The scoreboard reads double zeros. Streamers shoot across the sky, confetti rains down, and music blares loudly over the stadium’s speakers. Flashbulbs from thousands of cameras go off all around the packed stadium. The Superbowl is over. The players are all gathered around a podium set up in the middle of the field. A world champion is about to be crowned. In a moment the speeches are over and the players prize is passed around? They hoist it in the air for all to see. This is what their hard work accomplished. They have something to show for it. A big… shiny…hunk of metal.
Doesn’t it seem that sometimes we lift high the strangest things? That Superbowl trophy will gather dust. The excitement of the championship game will fade. What in the grand scheme of the universe did this trophy even mean?
What do you lift high in your lives? Is it that promotion your boss just gave you? Or is it that new gas grill that can grill ten hamburgers at once? Is it that new car? Or the new clothes? Are the only things we should be lifting up in our lives just the “stuff” that gives us joy for short lived moments? What are we to lift high in our lives? What provides lasting meaning, in a meaningless world?
In the Gospel for today, Jesus is addressing these same questions. But Jesus isn’t going to focus on trophies, cars or clothes, but a cross.
Lift high the cross!
1. The cross on which Jesus carried our sin
2. The cross which Jesus invites us to carry
1. The Gospel picks up right after Jesus had done an incredible miracle. He had just fed 5,000 men with five loaves of bread and two fish. Can you imagine being there on that day, eating that all you can eat fish fry with thousands of people around you? And all of it from two small fish and five loaves of bread? Don’t you hear the whispers around you? “Who is this guy?” “How did he feed us all?” As the disciples went around and collected twelve baskets of leftover food, they too began to wonder, “how did Jesus do this?” As they left the crowd the disciples minds must have been racing. Jesus led his disciples to a private place to pray.
Jesus then asked his disciples a question, “who do the crowds say I am?” The disciples answered, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, that one of the prophets of long ago has come back to life.” As the disciples had made their way through the crowd after the feast, they must have heard all sorts of theories as to who Jesus really was. “He’s John the Baptist. No, He’s Elijah. No, he’s a different prophet.” The crowd had realized one thing, Jesus wasn’t an ordinary guy. He was someone extraordinary. Their bellies were full of food that had miraculously appeared. His sermons were like ones they had never heard before. He had to be a prophet. But these people were missing the point. They were so focused on trying to figure out who he was that they didn’t listen to his message. But surely Jesus’ disciples would know who he is, right?
Jesus then turned to the disciples and asked the question again. But this time the question was more personal. “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “The Christ of God.” What a great response, right? Peter recognized Jesus as the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies. And Peter was right. But like the people in the crowd, Peter also was failing to understand Jesus true purpose. During those times it was a common misconception that the Christ would be a political Savior. The Jews at that time saw the Christ, as a king who would save Israel from the control of the Roman Empire. He would fulfill the desires of all the people of Israel. But Jesus would be a different type of Savior than that, and so Jesus tells Peter to “not tell this to anyone.” Jesus didn’t want people to see him as a political Savior or a Bread King, but as a Savior who would serve a far greater purpose.
Peter and the crowds were all lifting high the wrong things, they were all focused on temporary worldly things. And so Jesus points his disciples to lift high that which has eternal significance, his cross. “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.”
What a surprise these words were to the disciples. Jesus hadn’t come to earth to be a popular person, but a person rejected by the most important people in Israel. He didn’t come to defeat the Romans, but to die on a Roman cross.
Can you imagine the shock of the disciples? Jesus was capable of having all the power and prestige imaginable. He could have had fine palaces and thousands of followers. And instead his purpose was to die on a cross? This is why Matthew tells us that Peter rebuked Jesus, “Never, Lord!” “This shall never happen to you!” But Jesus set Peter straight, “you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.”
As Jesus had said, “The Son of man must suffer.” This wasn’t some morbid desire that Jesus had for himself. It was something that had to happen. Why? Why was it such a “must” that he suffer and die? Since Adam and Eve had sinned in the Garden of Eden every person was born sinful. King David wrote about this fact in the Psalms, “surely I was sinful from birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” People needed a Savior from sin. And throughout the Old Testament, God preserved the line of the Savior. He repeatedly promised to send them this Savior from sin. It would be necessary for this Savior to live a perfect life and be sacrificed. Jesus is reminding his disciples that they needed this type of Savior far more than a political savior. Jesus here is lifting before the eyes of his disciples this cross. He’s instructing them to put this cross first in their lives. To lift high the cross. Because through this cross, they would be given forgiveness from their sins.
