Matthew 16:13-24

Lent 2016: Ash Wednesday (2/10/16)

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Matthew 16:24: If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.”

Dear fellow redeemed in Christ our Lord…  The cross is not a popular thing within Christianity today.  Over time the words of our Lord which I just read have been dulled; the sharp edge has been taken off.  Today the cross is made so beautiful.  And because we want to see it as such a beautiful thing, we fail often to see it as the writer of the hymn “The Old Rugged Cross” puts it: “the emblem of suffering and shame.”

I wonder: would many join up with Jesus if they knew what it means fully to be a disciple of Christ?  Would many sign up if they truly knew what Jesus meant when He said, “Take up your cross, and follow Me?”  During the coming weeks we will spell out the dimensions of what it means to “follow Jesus,” and no, you don’t “decide” to do that.  By faith we will see how His cross becomes our cross.

As we begin our Lenten journey to the cross of Jesus, wondering what it means to take up our cross, our purpose will be to review the reality of following Jesus.  He prepared people for that cross in His day.  And now, through His Word, Jesus prepares us.

In our text, Peter confessed the Christ: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  But his confession was incomplete.  For when Jesus mentioned His own cross, Peter was appalled: “This shall never happen to You!”  To Peter and all who are appalled at the horror of the cross, Jesus has to say, “Get thee behind Me, Satan!”

How then does one describe a disciple, a follower of the Savior?  First, to confess your faith – to say with heart and mouth that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God is to be saved.  This confession is the mark of a disciple.  This confession is not merely a compliment paid to Jesus, neither does the disciple merely admire Jesus’ teaching or His moral courage.  If you want to be a disciple of Jesus, you will have this commitment of faith.  You will take Him at His Word, in particular about who and what He says He is and does.

Second, to be Jesus’ disciple is not to compliment yourself.  We do not applaud ourselves for having become His disciple; this choosing was His, not yours, as Jesus said, “You did not choose Me, but I chose you…”  (John 15:16)  God did not see anything special, anything worthy of His attention in you when He called you to be Jesus’ disciple.  If we think that He did, then we have a problem; and the problem with that kind of thinking is that it has no room for crosses.  No; the mark of a disciple is standing as a beggar, empty-handed before the throne of grace, receiving rather than attempting to give God something of worth.

Third, to be Jesus’ disciple means to accept the awful fact that the mission of the Messiah was and is to be the Suffering Servant of which Calvary is the very peak of the mountain of suffering.  Jesus was not the military victor some of the people wanted during His day.  He is not a revolutionary of some kind, one who overthrows whatever is bugging us in our time.  No, he is the One of whom these words distinctly apply: “He was wounded for our transgressions; He was bruised for our iniquities; and with His stripes we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5)

Fourth, in citing Isaiah’s prophecy, we are at the same time voicing the confession that WE are the sheep who have gone astray.  That is why God the Father laid on Jesus the iniquity of us all.  If we claim to be His disciples we are including ourselves among all who were chosen to receive redemption and forgiveness through His blood.

The Savior we claim to follow is not merely one of several religious leaders who have paraded across the screens of history.  He is the Alpha and the Omega, the Author and Finisher of our faith.  He is the beginning and the End – and in the middle there has to be a cross.

Does this offend you?  Is the cross of Christ a stumbling block to you?  Is this crucifixion foolishness to you?  Or is this message of the cross of Christ the power of God unto salvation for you?  Can you sing with fullness of heart, “In The Cross Of Christ I Glory”?

And what, dear disciple, did you do to become a disciple of Christ?  Was it your decision?  Was it your commitment?  By the Spirit of Christ and with faith informed by Scripture, you answer, “Nothing.”  For faith is a gift, isn’t it?  For us discipleship is not a decision or a deed to be done.  While it is true that discipleship involves commitment – as incomplete and imperfect as the sinful nature can muster – we must confess that the real commitment began in the heart of God.

And this is where all human pride and puffed up glory fails.  We stand as beggars in the presence of God the great Giver of all things.  He was and remains committed to us.  Our words are not those of worldly wisdom hammered out by philosophers or handed down by kings.  Our words are the words of Holy Scripture: “You are the Christ.  You are the Son of God, the God who came into the world to rescue me from sin and death and hell.  You are the One who died.”  It is as simple as this: disciples confess the one, holy, catholic and apostolic faith.

And we need not cower in the darkness of a sanctuary with these words of faith.  We need not hide our confession, our commitment, as though we were ashamed of it.  No.  This content of our faith is for telling; it is for rehearsing, proclaiming, singing, and confessing before a dying and going-to-hell-in-a-handbasket world.  We are full of joy about our God-given faith precisely because it has been given to us by our good and gracious God!

Christ’s commitment to the cross is more than a story, and its telling during Lent is more than a pious exercise for the faithful few.  The cross Christ carried to make us His disciples is the cross with which He crushed and destroyed all the powers of hell!  By that cross Satan’s head is crushed.  By that cross all of our sins are forgiven and paid for.  By that cross Christ freed us from sin and death.  By the Word of the cross Christ continues in our day to build His Church.

His word of forgiveness – the word we need daily – is the word that frees us to live our lives to His glory and to the benefit of those around us.  Christ Himself was so committed to us that He willingly suffered and died for us unworthy sinners, allowing Himself to be hung on a cross in utter humiliation and shame.  What was in it for Him?  Nothing but blessings for us, for it bought for us full pardon for all our sins and the sure and certain hope of the resurrection on the last day to all who believe.

Thank God that Christ was and still is committed to us.  Thank God that His cross IS our cross, for He has made it so by His own suffering, death, and resurrection.  That horrifying cross, that excruciating cross, that sin-defeating cross endured by Christ will one day be a crown of glory for us.

For now it is our redemption and our salvation.  For now and until Christ returns His holy Word and His body and blood in the Sacrament of the Altar are the life-giving and sustaining gifts which will see us through to the fulfillment of our confession of Christ, the Son of the Living God.

Come, then, in repentance and faith, trusting in Christ and in the certainty of His love for you.  Come and receive Him in His body and blood…for your forgiveness; for your strength; and for your joy.

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.