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Can You Deny Yourself? Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost 9/12/2021

Mark 8:27-38

And He called to Him the crowd with His disciples and said to them, “If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me.

How many dreams would you say you have each week? Do you remember them? Have you ever awakened from a dream and thought, “What was that all about?”

One night, a computer programmer for Nationwide Insurance, dreamed that he was lying on the floor dead, with a detective standing over his body. How would you feel if you had a dream like that? It sounds like a bad television show.

However, he felt inspired! Maybe this was a new career path for him. So, he convinced his wife to take pictures of him in a variety of poses as a dead body. Then he set up a website (which is now defunct, just in case you’re searching for it on your phone right now) to advertise his skills to TV and movie directors.

National TV shows like CNN and The Today Show picked up the story, and he got hired to play a dead body in the TV show “What I Like About You.” Since that first TV appearance, he has appeared as a dead body in numerous TV shows and movies. I’m pretty impressed with his attitude. However, I don’t think I’d be so inspired if I dreamed about my own death.

Can you imagine reading your own obituary? Something like happened to me back in 1988. Would it cause you to re-evaluate your life a little bit? Think about that question today as you hear the reading of our Bible passage.

Jesus says to us, “Whoever wants to be My disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow Me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for Me and for the gospel will save it.”

In our culture, we’ve lost the understanding of dying to our self. That’s what the cross meant to early Christians. It was a symbol that Jesus was willing to give up everything, His power, His authority, His rights, His safety and comfort, His very life, to do the will of God and to restore our relationship with God. He chose to give up His own agenda, His own desires, His own comforts to show us how much God loves us. He chose death to give us eternal life. And he challenges his followers to follow his example.

A Christian mother had been very deliberate in teaching her son about Jesus. By age four, he was very intelligent, and the mother thought he might be ready to receive Jesus as his Savior. So, she asked, Benji, would you like to have Jesus in your heart? Benji rolled his eyes and answered, No. I don’t think I want the responsibility.

If we’re being honest, that might be our response too. We like Jesus. His teachings are inspiring. His miracles are exciting. But do we really want Jesus to live in us? Do we really want the responsibility?

I wonder if it’s even possible to speak to this culture, this generation, about self-denial. After all, some of us grew up in the so-called ME generation. We said or heard it said. I’ve got to find myself; I’ve got to do my own thing. I will buy only the finest, because after all, I’m worth it. We place so much emphasis on self: self-satisfaction, on self-actualization, on self-protection. How could Jesus ask us to die to our self? What’s so wrong about putting our self-first?

The influence of social media has made our desire for image and wealth and self-gratification even more difficult. There are now businesses that sell fake backdrops to make it appear on your social media site that you are living a luxurious and exciting lifestyle, even if you’re living paycheck to paycheck.

How strange these words of Jesus seem in this context: If you would follow Me you must deny yourself. Deny yourself. How out of place such words may seem in today’s world.

Of course, there’s a sense in which many of us have learned to deny ourselves. We have seen that oftentimes self-denial is in our best interest. The self-help books all tell us that. Self-denial is the path to success. If you delay gratification, if you work hard, if you put your money into savings, if you wait to have your needs met until a time when you can afford it, if you cut down on your cholesterol and get plenty of exercise, then you can be successful. We all recognize the wisdom of that advice. To gain control over our desires, to suppress them to some greater and higher goal, this is the path that leads to fulfillment.

I love what Muhammad Ali once said about his punishing training regimen. He said, I hated every minute of the training, but I wouldn’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of my life as a champion. So, some people gladly undergo at least some form of self-denial in order to reach their personal goals.

This is what separates us from animals. Animals cannot abstain. Animals cannot deny themselves. You can train an animal to show a certain amount of discipline, but the animal cannot make that decision himself. It is a uniquely human ability to discipline and control desires and wants. And when we have a goal in mind, then self-denial doesn’t feel so much like sacrifice. It feels like an investment in a greater good.

