The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Mark 8:34-9:1
Today’s reading is given to us on this the Third Sunday of Lent. We are now halfway through the Holy 40 days and on this day the Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates the veneration of the cross. In her wisdom the Church brings out the cross on this day as a way to strengthen and empower all her faithful children who are now weary and tired through fasting and prayer.
In today’s reading we hear some of the greatest words of Our Lord Jesus. He says “If any man would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for My sake and the Gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul?”
We are constantly reminded by the Lord that the cross is not just for a few chosen individuals. Each and everyone who calls themselves Christian must take up a cross. Since we follow a master who chose the cross, we must also be ready to choose the cross. You know in our society pain is always seen as bad. It is something to be avoided at all costs. But think about what that would mean for us if the Lord Jesus had a similar mentality. It means that He would never have been crucified or suffered for us.
Sometimes I hear that Buddhism is similar to Christianity. But those who have studied them know that there is a great difference. In Buddhism the goal is to avoid suffering. Buddha left his wife and young child because he could not handle what life had dealt him. In Christianity the Lord Jesus did just the opposite. He walked straight into all manner of pain and suffering, proving that He is the real deal and unlike any other so-called religious leaders. He teaches us that we can’t be saved if we run away from the difficult things in life.
In our society we are taught that when marriage is tough, we should run away. When work is tough, we should run away. When my parents are tough on me, I should run away. When my schoolwork is tough, I will run away, I will drop out of school. When my very life is tough, I might even look for a way to run from it.
Let’s stand with Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane and just imagine what would’ve happened if Our Lord said “Crucifixion is tough, I will run away.” It would be a normal, reasonable reaction. We are hardwired to avoid pain and suffering. We are hardwired to do everything possible to protect ourselves. But we stand in admiration and thank God that Our Lord did not do that but He proved just the opposite. If you want to defeat some problems, you don’t run away from them, you confront them as you are. In all your weakness and humility, you faithfully confront the difficult things that come up in life. That even means faithfully confronting ourselves in all our sins, our failures, our imperfections. That is the difference between being cowards and being courageous. It’s the difference between living in the realm of fantasy like an actor or being a real human.
In this, the halfway point of Lent, as we are hungry and tired and ready for a break, it should seem a bit strange that we celebrate with the cross. The cross is a sign of suffering, shame, ugliness, injustice, weakness and death. In short the cross is a sign of everything that is wrong in the world…but that is not what it means to us. Because the Lord Jesus Christ faithfully confronted the cross, it has been transformed for us. The cross is a now a symbol of beauty, love, faithfulness, hope, joy and even life! “Through the cross is joy come into all the world!”
The cross becomes our strength because through it Jesus made us strong. The cross becomes our life because through it, the Lord defeated death. The cross becomes our one enduring reminder that when the world is a lonely, dark and difficult place, there is still One who loves us and His love never ends. The cross reminds us that when a man is truly weak, God has the power to use his weakness, to make it strength. The Apostle Paul writes that “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” 1 Cor 1:18. The power of God is at work in the lives of those who live by the message of the cross! The cross is at work in us even now as we are struggling through the fast. I hope that this is an inspiration for you.
May God bless each of you as you begin the second half of this holy challenge. Glory be to God forever AMEN.
(Originally preached on March 18, 2012)