Our Cross to Carry

Original Date: 
Sunday, February 19, 2017

Mark 8 Our Cross To Carry

Dead Man Walking
We've all heard the conversation before, or something like it. A couple of wives are sitting around and talking about their husbands. The one husband has proven difficult to train. He doesn't know how to put his dirty socks in the hamper. He rarely gets up off the couch. He treats dirty diapers as though they were toxic waste. He barely knows how to operate the microwave, let alone the stove. Sometimes it seems like he's only one or two steps removed from Neanderthal Man.

The list of complaints goes on and on. Finally, the embattled wife says: "Ah well, we all have our crosses to bear.”

"We all have our crosses to bear." We've probably all said it at some time or another. Whether we are talking about a cranky spouse or a persistent case of athlete's foot or a high stress job; it's a phrase that has become a sort of staple in the English language. When we say it we mean that we all face difficult situations which are burdensome, annoying, or trying.

We often use the phrase to talk about a hard set of circumstances that probably won't change for a while. The other day I was standing on the scale and contemplating the need to go on a diet when I shrugged and thought, "Another cross to carry."

And, of course, sometimes when we talk about carrying a cross we have in mind truly perplexing problems like cancer, or straying children, or the death of a loved one.

The phrase comes from Christianity. It comes from the passage we're looking at today, actually, where Jesus says that anyone who would follow Him must take up his cross. But I would guess that most people in America have some sense of what the phrase means. It has become that universal.

In fact, I looked the word "cross" up on dictionary.com and found that out of 63 possible definitions numbers 15 and 16 say that a cross can be: “an opposition; thwarting; or frustration” or “any misfortune; trouble.” Everybody knows about carrying crosses.

The question, though, is: Do we really? I mean, when we talk about bearing crosses, are we really talking about the same thing Jesus was? When He told his disciples that following Him would mean bearing a cross did He really have in mind such things as lazy husbands, itchy feet, and diets? Was He talking about cancer or fractured families or grief? Did He mean we would have to shoulder our share of opposition, misfortune, or trouble?

Or did He have something even worse in mind?

The Turn
Our scripture passage today represents something of a turning point in Mark. Up to this point in the gospel story, the question: “Who is this?” has really dominated. The stories are told in such a way to make us wonder about Jesus. And while there are plenty of hints that He is the “Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1)—especially from the demons that Jesus confronts and casts out—Jesus has for the most part tried to keep His identity on the down low. Jesus has steered away from the recognition and expectations that would come with Him being labeled as the Christ.

But now, in verse 27, Jesus asks His closest followers point blank: “Who do people say I am?”

After throwing out a few rumors and false ideas, Peter answers the question correctly in verse 29: “You are the Messiah.”

The Greek word for Messiah is Christos. Christ. It means “anointed one.” It goes back to the Jewish tradition of anointing kings with oil. But over time, the term had come to mean The Anointed One, The Christ. There was an expectation that a King was coming who would put everything right, a King who would end all kings. When Peter says: “You are THE Messiah”, that’s what he means.

And Jesus accepts that answer. This is the culmination of the first half of the gospel. If the question being asked is: “Who is this?” the answer is: “He is the Christ. He is the King.”

But Jesus then immediately shakes our expectations by saying things that are quite shocking. “Yes, I’m the King,” He says, “But I’m not anything like the king you were expecting.” Verse 31:

31 He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again.

Jesus refers to Himself as the Son of Man—which is an Old Testament phrase from the book of Daniel that is closely tied to Jewish expectations of the coming Messiah—and says that He “must suffer.”

This is shocking. Never before in the history of Israel had anyone connected suffering with the Messiah. The expectation was for a conquering hero. The Daniel passage I just referenced talks about the “one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven” and establishing an “everlasting dominion that will not pass away” and a kingdom that “will never be destroyed.” (Daniel 7:13-14)

The Messiah was supposed to be a comic book superhero. The idea that the Messiah would suffer made no sense at all. How could the Messiah defeat evil and make everything right if he was suffering and being killed?

And notice, Jesus uses the word “must.” “The Son of man must suffer.” “He must be killed.” The word “must” modifies and controls the whole sentence. Jesus is saying that everything in this list must happen. It is all a necessity. Jesus must suffer, must be rejected, must be killed, must be resurrected. It has to happen. Jesus knows it is going to happen. Jesus is planning on it happening.

Jesus is not just predicting that He will die. He is saying that He intends for it to happen. It must happen. Jesus is saying that the world cannot be renewed, things cannot be put right, we cannot be saved, unless He dies.

This is the turn in the book. Jesus’ identity is finally made clear to the disciples, but so is His intention to die. It’s like Jesus is saying, “Yes, I am a king. But I am a king going to a cross.” From this point forward the book is going to focus increasingly on Jesus’ journey to Calvary.

A Necessity for Us, Too
This is not good news to the disciples. They do not understand. Verse 32:

32 He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.

Even though Peter has just rightly identified Jesus as the Messiah, he cannot understand Jesus’ intention to die. So even though he is ready to bow his knee to Jesus as the King, he now has the temerity to “rebuke” him.

