I want to lose 20 pounds. So I have to ask myself: Is a slimmer figure and a lower cholesterol number worth giving up soda? Or learning portion control? Or sacrificing so much other tasty stuff? I struggle with the question of whether it's worth it.
It would be a different story, wouldn't it, if I'd be saying - "I want to be able to live," but to do that I'd have to give up my gangrenous leg? That's a sacrifice I'd be a fool not to make.
Let's step it up another notch. In Matthew 16, Jesus talks about following him to heaven and gives two instructions. Are they worth it? Whatever it is - it has to be. We're talking eternity. It would be beyond foolish to ignore this one. So take notes. We'll cover part one today. If you want to follow Jesus... First: Deny yourself to see him.
The first instruction is the same concept as weight loss. If I want to see the number on the scale go down - I've got to deny some of that calorie intake that is getting in the way of that goal. Jesus says that if someone wants to follow him, let him deny himself. You see, in salvation, it is self that gets in the way of seeing Jesus in order to follow him.
We've got a great picture of that struggle at the beginning of our reading. In the previous verses, Peter had just given a great confession of who Jesus was. His words were right on. But there was something getting in the way of him seeing what that meant, of seeing what Jesus was all about.
Matthew 16:21: "From that time on (from the time of Peter's confession) Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life."
Peter had called him the Christ, so Jesus wants to show them clearly what that meant. It meant he had to do some things to fulfill those prophecies. But Peter wasn't seeing it. He told Jesus "Never, Lord!" To which Jesus replied: "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men."
You see what happened there? Peter was seeing how he wanted things to play out, which got in the way of seeing who Jesus really was and what he was doing.
Was Peter trying to play Satan? Of course not. He wanted what he thought was the best for Jesus. But what was the problem? He missed step one of how to follow Jesus. Did you write it down? Step one: Deny yourself to see him.
So what does that mean for us, in a country where we're taught you should never have to be denied anything -"it's your right"? It's your right as an American to enjoy every moment of life and have everything your heart desires. I submit to you that the America we know is Satan's crowning achievement in temptation against denying self.
Now don't get me wrong. Enjoying all the blessings God gives to us in this great land of ours is a special privilege and gift of a loving God. But just think about how distracting it can be. Every Sunday God himself is present when we gather around his word - God himself. But has there been a time when you didn't see that because there was the yard to take care of or the boat to enjoy or the pillow to hold down? Every Wednesday, there are all sorts of Bible study opportunities, but the wonders of TV and texting and organized sports and taking care of all the stuff, and making more money so we can buy more stuff blocks so many views of Jesus.
And it happens in much more than just in our participation in organized religion. When you get angry because someone takes advantage of you, you're seeing yourself instead of Jesus. When you get upset because things aren't going your way - you and Peter are right there with each other telling God he doesn't know what he's talking about when it comes to how life should play out. When we fail to live love that is total sacrifice, we need to go back to step one.
If you want to be a Christian - deny yourself to see Jesus, because self gets in the way of seeing Jesus. So please, see Jesus. And when you do, it suddenly makes sense why the Christ "must" suffer many things, why he must be killed - because that's the price for our self-centeredness. And he paid it.
And along the way, he smashed every one of Satan's temptations, even when Satan used Jesus' friends. What an example for us when our friends tempt and try to block our view of Jesus. And what a comfort for us when we fall. Jesus did what our sins demanded. He saw past himself and willingly went to suffer our pain. He took up his cross, which was our cross. So then it makes sense why the Christ must rise on the third day, because God planned all this that death would be defeated - that our sins would be forgiven.
So is step one worth it to follow Jesus? Work on that this week and glory in God's forgiveness. Next week, we'll tackle step two. God bless your week in the meantime!
Jonathan Scharf is pastor of Abiding Grace Lutheran Church in Covington. Full sermons and more information can be found at www.abidinggrace.com.