Here is the first draft of my sermon on Matthew 16:21-28. Actual sermon heard in church on Sunday morning likely to differ quite a bit.
Do you know anyone who you could call an aggressive driver?
Someone who drives – even on a short trip – like their hair is on fire or like they are mad at the road and intend to make the asphalt suffer. Someone who would make Dale Earnhardt pull over and get out of the way?
Do you know anyone like that?
Or have you ever tried to follow someone like that? Maybe you’ve been going somewhere and agreed that the other person would lead the way, and you would follow. It doesn’t take but a few minutes to figure out, you are in for an adventure. You find yourself driving faster than you’ve ever intended to drive and taking turns at speeds you aren’t sure your car is intended to take curves at. You grip the steering wheel tightly, and maybe start to think that perhaps you don’t really need to get where that person is going.
You’ll just catch up with them later.
Have you ever done that?
Well, maybe you’ve heard that old joke, “What Car Would Jesus Drive?” I think the goal is to make you think about buying a car that represents good stewardship of the Earth. Something inexpensive and fuel efficient. This was a man who rode a donkey on the biggest day of his public ministry.
Whatever he would drive, I suspect I know how he would drive.
If we were in the car behind him, we’d be hanging on tight, tires squealing.
You see, the most deceptive thing Jesus says in the whole Bible are those simple words, “Follow me.”
It sounds pretty simple. Sure, we can do that. Can’t we?
Here’s what I say: Hold on tight, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
Our passage today, is a bumpy ride passage.
Peter, remember Peter. Last week’s text had Jesus declaring that Peter would be handed the keys of the kingdom. Here was the rock upon which the church would be built. And where is he this week?
A stumbling block to Jesus.
Because Peter was not ready for the bumps and curves and the speed of following Jesus. Jesus started telling the disciples how he was going to go to Jerusalem and suffer and die and be raised. Well, the last part sounded okay to Peter, but the suffering and dying part, not so much.
And we understand. This is his great friend. His teacher. His master and companion. Suffer and die. Of course, Peter protests. So would I. Wouldn’t you?
So, Jesus has to make it clear. Following him is going to take the disciples places they never would have gone on their own. Following Jesus is going to be a wild and scary ride at times. Following Jesus is going to mean they have to give up the things they want and do the hard things that scare them or hurt them or just plain make them uncomfortable.
There is an important distinction to make here.
Often, when preachers give sermons on this text, they pick up that phrase about denying yourself and picking up your cross and make that the central theme of the passage. They explain in great detail the ways we need to deny ourselves and the sufferings we need to inflict upon ourselves to obey the Lord.
I’m not opposed to self-denial. I am not here to tell you suffering is not part of discipleship.
Indeed, over the summer, we spent several weeks looking at various means of grace and right there in the middle was fasting – denying ourselves the very means of life so we can draw closer to God.
Yes, denying the temptations of the flesh and all the dark impulses of our hearts is important. It is necessary. It is good. But it is not the point.
We can sit in a small room and starve ourselves nearly to death. We can cut from our lives all tempting influences – alcohol, drugs, televisions, and computers. We can be pure as the driven snow in a stone room with no windows, and we will not have taken a single solitary step toward Jesus Christ.
You see, the key word in this entire passage is not “deny” or “cross” – although they are important words. The most important word is “follow.”
Our Lord is always on the move. If we could ask the question: What would Jesus drive, I think I know the answer. It would be a moving truck.
Look at Abraham. God pulls him up and sends him on the road.
Look at Moses. He is sent to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. And Israel is a people on the move for generations after that.
What words does Jesus use to start his ministry? Follow me.
And Paul – how appropriate that he meets the Lord on the ROAD to Damascus – he spends the rest of his life in motion and on the move for God.
Each Sunday, we come here to Prairie Chapel to meet God. If we are doing worship right, we come here to praise him for all the wonderful things he has done and he promises to do.
Too often, we turn worship into a cross to bear. Don’t we? We say, gosh darn it, I don’t care if you want to go or not, this is Sunday morning. You are going to church. If Jesus Christ could go to the cross for you, the least you can do is get out of bed on Sunday morning.
