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Archive for March, 2012

Throwing Our Lives Away

A Sermon Preached on Sunday, March 18, 2012, by

The Rev. S. Randall Toms, Ph. D.,

At St. Paul’s Reformed Episcopal Church, Baton Rouge, Louisiana 

 He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.   And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me.   He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it. (Matt. 10:37-39). 

         Dr. Fred Craddock, who was Professor Emeritus of Preaching at the Candler School of Theology, said that when he was a little boy he would imagine what it would be like to die for Christ. He said that he heard so many preachers give illustrations about the great heroes of the Christian faith, especially the martyrs, that he thought that giving your life in such a way was the only way to give your life for Christ’s sake. He says that he could imagine himself standing before the firing squad, being given one last chance to recant, but he would bravely say, “No.” The general would cry “Fire!” The body would slump over in a heroic death scene, and years later youth groups from churches all around the world would visit the spot, and wipe their tears away as they remembered how he gave his life for Christ. And Dr. Craddock says that he was so disappointed that he thought he would have to wait many years for such a time–that there was no way to live his life for Christ right now.

         We often think martyrdom is the only way to lose our lives for Christ. Many Christians have been called upon to give their lives in that fashion. When Christ calls a person to follow him, he does say that you must be willing to die for him.   That is the cost of discipleship.  Jesus calls us upon to lose our lives for his sake.   Jesus used this saying in several different contexts.  For example, in Matthew 16:25 if, he said, “For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? For the Son of Man will come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and then He will reward each according to his works.” In this passage, Christ makes it clear that losing your life is not an optional matter as far as the Christian life is concerned. If you save your life, you lose your soul.  You will stand before the judgment bar of God and have to say that you considered your own life more important than following Christ.

        Our Lord teaches us that obedience to him is far more important than our physical lives.  We must remember that there is a natural life and a spiritual life. There is a temporal life and an eternal life. Our great temptation is to preserve our natural lives, our physical, our temporal lives, at all costs, even if it means forfeiting spiritual life. The person who tries to save his life will lose both his physical and spiritual life. Oh, you might save your natural life for a while, but you are only delaying what in inevitable. Eventually, you are going to lose this life no matter how much try to preserve it. But if you preserve this life rather than taking the cross, ultimately, you will lose both. You will die physically and spiritually.  To save your life means to draw back from the sacrifice required.

        While martyrdom may be the ultimate price, our Lord has far more than that in mind when talks about saving our lives and losing our lives.   Saving our lives is not just recanting or denying Christ in order to save ourselves.   Saving our lives just means living a self-centered life. Saving our lives is living our lives in any other way than following Christ at all costs. Even a life devoted to our families, more than Christ, can be saving our lives. If you cling to any part of your life, wife, mother, son, daughter, husband, wife, you lose your life. Preferring any part of our lives to what Christ calls us to do is saving our lives.

        This taking up of the the cross is not something that we do at the end of life. Taking up the cross is something that we do at the beginning of the Christian experience. Taking up the cross is what we do daily. Every day, we put our lives into God’s hands, and say, “Today, I am a disciple of Christ, no matter the cost.”   Such a life may end in martyrdom, but whether it does or not, the Christian has already lost his life, because it no longer belongs to him. No doubt, that is what our Lord had in mind when he said, He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it. When, our Lord uses the word “life” here, he probably means “self” for the words life and self seemed to be used interchangeably in these sayings. For example, if you compare the very similar saying in Luke 9:23 -24, you find, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life, will lose it, and whoever loses his life for My sake will save it.” To lose your life, means to deny yourself. Jesus is saying, “When it comes to a choice between your own selfish desires and what I want you to do, you must deny yourself, even if that means physical death.” But don’t confine this teaching to physical death. Every day of the Christian life is a denying of self to follow Jesus Christ. You are turning your back on selfish desires, and choosing to live for Christ instead.  These are the words of our Lord that we especially have in mind during the season of Lent.   We are denying ourselves certain pleasures in order that we might concentrate on the meaning of this season, to remind us to spend time in prayer, examine ourselves ,and repent.   Denying ourselves during Lent is a symbol of the self-sacrifice that Christ demands of us each day.

