A number of years ago I was on a beach in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and I noticed that a huge crowd had gathered a few blocks away. So I walked down the beach to check it out. At first I thought somebody was hurt or had been rescued out of the ocean, but as I got closer I could hear a man talking through a bullhorn. And as I stood on the edge of the crowd I could hear that he was preaching the gospel. He had gathered a large crowd of people on the beach and was telling them about Jesus. And I thought that was cool!
Then I noticed that he had a cross draped over his shoulder. Not a little cross like you hang around your neck, or like Barry Bonds dangles from his ear, but a big, thick heavy, seven foot long, wooden cross that he had leaning on his shoulder. I thought that was interesting prop.
Later on I read in a newspaper article that the man's name was Kevin "Mad Dog" Mudford. He was a big burly biker, who traveled around the country dragging a cross behind his motorcycle. His cross was modified a bit, he had made it mobile by attaching a wheel to the bottom, but he was literally carrying his cross as a witness for Jesus Christ.
Which reminded me of what Jesus said in Matthew 16. If you have your Bible turn with me to Matthew 16:24-28, Then Jesus said to his disciples, "Those who would come after me, must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For those who want to save their lives will lose them, but those who lose their lives for me will find them. 26 What good will it be for you to gain the whole world, yet forfeit your soul? Or what can you give in exchange for your soul? 27 For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father's glory with his angels, and then he will reward everyone according to what they have done. 28 I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.
"Mad Dog" Mudford took Jesus' words literally. He was carrying his cross behind his Harley all over the country. And I'm sure God was using him to reach people with the gospel on the beach and on the streets who would never enter a church building to listen to a sermon. But is that the kind of cross bearing that Jesus is talking about? What does he mean when he says we need to take up our cross and follow him? How do we do that? Do we drag it over our shoulder like "Mad Dog" or is Jesus talking about something else? We better figure it out because Jesus says it's the key to finding our lives.
This morning we continue our series called Making the Most of Your Life: Values That Jesus Lived By. And the value we want to unpack today is the value of obedience. We began this series a few weeks ago by looking at the value of love, the greatest commandment of all. If we hope to make the most of our lives it starts by becoming better lovers of God and better lovers of each other, because life really is all about relationships.
Then we looked at the value of faith and saw how important it is that our faith is grounded in the truth. And what's true is Jesus who said, I am the way. I am the truth. I am the life ... Everyone on the side of truth listens to me. Then last week, Mike explored the value of forgiveness and showed us how vital forgiveness is to making the most of our lives. We'll never be free from the anger and bitterness that poison our soul until we learn to release and bless those who have hurt us. And that takes obedience to Christ, the greatest forgiver of them all.
In Matthew 16, Jesus uses the powerful imagery of the Roman cross to pound home the value of obedience to making the most of our lives. Somebody has said, "Every great person has first learned how to obey, whom to obey and when to obey." We can't make the most of our lives without learning how to obey, whom to obey and when to obey.
At the time of Jesus, the cross wasn't a piece of jewelry that you wore around your neck or the motif for a beautiful stained glass window. The cross was the electric chair of Jesus day. The cross in the first century was an instrument of death, but not just any kind of death. It was the symbol of a torturous, shameful, submissive death at the hands of the Roman Empire. In fact, the cross was so inhumane that even the Romans outlawed it in 315 A.D.
Yet in Matthew 16, Jesus says that if you want to come after me you have to deny yourself, pick up your cross and follow me. If you don't, you cannot be my disciple. What does it mean to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Jesus?
Does it mean we have to physically lug a piece of wood around? Jesus did. He literally dragged his cross through the hostile streets of Jerusalem and up a steep hill called Calvary. His cross was literal. But that's not what he's asking us to do. The answer to that question is found in what the cross meant to Jesus. What did the cross represent to him? The cross was the ultimate test of Jesus' obedience to his Father's will. It was the final exam for the Son of God in the required course called "obedience." It was the hardest thing Jesus ever had to do.