You ever say that? You ever think that?
That’s how we abuse what Jesus said in this text about self-denial and bearing our cross. We start to act as if things that are not miserable can’t be good for us. We start to act as if church has to be painful and boring and hard to sit through. Otherwise, we aren’t denying ourselves!
It is the ‘eat your spinach’ theory of church life.
Sure, it’s horrible, but it will get you into heaven. And besides, I had to sit through even worse when I was your age! Yes? Right?
No! We come here to worship God. What is worship? Praise. It is celebration. It is supposed to be something we look forward to doing.
If it isn’t, I’m not doing my job. If it isn’t, we – together – are not doing our jobs.
But as wonderful as worship can be, it is not the point, either. This hour or two we spend on Sunday morning is like a pit stop – a place to refuel.
As one preacher once said, you can sit in your garage all day and that does not make you a car. We can sit in these church pews every Sunday until kingdom comes and that does not make us followers of Jesus.
To follow Jesus, we have to go through those doors and out into the world.
And where will Jesus take us?
Well, that’s the bumpy part I was talking about before.
Jesus is going to take us out to find sick people who need someone to visit them and take care of them.
Jesus is going to take us out to find people in prison who need to know the Lord loves them.
Jesus is going to take us to the place where children are neglected or abused or ignored or not given a chance to grow up to be the people God wants us to be.
Jesus is going to take us to places where people are pretty darn sure, thank you very much, that they don’t much need this Jesus guy or all those annoying church people.
Jesus is going to take us to the naked and the hungry and the thirsty. He’s going to take us to people who need actual clothing and actual food and actual water, and he’s going to take us to people who need spiritual clothing and emotional nourishment.
He’s going to take us there, if we are willing to follow.
And, I’m telling you, following him to these places is going to make us uncomfortable.
It is going to make us set aside things we’d rather do. Who wouldn’t rather go to a football game or a social gathering than visit a prison or sit by the bed of a person who is dying?
By following Jesus, we are going to have to deny ourselves. We are going to have to take up the cross.
We are going to meet people who are not grateful. We are going to meet people who mock us and yell at us or dismiss us as do-gooders. We are going to fail sometimes and be told to try again.
When we follow Jesus, we end up – whether we want to or not – denying ourselves and taking up our cross.
And here is the good news hidden in all this.
Jesus wants to lead us on this trip because we find true life on this road.
My family likes to give me a hard time because I am not a big fan of driving on the Interstate highway system. Driving on Interstates is just one generic and boring mile after another. There isn’t usually anything at all to see and the only places to stop are clusters of the same fast food restaurants that you can stop at anywhere.
I like the old highways and back roads. The ride is usually not nearly so smooth. There are ups and downs. You sometimes get stuck behind slow traffic. And, as my daughter will tell you, you sometimes get lost.
JillAnn still jokes about the time I was driving us back to Bloomington from Indianapolis and decided to turn off the road we normally take. We discovered that day lots of interesting places we had never seen before. We were lost. At one point, I was using the sun to keep us heading south and west. It turned what should have been a one hour drive into a whole afternoon down the tubes.
And – eventually – we wound up in Nashville, which led us home to Bloomington.
My family remembers that story and reminds me of it any time I start talking about pulling off the Interstate to go see what life is out there on the side roads and highways. They think teasing me will stop me from wanting to go.
There is only one problem with this tactic. That day, when we got to Nashville, we stopped at a restaurant that serves the best fried biscuits and apple butter I’ve ever had. So, when I think of that day out on the road, I don’t think of being lost and tired and frustrated. I think of the taste of those biscuits – the sweet reward of following a different road.
Jesus has a different road he wants to lead us down.
It is not smooth. It is not going to be fun all the time. Indeed, sometimes keeping up with Jesus is going to scare us and make us do things we would never do if it were up to us.
But there is a sweet reward on that road. There is a loving Lord who will be with us for every twist and turn.
He’ll be the one up ahead, blazing down the asphalt like his hair in on fire.