Well, university is a time for asking yourself questions like, “can I manage to do my washing for myself?” To which the answer, I find, is generally just about, but how long do you wait to do it? A week, two weeks, longer? Like one guy I knew who used to wear all of his clothes and then get to the point where he’d have nothing left, and then he’d be standing there in his dressing gown, or swim shorts, or whatever he had and wash everything at once; one type of clothing at a time, first all the socks, and then all the t-shirts and so on. Or “can I cook?” And watching the rugby-like scrum of desperation to get student supper seconds last week, I’m not sure how optimistic I should be. But there are more important questions too. Like, “am I a Christian?” Or, “is it worth being a Christian? Do I want to be one...Now that I’m on my own, free from parents, is there any point following Jesus? And do I really need him, when so much of the university experience seems to be saying to me, loud and clear, ‘no you don’t’…” And it’s that, “is it worth it?” question that this passage from Mark’s gospel answers for us. So, let’s pray:
Lord God, help us this evening to see that whatever we face for being a Christian, it will be worth it in the end.
And the first thing this passage teaches is that:
1. The world rejects Jesus
So, the background to these verses is that Peter recognises that Jesus is the Christ. That means that, Peter knew that Jesus was the one God sent to rescue us from rejecting him, to living back under his rule. But despite that, Peter didn’t fully understand who Jesus was. He didn’t have the full picture (Mark 8.31):
…Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again.
So, that’s Jesus talking about how he’s going to be killed on the cross (for the way we’ve ignored God, and lived as if he wasn’t there) to make us acceptable to God. And that’s why Jesus came. So, if you don’t understand this about Jesus, you don’t really understand Christianity.
So, a student here from a while back came from a Christian background. And he thought being a Christian looked like doing as much good stuff and religious stuff as you could. In his mind at the time, at the end of your life, you’d get to the doors of heaven, and there’d be a form with a ‘good stuff’ box and a ‘religious stuff’ box – and if you got two ticks you were in. And he said, it’s only when he came to Uni and really got stuck into the Bible for himself, that he realised that his understanding of Christianity actually wasn’t true. And he said, “I now realise that being a Christian is nothing to do with what I’ve done but about what Jesus has done for me, to make be acceptable to God. That makes far more sense to me. And it really is good news”.
Now you may think that you’re acceptable to God just as you are. In which case, the Bible’s answer is, “no – you’re not”. Or, you may admit you’re not acceptable to God, and yet you’re still thinking you could be, if you keep trying hard enough. A bit like how I approached the high jump when I gave it a go in school. The bar was set far too high, and every attempt resulted in a bang and a crash, but somehow, I kept trying and trying and trying to make the standard. But like my, high jump attempts, the truth is you’ll never be able to reach God’s standard of what’s acceptable because our sin problem amounts to complete God-rejection. And the problem isn’t just that we can’t make the standard. It’s why we can’t. Which is because we’ve told God, our rightful King, to shove off. We’ve told him we don’t want him and his standards – and we want to rule our own lives. And that’s offensive to God and means we deserve his judgement. But in his love for us, God gave his Son Jesus to take that judgement instead of us, on the cross. So that if we trust in him, we can be forgiven and made acceptable by what he’s done.
And so, the question is, will you keep ruling yourself, or will you follow Jesus as King? But we naturally we find that question offensive, because we all like to think we can be good enough for God to accept us. And we don’t like hearing that that’s wrong. And it offended the people at the time too. So, (Mark 8.31) Mark writes about the elders (that’s not my family, by the way – before you make that joke), the chief priests and the scribes. In other words, the Bible experts of the day. And these religious experts were a bit like that student I mentioned earlier. They thought that following God meant doing lots of good stuff, and following lots of rules. And so, when Jesus came on the scene and said, “that’s completely wrong – I’m the solution to your sin”.
They hated it. And they hated Jesus. And that’s why the world continues to reject Jesus today, because it still wants to rule itself. And it still doesn’t want to be told it needs Jesus to solve its problems. And in the University world of ‘you do you’, and ‘be true to yourself…’ It’s completely offensive to believe in a Jesus who defines what’s right and wrong, and claims to be the one and only way of relating to God. And if you live for Jesus, you won’t be able to help reminding the people around you every day of the God they’re rejecting. And, that’s why you need to know that:
2. If you follow Jesus, the world will reject you.
And Jesus said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.
