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Scharf: If you want to follow Jesus...2nd step
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I want to be able to run consecutive 5-minute miles again. I want to be able to play the piano. But I realize there is a price tag for each. Is being able to beat our teens in the Cheerios Challenge in the spring worth going through workouts every day between now and then that leave me on the verge of vomit? Is being able to tickle the ivories without making them scream worth the hours and hours of practice it would take and the money for the lessons and more hours of practice? Right now, I've come to the conclusion that maybe 8-minute miles aren't so bad, and at least there are some really talented piano players I can listen to at church.

It won't kill me if I don't make those sacrifices. But as we continue our look at Matthew 16:21-26, we see the stakes are significantly higher when we're talking about following Jesus. Last week, we looked at step one: Deny yourself to see him. If we want to follow him, we need to see him and his forgiveness and his love. The problem is self and selfishness get in the way.

So I hope after that look at what Jesus did for us by forgiving us for all the times we just want to look at ourselves you're ready for step two. It actually flows naturally from step one.

If you want to follow Jesus...Take up your cross. But that only happens when you see him first. Because our crosses are different. You see, Jesus' cross was the cross of punishment for our sins, which changes our crosses from crosses of punishment to crosses of privilege.

It's like the athlete who is thrilled to represent his country in the Olympics even though he knows it means punishing his body to get his best performance. Our crosses are more valuable than gaining the whole world; they are crosses that keep our focus on the value of our souls.

Look at what Jesus says in Matthew 16:24: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me."

Our crosses are natural parts of following Jesus. Remember how we started today, talking about sacrificing if you want to become better at something? No one expects to represent her country in the Olympics, perform in a symphony at Carnegie Hall or lead a school production without some work, some hard work. Jesus says today, "Don't expect Christianity to be easy either." It will be blessed, no question. But it may not be easy. Satan will be trying to distract you just like he tried with Jesus.

So see Jesus, and you will take up your cross. What is the cross of a Christian? Well - it is any suffering we receive for being a Christian, for doing what is right.

Taking up your cross is as natural as not going to the lake until Sunday afternoon because you want to grow closer to your Savior in the morning. Taking up your cross is being whom God has made you. It is as natural as realizing that maybe I don't need that new toy, or even the thing that I try to convince myself is a necessity. I don't need it if it comes at the expense of giving my real, joyful, sacrificial offerings for God's work. Taking up your cross is as natural as loving because you see a need.

Next time you're serving others, ask yourself: Could you be doing something else right now? Absolutely. Would you rather be? No. Christ took up his cross for you and now says, "Here is a way you can be whom I have made you - God's child."

And yes, loving in our everyday lives in every moment is hard. Yes, serving God through his church is hard. There are sacrifices of time, and money, and even recreation sometimes. It means prioritizing time for God in his word and in his service. But how can we not? God loved us enough to send his son. He loved us enough to give us opportunity. Let's see Jesus and seize those opportunities - putting in the hard work it takes to get it done. And you know what? When it is all said and done, we'll find that we really haven't given up anything.

Verse 26 says: What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? If our priorities are in the wrong place, we may be sacrificing much more than we ever intended. But when we look past ourselves and see Jesus and his cross, and naturally take up our own - the rewards are priceless.
Think about the look of joy you see on a child's face when you've sacrificed to give them something special. Are you regretting it in your mind, thinking about how you would rather have not done it? Of course not.

Or this weekend, there will be dozens of people putting in numerous hours getting our church ready for our big Fall Festival on Sunday. They'll sweat and work and sacrifice. But do you think, on Sunday, when they see so many people hearing God's word and enjoying the free food and fun and fellowship that they'll be regretting any of it? No way.
You see what is happening there? We're seeing Jesus, seeing his work and his power. And in light of that, our crosses are joy. Come on out this Sunday and see his cross.

Jonathan Scharf is pastor of Abiding Grace Lutheran Church in Covington. Full sermons and more information can be found at