Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The King: The Rule of Self-Giving

Preached Sunday March 14, 2010

Scripture Readings: Psalm 61; Matthew 16:21-28

A husband gave a lot of thought to find some way to tell his wife how much he loved her. One night, after dinner, he got down on his knee and recited a poem he had written especially for her. He told her how he would climb high mountains to be near her, swim wide rivers, cross burning deserts, and sing love songs to her in the moonlight. She smiled all through this, and when he finished his poem, she asked, “Does this mean you’ll do the dishes for me tonight?” (#789, “1001 More Humorous Illustrations”, Michael Hodgin, ed.)

Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself.” (Matthew 16:24) It needs to be remembered, right away, that denying oneself does not mean that it is an inherently good thing to go around looking for ways to make your life hard and make yourself unhappy.

In a way, self-denial is a requirement for love; and love is the thing we all believe will make us happy. When Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself,” it was as if he said, “If anyone would truly love me, he must deny himself.” Self-denial, self-giving, has to do with being committed to love.

I’ve told you about an old friend of mine who gave me the secret of how his marriage has lasted. He told me that he had learned to always ask himself this question, “What do I need to do to make this work?” He didn’t ask himself, “What does my wife need to do to make this work?” He asked himself the question.

Knowing them both, I would say that the both of them have asked this question and shaped their lives accordingly.

They are like the unity candles in a wedding: their individual candles continue to burn, and the unity candle (that stands for their becoming one) still burns. I think that the repeated pattern, year after year, after year, after year, of a husband and wife self-giving together, creates patterns of thankfulness, and patterns of surprise and amazement, and patterns of strength.

In Christ, God gives us his own pattern of self-giving. By the time I was a teenager, when there were things that I agonized over, things that made me frustrated, or angry, or ashamed, I would think about these things in the night. As I went over, and over, and over them in my mind, it seemed as though the Lord would show me his wounds, and his dying for me, and his rising from the dead.

He denied himself for me so that I could deny myself by realizing my need for his forgiveness. I could deny myself by not feeding on the things that ate at me. I could deny myself by facing things that were hard, and by committing myself to do things that I didn’t know how to do yet, and without knowing where those things would take me. The Lord seemed to offer me a pattern of his self-giving for me and my self-giving for him.

Even though the life of Jesus on earth and his death on the cross are way back in history, they are not just history. They are not really passed. They are not over. Every day, every year, if you can look at Jesus, and his, cross and his rising, you will see more and more of it. It will seem to grow. It will have more and more to do with you, and your life, and the world around you.

If self-giving is a matter of love, you ask, “How can I live my love for Jesus in this life he has given me?” Then you look at your life. You look at your family, your community, your church, your neighbors, your world. You look at the problems, the needs, the potential; in people, and in this world we live in. Self-denial or self-giving is a matter of looking at all of this, or at one part in particular, and asking, “What must I do to make this work?”

Remember the story I told you at the start. If you honestly pray to know how to give of yourself the answer may surprise you. You may find that washing the dishes is harder than climbing a mountain (after all, you may like climbing mountains), and that the dishes are the real place of self-giving. The hardest thing of all may be to say the words “I’m sorry” or “I forgive you.” The hardest thing may be to stand for something that no one else around you is willing to stand for. It may be to plug away at something that no one else seems to care about.

We have hardly begun to think about what this self-giving means. Jesus’ words are shocking words. Jesus’ words are about death, and about where true life comes from. “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.”

One reason why it is particularly hard for Christians to take in these words and really face them is that we take them for granted. They are too familiar to us. In our own strange way we have turned Jesus and the cross into a story, instead of remembering that they are real.

The disciples knew Jesus as a real person. And they had watched people die on real crosses.

On one hand they didn’t hear Jesus say that he would rise again. They were too shocked to hear. And, if they did hear him, it didn’t matter because they wouldn’t know what he meant. They just heard the word “killed.”

