Living by Dying

Living by Dying

Matthew’s Gospel as a whole is a fascinating and
detailed description of the Christian life – every burdensome aspect of it. In
today’s lesson, after laying it all out there, Jesus essentially asks His
disciples, “Are you in, or are you out?” “This is the defining moment,” He
claims. “You now know everything that bearing my name entails, and now you
must make a decision.” His exact command is to “deny yourself, take up your
cross, and follow me.”

Brothers and sisters in Christ, as
far as I know, every one of you, by God’s grace alone through the power of the
Holy Spirit, has been brought to faith in Christ and bear the name,
“Christian.” By the working of that same Spirit, you have also decided to
cling to that faith and strive to live the Christian life. If your experience
has been anything like mine, this has not been easy. In fact, I often find
myself asking if it is all even worthwhile. I regret that quite often my
answer to that question is “no” and I throw away the opportunity to do Christ’s
will. But what really gets me is that even when by God’s grace I do make the
right decision and live faithfully, the outcome can be terribly burdensome.
I’m sure that most of you have had the same experience – you can’t seem to win,
even when you do the right thing. Today I would like to explore exactly what
it is that Christ expects of us, and the burdens that naturally follow. In
addition, I hope to give you the encouragement that, difficult as it may be,
living the Christian life is indeed worthwhile.

It seems to me that in the Gospel of Matthew,
one finds two general aspects to God’s design for His people: Living up to His
expectations, and calling for others to do the same. Now, I want to clearly
acknowledge that as sinful human beings, accomplishing this perfectly will
never happen. Therefore, the Christian life in this fallen world will be one
of contrition, repentance, and forgiveness until the day Christ returns. This
is pleasing to God, and a very important aspect of self-denying, cross-bearing,
and Christ-following. But Lutherans have a tendency to focus on this aspect
alone and ignore the fact that there are other aspects to the life that God has
designed for us. To find out exactly what these are, we need only to flip back
a few chapters in Matthew for the best sermon ever written on the topic –
Jesus’ sermon on the mount. In reading it, one notices very quickly that every
one of these expectations seem to go against human nature. They seem downright
impossible at times, and we naturally reject them. For example…

Matt. 5:3 Blessed are the poor in spirit” and Matt. 5:5 “Blessed are the
These two characteristics are
considered undesirable in today’s society, not to mention they are extremely
difficult to maintain. Consider how difficult it would be to make it through
your most frustrating work week while maintaining meekness and a poor spirit.

Matt. 5:7 “Blessed are the merciful” This is especially tough when we are the ones
who have been wronged. Yet, even when our offender deserves the worst, we are
called to be merciful to him or her.

Matt. 6:19 “Do not lay up for yourselves
treasures on earth”
How easy it is for
us to be blinded by the glitz and glamour of earthly possessions and personal
wealth, all the while neglecting the more important things in life.

Warning against a more sneaky form of materialism, we have:
Matt. 6:25 “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your
life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you
will put on.”
God wants us to rely on Him alone, and trust that He
will provide.

All these expectations for the
Christian life are difficult enough to maintain. But it just gets worse from
here. As you know there are plenty of other expectations that, when fulfilled,
come with burdensome consequences. For example…

Matt. 5:39 Do not resist the one who is evil.
But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.
Think about this one. It’s difficult enough to
keep our cool and not retaliate in anger when good people do us wrong, but here
we are commanded to do the same with evil people. The consequence? Will our
enemy see our humility, realize his error, and apologize? Not necessarily.
When we “turn the other cheek” there is a good chance our “other cheek” will be
slapped as well. The following verse is another way of saying the same
thing: Matt. 5:40 If anyone would sue you and take your tunic,
let him have your cloak as well.

Matt. 5:42 Give to the one who begs from you,
and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.
Here we learn
that we are to not only trust that God will provide us with what we need, and
refrain from stockpiling possessions in order to achieve a sense of security,
but we are to also show greater concern that the needs of others are
being fulfilled. The consequence? Will we be rewarded with greater earthly
possessions? Not necessarily. Rather, it is quite possible we will have to
live with less as a result.