        We really shouldn’t be surprised that Jesus makes this kind of statement. To be great at anything calls upon a person to deny himself and his own pleasures for a greater or loftier purpose or goal. Since the claims of Jesus Christ are so much greater than anything else which could command our devotion, why shouldn’t we be willing to make any sacrifice necessary for Christ, to live holy lives, to be conformed to his image?

        A few years ago I was reading about some of the finalists in the Van Cliburn piano competition. One of them said that he practiced all day, just taking a few minutes out for meals. Another said he was not quite that dedicated. He only practiced between six and nine hours a day. Can you imagine all the ways in which they had to deny themselves? Think of how many times they had to say, “No,” to friends, to their own desires to watch television, or movies. They had to say goodbye to it.   But the sacrifice was worth.   Now, they are at the top of their craft. You might look at them and say, “They threw their lives away.” In a sense, they did, but most of them will probably tell you, “Actually, through all that sacrifice,I found my life.”   I remember on one of the Carpenter’s albums was a song called “Piano Picker,” and in that song Richard Carpenter describes how he learned to play the piano so well.  He says that while other guys were out playing football or running around with the girlfriends, he was home “bangin’ on the keys.”  Yes, he had to forego some of the pleasures that other people experience, but look at the rewards and dividends of denying himself those pleasures to give himself to something greater.  He found his life, a life of music, by losing his life, by denying himself.

            Finding ourselves by denying ourselves is infinitely truer of the Christian.  He finds his life by giving himself to Christ completely.  When deciding to follow Jesus, the person must decide between a life of selfish indulgence or a life of sacrificial love. Sacrificial love means you lose yourself, but in the long-run, you find yourself.

        Nowadays, one of the most popular phrases we use of people goes something like, “Well, he is just trying to find himself.” We excuse a lot of sinful behavior with that phrase. People say, “I don’t know who or what I am. I don’t know my identity.   I’m just trying to find myself.”  We are so obsessed with this notion of finding ourselves, so we set out on the journey. We say, “I am going to find myself.” But the more we try to find ourselves, the further we get away from ourselves. The search ends in confusion and frustration. Jesus had a solution:   “Do you want to find yourself? Lose yourself!”  Some people come to church hoping that they can find themselves.   It is not our duty to help people find themselves. Our duty is to help them lose themselves.

        The word translated here as “lose” is word that is hard to put in English. It is something like “destroy.” Someone has translated it, “throw away.” Jesus is asking us to throw away our lives.  Many people think that Christians are throwing their lives away.  Perhaps the Christian shows promise in a self-centered life. He gives it up to follow Christ.  People say, “You are throwing your life away.” The Christian says, “Exactly!”  It is interesting, too, that this word is not a present participle.  It is an aorist, meaning something like, “and he who has destroyed.” A decision has been made, one for all, a final decision, to throw your life away.

        The truth of the matter is, everybody throws his life away for something. We look at our children when they won’t listen, they go the way of the world, waste their potential, and we say, “You are just throwing your life away.” And it’s true. By living for themselves they are throwing their lives away. But you know, we want them to throw their lives away.  We want them to throw their lives away in service to Christ and other people. If you throw your life away living for yourself, you will lose everything, but if you throw your life away for Christ’s sake, you gain everything.

        An amazing thing happens when you live Christ and others instead of yourself.    You find, looking back, that your life has been full. You find you are happy after all. The happiest people in the world are not those people who are trying to make themselves happy. The happiest people in the world are those who have forgotten their own personal desires and follow a cause they believe to be more important their own lives, than their own pleasures.

        Jesus Christ is calling us to forget ourselves and live for him.  Jesus promises us that if your chief love is anything but him, you lose everything. As Frederick Dale Brunner says, “Preaching that is devoted mainly to helping people ‘make it,’ helping them find themselves, giving them spiritual and psychological tips on how to be a success, how to have peace of mind, how to love oneself, how to be a transformed person, and the rest is often rank betrayal. It is teaching people to concentrate on the very matters Jesus wants them to forget.”

