White Flag

Original Date: 
Sunday, August 19, 2012

Mark 8:34-38 White Flag—Celebration Sunday, 2012

The “Forest”
My brother Ben is 2 years older than me. Always has been. Always will be.

We grew up on an acreage. My Mom still lives there: the first place west of the Floyd River as you leave Hospers, on the North side of the road. And one day, when I was 3 or 4 years old, Benji (that’s what we called him back then) came into the house all breathless and excited and said: “Russell, I found a FOREST!”

What he had found was actually an old grove of trees on the east side of our property. It had always been there, and honestly, it wasn’t all that big—maybe the size of a football field—but to our 6 and 4 year-old imaginations it was enormous. From that day forward, we always referred to it as the “forest”, and we spent a great deal of our childhoods there.

It was a wonderful place. We created footpaths and drew maps. When Dad tore down a building, we claimed the scrap and hauled it to the forest. Benji was always handy, so he would create elaborate tree forts with ladders and platforms and rope swings. I was never handy, so I dug holes. I’d pull some planks over the top and call it my earth home. I was like a Hobbit. A regular Bilbo Baggins.

But even my hole digging didn’t always go so well. I remember one day my friend Scottie was over and I had an old spade and a rusty hay fork and we were digging a hole when I hit a tree root. So I was trying to use the spade to pry the root up when the handle snapped and I fell forward right onto the pitchfork. Ran a tine right through my hand.

Our favorite thing to do in the forest though was definitely “dirt clod wars.” Our forest was right next to a bean field and we discovered that at harvest time and after cultivation dirt clods would be really dry and brittle, so that when you threw them at something they just exploded into a cloud of dust. Through some creative experimentation (in which I was often the guinea pig) we also discovered that if you were hit by one these dirt clods, it didn’t really hurt. Again, they just sort of exploded. (Of course, if you got the wrong kind of dirt clod, one that had been formed from clay or had a stone in it, that was a different story. But you took your chances.)

So we would have a bunch of our friends come out to the forest and we would divide into teams and divide up the forest (Benji and his friends would get the awesome tree fort, my much smaller friends and I would get my hole in the ground) and then we’d run around the trails and pelt each other with dirt clods. It was great fun.

But, of course, inevitably Benji and his friends would overwhelm me and my friends. And, more often the not, the game would end with me sheltered in my hole—really, more of a big depression in the ground—with an old board pulled over my head, and dirt clods exploding all around me. For this occasion, I was always prepared. I kept an old white dish towel of my mom’s out there. Tied to a stick. And when the barrage got too intense, I’d raise it above my head and waive it around.

A white flag. The international symbol of surrender.

Vision Week
My theme for these two weeks of vision is following Jesus. I like to use these two Sundays at the beginning of the school year to set out some themes for us and to remind us why we are here as a church. And, of course, for this coming year, a big theme is going to be our Open Doors campaign. That’s where we are going to really dig into our purpose and vision as a church.

And so, for these two Sundays, I thought I’d pull back a bit and look at Jesus’ call on us as individuals. What does it mean to follow Jesus? What does it mean to call yourself a Christian? A Christ-follower?

And that’s where the white flag comes in. Because when Jesus calls us to follow Him, He calls us to surrender. That’s the heart of the message today. A big part of following Jesus is giving up. Giving up our sins, giving up our guilt, giving up our shame. Giving up our possessions and our dreams. Giving up our lives. And surrendering control to Him.

Our text this morning is Mark 8:34-38. This is Jesus’ invitation to follow Him. This is where Jesus lays out the terms of what it means to be His follower. And He makes it clear, it means surrender. It means giving up. Mark 8:34-38:

34 Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. 36 What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? 37 Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? 38 If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”

Not a Fan
About 6 months ago Dick and Becky Kirksey gave me a book called Not a Fan by Kyle Idleman. I’d heard about the book—Amazon kept listing it as a book I might like—but I didn’t have it. The idea of the book is that Jesus wants us to be followers, not fans. Fans are people who admire someone, often enthusiastically, but they sit on the sidelines. They aren’t actually in the game. Followers, on the other hand, are all in. They don’t simply admire Jesus, they are committed to Him.

So I appreciated the gift, and put it on my shelf where I keep books I plan to read, but honestly—in 6 months I hadn’t even cracked the cover yet.

Then Wednesday, as I was leaving my study for the day and just starting to think about the sermon, I saw that book on my shelf and thought to myself: “I wonder if there is anything about this passage in there.” So I opened up the table of contents and saw that Idleman had one chapter entitled “anyone”, another titled “come after me”, another called “deny” and one more called “take up your cross daily.” I read most of the book on Thursday. It’s very good. I recommend it.

