Scripture Readings: Genesis 17:1–7, 15–16 | Psalm 22:23–31 | Romans 4:13–25 | Mark 8:31–38
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. Mark 8:34-35
For many today, self-denial presents a serious struggle. Our current culture is one in which we’re urged to give in to our urges… to pursue what makes us ‘happy’ as one of the highest goals in life. We can see this at work in the blatant consumerism all around us… promising us fulfillment if we’ll buy into what they’re selling. We can also see this at work in the more belligerent resistance to making simple concessions for the sake of the safety of others… like wearing masks in public during a global pandemic. But before we get to comfortable pointing our fingers at those ‘other’ people, it’s good to remember that this same struggle is at work in us as well. No one loves to be told to do what we don’t really want to do. To go against our own instincts, or set aside our plans. To do something like that requires a whole lot of trust… trust in the one who is asking us to follow their lead instead.
In our Scripture readings today from the book of Genesis and the Gospel of Mark, we find the Living God at work inviting His people to trust Him: to set aside our own agendas, and hand our lives over to Him.
In our reading from Genesis 17, we heard the Living God reaffirm His relationship with Abram and Sarai, who He renames Abraham and Sarah. We heard God call them into a deeper, life-shaping commitment, promising that through them both would come many nations and kings. This all sounds wonderful, especially for Abraham and Sarah, who were both well beyond the age when having children was even possible. God’s promising them more then they could ever achieve on their own. But wrapped up in this wonderful promise is also an invitation to faith, by saying no to their own ideas about the way forward. This is a call to take God at His word, even if it seems impossible.
Backing up a bit in Abraham’s story, this all becomes a bit clearer. In Chapter 15, God promises that Abram will have children of his own… offspring who will carry on his line, despite his advanced age. In Chapter 15:5-6, God tells him: “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” 6 And [Abram] believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” So far so good. He trusted God, and took Him at His word, but as their story unfolds, we can see that Abram and Sarai will continue to struggle to let go of control… causing deep pain and wickedness as a result.
Right after God makes this promise, in Genesis Chapter 16, Sarai decides the only way forward is to take matters into her own hands, by making her Egyptian slave sleep with Abram, to bear him a son. Calling to mind how Eve took the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and gave it to Adam, choosing to go their own way, instead of staying true to the LORD, Genesis 16:3 says “Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her slave-girl, and gave her to her husband Abram as a wife.” Together they use this vulnerable person as a tool to achieve their own ends… and from this act, all sorts of cruelty and division unfold in their family. And yet, God steps in to bring life and hope to Hagar and Ishmael her son… leading us to Chapter 17 where the LORD has words with Abram and Sarai. “I am God Almighty”, He reminds them, able to be faithful, despite all their doubts, and for their part they’re to walk before Him “and be blameless.” How they live in the world as His people matters: their faith needs to take shape in all they do. Letting go of their own agendas, and letting God lead them onward.
In short, God calls Abraham and Sarah to a renewed relationship of faithfulness; trusting that the LORD would be true to His word, as impossible as it may seem, and that they were to let go of their need for control, and follow His holy ways.
In our Gospel reading today, we find another call to faithfulness, another wonderful promise, and another struggle at work.
We heard Jesus our Lord making clear what it means to be His disciple: it means denying ourselves, taking up our crosses, and following Him. The scholar R.T. France makes an important point about what this really entails: “The metaphor of taking up one’s own cross is not to be domesticated into an exhortation merely to endure hardship patiently. In this context… it is an extension of Jesus’ readiness for death to those who follow him, and the following verses will fill it out still in terms of the loss of life, not merely the acceptance of discomfort. While it may no doubt be legitimately applied to other and lesser aspects of the suffering involved in following Jesus, the primary reference in context must be to the possibility of literal death.” As was the case for Christians throughout the ages, and even to this day, following Jesus means putting it all on the line: it may lead us to our death.
This is a clear call for serious commitment. For entrusting our entire lives to the LORD. But with this call to deny ourselves, comes the promise of New Life. Unlike the fleeting security and false fulfillment our world has to offer, Jesus is leading us into the eternal life of God. “For those who want to save their life will lose it,” Jesus says, “and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” (Mark 8:35). Just as the LORD promised that Abraham & Sarah would have offspring of their own, as impossible as it seemed, Christ promises that as hard as discipleship may be, it will all be worth it! That following Him to the cross is truly the path to life. The question again becomes: will we take Christ at His word?
Backing up again… before Christ says these challenging yet promising words, we heard what led Him to utter them: the challenge from Peter. Moments before, Peter had been the first to confess that Jesus was more than simply a teacher, a miracle worker, or prophet, but was in fact the Christ, the Chosen Messiah of God, sent to rescue His people, and bring God’s good kingdom at last. It’s clear Peter believed in Jesus… but just like Abram and Sarai before him, he struggled to let go of his own ideas of how God’s plan would unfold. Unable to reconcile his own vision of what it meant to be the Messiah, with Jesus’ words about rejection, suffering, and death, Peter tried to turn his Master away from His dangerous mission… but ended up getting in the way of God’s kingdom.
So Christ has words with Peter, calling him to remember that our human ways are not the same as the ways of God. That despite how frightening the path before them might be, enduring the cross was the only way God’s good kingdom would be able to come. To trust that Jesus is the Christ means letting Him lead us onward… sharing in His sufferings, to also share in His New Life.
As Christians today, faced with our own struggles, temptations, and doubts, we too are invited to trust in Christ, and follow Him in faith. To let our plans and actions be shaped and guided by His holy love; to bring to Him our fears of losing control, and suffering; to remember that God Almighty can truly handle what lies before us; and to believe that our Saviour will see us safely home.
Christ’s call for us to deny ourselves is above all else an invitation to trust Him. Not only once and a while, but all throughout our days. So may the Holy Spirit give us the faith to pick up our crosses and follow Jesus. Living God’s way in the world, as He leads us into Life. Amen.
 R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 2002), 340.