Jesus does not receive this well. In verse 33 He rebukes Peter as Satan. Not because He believes Peter is demon possessed, but because the notion that He can do what He came to do without suffering is clearly a Satanic suggestion.

Then, in verse 34, He calls the crowd together and says:

34 Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

Not only is Jesus telling us that He is a king going to a cross. He also tells us that if want to be His followers, then we have to come to the cross too.

It is all very shocking. We, of course, are used to the cross. We have a giant cross hanging in our sanctuary. We sing songs about the cross and wear crosses as jewelry. We are comfortable with the cross as a symbol of God’s love.

But to Jesus’ listeners it was anything but. To them, the cross represented death. It was an instrument of execution, the ancient equivalent of the electric chair. The only people who ever carried crosses were people who were going to die. Convicted criminals, captured insurrectionists, runaway slaves. When Jesus talks about carrying a cross, then, He's not taking about shouldering an ongoing problem or putting up with annoying circumstances--He's talking about preparing to die. Carrying a cross means death.

That’s what Jesus was obviously talking about when He said it was necessary for Him to suffer and be rejected and be killed. He would shoulder that piece of timber, He would bow His neck, and He would walk the road to Calvary so He could die.

And now, He’s calling all who would follow Him to do the same.

A Very Real Possibility
So, what does it mean?

Let me say, first of all, that it will not do to water this down. We are quick to make this into figurative language. “Jesus didn’t mean a literal cross,” we say. “He doesn’t mean that in order to follow Him we all need to be prepared to die the same way He did.” “It’s a metaphor,” we say.

Before we say that too quickly, we need to acknowledge that Jesus is holding death out as a distinct possibility here. Jesus knew that the Roman government wasn't going to be any friendlier to His followers than it was to Him. The first readers of Mark's gospel were most likely experiencing extreme persecution. It would not be unusual for these first Christians to face a choice between denying Jesus or death.

In fact, when Jesus says in verse 35:

35 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.

the image that comes to my mind is of a trial in the old Roman Coliseum. The Christians would be led forward in shackles on one side, while the lions would be brought out in their cages on the other. Then the emperor, or the judge, or the whoever, would give them one last chance. "Decide," he would say, "do you really believe in this Jesus? If you say 'yes' you will die, if you say 'no' you will live."

For the early Christians, that was a very real possibility.

It's still a possibility today, in some parts of the world.

Just this week, someone forwarded me an email from Voice of the Martyrs asking me, and Christians around the world, to pray for Pastor Haile Nayzgi, from the predominantly Muslim nation of Eritrea, in Africa.

Pastor Haile, the leader of the Full Gospel Church in Eritrea, was arrested on May 23, 2004, one year after Eritrea’s government shut down all evangelical churches in the country. He has been in prison ever since, even though he has never had a trial, never been offered legal representation or even been charged with a crime. He simply disappeared into Eritrea’s prison system.

He’s not alone. Dozens of other Christians are imprisoned in Eritrea, and thousands more remain imprisoned in other nations around the world. According to the Voice of the Martyrs website:

In more than 40 nations around the world today Christians are being persecuted for their faith. In some of these nations it is illegal to own a Bible, to share your faith in Christ, change your faith or teach your children about Jesus. Those who boldly follow Christ—in spite of government edict or radical opposition—can face harassment, arrest, torture and even death. Yet Christians continue to meet for worship and to witness for Christ, and the church in restricted nations is growing. (https://www.prisoneralert.com/vompw_persecution.htm)

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When Jesus says that those who follow Him need to take up their crosses, He was not necessarily speaking in a figurative sense. The earliest Christians knew what it was to face death for their beliefs--so do Christians around the world today.

Some Help From Galatians
But still, not every Christian lives in a situation where belief in Christ is a crime. What are we supposed to do, go around asking people to persecute us because we are Christians? Jesus could hardly mean that.

But if it isn't very likely for us to face death for our allegiance to Him, how does His call to take up our cross apply to us? What does cross-carrying mean for us? Are we back to the over-spiritualized notion that carrying a cross means bearing with grouchy teachers or demanding bosses?

Hardly. It seems to me that there must be a larger principle lying behind Jesus' words here which includes--if necessary--the possibility of martyrdom, but which also holds true in a nation like America where religion is free. Whether it will lead to physical death or not, Jesus is calling all who follow Him to carry the cross.

What does that mean?

Well, for help, let’s turn for a moment to the book of Galatians. Galatians 6:14:

14 May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.

The Apostle Paul is saying that the cross is absolutely central to his life. Everything good in his life, he believes, comes courtesy of what Jesus did on the cross. That’s what he means when he says he will never boast except in the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ.

But he also says that something happened when he came to the cross (that is, when he believed in the saving work of Jesus on his behalf). When Paul believed in the cross, then the world died to him (it was crucified) and he died to the world. In other words, all of the important things of this world--the world's values, pleasures, priorities, etc--stopped being important to him. They died. And at the same time, new things became important to him--he got a new set of values, found pleasure in different things, changed his priorities.

