love Him and the commands come easily. Love Him and the following comes easily. That’s why He can say, “If you love me you will keep my commandments.”
To follow Jesus is to live life in His presence. This is the joy of the Christian life. The brother of John Wilkes Booth, Edwin, was a celebrated Shakespearean actor. One stormy night in London, the crowd at the theater was small. Some wanted to cancel the performance. They felt they could not feel motivated to play to such a small crowd. But Booth insisted that they must go on. He said, “We must not only perform, but we must perform as if the king himself were in the audience. That is our motivation. Play to the king.” And so they did. Next day, Booth received a note with the royal seal. It was from the King of England, complimenting Booth on his performance the night before. He had chosen to come on a stormy night thinking few would be present and his presence might go unrecognized, as indeed, it had. Unknowingly, they had played to the king.
Beloved, if we are ever to live a Christian life, it must be in the presence of a great God. On any given day He seems far removed from our lives; He seems non-existent. But He never is. He is always the silent presence. So play to the King. David says in Psalm 121: 8) “The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore.” He is always there, taking note of every move we make. When we realize He love us that much, is it not an incentive to play to the King – to follow Jesus?
Conc – So the cost of being a follower of Christ is to deny self (once-and-for-all denounce our old life), take up our cross daily (die to self and live to Him daily) and follow Jesus (play to the king by obeying His commands out of a heart of true love and gratitude. Live as though He were physically right there). That goes against the grain. We’re always tempted to dig up the old man and restore him to the throne. But, oh, what a foolish move that is.
J. Vernon McGee told this story one time – whether true or not, I cannot say. A lady lived in the Deep South who had a close relationship with her childhood sweetheart. In adulthood she fell in love with him and married him. Their life together was not perfect, but it was faithful and joyous and fulfilling. Thus she was devastated when, after years of marriage, he was suddenly taken from her side by a heart attack. Unable to part with him, she had him embalmed, set in a chair and sealed up in a see-through glass case. She then placed him immediately inside the front door of their large plantation home. Every time she walked through the door, she would smile at him, wave and say, “Hi, John, how are you?” Then she would go on about her business. This went on day after day and month after month.
A couple of years on, she decided to take a lengthy trip to Europe. It was a delightful change of scenery and while in Europe she met a fine American gentleman who was also vacationing there. In a matter of weeks, he swept her off her feet and after a whirlwind romance, they got married, honeymooned all over Europe and then set out for home. All this time the woman had said nothing about old John back on the farm.
When they arrived home, the new husband swept his wife off her feet and over the threshold only to encounter John on the other side of the doorway. He nearly dropped his new bride in surprise and asked, “Who is this?” The woman began to explain, “Well, this is John. He was my old man from . . .” The new husband interrupted, “Well, he may be your old man, but now he is history; he’s dead!” And John was quickly given a hasty burial – case and all.
Well, Beloved, that is our condition as new creations in Christ. Many of us allow the old man to sit there in the form of old habits, old relationships, old pleasures, old agendas, old ambitions and a very temporary view of life. To follow Jesus is to allow Him to sweep us off our feet on a daily basis, to bury the old man, for however enticing the old life may be, it cannot hold a candle to the new life we have in Christ. May I urge us all – play not to the old man. Play to the king! Let’s pray.