Brothers and Sisters in Christ, we also need this Savior from sin. We think that we are good people because we give to charity, we treat others with respect, or help that old lady walk across the street. But in this section, Jesus is talking to us also. When Jesus said that, “the Son of man must suffer.” That “must” was for your sins and mine. God commands us to be perfect. And we certainly aren’t perfect. For this reason, Jesus lifts high his cross before our eyes as well. As Christians we put our faith in this cross. We lift it high it our lives. Because in Christ’s cross, in his suffering, in his death, and in his resurrection we receive an incredible gift. The gift of forgiveness from sin. Jesus lived a perfect life and we receive the credit. An eternity in heaven awaits us. So, while this world values the temporary and meaningless, we lift high that which has all meaning and lasts forever. We lift high the cross on which Jesus carried our sin.
2. Once Jesus had encouraged his disciples to lift high his cross, he pointed to another cross. 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. Jesus was making it clear that following after him wasn’t an easy task. His disciples weren’t going to become rich and popular by going along with him. Being rich and popular wasn’t the point of Jesus life. And Jesus is making it clear that it isn’t the point of his followers’ lives either.
His followers would have to deny themselves. Jesus was saying: You need to “say no to yourself”. The desire of a disciple is to say “no”, “No”, to the cravings of the sinful nature. “No”, to the desire for selfishness. “No” to depending on what other people think of us. Jesus was making the point to his disciples that life’s purpose can not be found in themselves. A life lived for self will always be empty of true value and meaning. Only by saying “no” to themselves, would the disciples’ lives have any lasting significance, they would be saying “yes” to Jesus. “Yes to being his follower” and “Yes to the salvation Jesus’ cross offered them”.
Jesus told his disciples to “take up their cross”. Jesus isn’t asking his disciples to go and grab some wood boards and construct a cross. No, the cross the disciples would carry wasn’t a bunch of two by fours. This cross is the difficulties they would face because of Jesus. Jesus had stated earlier that people would reject and persecute him. He is now telling his disciples that if they follow him, they too are going to face rejection and persecution.
Jesus points out that his followers will often have to take up their cross of persecution and rejection. What does it mean to “take up” the cross? It means that Jesus followers will have to be ready to live their faith and to demonstrate their faith to all those around them. When persecution comes they will need to lift high Christ’s cross as their greatest trophy and be willing to endure every hardship for the sake of following their Savior. And they can be sure that this struggle will mean a 24/7 365 commitment.
Jesus continues his message to his disciples. He had one more major point he wanted to make to them. And he decided to use a riddle. He said, “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it.” Riddles have a way of making people stop and think. Here Jesus uses it for that very reason. This is a point he wanted his disciples to think hard about. What could this riddle mean?
Whoever wants to save his life will lose it. This was a point Jesus had been making all along. If someone desires to live a life for himself, he’ll have his 80 years of pleasure and an eternity of suffering. He will lose his eternal life, because he has placed all of his emphasis on the worldly “stuff” of this life and he has failed to place his hope in his Savior.
The second part of the riddle also goes back to what Jesus had been talking about. “Whoever loses his life for me will save it.” This focuses back on the believer who denies himself and lifts high the cross. The believer’s life may be full of difficulties and persecutions. But this believer will also receive life eternal with God in heaven because he has made Jesus more important than life itself, and with Jesus he has gained the gift Jesus won for him.
Lifting high the cross is never easy. Jesus disciples were persecuted and ridiculed. From what we know about the lives of the disciples, all of them were killed for their beliefs except for John—and he died in exile on a lonely island. They were often stoned, beaten with whips, insulted, cursed. All for being followers of Jesus.
Are we willing to lift high our cross like those apostles? Do we delight in the cross above all else, because in that cross we find true purpose? Do we listen to Jesus when he urges us to live our faith? Are we willing to daily live a life where we let our light shine? Do we lift high Christ’s cross before others? Or do we often just make our Christianity a once a week exercise? Or a taboo subject which we don’t ever bring up?
We may never face the guillotine or a jail cell for what we believe. But we may often be laughed at, made fun of, and rejected by those around us. The world may see our lives as lost. This is because they fail to see the need for Christ’s cross in their lives. They value the “stuff” which one day has value and the next is collecting dust on the shelf. They desire to save their lives for themselves. And they will lose everything.
But Brothers and Sisters, we lift high that cross of Christ. We have something of value that will never be covered in dust or fall apart. We have the Savior’s promise that our sins are all forgiven, even those sins we commit when we don’t say no to ourselves and when we aren’t willing to carry out crosses. Our lives may seem lost to the world. But in that cross of Christ we find eternal joy and happiness.
Its strange the things the world lifts high, isn’t it? This world’s trophies will gather dust. The cars will break down. The gas grills will fall apart. The jobs will come to an end. But we know better. We lift high something far greater. We lift high the cross. We lift high that cross on which Jesus carried our sin. And we daily lift high our cross as Christ’s disciples. And through the cross which we lift high, we find something which has eternal significance. Amen.