So, for my outline of this passage today, I’m going to borrow Idleman’s outline, and several of his ideas as well. Thank you Dick and Becky, you made preparing this sermon much easier.

We’re going to focus on the first verse, verse 34, where Jesus lays out the terms. And, per Idleman, there are 4 things we need to pay attention to in this verse. All of them are going to point us towards surrender.

First, notice that Jesus says “anyone.” This is an open invitation. Anyone can be a follower of Jesus. There is no pre-screening. No entry requirements.

Anyone means everyone. It’s an all-inclusive word. A universal word. Jesus doesn’t begin with a list of qualifiers or restrictions. He’s inviting anyone. Everyone.

A lot of people miss this. A lot of people just assume they’re disqualified, that they don’t measure up. “Oh, I’d never go into a church. They wouldn’t want me. Not after what I’ve done.” “Jesus couldn’t possibly love me. Not with my past. I’m just not good enough.”

For a lot of people, the idea of following Jesus never registers. They don’t even listen to the invitation, because what’s the point? Why fill out the application if you’re sure you’ll be rejected?

Have you ever noticed that when the car market gets sluggish they start to come out with all these great financing plans? The commercials will say something like: “Now, a brand new car is affordable for anyone. We’re offering 60 months of interest free financing!” And then, the very last part of the commercial is a screen with a giant 0.0% APR on it.

But if you look close, you’ll notice there’s usually an asterisk after that 0.0%. And at the bottom of the screen, in really small print, there’s another asterisk that says “for qualified buyers.”

In other words, not just anyone can come in and get free money for 60 months. You’ve got to qualify. You’ve got to meet certain standards. You’ve got to prove you actually have the money (in which case, why do you need the loan?)

But when Jesus says “anyone” there’s no asterisk. His invitation is literally for anyone. Everyone. When you hear these words of Jesus you have to ask yourself: “Am I anyone?” And if you are—and we all are—then you are included in this invitation. No matter what you’ve done. No matter what mistakes you’ve made. No matter how bad you’ve been, or no matter how bad you are right now, you are invited to follow Jesus.

But now, get this: Jesus wants to make it clear what He’s inviting you to. In this very same breath He starts talking about denying yourself and taking up your cross. While Jesus offers His invitation to anyone and everyone, He doesn’t water it down in an attempt to get more people or make it more appealing. In fact, He makes it clear that following Him can be downright inconvenient.

Jesus is always doing things like this. It seems like whenever He gets large crowds around Him, He says something to thin the crowd out (i.e. John 6:35 and 66).

In fact, let me show you something I just noticed this week. Look at the way this verse begins: “Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said:” Here’s the context: just before this is the classic exchange where Jesus asks his disciples who people think he is. Some say John the Baptist back from the dead, some say Elijah. But what about you? Jesus asks, who do you say I am? And Peter says: “You are the Christ.”

That’s a private exchange, between Jesus and the disciples. It’s sort of insider information. Even though Peter is right, Jesus tells them not to tell anybody. And then He starts to explain that being the Christ means He is going to suffer and die.

And I always thought the passage we are looking at today was part of that conversation. That Jesus was letting those closest to Him know what was going to be involved in following Him. That there would be self-denial and cross-carrying.

But the part I had never noticed before is that Mark is very explicit in saying that Jesus called the crowd in. Jesus wants everyone to hear this. The invitation is to anyone. Everybody is invited. But everyone needs to know exactly what following Jesus means. It means surrender.

Come After Me
So next, consider the words “come after me.” This is about a passionate pursuit. Jesus is looking for committed followers. Followers who are all in.

The phrase that’s translated “come after” is a phrase commonly used in the context of romantic relationship. (Idleman, p. 130) The kind of passion and commitment and focus that Jesus is looking for from us is similar to the kind of passion and commitment and focus we had when we were first trying to woo that person we love. It’s a pursuit that can easily consume our thoughts, our resources, and our energy.

We can do some pretty crazy things when we want to win someone’s heart. When I was dating Beth in college I arranged this elaborate plan with my roommate and some of Beth’s friends to get her to a certain grassy part of campus at sundown where I had a blanket and some small picnic supplies. And then, as we were sitting there in the romantic glow of the setting sun, I had my roommate hiding in the bushes with a CD player and he started playing “Kiss the Girl” from The Little Mermaid. Another time I convinced a friend to prepare a spaghetti supper which Beth and I ate while watching the Lady and the Tramp. And on our first date I tried to dig my car out of a raging blizzard just so I could take her to the premier of Beauty and the Beast. (I had some sort of strange fixation with Disney movies when I was in college).