So, Peter likes the idea of Jesus being the Christ but all this talk about Jesus be rejected, and dying, not so much. Because what happens if you follow a king who’s rejected? You’re rejected. And Jesus says, that’s exactly what followers of him should expect (Mark 8.34):
And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me [i.e. follow me in this life], let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.
So, denying yourself here means more than denying yourself that extra helping of student supper pudding. Which I wish I’d done with that brownie last week because I felt like I was going to explode. It means denying your own right to rule your life. It means saying “no” to self, with its claims on your life, and saying “yes” to Jesus and his claims on your life. So, back to that student I mentioned earlier. When he heard the true gospel here in Newcastle, he became a Christian and made Jesus Lord of his life. And he said the first thing he realised was that the way that he was talking, was completely incompatible with being a follower of Jesus. Because Jesus was his ruler, and he defined how we use our words to express ourselves, but to encourage others and to honour God. And I’ve seen lots us here, students and otherwise, deny ourselves in all sorts of areas of life – from sex and alcohol, through to money, and how we spend our time. Because all of life belongs to Jesus.
So, imagine that your life is represented as a pie chart. And each chunk of the pie represents how you spend your time, and what you do – everything in your life. As Christians, each part of that pie belongs to Jesus. Every area of life from work, to sport, to friendships, to our thought life. Jesus is the one who is to rule over it. So, e.g. if your Uni work belongs to God then you won’t over-work, because you’ll know that God says other things are important too (like church, and time with people, and rest). And you won’t be lazy, because you’ll know that working hard is a way of honouring God, and the opportunity he’s given you. And if your time off belongs to God, what you, and how you do it matters to him because he’s your rightful ruler not you. And realising that, and acting on it, is what it means to deny yourself. So, the challenge, for all of us, at the start of a new year is: Where in life do we need to let Jesus rule over us, where he isn’t already? But Jesus also says that followers of him need to take up their cross. So, the cross was the worst execution method of the day. It symbolised utter rejection. And that society had passed judgement on that person, and was prepared to get rid of them in the most brutal, humiliating, way imaginable. And Jesus says that if we follow him, we will experience some rejection, at least some of the time, for doing so. But it will be worth it. There’s no doubt about that. But the Christian life, though better, will be harder.
So, another student I knew became a Christian a few months before he came to uni and his parents weren’t impressed. And so, his first taste of being a Christian, was their disapproval, and suspicion, and suddenly being the crazy Christian in the family and that was hard. And another student told me he lived a double life for months and months. Church on a Tuesday and Sunday, and then a different person the rest of the week. Because he knew that giving up his old life meant breaking up with his non-Christian girlfriend, rejection from his mates, changing what he did at the weekend, and lots of difficult conversations. And in the end, he did commit to whole-heartedly following Jesus, but it was hard because by nature we want to be liked and accepted. We don’t want to stand out for what we believe and we don’t want the rejection that comes with it. We don’t want to be the person who leaves when something comes on TV, or questions whether watching something else might be better, only to be laughed at, or to make our friends annoyed. We don’t want to be the person who stifles conversation, or tries to change topic, when the conversation goes somewhere we wish it didn’t. Only to get funny looks. We don’t want to be there person who says, “are you sure about that?” Or, “I don’t think that’s right.” Or, “I don’t think you’re right”. Only to get grief. We don’t want to be the person who sticks up for someone, who everyone else ignores, or dislikes. Only to be seen by as a loser. We want to blend in.
That’s what I wanted to do a fresher when I came back from church for the first time, sneak into my flat, and hope nobody would see. Maybe I’d be able to keep my head down. But everyone was sitting in the lounge and was wondered where I’d been. And that was God’s way of showing me that you can’t hide away as a Christian. Now of course, that’s not to say that everyone will reject you for your faith, at every opportunity. That’s obviously not the case. And God, after all, wants to use you, if you’re a Christian, to bring people around you to know and love him. And can I also say that, I chatted to enough of you last week to know that some of you feel lonely, uncertain, scared. Maybe your experience of halls has been awful. Maybe you’re not sure what it looks like to stand firm for Jesus, but survive in a very anti-Jesus world. Maybe right now, church and CU, and other Christians are all that you have. All that’s keeping you here. All that’s keeping you going. If that’s you. That’s ok. God has made you the person you are.