        Brunner’s is an interesting commentary, because almost all preaching today concentrates on these things. Ministries that emphasize healing are so successful, because people are concerned primarily about their health, living a long life. We hear people say, “If you have your health, you have everything.” Jesus says, “No you don’t.”   You can be very healthy and have nothing in your healthy life that has any real value and meaning.  Why do you think the prosperity gospel is so popular?  What are Americans obsessed with more than anything else?   They are obsessed with money and success. They spend all their time thinking about themselves.  So many other forms of preaching in our day are so popular:   “Christ and your problems;” “How to achieve psychological well-being through Christ.”  But this emphasis reflects a preoccupation with the self. If  you will notice, the most unhappy people in the world are those who are always thinking about themselves, their problems, and their own happiness. Jesus is a master psychologist in this sense.  He tells us to forget about ourselves.  Lose your life.

        Even our spiritual quest can take on these selfish characteristics. So many people have just traded the latest pop psychology or self-help technique to give Christianity a try, to see if Jesus will help more than the last self-help book they read, but it is still the same old self-centered preoccupation with their own happiness and well-being. We go around evaluating ourselves and taking our spiritual temperature. Am I hot, or cold? Do I feel close to God, or far away? Maybe if I spent more time in prayer, Bible study, and doing good works, I would feel better; I would feel closer to God. We become cloistered, separated from others, trying to get that ultimate spiritual high that will make us feel good about ourselves, but that kind of life is still the old, selfish, self-centered life. We’ve just given it a spiritual twist.

        It may sound strange after everything I have just said, but there is a reward for losing your life.   What I have said would seem to suggest that we shouldn’t even be concerned about rewards.   Isn’t seeking a reward a selfish motive?   Certainly, our chief motivation is not the reward. What we do, we do for Jesus’ sake, but then, an odd thing happens. We find that after we have thrown our lives away for Jesus’ sake, we actually find our lives. Jesus gives us a wonderful promise. We might be tempted to give a tearful farewell to the world. “Oh, there goes my life. I’m sure going to miss it. That is where I would rather be, living in the world, having a good time, enjoying the pleasures of sin, but I gave it all up to follow Christ.” But Jesus promises us that if we will give up our sinful, selfish, self-centered desires, that we will actually find ourselves. We will actually begin to really live. You see, we look at the pleasures of sin, at the pleasures of a self-centered life and we think, “Ah, there–that is real life.” But we soon find that such a life is all illusion. We find that it is in reality a living death. The only person who really knows what life is about is the person who turns his back on his self-centered life.

        The surest way to lose your life is to try to hang on to it.  We say this all the time about athletes.   The surest way to get hurt in athletic completion is by trying not to get hurt.   The minute you start worrying about getting hurt, you will, because you are concentrating on that rather than the game.  In like manner, the surest way to lose happiness is to be so obsessed with keeping it. Take for example, the person whose only interest is staying alive. We think of someone like a Howard Hughes who was reported to have been so obsessed with just staying alive, that he locked himself in a room. He sterilized everything.  He ate with surgical gloves, and lived in that room under those conditions trying to prevent himself from getting sick and dying.  If those reports are true, would anyone in their right mind really call that existence living?  We see so many people who are hypochondriacs. Their greatest passion in life is avoiding sickness and living for a long time, but in that effort, they are always checking themselves, always worrying about themselves, and while they doing all of this checking and worrying, life passes them by.

        The same is true of the person who is self-centered, thinking only of himself and his own wishes and desires. We live in the most narcissistic of times.  We use the term narcissist now to describe the person who is totally absorbed only in himself. The sad thing about the narcissist is that while he is staring at himself, preoccupied with himself, all of life passes by, and he never sees it. We live in an era when living sacrificially for the sake of others is frowned upon, while living for your own self is the chief of virtues. This is one of the main reasons for our high divorce rates.   A person thinks, “The bottom line, the most important thing in the world is my life and my happiness. What is important is what I want to do with MY life. I want to be rich.   I will neglect my wife, my children,  or whatever I need to neglect. I want to be famous. I want to have pleasure, and if my family suffers for it, fine. If my church suffers for it, so be it.”   Eventually, toward the end of life, the person will look at everything he had, the wealth, the fame, the honors, the riches, the pleasures, and he will see them for what they really are—a vapor.   Then, he will think back on the times he could have spent serving his wife, his family, his community, his church, and he will realize that he didn’t really live at all. The things that really make life full and abundant passed him by while he was pursuing his own selfish dreams.  

