Sermon: AFLC Schools Chapel, Nov. 16, 2017
And He summoned the crowd with His disciples, and said to them, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.
“For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it.
“For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?
“For what will a man give in exchange for his soul?
“For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.” (Mark 8:34-38, NASB)
If you study the history of the United States in the 19th Century, you’re likely to run across the phrase, “Seeing the elephant.” It was popular in the Mexican War, the Civil War, and the settlement of the West.
One possible origin of the phrase comes from a story about a farmer who heard that a circus was coming to town, and that the circus had an elephant. He lived a lonely and dull life, and he was excited to see something as exotic as an elephant. So he loaded a wagon with vegetables and took it to town, as an excuse to go to the circus. But as he approached the town, he met the circus parade. And there were the elephants. His horses got one whiff of the elephants’ scent, and they took off at a gallop. His wagon got pitched back and forth, up and down, scattering vegetables across the prairie. Finally the horses broke away and galloped off, and he was left in the wreck of the wagon. People came to help him and said it was too bad. “I don’t care,” the farmer answered. “I saw the elephant!”
It’s hard to convey what “seeing the elephant” meant in those days, but it’s usually explained as having an intense and life-changing experience, but at great personal cost. Soldiers who’d been in combat said they’d seen the elephant. Settlers who’d experienced the great distances and great dangers of traveling west said the same thing. You’re never the same after you’ve seen the elephant.
I’m a fan of the comedian Groucho Marx. He was a very funny man but not at all a nice man. In spite of his show business success, he was insecure, and he longed all his life to be an author and an intellectual. He loved to write to famous authors, and he was delighted when the poet T.S. Eliot wrote back to him. He and Eliot became friends, and Groucho even visited him in England. When Eliot died, Groucho went to a memorial service for him, and Eliot’s wife made the mistake of asking him to say a few words. Groucho, not being a religious man, wasn’t sure what to say, so he told a story. The story was about a man being hanged on a gallows. They asked him if he had any last words, and he said, “Yeah. I don’t think this contraption is safe!”
I think of that story when I read Mark, chapter 8. You’ll note that Jesus’ call for followers here contains almost no incentives. He says nothing about prosperity, nothing about a more fulfilling life. He doesn’t even promise happiness in this passage. He promises danger and a cross. Everyone in his audience understood what He meant by taking up a cross. You carried a cross for only one purpose – to be led somewhere and to die. It wasn’t a safe contraption.
Sometimes I think I must be a bad influence. Because over the years, it seems to me that a large proportion of the people who’ve been my closest Christian brothers and sisters have fallen away. Some have gone over to liberal Christianity. Some have become indifferent. Some have no faith in God whatever.
I’ve always wondered at the mystery of why people fall away. I haven’t done a survey, but there seem to be many reasons. I could list some, but that would just be an exercise in Pharisaism. I’m too prone to judging people as it is, so I won’t make a useless list of what I see as other people’s sins.
I’ll just talk about one reason people give for walking away from the Faith. That’s when somebody says, “It’s so boring! It’s just a lot of rules, and sitting through sermons, and you can’t have any excitement!”
Now I won’t say that Christianity hasn’t been made boring in some times and places. I remember talking to a friend who told me what an old man in one congregation had said to him. The old man said, “We lost a whole generation in this church.” He was talking about the World War II generation, what they call the Greatest Generation. There had been a great revival in that congregation in the 1920s, and the people who were converted in that revival worked hard to keep the revival going. Unfortunately, they tried to maintain the revival in the wrong way. They thought they could keep the spiritual fire alive by forcing their children to do things that they themselves did out of joy and love. They thought they could sustain the revival through rules.
The children rebelled. They walked away from a faith that seemed to them to be just a list of commandments that nobody could keep perfectly in the first place.
That church made Christianity a hard thing.
That’s not Jesus’s way.
Jesus made Christianity an impossible thing.
“Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it.”
Jesus isn’t calling here for better and better obedience to the rules – even His own rules.
He’s calling for us to die.
Dying doesn’t mean trying harder. It doesn’t mean staying up all night reading the Bible. It doesn’t mean giving away all your possessions. It doesn’t mean going on the mission field, necessarily.
It means entering into a state where you can do nothing. That’s what dead people are good at – doing nothing.
Jesus doesn’t ask you to follow a list of rules. He asks you to take up a cross, and follow Him to the place where you will be crucified.
Whatever you can say about crucifixion, it’s not boring.
OK, I know what you’re wondering. You’re wondering what I’m talking about. How do you get crucified? How do you die, if dying is so great?
Well, what are dead people like?
Dead people are compliant. They stay where you put them.
They don’t complain.
They don’t argue back.
They don’t demand their rights.
In fact, here’s a pretty good description of a dead person: They’re patient, they’re kind and not jealous; they do not brag and are not arrogant. They do not act unbecomingly, they do not seek their own, they are not provoked, they do not take into account a wrong suffered. They do not rejoice in unrighteousness, they bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, and endure all things.
Anybody recognize that list? It comes from 1 Corinthians 13:4-7. Anybody recall what that passage is about?
