February 28, 2024

Deny Yourself and Follow Jesus

Prayer for Understanding

Gracious God, Open our hearts to receive Your Word of truth, and may Your truth lead us to obedience. May Your Word set us on fire with love for You and our neighbors. Amen.

Last week, I met a young woman who is in her early 20s, grew up in a Christian family, and got married last year. She had a picture and expectation of what a married couple was like and having a family. But the reality was different.

Even though she promised her husband that she would support him as he pursued his dream career and even though she still loves him, the life he has in mind is different from what she has dreamed of. She tries to respect his dream, but she is not ready to follow him, giving up her own career and life plans.

She has tried to change his mind by persuading him, arguing with him, and threatening him. She confessed that before marriage, she didn’t know what was required for a marriage and what was involved in supporting her husband.

If Ash Wednesday and the First Sunday in Lent set us off on our Lenten journey, this week we find out just what this journey will require of us.

Today’s text is on Jesus’ very first prediction of His death. Just before Jesus’ prediction, Jesus asked His disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter confessed, “You are the Messiah.” This was a turning point. Until this point, the disciples didn’t get who Jesus was, and now they started getting it.

Jesus probably thought it was time for them to know what was coming and told them plainly what was coming. He said that the Son of Man MUST suffer, be rejected, be killed, and after three days rise again.

The disciples were not prepared for this new revelation of the Messiah’s purpose. That was unthinkable and unacceptable to the disciples, like many other Jews, who had expected a powerful warrior or a political leader who would liberate their people from the bondage of the Roman Empire and restore the nation. The Messiah they had been anticipating for centuries was not supposed to suffer, be rejected, and be killed.

Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him. He reacted impulsively and strongly to Jesus' prediction of His death and scolded Jesus.

The disciples thought that with Jesus' ability, He could overthrow the Romans and return Israel to power and prominence. The disciples were also thinking about, on some level, what parts each of them would play when the Messiah established His powerful kingdom on earth.

Peter's partial knowledge of who Jesus was - remember? He just proclaimed, “You are the Messiah!” - did not reconcile with what the Messiah must do. Through Peter’s scolding, Jesus faced an echo of His third temptation from Satan in the wilderness: to take an easier path that looks like the path to glory and fame but leads to hell.

Jesus turned to Peter and the disciples, and said, "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus responded that such a desire and a plan is a “human” way of thinking. However, isn’t it what we all would have thought?

We become discouraged or disillusioned with God when we discover He's not going to do things exactly as we'd prefer. “This is not why I became a Christian… This is not why I come to church… This is not why I believe in God the Almighty…” “I thought You were going to bless me.”

“You are supposed to help me succeed. You are supposed to heal my daughter. You are supposed to punish him who hurt my child.” We complain, we bargain, we threaten God. We tell God our plan and tell Him what He is supposed to do to support us.

Jesus called the crowd along with His disciples and said what it means to follow Jesus. He said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Jesus talks not only about His death but also that anyone who wants to follow Him must die.

Denying ourselves means turning away from the ways of the “old self” and continually putting on our new self in Christ. Denying ourselves means that we choose to follow the teaching of Jesus and the mind of the Spirit rather than the mind of the flesh.

"Deny" is from the Greek root word aparneomai and means to insist that you are not associated with someone. To deny yourself means to forget your self-interest.

Taking up our cross means we die so we can live. The cross meant only one thing - death. And Jesus did not say that ‘taking up our cross’ was optional as we follow Him.

Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

Jesus has become more precious to us than approval, honor, comfort, and success. Denying ourselves and taking up our cross means, “I am not in charge any longer. I love Jesus more than human approval, privileges, honor, comfort, and success. So, I am ready to endure discomfort, indignity, opposition, shame, suffering, and even death.” He says, if you want to follow me, you cannot hold onto your life.

Jesus asks, “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet lose their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?” Whether you are from a royal family or a poorest family, we all face death. And we all return to ashes.

Once we die, regardless of our fame, riches, or success - Steve Jobs, Queen Elizabeth, or the nameless homeless - we become a handful of dust. But the difference is made to our souls - either you go to hell or to heaven where our Lord Jesus awaits those who have denied themselves, carried their cross, and followed Him in this world - those who were not ashamed of Jesus or ashamed of living according to His word.

We often speak of whether we are willing to “count the cost” of discipleship. But the real issue is not the costliness of following Jesus—it’s our willingness to follow Him regardless of the cost.

That end or goal of discipleship is to become like Jesus Himself: to think as He thought, to feel as He felt, to act as He acted, and to desire what He desired.

It is only through the indwelling Spirit of God that we can obey the teaching of Jesus and follow His example. When we do, we will find that we can live in a newness of life. Not immediately, not perfectly. But day by day, as we walk in faith and obedience, the Spirit will produce in us the likeness of Jesus.

There are places in the world where Christians are being persecuted, even to the point of death, for their faith. They know what it means to carry their cross and follow Jesus in a very real way.

For those of us who are not being persecuted in such a harsh way, our job is still to remain faithful to Christ. Even if we are never called to give the ultimate sacrifice, we must be willing to do so out of love for the One who saved us and gave His life for us.

Before I got married, a friend of mine asked, “Are you ready to sacrifice for Thomas?” I said, ‘Oh yes,” because I was blinded by love. The first few months were okay but after that … a lot of arguments. Because we were very different in many ways, such as I’m a morning person and he’s a night person.

I couldn’t live the way I used to live as a single. I had to sacrifice my preferences, my daily routine, and many other things. Thomas would say the same thing.

It took years to understand him and how to live together. Even now, more than 26 years, we still learn to love and to sacrifice. But now, we do not necessarily sacrifice. We do things for each other out of love. I mean I still don’t understand why he does what he does sometimes.

Those who’ve been married more than 40, 50, or 60 years, you think as your spouse thinks. You know what your spouse is trying to say before he or she says something. And you have become like your spouse, right? Even your appearance.

Thomas was away last week. I was free at last. I could do everything I wanted to do and eat whatever I wanted to eat. But I didn’t feel as free as I expected. As we were chatting, I thought of renewing our vows. Re-commitment. Remind ourselves what it involves to walk the rest of our lives together. And sometimes, I think we need to remember our first love for God.

Friends, in this season of Lent, why don’t you renew your covenant with the Lord? Did you know what was required to follow Jesus when you first accepted Jesus as your Lord and Savior? Since you took the journey of obedience and started walking with Jesus, have you regretted it? Have you ever been ashamed of Him? I hope not.

I pray that each of you take the journey of faith willingly, obediently, and gratefully. I pray that as you deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Jesus day by day, you’re being nourished, renewed, healed, and transformed becoming more like Jesus, even your appearance.

And today in this Lenten season, ask the Holy Spirit, “What do you want me to get rid of? What do you want me to carry? Whom do you want me to see through Your eyes? Whom do you want me to forgive?” And the Spirit of God will prompt you to take one more step closer to Jesus.

Let us pray.

Loving God,

Thank you for calling us to be Your disciples. Following Jesus is not easy. It is costly. It requires our commitment, sacrifice, suffering, rejection, and even death. But we have decided to deny ourselves, take on our cross, and follow You because we love You. Help us walk with You day by day becoming more like You. In the name of Jesus, we pray. Amen.