Pick Up Your Cross and Follow Jesus

2nd Sunday in Lent – February 25, 2018

He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. 32He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.”

34Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. 36What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? 37Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? 38If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.” (Mark 8:31-38)

The man entered the arena to the sound of deafening screams and cheers. The huge crowd was happy he was brought in. The feeling was not reciprocated. That man, whose name was Polycarp, didn’t want to be there at all, and he wasn’t looking forward to what was coming.

There in the middle of the stadium the Roman Pro-Consul, the one leading the entire event, quieted the people down. Turning to Polycarp, he asked a question Christians would be asked throughout the Roman Empire. Would he renounce his faith in the one called Christ? Pressing him, the Consul said, “Take the oath and I let you go, revile Christ.”

There was never a question in Polycarp’s mind. “For eighty-six years have I been his servant, and he has done me no wrong…how can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”

With that answer the crowd knew what was coming. “They found it good to cry out with one mind that [the Pro-Consul] should burn Polycarp alive.” So the Roman soldiers prepared the wood, stripped Polycarp, and bound him to the pyre.

At at time, when everyone wondered why he would allow himself to be burned alive for his faith in Christ, Polycarp summarized the eternal situation, “You threaten with the fire that burns for a time, and is quickly quenched, for you do not know the fire which awaits the wicked in the judgment to come and in everlasting punishment. But why are you waiting? Come, do what you will.”

The Roman Pro-Consul, his soldiers, and the angry mob wondered how Polycarp could be so short-sighted. Why not recant what you believe and live? Polycarp, in turn, wondered how those around him could be so short-sighted. They lived only for this life while an eternal, unquenchable fire was awaiting them.

It is quite a different world-view, isn’t it? A man stands alone, about to be put to death, holding on to his faith in Christ. And he meets it with such confidence. His willingness to suffer for God is surpassed only by Jesus himself.

One generation earlier, Jesus talked to his disciples about the cross Jesus himself would endure. “He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again.” The Gospel of Mark adds that “He spoke plainly about this.”

That might be an understatement. Jesus laid it all out – why he came and how his ministry would end. He didn’t leave out any grueling detail. And it was too much for Peter to take. He couldn’t stand by and listen to his teacher, his leader, talk about himself this way. So He does the unthinkable: “Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.”

Can you imagine rebuking Jesus? The scene became instantly awkward. But because the lesson was so important to Jesus: “He rebuked Peter. ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ he said. ‘You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.’”

To avoid hardship because of God’s Word is a very worldly mindset. To try and stop Jesus from suffering and dying for the sins of the world is a very devilish objection. That’s why Jesus said those surprising words: “Get behind me, Satan!”

Here’s what it means to follow Jesus. “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” The words are so straight-forward! And yet they remain impossible for us to perfectly follow. Jesus says we must deny ourselves, but that attitude doesn’t come naturally. In fact, by nature I think of myself first. I want my life to follow my pattern and fall into place for me and my benefit.

Jesus says we need to take up our cross and follow him. But why would I want to carry something that is so heavy and so painful for my entire life? If it were up to me, I would make my life as easy as possible – no pain, no hardship, no strife, no arguments. That’s the world’s idea of living. That’s the devil’s deception hovering down around us.

But that isn’t what Jesus is saying. In fact, he is telling us to expect just the opposite: “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.” But are we really ready to give our lives for Christ? Are we really ready to suffer for our faith? Not always. Sure, Jesus says, “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?” But there sure are times when we choose what the world has to offer. “Give up our soul you say? I’ll think about it.”

It was never a thought for Jesus. He doesn’t just describe what it is like to carry a cross. He really carried his. He really suffered on it. He really endured our punishment and our hell. He really died. And just as he promised, he really rose again.

And now he who carried his cross for you encourages you to carry your cross for him. There is a man named Arthur Blessitt who has accomplished something amazing. Arthur has walked over 42,000 miles, through 324 countries, on every continent – including Antarctica. It has taken him a lot of years to accomplish this – in fact, this year marks the 50th anniversary of his walking. But he isn’t just walking around taking in the sights. For every one of his 84 million steps he has carried a cross.

Through rain and snow, across mountains and rivers, through crowded thoroughfares and empty deserts, Arthur Bessitt continues to carry his cross. It is his way of preaching a sermon without having to say a word. Christ endured our cross to save us. Now we carry our cross as we follow him.

I don’t have to tell you how hard that can be. Your faith in Jesus gives you all sorts of painful splinters in this life. Your faith in Jesus as your Savior brings arguments from family members. It invites laughs from people in our own community. You post a Bible passage on Facebook only to receive angry comments about how you are “close-minded” or “ignorant.” You high school students and college students speak up about how you believe that God created the world – that it wasn’t evolution – and you almost fail your class because of it.

That cross on your back has led to the loss of friends and friendships, anger and despair, depression…and maybe one day, like that Christian man Polycarp, even death. That is when the devil will creep in, trying to convince you to gain comfort in this life by giving up your eternal life.

Don’t give in! Tell him what Jesus told him: “Get behind me, Satan! You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.” Fix your eyes on Christ and the heaven he has won for you. Carry your cross willingly, and remember that you are never alone. Walk through this life with a skip in your step and a song in your heart:

“Since I know God never fails me, In his voice I’ll rejoice When grim death assails me.

Trusting in my Savior’s merit, Safe at last, Troubles past, I shall heav’n inherit.” Amen.