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Today, my message is not a traditional Christmas sermon that focuses on the birth of Jesus and the theme of joy. Instead, it is the continuation of our series on Mark’s gospel.
Our passage today is actually about a heavy topic about the cost of discipleship. It is easy to talk about the blessings that Jesus brings to those who believe in him. But the life of a disciple of Jesus is also challenging. We need the full picture of what to expect: both the joy and the hardship.
I believe this topic is not irrelevant to this season, which we call Advent, the 24 days before Christmas. Today is the final day of Advent.
To celebrate the season of Advent, Pastor Ino lit a new candle every Sunday for the past few weeks. Advent means “arrival” and it’s a tradition that started 1,500 years ago. During Advent season, believers prepare themselves for the coming of Jesus Christ in 3 ways. First, we celebrate the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. Second, we receive him into our hearts with faith and repentance. Third, we anticipate Jesus’ physical return in the future.
Today, as I continue preaching on the Gospel of Mark, let’s think about how we can prepare for Jesus’ arrival. Based on today’s passage, here are 3 ways. First: by recognizing his identity. Second: by recognizing his values and living by them. Third: by recognizing the future consequences of our choices today. Let’s pray.
[Read Mark 8:27-9:1]
Recognizing Jesus’ identity
In verse 29, Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I am?” It’s a question that each of us must answer for ourselves. In Jesus’ perspective, understanding his identity is important; in fact, it is a matter of life and death.
If you try to follow his teachings without acknowledging his claim to be God in the flesh, you have to ignore a large part of his teachings. In fact, you will miss the main point of his teachings and his ultimate mission. Jesus came to die for sins that we cannot atone for ourselves; and he came to be our king in a way that no human king could live up to.
Many leaders strive to maintain power and control, but Jesus chose to give up his opportunity for earthly power. Dying on the cross was not an accident or failure; it was his very plan. He died on the cross to break the power of sin and the devil over mankind, to restore the relationship between us and God.
From reading the Gospels, I hope you see that Jesus was not just another moral teacher. It would be more accurate to call him a conman or a crazy guy than just another moral teacher. His claims were bold, and his actions were unique. We can’t avoid Jesus’ claim to be Messiah and God. He depicts himself not just as a loving shepherd but also a powerful king and judge.
Many non-Christians are willing to call Jesus as a wise moral teacher. Understandably, they are not ready to call him God. A God can decide what is right and wrong; a God can tell us how to live our lives. That threatens our sense of safety, because we want the right to decide for ourselves. This fear comes from not knowing who God really is, not knowing the depth of his goodness and love. If we really knew God, we would have less to fear. Before God asked anything from you, he was first willing to suffer everything for you.
In order to acknowledge Jesus’ true identity, we have to let ourselves be vulnerable to his authority. As a result, we will find ourselves to be in the safest, freest place in the world. That is one of the paradoxes of the Christian faith. Only by surrendering our rights to God do we gain true freedom.
Recognizing Jesus’ values and living them
Moving on to my second point: We prepare for Jesus’ arrival by recognizing and living out his values. Some of Jesus’ values may seem upside-down compared to the world’s values. Even his disciples found it difficult to understand him at times.
Verse 31 says, “And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again.”
When his disciple Peter heard this, he rebuked Jesus. Maybe Peter said something like, “Jesus stop talking like that. You have so many followers. We’ll fight to protect you!” Like many Jews in his time, maybe Peter expected the Messiah to be a political leader who would overthrow the Roman Empire through military force.
But Jesus knows that political power and good intentions alone cannot make the world a better place. We need a cure for the deep root of all our problems, which is sin and our broken relationship with God. God’s plan to provide that cure centers on Jesus’ atoning death on the cross.
Many of Jesus’ teachings are the opposite of what society teaches us. Jesus taught that to be a leader is to be a servant. To deny yourself is to gain life.
One of his difficult teachings is in verse 34: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.”