My point is, we do some pretty crazy things when we are in love. There are other stories I could tell about how I’ve “come after” Beth. I spent a lot of time and energy wooing her, and occasionally I’ll even try to do something romantic now.

But honestly, if I look back on my life with Jesus, I don’t have nearly as many stories about chasing after Him. I don’t have nearly as many stories where I’ve done something for Jesus that would make somebody else say: “That’s crazy.”

And yet, if we are followers of Jesus, I think we should all have some stories of coming after Him. Stories of passionate pursuit.

You see, what Jesus is looking for from us is not just a decision, but a commitment. He doesn’t want us to merely make a decision to believe in Him. He wants us to make a commitment to following Him. And that means surrender.

Idleman puts it like this: Imagine going to a wedding and watching a groom, with a tear in his eye, say to his beautiful bride: “…forsaking all others be faithful to you until death parts us.” It’s always inspiring and moving. But then, imagine a week later you get the shocking news: they’re splitting up. He cheated on her during the honeymoon. What would you think? What a jerk, right?

That’s the difference between a decision and a commitment. It’s easy to promise to be faithful, but those words mean nothing if they aren’t followed thru with actual, faithful commitment. In the same way, Jesus isn’t asking us to just make a decision for Him—to come to church or to put a bumper sticker on your car or listen to Christian Radio—He’s asking us to follow thru with a lifelong, passionate pursuit of Him.

Third. Let’s look at the word “deny.” This is about total surrender. Following Jesus means sacrifice. Some things we would normally choose will be left behind for the sake of Jesus.

There is no way to follow Jesus without Him interfering with your life. When you say yes to Jesus, that means you are saying no to other things.

I think that is partly what verse 35 is getting at. Jesus says:

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

Essentially, if you want to have Jesus—but you want to have all this other stuff too: your old, pre-Christian lifestyle; your own control and decision making; your own hopes and dreams—you want Jesus and the new life He offers, but you want to take along and save all the junk from your old life; then Jesus says you’re in trouble. You’re going to lose everything.

But if you lose your life. That is, if you learn to deny yourself and cede control over to Jesus, if you humble yourself and put Jesus and sharing of the gospel with others first, then you are going to experience more life than you ever imagined.

But it takes surrender. You have to give up. You have to choose Jesus over everything else.

Idleman tells the story of a news report he saw about a group of new vegetarians. They interviewed one of this group, a 28 year-old named Christy Pugh. One of her quotes pretty much captures the philosophy of this group. She said, “I usually eat vegetarian. But I really like sausage.” She’s a part of a growing number of people who eat vegetarian but make some exceptions. They don’t eat meat. Unless they really like it.

As you can imagine, real vegetarians are not thrilled about this group calling themselves vegetarians. Probably because, well, they’re not. So the real vegetarians have been putting pressure on this new group to come up with a new name to describe themselves. So here’s the name they came up with: they are flexatarians. Christy explains it this way: “I really like vegetarian food, but I’m just not 100 percent committed.” (p. 147-148)

Flexatarian might be a good way to describe the way a lot of us Christians act sometimes. Call us “flexi-christians.” That is, we really like Jesus. We like being a part of the church and we like the feeling we get when we sing and we like the friends we have and following Jesus really works for us—except when it doesn’t. Except when there’s something we really want to do. Except when what Jesus asks is really hard. Except when it means we have to make different choices.

That’s what Idleman would call being a fan of Jesus. “I love Jesus, but I’m not 100 percent committed.”

But that’s not what Jesus is calling us to. Jesus is looking for total surrender. Deny yourself. As William Brownson puts it: “We cannot say a realistic yes to God’s way without saying a repeated no to our own.” (Meeting Jesus, p. 216)

Take Up Your Cross
Then, fourth, we need to pay attention to the words “take up your cross.” This is about an everyday death. Denying ourselves for the sake of Christ is a choice we must make day after day.

The context here is all about Jesus predicting His own death. The disciples don’t really get it yet, and the crowd certainly doesn’t, but Jesus is heading for a terrible death on a Roman cross in order to pay the penalty of our sin guilt before God. The cross is what Jesus offers to everyone who will follow Him. The grace and forgiveness and hope that is found in a restored relationship with our creator.

But Jesus says those who follow Him will take up their own crosses.