Yes, it’s about love. When Jesus talks about dying, I think He’s talking about love. The person who has taken up his cross and died with Christ is the person who has fallen in love with Jesus.
The Song of Solomon, Chapter 8, verse 6 says, “For love is as strong as death.” And that’s the experience of anybody who’s ever been in love. It might seem hard to believe, but even I was in love once. And I remember that when somebody asked me how I felt, the first thing that came to my mind was, “I would die for her.”
So in answer to the question, “How do I die to self, take up my cross, and follow Jesus?” my answer is, “You have to fall in love with Him.”
Have you ever met someone who devoted their life to Jesus, and they were just a delight to be around? And have you ever met someone who devoted their life to Jesus, and they were a pain and an ordeal to be around?
I’m sure there are exceptions due to special circumstances, but in general, I expect the difference between those two people is this: that one has died to self and the other hasn’t. One is in love with Jesus, and the other is in love with rules.
So how do we do this dying to self? Is there a step by step program that will enable us to be crucified with Christ?
Sorry, no. If there were, that would be just another list of rules.
Jesus said, “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8)
Love can’t be reduced to a formula. It’s not a matter of performance. Nobody can say, “Now you will fall in love.” It’s something that happens freely, unexpectedly, miraculously. It comes from God and He gives it when and where He chooses.
But there are ways of putting yourself in love’s path. Zacchaeus knew where Jesus would be traveling, and he put himself along that road.
We all know where Jesus can be met.
First of all, God has given us His sacraments. I’m pretty sure most of you have been baptized. In baptism you’ve been accepted by Him already. And I hope you’ve come to assurance of your salvation through a personal experience with Him. When I talk about dying to self, about seeing the elephant, I’m not talking about being saved. Jesus takes hold of us; we don’t take hold of Him. If you’re not sure that you’re saved, you need to deal with that, and this place is full of people who’d be delighted to help you.
There’s the sacrament of Holy Communion. The body of Christ, given to us in physical form through the bread and wine. Sometimes we evangelicals overlook the importance of Communion. Something supernatural happens in Communion, between you and God. And since this whole discussion is about receiving something from God, please don’t neglect taking Communion.
Reading the Word of God is kind of a no-brainer. That’s what we’re all here at these schools for. But if I can suggest something, there’s a technique I learned a long, long time ago that’s been useful for me when I’m not being lazy. I call it “going deep.” Instead of reading Scripture in large chunks, this method is to take a small chunk – a paragraph or a section that expresses one specific idea – and read it over many, many times in one sitting. Read it over and over until you’re bored with it, and then—this is the secret – don’t stop. Read it across the boredom barrier, and very often, on the other side of the boredom, enlightenment will come. A new insight. Wrestle with that passage as Jacob wrestled with the angel, and don’t let go until it blesses you.
And finally, there’s the church, the fellowship of God’s people. Do you ever think, “I sure wish Jesus were still around in a physical body. I wish I could see Him and listen to Him right now?” Well, the Bible says the church is His body. 1 Corinthians 12:27 says, “Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it.” I’ll admit He can be hard to see in the church sometimes, but He’s there. Be there and meet Him there.
Now I can see how all this could seem anticlimactic. I started out talking about seeing the elephant and having adventures, and I end up talking about reading your Bible and going to church. But these are ways to put yourself in Jesus path, so you can meet Him, and then take up your cross. And there’s all the adventure you could ever want in taking up your cross, in dying to self.
Because here’s something we tend to forget. When we talk about dying to self, we usually talk about giving things up. And that’s appropriate. We do have to give things up for the love of Jesus. But we also add things to our lives. Things we would never do before, because they scare us to death.
What’s the scariest thing in the world for you? I’m not talking about driving 120 miles an hour, or cliff jumping, or robbing a bank. I mean good things – good things you’re afraid to do. Acts of kindness and virtue and self-denial. Giving something away that’s precious to you. Talking to someone you’re afraid of. Apologizing to someone you’ve sinned against. Things outside your comfort zone.
You might imagine that I’m dying to self by standing here talking to you, because most normal people are afraid of speaking to large groups. But you’d be mistaken. In case you haven’t noticed, I’m a little eccentric. And one symptom of my eccentricity is that I have no stage fright. This is easy for me. If I want to die to self, to be crucified, to see the elephant, I have to try other things – things that terrify me – things that might be easy for you.
So ask yourself, what makes you break out in cold sweat? What makes you say, “If I try that, I’ll just die!”
That may very well be the thing He wants you to do. That’s the thing you can’t do in your own strength. That’s the thing that only His life within you can accomplish.
That’s seeing the elephant. It means doing something that’s completely outside your own power. It means you have no visible means of support, because you’re upheld by unseen hands.
It means you’ll look like a fool if you fail. Are you afraid of looking like a fool? Because I know I am. I’ve spent my whole life trying to avoid looking foolish. And managed to look pretty silly in the process.
What does Jesus say? “For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.”
Seeing the elephant can be hard on your dignity. Jesus promised us life and death adventure. He never promised we’d look cool.