What does Jesus mean by “deny yourself”? It is not to give up physical pleasures or to detach yourself from desires like a Buddhist monk. It is not to suppress our desires but to love God more than our other desires. It is to be willing to surrender our desires to God and accept whether he fulfills them or not. Interestingly, when we deny ourselves in this way, God makes our lives fuller and better than we can imagine, despite the suffering that may also come. When we make God’s will more important than our own will, we actually end up pursuing our good desires in a healthy way.
Still, alongside the joy that God will give us, we may suffer physically. Some of us may even give up our lives, for the sake of love that God puts in our hearts. I think of a Polish priest named Maximilian Kolbe, who was imprisoned at a death camp in Auschwitz during World War 2. Although he was ethnically German, he refused to register as a German and enjoy citizen’s rights under Nazi rule.
Before the war, he was a missionary in Japan and founded a Catholic monastery in Nagasaki. When he returned to Poland, he also founded a monastery there, but it was shut down for publishing anti-Nazi publications. So he was imprisoned in Auschwitz. Despite being harassed and beaten by the guards, he continued to minister to other prisoners.
Finally, when the guards decided to execute several prisoners, one Polish man cried out for mercy because he had a family, and Kolbe offered to take his place. That Polish man survived the war and spent the rest of his life telling people everywhere about how Kolbe’s sacrifice saved him. Kolbe was a person who found true life in loving others sacrificially. He lived out Jesus’ teaching of self-denial and willingness to suffer for following him.
While history tells us of such men who followed the footsteps of Jesus, unfortunately history also remembers men who did the opposite: people who called themselves Christians and yet used their power to exploit others. That is why we need more than good moral teachers. We need the power of God to save and change us internally.
Elsewhere in the Gospels, Jesus promises to send the Spirit of God to change our hearts and help us do what is impossible by ourselves. A true disciple not only says “Jesus, I want to follow you,” but also, “Jesus, I can’t follow you, unless you help me.”
Recognizing the future consequences of our choices
Lastly, to be a disciple is to live with the future in mind. By future, I mean not just the next 5, 10, or 20 years, but eternity. This brings me to my last point: We prepare for Jesus’ return by recognizing that our choices today have consequences in the future.
Jesus asks in verse 36, “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” There are future, long-term consequences for the decisions we make today. When Jesus returns, our short earthly lives will end and the rest of eternity begins. Jesus is asking us to not only pursue what we can gain in this current world. He asks us to make choices with eternity in mind.
He also speaks of the future in verse 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.” One day, he will return in “his Father’s glory” to judge the world.
He will honor those who recognized his identity as Lord and obeyed him. But he will be ashamed of those who did not. Like Jesus’ teaching on self-denial, his teachings on judgment and the afterlife are not easy for many modern people to accept. But they are worth paying attention to, because our choice to listen or to close our ears has huge consequences.
If you have already decided to follow Jesus and are finding it difficult, let me encourage you from James 1:12: “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.”
Let me end this rather serious Christmas message with a few thoughts. Recently, my best friend became a father. He said about his baby boy: “He’s such a cute boy. I would die to keep him alive.” It’s amazing how most parents have a natural instinct that causes them to sacrifice so much time and energy for their children—long before their children can reciprocate that love.
When we invite someone to believe in Jesus and to become a Christian, in a way we are asking, “Are you willing to let Jesus be born in your heart? Are you willing to die for him?” But, as I mentioned earlier, before Jesus asked anything from you, he was first willing to suffer everything for you. He first loved us. He first denied himself and took up a cross for us.
As we prepare for Christmas, let us not only dwell on the peaceful scene of newborn Jesus and his happy parents, but also reflect on the sacrifice of the adult Jesus and the sacrificial life he calls us to.
During Christmas we often talk about the free gift of salvation for those who believe in Jesus. The gift is indeed free for us, but it was paid for by Jesus. It is a costly gift.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a well-known German pastor who was killed by the Nazis, said this about the cost of God’s grace. He says that the grace of God is “a pearl of great price,” for which “a person will gladly go and sell all that they have.” He says “such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow [a good master,] Jesus Christ.” God’s grace “is costly because it costs a person their life, and it is grace because it gives a person the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and [it is] grace because it justifies the sinner.”
Jesus’ words may be difficult and costly to follow, but they are the words that lead to true life.
Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.