For Paul, the cross of Christ represented the proverbial line in the sand. He crossed over. He used to live the way the world lived, he used to find his meaning in the world, but now he doesn't anymore. Now, the old way of life is dead to him.

That, I think, is what Jesus means when He tells us to take up the cross in Mark 8. He is calling us to die to the world. He's calling us to cross over. He's calling us to make a choice. And that choice is not necessarily an easy one, because at its worst it could mean literally facing death, and at its best it means we are going to suffer. That's what Jesus is calling us to.

The Choice
Let's dig a little deeper into what Jesus means here by looking at verses 35-38.

Verse 35, as I said, creates a picture of a courtroom (or coliseum) in which Christians are put on trial for their lives. They have a choice. They can say that they do not believe in Jesus and they will be set free ("whoever wants to save thier life"). Or they can take a stand for Him and die ("whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel").

And the choice, quite literally, is a choice between the way of the world, or the way of the cross. If those Christians--whether they be in ancient Rome or modern-day Eritrea--decide to deny Jesus, then they are choosing to conform to the pattern of the world. For whatever reason--fear of man, fear of death, fear of pain (good reasons)--they are choosing to give in to the world.

In the same way, we make choices in the way we live everyday which are choices between the way of the world and the way of the cross. They may not be choices made at the tip of a sword, but they are difficult choices nevertheless.

For example, we have to make a choice at this time of paying taxes whether we are going to report all our income or not. The way of the world--not to mention our natural inclination--is to keep some of that cash we've received here and there secret. There's no paper trail, so why report it? If we report it, we'll have to give some of it to the government. So, we might as well keep as much as we can.

Or, again, you teen-agers have all kinds of difficult choices to make. Are you going to go to that drinking party with your friends? Are you going go farther than you should with your boyfriend or girlfriend? Are you going to run down that kid that everybody else likes to pick on? They way of the world says that you should do everything you can to fit in. The way of the high-school world says that you have to be cool above all else. Either you go along, or you risk being left out.

Or, still more, Jesus says that we are supposed to love our enemies (Matt. 5:44). It seems impossible. But it only seems impossible because the way of the world says that it is. The way of the world says that if someone doesn't like you, you ought not like them. The way of the world says that if someone says something mean about you, you had better say something mean back.

In every case, and we could keep listing example after example, there are all sorts of good reasons to go the world's way. If you actually report all your income, you're not going to have as much money as you might have had. If you actually take a stand at high school, you might not have many friends. If you turn the other cheek, there's a real good chance it's going to get hit too. Doing things Jesus' way means suffering. You might not get fed to lions, but it's going to hurt nonetheless.

But the problem, Jesus says, is that the actual cost of choosing to save your life (that is, the cost of choosing to avoid suffering) is much greater than we might realize from the surface of things. The man on trial who chooses to save his own life will actually lose it. The man who lets this life go will find that he as actually saved his soul.

Look with me at verse 38:

38 If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.

Here, Jesus is picturing another sort of trial. But this time, the judge is not the Roman Emperor or some functionary from the Eritrean government; this time, the judge is Jesus and at stake is eternal destiny.

When the end of the world comes--when Jesus returns with all of God's glory and the army of angels--there is going to be another sort of trial. And the question being asked will be the same: Do you believe in Jesus (and did you live that way)? Or did you hide your allegiance to Him in order to fit in with the world?

And this time, it is those who take a stand who will receive life, while it is those who were "ashamed" of Him who will receive death.

The questions of verses 36 and 37 say it all:

36 What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? 37 Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?

The choice is simple: You can live the way of the world, and you may even experience great success as the world sees it (great amounts of money, popularity with all kinds of people, the satisfaction of always getting revenge), but it all goes away when this world ends.

On the other hand, you can die to the world, you can live the way of the cross (and you may suffer now, maybe even suffer greatly), but when it is all said and done you will find yourself standing with Jesus in glory.

Something You Choose...
Finally, let me say that cross-carrying is not something that happens to you. It isn't sickness or annoying people or trying circumstances. Cross-carrying is something you choose.

Taking up the cross means denying your natural inclination to take the path of least resistance, it means choosing to live a counter-culture life, even when it means there may be suffering, pain, or trial because of it. Taking up the cross means doing what is right now knowing that the reward will come later.

So, a lazy husband can be a cross to carry, if you choose to deal with him as a Christian. Cancer can be a cross to carry, if you face it with faith in your Lord. Even going on a diet, I suppose, can be a cross to carry if you if you are treating your body as the temple of the Holy Spirit and you are choosing the discipline of being a good steward of the gift God gave you when He gave you life.

But more than that, the crosses Jesus calls us to carry are the trials, the scorn, the persecution, the difficulties, the pain, the hardships, the suffering, and more that come from choosing daily to live our lives in, with, and for Him.

Jesus practices truth in advertising, following Him will not always be easy. He means it when He says it will be like carrying a cross. But the choice is also clear, because it means the eternal salvation of your soul.