Matt. 5:44 Love your enemies and pray for
those who persecute you.
Here we are
commanded to care for those who hate us, and wish the best for them. Again,
there is no guarantee that our loving attitude and actions will change our
enemies’ attitudes and actions toward us. That is left to the Holy Spirit. If
He does not turn their hearts, our kindness may very well set us up for more

There are many more difficult expectations
within the Sermon on the Mount, but these are just the tip of the iceberg when
it comes to the burdens of the Christian life. The second part of God’s design
for us hits a little closer to home. Keeping our actions in check is one
thing, but expecting others to do the same is another. We know who Christ is,
what He has done, and what He expects of us, but others do not. Jesus’ charge
to His disciples, and His charge to us, is to loving but boldly defend and
proclaim all these things – even if it kills us. This is particularly
difficult when dealing with those we love. I don’t know about you, but the
idea of a wedge being driven between me and my loved ones kills me. How
about you? Is someone close to you comfortable with a particular sin – perhaps
a sinful addiction or a sinful lifestyle? What do you do? Do you hold your
tongue around that person to keep the peace in your relationship, or do you
deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Christ? Do you have a loved one
that has decided, along with much of society, that there is more than one valid
path to salvation, cheapening Christ’s death? If so, you are faced with a
decision: Do you risk ruining your relationship with this loved one by
speaking the truth in love, or do you go on “loving” them as they are to

Jesus says in Matthew 10:35-37,
“For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her
mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s
enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother
more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than
me is not worthy of me.”
Jesus recognizes the potential for broken
relationships that He brings. Brothers and sisters, it is not enough that
these loved ones of ours “know how we feel” about their sinful beliefs or
sinful actions. As difficult as it is, we need to continually verbalize it in
love. Knowing the consequences, wouldn’t you want them to do the same for
you? Be prepared – your words of love will either soften or harden their

No, the life of a Christian is not
easy. It is one of self-denial, cross-bearing, and Christ following. In one sense,
it is really no life at all, but rather a continual death of everything within
us that opposes it. So what makes this self-sacrifice worthwhile? The answer
is the reward. “Life” is promised for all who die. Verses 25-26 of our text
read, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses
his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains
the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for
his life?”
The reward of “life” that these verses speak of is not a
life of physical existence. It is a life in Christ – both temporal and
eternal. The apostle Paul speaks of a transition from being dead to sin to
alive in Christ. This first took place in our baptisms, where we were intimately
connected to Christ’s death. This is why it is said that baptism is a drowning
– a drowning of our sinful nature. Yet, as I have attempted to make clear
today, this dying must not stop at our baptisms but continue as we walk
the difficult life of a Christian day by day.

Matthew 7:14 reads, “For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life…” This was
certainly Jesus’ experience. He didn’t want to go through all the trials,
suffering, and death that His Father asked of Him – in fact, He prayed “take
this cup away from me” as He sweated drops of blood in anguish. But, He did
all that He did anyway because He loves us and because He is an obedient Son.
As we accept His invitation to follow, we can expect the same outcomes He
faced. For example, when Jesus was approached by a violent band of officials
in the garden of Gethsemane He could have called down legions of angels to
strike them down. Instead He followed His own rules, turned the other cheek,
and was arrested because of it. We can expect the same difficult outcome when
we turn the other cheek. Jesus enraged the Pharisees when He called them out
on their sin, and He made them bloodthirsty when He proclaimed the truth that
He was the Son of God. Again, we can expect the same when we call out others
on their sin, or boldly proclaim that Jesus is the Son of God by whom all are
saved. We can expect the same violent reactions that Christ received as a
result of faithful living. Interestingly, if you take a step back you will
find that our lives, when faithfully lived out, end up looking very much like
the one that Christ suffered.

The best part of this message,
brothers and sisters, and the point of it all, is that the comparison between
Christ’s life and our own does not stop at His suffering and death. Yes He
died for His obedience, and so do we, but we can also rejoice in the assurance
of our reward. Because Christ was given His promised reward in His
, we may look forward to our own promised resurrection without
a doubt! Because Christ was vindicated, we know that we will be too! In that
day there will be no more self-denying because we will have no more sinful
nature in ourselves to plague us! In that day there will be no more
cross-bearing because evil and corruption will have been wiped off the face of
the earth, no longer to oppose us. And in that day there will be no more
painful Christ-following because we, with Him, will have reached our
destination – an existence of peace, harmony, and fellowship with Him.

Brothers and sisters, do not be
concerned that the road of this true life will be too difficult. As
difficult as it is, we have been given the same tool that empowered Christ to
walk the same road. You see, Jesus did not give us these expectations and then
leave us empty handed. He would not do such a thing, having been through it
Himself. Rather, He has poured out His Holy Spirit upon the Church – that’s
you and me – the same Holy Spirit that gave Him strength to face the Pharisees;
the same Holy Spirit that gave Him strength to boldly proclaim who He was; and
the same Holy Spirit that gave Him strength to endure the cross. It is in His
power that we all seek to follow Christ’s lead, and steadfastly endure the
burdens that Christ has placed before us, until the day of His promised

Please pray with me: Gracious Heavenly Father, having
clothed us with Christ through the indwelling of your Spirit, empower us
through the same to take up His cross daily, that we may participate in the
true life that you have designed for us, both now and forever. Amen.