To them, Jesus was saying that he would be defeated and killed. He would fail and die, and they would fail with him. If they wanted to follow him they could expect crosses of their own to die on.

It is true, even today, in many parts of the world, that if you decide to follow Jesus, if you are open about it, if you are truly faithful, you may be killed for your faith. This is true in Iran, and Iraq, and Pakistan, and India, and Laos, and North Korea, and many other parts of the world.

If following Jesus is about love, then it is about a love so passionate that you are willing to die for it. You are willing to die for Jesus, even though you live under conditions that make dying for Jesus highly unlikely. And, you know, if you are willing to die for Jesus, why not be willing to be self-giving out of love for him for and others, in a hundred smaller ways every day? What’s holding you back?
This is why Jesus talked about the judgment and how to save your life by losing it, or save your soul by losing it. (Soul and life are the exact, same word, in the Greek, in these verses.) Jesus brought this up in the context of his laying down his own life, and our being willing to lay down our own.

The English word “passion” comes from the Latin word for suffering. We think of passion as an all-consuming love, and it really can be; can’t it? Passion can be a love that nothing can stop; a love that is willing to give anything and everything.

The disciples were afraid of Jesus being vulnerable. They were afraid of Jesus failing because the price of pursuing his calling would be too high. It would cost too much.

They expected a Messiah who would bring about the kingdom of God on earth by means of the successful use and management of power. The kingdom of God would be the product of God’s power. Power would overcome their enemies.

They were forgetting a way that the kingdom could work without power as human beings understand it. By the animal sacrifices in the Old Testament, the people of Israel were taught that a life (in the form of a lamb or some other animal) offered in their behalf, represented healing and mercy, the grace of God, and a new life from God.

They did not realize that this was the most important law of the kingdom of God: the law of sacrifice or self-giving. The animal in the sacrifice was not self-giving, but the animal represented the God who is self-giving. (Imagine that! Imagine God as a lamb who took away the sins of the world!)

The self-giving of Jesus was the plan that would launch the kingdom of God. The self-giving of Jesus on the cross was the way that God would rule his people and remake the world.

Sin is anything in life that builds barriers against God, and others, and the goodness of this world, and life itself. Sin takes us out of God and out of real life. Sin plants death in our nature. God, in his passionate love, gave himself to death for our sins on the cross, to take sin and death away from us. He rose from the dead to give us a new life; and this life comes from him and from his sacrifice for us, so that sin and death have no hold over us if we receive him.

What has happened is that the self-giving of God has become our life. There is no other way for us to live anymore. And this is the way the kingdom of God works.

The self-giving of Jesus, on the cross, was not suffering imposed on Jesus. The self-giving of Jesus was absolutely natural for him, as God incarnate. This is the life of God. It was what our life was supposed to be like when we were first created in Adam and Eve, in God’s image. It is what we become again in Jesus.

But it really has always been this way. No one has ever been able to live without passion. No one has ever been able to live well without self-giving. To pour yourself into music of your own playing and singing; to play a sport; to marry with a marrying kind of love; to commit yourself to some ministry in the service of others, to raise children who face life with eagerness requires the forgetting of yourself and the surrender of your life. You have to die to yourself to live and give life to others.

Jesus said that there were some people standing by, and hearing him, who would live to see this kingdom of God succeed. They would see the Son of Man come in his kingdom.

And they did. They saw Jesus come in his kingdom when they saw him alive after he died on the cross and was buried. Jesus rose from the dead because the rule of the kingdom of God is self-giving.

When we come to the Lord’s Table, we come to the feast of self-giving. We see that this is where our life comes from, in Christ. We eat the food of self-giving because this is the food Jesus gives us to eat. He gives us himself.

We can go forth and live, even if it looks like it might kill us. And that would not be a failure even if it did.

That is life abundant, and that is the life that will never end. It is how we belong to Jesus who died, and rose for us, and brought us into his kingdom by the rule of self-giving.

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