Acts 20: 17-38
Mark 8: 27-38
May I Speak in the name of the Son, to the glory of the Father, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Tonight’s lessons are particularly difficult to come to terms with. There are enough issues to fill twenty sermons, and Christian theologians, with intellects far greater than mine, have wrestled with these verses and in particular Mark 8: verses 34 to 38 for centuries. This is the elephant in the room, you just can’t ignore it. It is Jesus invitation to all would be Christians to ‘deny self, take up your cross and follow me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole word, and loses his own soul?’
No ‘good news’ here then, we all know how that ended with Jesus dying on the cross; this invitation appears to be an invitation to pain and suffering beyond our comprehension. No one should expect being a Christian to be easy but to be told it will be this hard is not easy to take on board let alone follow. It would have been even less palatable to Jesus audience of the day. Their memories were still fresh for only a few years previously the roads around Nazareth had been lined with crosses, from when the revolt of ‘Judas the Galilean’ had been ruthlessly crushed by the Roman army, and he and all his followers were executed in the most painful manner that has ever been invented. So many crosses were required that there was a shortage of timber for many years, and indeed the ancient forests of Israel never fully recovered. Those who listened to Jesus knew exactly what carrying a cross meant!
I have been a salesman all my working life; I even spent a short time selling life insurance which is truly a test of salesmanship – think for a moment – the salesman is trying to sell you something that you cant see, you cant touch or smell and you have to die before it’s any good to you! So I know a little about selling something that‘s hard to sell, but I struggled to find away of selling this particular text to you.
As I searched for an answer my mind kept taking me back to our pilgrimage of the Holy Land earlier this year and in particular to the narrow streets and market place of Jesus home town of Nazareth. Maybe I have an over active imagination but I could picture walking the streets where Jesus was living, and there coming across a work shop, and over the door was written ‘Joseph & Sons Carpenters’. I could imagine that the workshop was a busy place where many products were crafted out of wood. Not just for the local Nazarenes but also for the new boom town of Sepphoris which was being built only five miles away by the Romans. In the workshop they made chairs and tables, ploughs, winnowing forks, and yokes. These were not mass produced; each piece was made to measure for the purpose for which it was made. Each yoke was carefully crafted to fit the shoulders of the particular person, ox or ass that was to wear it, so that there would be no rubbing or chafing. Of course neither person nor animal likes to wear a yoke, but the care with which Jesus of Nazareth carved it must have made it bearable. Jesus, on another occasion, also said to the crowds, ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest. Take my yolk upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.’ No being a Christian doesn’t mean not having any burdens to carry. But at least we know that each of us has our yoke especially shaped to our shoulders by the carpenter of Nazareth, and his yoke is easy, and his burden light.
So Jesus isn’t actually saying to us we have to pick up His cross, that would be just impossible for us to bear. No he is saying pick up your cross, the one I have specially made to fit just you, designed by Him so that only you can carry it. In the town of Oberammergau, every ten years, they re-enact the last week of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. The villager who is chosen to act the part of Jesus hangs on a huge wooden cross high above the stage. He isn’t actually nailed to the cross, it only looks like he is, and he doesn’t have to stay there for three hours as Jesus did. In fact he is only on the cross for about twenty minutes, but even that is a colossal physical strain. So much so that in fact, they have two men who take it in turns to act the part of Jesus in alternate performances. And each man hangs on a separate cross that is specially tailor made for just him alone. Now there is a coincidence, or is it?
We grumble about what’s going wrong in our lives. We wish we didn’t have so much grief and pain to contend with. But maybe this is our own personal cross, tailor made for us by the carpenter from Nazareth. We wish we didn’t have to suffer but so did Jesus, and he wrestled with his particular burden in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before he died. But he yielded to the will of God: ‘Father, not my will but yours be done.’ Will you offer up your particular cross as your personal sacrifice, remembering that it’s made-to-measure, and you are the only one who can bear it? Jesus told each one of us to take up our own personal cross, not his cross. But he also said, ‘my yoke is easy, my burden is light and I will give you rest’.