He’s put you where he wants you to be. So, keep going, and sooner, or later, you will have opportunities to live out your faith – to make that known, to stand out, and to hold your head high in living for Jesus. But all of us need to know that if we’re going to call ourselves Christians, and live for Jesus (in one way or another, and sooner or later) we will lose our old life of acceptance and blending in. But we can be sure:
3. But it will be worth in the end…
For whoever would save his life will lose it, but 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? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.
So, starting with Mark 8.38, every single one of us will meet Jesus at the end of our lives because he defeated death on the cross, he rose from the dead, and he lives today. And if, on that day, we’re ashamed of Jesus, he’ll be ashamed of us. I.e. if we say to Jesus, “no thanks – I don’t want to follow you, it’s too costly”. Then Jesus, will say to us, “I’m sorry, but you can’t come into heaven and live in relationship with me. Because you’ve chosen not to accept my rule”. And (Mark 8.35) Jesus says that will be a far bigger cost than choosing to follow him now. And, the point of Mark 8.36-37 is that would be a ridiculous to think that anything that this world could offer could be better, or worth, exchanging for eternity with him. It would be ridiculous to have everything that this world has to offer (acceptance, comfort, success, money) and to get to the end of life, and find that we’ve not accepted the one thing that really matters: Jesus himself. And to find that we’ll miss out on eternity with him. Because that will mean missing out on the best thing ever – living with Jesus forever in a world free from sin and everything that sin spoils. And so, why wouldn’t you want that? Why wouldn’t you want to enjoy a world of perfect relationships, of God’s love, and his good rule?
It would be crazy to swap that for anything else. And friends, we need to know that because living, and being with Jesus, now and in the world to come is far better than anything else in this life. And so, you need to decide for yourself whether it’s worth it. You need to count the cost. You need to decide whether it’s worth keeping going in following Jesus. And it’s your decision. Nobody can make it for you. And nobody will try to twist your arm.
Maybe, for some of you, you need decide whether all this is true. Even if you’re from a Christian home, you may have doubts about that. And we want to be a church that helps you. So, if that’s you, I think you’d find the Christianity Explored that we run regularly particularly helpful. So, do ask us about that. But rest assured, Jesus says to you, it will be worth it in the end. And I want to say that, my experience of the Christian life is that the longer it goes on, the harder it gets. But the better it becomes, and the more ‘worth it’ it seems. And I can’t express how thankful I am that I’m still a follower of Jesus.
So, I asked one of the students I mentioned, whether he felt it was worth what he gave up following Jesus and he said that the life he once had seemed like everything to him but it now tasted likes ashes in his mouth and living for Jesus tasted like sweet honey. He’d tasted the good life of following Jesus, and he didn’t want to go back to the old. And that encouraged him. Even when his Christian life was hard. And another said, that he’d gained a church family beyond anything he could ever have imagined. And one of the best things about church is that we help remind each other that it is worth keeping going in following Jesus. So, find a good church soon. And get involved, because, if we trust in Jesus in this life, and if we keep going in living for him when we see him at the end of time (and he welcomes us with open arms into his paradise) we won’t think, “was it worth it?” Rather we’ll know, without doubt, just how “worth it” it really was. Let’s pray:
Lord, in the midst of our God-less rejection, you sent your Son, the Lord Jesus. So, we praise you that when we trust in his work on the cross, and deny our right to rule ourselves, we come into a relationship with you as our living God. A God who loves us, who has a plan for, who will never abandon us – even on our worst and darkest days. And we pray that you would encourage us when we face rejection for following you, that this is the shape and pattern of the Christian life. But we also pray that we would remember – and have no doubt – that it will be worth it in the end. We praise that you the Christian life, though harder, is better. In Jesus' name. Amen.