Earlier in Matthew 16:21, Jesus started telling his disciples that he was going to make a return trip to Jerusalem not to conquer the Romans and set up his kingdom, but to go on trial and to suffer and to die and then to be raised back to life.
Well the thought of Jesus' dying flipped Peter out so much that he tried to talk Jesus out of it in verse 22, Never, Lord! This shall never happen to you! In response Jesus almost comes unglued and calls Peter the devil when he says, Get behind me, Satan. You are a stumbling block to me. You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men. Don't try to talk me out of my ultimate act of obedience. That's why I came to earth. I'm not going to flunk the final! It's hard enough without you trying to discourage me!
And then he says to all his followers, then and now, "not only am I going to carry a cross, not only must I be obedient to my Father's will. But if you're going to be fully devoted to me, if you're going to fall in line behind me, you're going to have to carry a cross too and be obedient to my Father's will even when it hurts."
Ouch! I don't like that! Deny myself? I want to indulge myself. Pick up a cross? I want to sit down in a Lazy Boy. Follow Jesus? I want to follow me and do my own thing. But if we do, in the end Jesus says, we'll lose our lives and forfeit our souls. Sounds frightening to me. We cannot make the most of our lives without obedience.
Following Jesus means giving up control of my life. It means losing my life in order to find it. It means submitting my will to God's will. And that can be an excruciatingly painful process at times. In fact, the word excruciating means "out of the cross."
Hanging from a cross was not a pleasant experience. Crucifixion was designed to produce a slow, agonizing, torturous death. It wasn't painless and instantaneous like lethal injection or electric shock. Some victims hung on the cross for three or four days while their life slowly drained from their body.
Relinquishing control of our lives to God is not an instantaneous, once and done event. Instead it's a process, sometimes an agonizingly slow process that demands turning more and more control of our lives over to God. Mark Twain once said, "When I read the Bible the parts that trouble me the most are not the ones I don't understand, but the ones I do understand."
Losing our lives is a repetitive process that involves daily, conscious decisions to submit my will to God's will. But without it we can't be a disciple of Jesus. Without obedience we'll forfeit our lives instead of making the most of them.
Where do you need to be obedient this morning? Last week Mike talked about the value of forgiveness. And throughout this week I've been thinking about and asking God to show me if there is anyone in my world I need to forgive, to release and to bless. I don't want that poison in my soul. I don't want anyone to have that much power in my life. Is forgiveness the test of obedience you're facing right now?
Maybe you're in a relationship that you know doesn't please God. It gives you a few moments of pleasure, but then buries you under a pile of guilt and shame. Giving it up would be hard to do, excruciating maybe, but it would save your life.
Maybe it's a habit or an addiction that you need help with. Maybe you need to apologize to a family member or a friend. That next step of obedience is taking up your cross and falling in line behind Jesus. What's the test of obedience that God has in front of you right now? Where do you need to let go of the handlebars and let God steer your life?
I have a friend named Judy. Judy and her husband, Dave, are retired now and live in Florida. But for most of their lives they were missionaries in South America. In fact, I spent a summer with them in the country of Surinam when I was in seminary. They are one of handful of people who have modeled lifelong obedience to me. They are spiritual giants who made the most of their lives by losing their lives for the Lord.
A while back Judy sent me a poem called the Road of Life. It's a poem that paints a graphic picture of what it means to let go of our lives and turn them over to God. It goes like this.
At first, I saw God as my observer, my judge,
keeping track of the things I did wrong,
so as to know whether I merited heaven or hell when I die.
He was out there sort of like a president.
I recognized his picture when I saw it,
but I really didn't know him.
But later on when I met Christ,
it seemed as though life were rather like a bike ride.
But it was a tandem bike,
and I noticed that Christ was in the back helping me pedal.
I don't know just when it was
that he suggested we change places,
but life has not been the same since.
When I had control, I knew the way.
It was rather boring, but predictable ...
It was the shortest distance between two points.