        The other night we were reading Thoreau’s Walden.  Thoreau tells us why he went to live in the woods.  He wrote, “I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately, I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, To put to rout all that was not life and not when I had come to die Discover that I had not lived.”  I don’t think Thoreau went about his quest in the right way, but every person should have that desire.   We don’t want to come to the end of our lives and discover that we have not lived.   If we live only for the pleasures and glory of this world, we will discover that we never really lived.

        We see such a man in Solomon, don’t we.?“I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and indeed all is vanity and grasping for wind” (Eccl. 1:14). “Then I looked on all the works that my hands had done and on the labor in which I had toiled; and indeed all was vanity and grasping for the wind. There was no profit under the sun” (Eccl. 2:11). There is the testimony of the man who has lived for selfish pleasures. He didn’t find his life. He lost it.  One of the reasons we have so much depression in our own time is this obsession with self.  The selfish life always ends in sadness and depression, because we realize we have invested our lives in those things that never can satisfy us.

        You see, when Jesus says, “Lose your life,” we are tempted to think, “Oh, no how painful. How awful”. But after we lose our lives, live for others instead of ourselves, live for Christ instead of ourselves, we realize that losing our lives was the most wonderful thing that we could have ever done, because it is in losing your life that you really find it.

        Some of you remember the old Charles Aznavour song,  “Yesterday When I Was Young.” It is a song of regret about the way the person has lived his life. One of his chief regrets is that he lived his life selfishly. He says, “And ev’ry conversation I can now recall/Concerned itself with me, and nothing else at all.” That sentiment expresses the end of a life lived for self, but the person who lives for a more noble purpose than himself obtains a greater reward.

        In Buttrick’s commentary on Matthew, he reminds us of the scene in Tennyson’s Idylls of the King where Galahad walks toward the Perilous Seat.  The Perilous Seat was reserved for the knight who would one day find the Holy Grail.   Anyone who wasn’t pure and noble would die if he sat in it.   In Tennyson’s version, Merlin says, “For there no man can sit but he should lose himself.  ” And Galahad says, “If I lose myself, I save myself.”   Then he takes the vows of a knight of the Round Table. The knights lift their swords and make the sign of the cross. Then, Galahad begins the search for the Holy Grail.   Galahad has it right.  If you lose yourself, you save yourself for you find the key to what life is all about.

        Jesus calls us, not to find the Holy Grail, but to something far better:  the  prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.   You don’t have to wait until the last moment of your life, facing a firing squad to lose your life. You lose your life, when you stop living for yourself.   Jesus invites us to follow him.   To do so, you must lose yourself, for what Christ calls us to is not a life of ease, self-indulgence, and safety. He calls us to a life of discipline, hard work, sacrifices, and danger–the very things we emphasize during this season of Lent.   Only a person who has thrown his life away by saying “good-bye” to himself and his own selfish desires can take up such a life.

        In the church where I grew up, we used to sing a hymn entitled, “Give of Your Best to the Master.”   It was primarily a song for youth, but it had the lines:

Give of your best to the Master;
Give of the strength of your youth;
Throw your soul’s fresh, glowing ardor
Into the battle for truth.
Jesus has set the example,
Dauntless was He, young and brave;
Give Him your loyal devotion;
Give Him the best that you have.

We don’t often think of Jesus being young. After all, in his time,  many people didn’t make it to age 33.  Nevertheless,  some people did live into their 80s and beyond. Jesus could have used the excuse, “I am in the prime of my life. I am still young—too young to die in this way.   But he was willing to throw his life away for our sakes. When Isaac Watts wrote, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” he didn’t originally write it the way we have it in our hymnals. Originally he wrote, “When I survey the wondrous cross, on which the YOUNG prince of glory died.” Young people, I remind you, the young prince of glory died for you. Now, will throw your lives away for him?” Throw your soul’s fresh, glowing ardor into the battle for truth.  Let us all throw our lives away, denying ourselves, taking up the cross, and following him.   Only then will we experience life in all its fullness.  Amen.

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