My text is from the gospel. Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. . . . what will they give in return for their life?”
That text is the theme of the gradual hymn. “Take up your cross, the Savior said, if you would my disciple be.” The tune we used today is unique to the Hymnal 1982. The more common tune is called Breslau, numbers 471 “We sing the praise of him who died” and 281 for St. Matthew’s Day, “He sat to watch o’er custom paid.” I’m not familiar with any of them.
Our gradual hymn. “Take up your cross, the Savior said, if you would my disciple be” was written by Charles William Everest in 1833. Everest wrote this hymn as a poem in 1833 when he was 19. He later served as rector in Hamden, Connecticut.
In late adolescence and early adulthood we begin to deal with issues of identity and vocation. “Who am I?” and “What shall I do with my life?” Most of us muddle through to a sufficient response to keep moving through life. We choose a major, get a job, marry, and grow up – some. But the answers of youth are always subject to reconsideration and revision. Issues of identity and vocation continue in our spiritual life and we ignore or deny them at our peril.
Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. . . . what will they give in return for their life?” Part of our life with Jesus as sinners saved by grace, as followers of Our Lord, is to continually ask ourselves questions like, “If I am a follower of Jesus, how am I denying myself for his sake? How am I bearing the cross? What am I doing with the life God gives me each day I live?”
Charles William Everest at age 19 offered his response in the words of the hymn. Moses heard the voice of God from the bush that burned and was not consumed. Let’s look at Moses. Last week he heard how Pharaoh’s daughter found Moses and took him as her son. How did Moses get from the basket to be “keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian . . . beyond the wilderness.” Moses grew up in Pharaoh’s court, but when he grew up he had what we might call an identity crisis. He identified with the Hebrew people to the point of murdering an Egyptian overseer beating a Hebrew. Pharaoh sought to kill Moses. He fled to the desert, took refuge with Jethro, and married his daughter.
“Keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian . . . beyond the wilderness” Moses saw the bush burning but not consumed. He turned aside to see. And Moses heard the voice of the Lord.
Many of us sometimes find ourselves in spiritual deserts – in dry places where we see little life. Not all of us are murderers like Moses, but we all know something of the deadly results of our own mistakes and failures. Most of us keep moving on, doing the best we can, but in our dark hours asking, “Is this all there is?” And then we experience something different, like the ray of sunshine on a dark day, some act of grace that invites us to stop and turn aside. Moses did and Moses heard the voice from the bush that burned but was not consumed, the voice that recalled him to his true identity, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”
Our true identity is to be children of God, sinners saved by the grace of God in Jesus Christ, saved from death in the desert by the shed blood of Jesus Christ on the cross, risen to new life in him.
To be in church on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, to hear of the bush that burned and was not consumed, to hear and respond to the call of our Lord Jesus, ““If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. . . . what will they give in return for their life?” Can this be a time and place for you to see a light, to feel something of God’s love for you, to hear anew Jesus’ call on your life?
God told Moses he had heard the cries of his people. God hears our prayers and God answers prayers. I invite you to take some time this day, this weekend, to reflect again on your identity as God’s beloved child, as a member of the resurrected and Spirit-filled body of Jesus Christ, to consider once more questions like, “If I am a follower of Jesus, how am I denying myself for his sake? How am I bearing the cross? What am I doing with the life God gives me each day I live?”
And having asked the questions, take some time to be quiet and hear the voice of God speaking to you as he shows you his will for your life.
It will not be easy. God sent Moses back to a Pharaoh who had wanted to kill him with the message, “Let my people go!” “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”
St. Paul exhorted the church at Rome, “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.”
The cross we bear is the good news that the spirit of the crucified and resurrected Jesus will work in and through you and me, and all God’s children, to accomplish his will. He simply asks us to accept the good news, to accept his cross, and to follow Jesus where he leads the way.
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” What will we give in return for the gift of life in Jesus?