That means suffering. The Romans could have found a lot of other ways to execute people, but they chose to use the cross because it was particularly cruel and painful. So when Jesus talks about taking up a cross He’s talking about choosing suffering.

There is simply no way to comfortably carry a cross. Sometimes people who are Christians will act surprised that there is pain or suffering in their lives—as though following Jesus were supposed to be some sort of guarantee against those things. There’s even junk theology out there (often on TV) that says if things are going badly in your life it must be because you have weak faith. But that’s not what Jesus is saying here. Not at all. He’s saying that if you follow Him, you should expect that it will be painful at times.

Quite honestly, if you can look back over your Christian life and think of no occasion on which you made sacrifices or suffered for being a follower of Christ, then there’s a good chance you’re not really following Him. When is the last time following Jesus cost you something? When is the last time it cost you a relationship? Or a job promotion? Or a meal?

Carrying a cross for Jesus isn’t merely an inconvenience—“oh, we all have our crosses to bear”—it means surrendering to Him. It means dying to ourselves.

And, it doesn’t say it in Mark, but Luke’s version of this same speech adds one little word: “daily.” Jesus says those who would come after Him should deny themselves and take up their cross daily. In other words, every day we must make this choice again. Every day we must ask ourselves if we are going to live for ourselves or live for Jesus. Every day we must crawl back on that altar and offer ourselves to Him again.

When Jesus calls us to follow Him, He calls us to surrender. Following Jesus means giving up. It means giving over the title of your life to Jesus.

Let me share one more story from Not a Fan:

Millard Fuller tells of becoming a millionaire by the age of 29. He had, he says, bought his wife everything she could possibly want. But one day he came home to a note that announced that she had left him. Millard went after her. He found her on a Saturday night in a hotel in NYC. They talked into the wee hours of the morning as she poured out her heart and made him see that the “things” that our society says are supposed to be so satisfying had left her cold. Her heart was empty and her spirit was burned out. She was dead inside and she wanted to live again. Kneeling at their bedside in that hotel room, Millard and Linda decided to sell everything they had and dedicate themselves to serving poor people.

The next day being Sunday, they found the nearest Baptist church and went there to worship and to thank God for their new beginning. They shared with the minister and told him about what had happened to them and the decision they had made. Ironically, the minister told them that such a radical decision was not really necessary. Millard said, “He told us that it was not necessary to give up everything. He just didn’t understand that we weren’t giving up money and the things that money could buy. We were giving up period. Millard and Linda started an organization you are probably familiar with—Habitat for Humanity. (p. 154)

White Flag
So now, back to the white flag. The international symbol of surrender. The way of saying, when your big brother and his friends have you surrounded and the dirt clods are raining down, that you give up.

I believe Jesus is inviting all of us to follow Him again today. His invitation is for “anyone.” Everyone. But He’s up front about what’s involved. He’s not trying to snow you with promises of ease and comfort. And I’m not either.

If you choose to follow Jesus, it will mess with your life. You will not stay the same. In fact, you won’t even be in charge of your life anymore. Jesus will. Following Jesus means surrender. It means giving up.

And so, I want to give you an opportunity to do that today. If you haven’t found them already, you’ll notice that under every seat is a white flag. And we’ve provided some Sharpie markers. (They’re not door prizes, we’d like them back).

And the question is: What is Jesus calling on you to surrender today? What is getting in between you and being a fully-committed follower of Jesus Christ that you need to give up? What do you need to hand over to Him?

I’d like you to write it down on your flag. Go ahead and do it now. Maybe it’s some sin, some bad habit that keeps grabbing you and pulling you back in. Maybe it’s a burden of guilt and shame that you don’t seem to be able to shake. Give it to Him. Maybe it’s a hurt, some deep wound from long ago—or more recently—that you’re walking around with and it’s making you bitter and angry and holding you back. Write it down. Give it to Him.

Maybe it’s a worry, or some long-cherished dream that God seems to be saying no to. Surrender it to Him. Maybe it’s a possession, or a love for money or prestige; maybe it’s a desire to be comfortable, or the need to control your children’s future; maybe it’s a calling that God has placed on your life that you’ve been resisting; maybe it’s a relationship. Lay it down. Give it up. Surrender.

What is Jesus calling you to surrender today? I want to encourage you to write it on your white flag, and in a moment I’m going to pray and then the band is going to play, and we’re going to have the opportunity to take our flags to the ropes strung in the corners and pin them up. Let’s make this a holy moment of worship, as we offer our lives to Him.