Can you imagine that your sitting home in your recliner eating Twinkies when your doorbell rings? On your porch stand the members of the U.S. Olympics Committee. They tell you that they have a special computer algorithm that was designed to sort through the records of every person in America in order to find the next great competitor in the Olympic marathon. And after analyzing hundreds of data points, this computer algorithm has picked you! You are the most uniquely qualified person in America to compete in the next Olympic marathon. What would you do at this point? Would you kick the Olympic Committee to the curb and go back to your Twinkies? Or would you throw away your Twinkies, order a case of Gatorade, and set up a new training regimen?

In an instant, your focus changes. You count every calories and carbs. You exercise for hours every day. You study runner’s guides and watch training videos. Your old habits are a distant memory now. The discipline and self-denial that were once unthinkable for you have become your new normal. This new goal has become your new identity.

The world says that to be a real man or a real woman we must give in to pleasure, but that’s absurd. Any creature can give in to natural impulses. It’s the test of our manhood and womanhood that we’re able to deny ourselves.

Even a self-centered generation knows that self-denial is the path to success. But listen. There’s a catch. Self-denial won’t bring us fulfillment if we live only for ourselves. We say, I’m not doing this for my husband, I’m not doing this for my children. I’m doing it for me. Fine. That may help you stay on your diet. That may help you keep at your studies. But it won’t bring you ultimate fulfillment. Ultimate fulfillment comes only when we say, I’m doing this for God.

There’s only one path that leads to real success. That’s when we deny ourselves in order to take up the cross of Jesus.

The key to truly successful living is to deny ourselves in order that God may fill us to overflowing with His presence and power. As Paul says, I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me (Galatians 2:20). There’s the path to real success. If we who are followers of Jesus would but learn that one simple truth, we could turn this world upside down.

Notice who Jesus said these words to: In Mark 8, Jesus has been performing miracles, like feeding 4,000 people and healing a man who has been blind from birth. His teachings and His miracles are drawing a crowd. So, in Mark 8:34 we read, Then He called the crowd to Him along with His disciples and said, Whoever wants to be My disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow Me. During Jesus’ ministry plenty of people wanted to follow Him, as long as He didn’t demand anything of them. As long as He kept feeding them and healing them and telling them of God’s love. But Jesus makes it clear in this passage that His true followers are those who will follow Him to the cross.

There’s a university in Japan that started a ninja studies program. Students in the program spend two years studying the history, the training regimen and the martial arts of the ninja. And the end result? A degree. Many students who apply to the program are disappointed to learn that they won’t graduate as full-fledged ninjas. The professor even emphasizes, this is a course to learn about the ninja, not to become one.

Unfortunately, a lot of us want to learn about Jesus, but we don’t want to become Him. We don’t want to take that final step of denying ourselves, taking up our cross and following Him. But when we look at the cross, we can’t deny Jesus’ unconditional love for us. And there’s no true love without sacrifice. So, if we love Him, what are we willing to sacrifice? When you come to the end of your life, don’t you wonder if Jesus will ask, Where are your wounds? Was there nothing worth dying for?

On September 11, 2001, when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center, Father Mychal, a chaplain for the New York City Fire Department showed up to aid the firefighters. He was praying over the injured workers and the firefighters when debris from the collapsing building struck him in the head and killed him.

At his funeral, his eulogy said in part: And the next few weeks, we’re going to have names added, name after name of people, who are being brought out of that rubble. And Father Mychal is going to be on the other side of death to greet them. And he’s going to greet them with that big Irish smile. He’s going to take them by the arm and the hand and say, Welcome, I want to take you to my Father. And so, he can continue doing in death what he started in life. Father Mychal denied himself, took up his cross and followed Jesus. And because he had already died to himself, he was willing to face death to bring the hope of God to others.

Deny yourself. Grab ahold of and take up the cross of the Master. No other lifestyle is ultimately satisfying. No other lifestyle can permanently change the world in which we live.