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Say No To Yourself
September 1, 1996

MATTHEW 16:1-28

One day, Jesus took his disciples on a retreat, a get-away. They walked some 25 miles north of Galilee, up into the Golan Heights, to Caesarea Philippi. Iíve been there. There is nothing today but ruins. But, the Jordan River is still there. Caesarea Philippi is where the Jordan River begins. A spring gushes out of a hill. The Jordan River runs into the north end of Lake Galilee, and out the south end, continuing down what is now the border between Israel and Jordan, down through the city of Jericho, and eventually dumping into the Dead Sea where it stops. Because there is no outlet from the Dead Sea, the water stagnates and has turned into salt water.

It was on the banks of the source of the Jordan River where Jesus sat down with his disciples, towards what we now know was the end of his ministry, and had a very serious talk with his disciples. Time was running out, and the disciples had much to learn. Jesus wanted them ready to take over, but they were far from ready. Jesus asked them, "Who do people say that I am?" They looked at each other, and began to answer, "Some say youíre John the Baptist come back from the dead. Others say you are Elijah. Others say Jeremiah."

Jesus took it all in, and then he quietly asked the critical question, "But who do you say that I am?" It was Peter who answered, "You are the Christ (which is the Greek word for the Hebrew word Messiah), the Son of the living God." We today do not quite feel the impact of this statement, because we have always believed Jesus was the Messiah. But, the Messiah who would come to save the Jews from their oppressors had long been waited for. Leaders came and went. Each time, the people would hope, "Perhaps he is the One. Perhaps he is the Messiah. Perhaps he is the one who will save us."

It was a gigantic statement of faith for Peter to perceive and believe that Jesus was the Messiah-- the hoped-for, longed-for Messiah. Jesus was pleased with the answer, and reminded Peter of the name he had given him. Peter means rock, and Jesus said, "On this rock I will build my church."

From that time on, Jesus began preparing his disciples for the inevitability of his suffering and death, and the assurance of resurrection. According to the Gospels, the disciples did not pick up on his statement about being raised on the third day, because they were so dumfounded by the prediction of his death. They were in denial. What Jesus wanted was for his friends to stand with him, to support him, to understand and share his fear and apprehension, but what they gave him was denial and trivialization. "God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you," cried Peter.

Jesus lashed out at Peter. He called him Satan. Peter was refusing to empathize with Jesus, like telling someone seriously ill, "Oh, youíll get better," which often cuts off communication. Trivializing the illness prevents the sufferer from sharing his/her fear and apprehension. Jesus looked for support, but his request was denied and trivialized.

Then, Jesus gently and sorrowfully, perhaps, laid it on the line. He cut to the core. He had walked, talked, eaten, ministered with this group for three years, but they still didnít understand. They didnít get it. They still werenít ready for the ultimate test. There must have been tears in Jesusí eyes when he said, If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. Peter, the big shot, of course boasted, "Sure, Lord, Iíll never let you down." His talk was good, but when the soldiers arrested Jesus and took him to Caiaphas, the high priest, Peter slunk around in the courtyard, pretending he didnít know Jesus. So much for Peter denying himself, taking up his cross, and following Jesus.

I wonder what would have happened if the disciples had not fled the Garden of Gethsemane, but had stood by Jesus. What would have happened if the hundreds who waved palm branches only a few days before had stood by Jesus? What would have happened if hundreds had stormed Caiaphasí house and stood with Jesus? What would have happened if they had stood against injustice and demanded that the high priest treat Jesus fairly?

I wonder what would happen if the Christians of Merced stood together in south Merced and loved the gangs. What would happen if the Christians of Merced would covenant to reach out to youth, go into the troubled areas, work with the youth one on one, teaching them to read, helping them with school work, treating them with respect and dignity, and telling them about Jesus? What would happen if the Christians of Merced really get behind the Impact World Tour which is coming here in February to bring the gospel to the unchurched? What would happen if the Christians of Merced joined Phil Wilson who stands with Hmong families and challenges the slum landlords?

On October 6, the Administrative Council will adopt our church goals for 1997. Isnít it exciting to see how our 1996 goals are being accomplished! We now have a minister to disciple youth, children, and adults. Jody has only been her seven months, and has already developed a strong youth ministry and a prayer ministry. And, we have purchased a van! Isnít it exciting to ask God what is next, what God wants us to do in 1997!

Can you hear Jesus calling us to deny ourselves, take some risks, go out on a limb, and do Godís work? What it means to deny yourself is to say no to yourself, no to some of your wants and wishes, no to your pleasures and desires, no to whatís in it for me. Me First doesnít cut it in Godís kingdom. What it means to say no to yourself, take up your cross and follow Jesus is to do things you probably donít want to do, go where you donít want to go, love people you donít want to love, all in the name of Jesus.

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the arrival of missionaries in Zaire (once called the Belgian Congo), Christians organized festivities with music, preaching, food and fellowship. Many reminisced about the early days and praised God for what the church has accomplished. Near the end of the long program, a very old man said that he soon would die and that he needed to tell something that few people knew. He explained that when the first white missionaries came, his people didnít know whether to believe their message or not, so they devised a plan to slowly and secretly poison the missionaries and watch them die. One by one, children and adults became ill, died and were buried. The missionaries didnít know why they were dying, but they refused to leave. They trusted Jesus, and when the Africans saw how the missionaries died, they decided to believe their message. It was the way the missionaries died that taught others how to live.

Thank God we are not called today to be poisoned. But, I donít know from day to day how Jesus will call me to follow. I donít know how Jesus will call you to follow. Are you ready? Are you willing? Jesus calls, If you will be my disciple, say no to yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.

ã 1996 Douglas I. Norris