But when he took the lead,
He knew delightful long cuts, up mountains,
and through rocky places at breakneck speeds.
It was all I could do to hang on!
Even though it looked like madness,
He said, "Pedal!"
I worried and was anxious and asked,
"Where are you taking me?"
He laughed and didn't answer,
and I started to learn trust.
I forgot my boring life
and entered into the adventure.
And when I'd say, "I'm scared,"
He'd lean back and touch my hand.
He took me to people with gifts that I needed,
gifts of healing, acceptance, and joy.
They gave me gifts to take on my journey,
my Lord's and mine.
And we were off again.
He said, "Give the gifts away,
they're extra baggage, too much weight."
So I did, to the people we met,
and I found that in giving I received,
and still our burden was light.
I didn't trust him at first,
to control my life.
I thought he'd wreck it.
But he knows bike secrets,
knows how to make it bend to take sharp corners,
know show to jump to clear high rocks,
knows how to fly to shorten scary passages.
And I'm learning to shut up and pedal,
in the strangest places.
And I'm beginning to enjoy the view
and the cool breeze on my face
with my delightful constant companion, Jesus Christ.
And when I'm sure I just can't do anymore,
He just smiles and says ... "Pedal!"
Who's steering your bike? Who's sitting in the front seat? If you want to make the most of your life let Jesus take the handlebars and you'll find life to be an adventure.
Maybe you're thinking why should I deny myself? Why should I take up a cross and follow Jesus? Why should I submit to his control of my life? Great questions. Questions that every follower of Jesus wrestles with. Let me close by giving you four reasons why we should let him steer the bike.
First, because Jesus is Lord. We don't decide to make Jesus Lord of our lives. He already is Lord of our lives. Our only decision is whether we're going to submit to his Lordship or not. He is Lord. And one day the Bible tells us every knee will bow, every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. It's only a matter of time before everyone submits to Jesus. So why wait till it's too late?
Second, because Jesus loves us more than anyone else in the universe. Before he asks us to pick up our cross and follow him, remember that he picked up his cross and carried it to Mount Calvary where he hung on it for you and for me. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. Nobody loves me more than Jesus. It wasn't the nails that held him on the cross, it was his love for you and me that held him there to die in our place for our sin so that we could have eternal life.
Third, because obedience is how we show our love for Jesus. Jesus said in John 14:15, 23-24, If you love me, you will obey what I command. 23 Those who love me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. 24 Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own, they belong to the Father who sent me. Obedience is how we show Jesus we love him. If we don't obey Jesus, we don't really love him. It's that simple.
And fourth, because Jesus knows what's best for us. I don't have enough smarts to run my own life. I don't have enough data. I don't see the big picture. Besides I make every decision based on my own comfort and convenience for the here and now and that won't help me make the most of my life. And when my little plans don't happen I can get all bent out of shape.
Obedience releases me from the burden of always needing to get my own way. There's great freedom in obedience. Besides it allows Jesus to develop my character and prepare me for the hereafter, because as we know there is more to life than this life. God is preparing me to live in a kingdom that will last forever. He wants me to rule and reign with him and he wants that for you too. This life is boot camp compared to the kingdom that is to come.
That's why any discussion of self-denial, cross bearing, submission and obedience must end a forward look, a look into eternity. And Jesus gives us that glimpse in Matthew 16:27-28, For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father's glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done. 28 I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom. Then in Matthew 17 Jesus takes Peter, James and John up on a high mountain and shows them a glimpse of that kingdom. They saw Jesus in his kingdom glory before they died.
One day Jesus is coming back. And he'll reward us to the degree that we've submitted the control of our lives to him. Submission of my will to his will is part of the profile of any fully devoted follower of Jesus Christ. Do you want to make the most of your life? Then learn the value of obedience. Where do you need to turn over the handlebars of your life? Where do you need to let him steer today?
Those who would come after me, must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their lives will lose them, but those who lose their lives for me will find them.