Eastmont Presbyterian Church 
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Self Denial in an Age of Indulgence
Matthew 16:21-28
The Rev. John H. Pavelko
 
22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
August 29, 1999
 

 AN AGE OF INDULGENCE

Several years ago, I spent a summer in South Lake Tahoe NV. The town is nestled along the lake and is surrounded by mountains. One night a few friends decided to have dinner at the buffet in one of the casinos. The food was splendid and in unlimited supply. "We swarmed the mind-boggling array of culinary delights as though we'd never seen food before."1 I ate so much that night that I could barely walk. I actually had to have someone else drive home.

Unfortunately, that restaurant experience reflects the lifestyle of too many people in our society. We are a nation of consumers who indulge in excessive possessions, commitments, goals, and desires. Consider this-people move from starter homes to bigger ones that have more closets and more floor space. Does that solve their problem of the lack of storage? Maybe for the first year, but soon they discover that they have accumulated additional belongings and they once again do not have enough room. The truth of the matter is we are a nation that enjoys indulging our appetites. The "I betcha you can't eat just one" is a safe bet with most of us. One almost always leads to two which leads to three and three quickly becomes a half dozen. We simply have a hard time saying no. This has become so ingrained in our cultural psyche that we seldom question it until our waistlines become too enlarged or we max out our credit limit. I wonder how many believers really ask themselves, what does it mean to deny myself in an age of indulgence? "Do this mean that I should not pursue a job promotion, or is this "selfish ambition and vain conceit"? Do I take a holiday in the Bahamas, or is this a failure to give to someone in need when I have material possessions? Can I buy a season's pass at a ski resort, or is this gross self-indulgence?"2

The real tragedy is that we have taken on the same mindset as the culture. If we have the money, or if we have the time, we have the right to indulge in the pleasures of life. We ridicule the pleasure-denying stereotype by which the Puritans have been labeled. Our self-indulgent attitude has even taken on a spiritual twist. An ad appeared in Backpackers magazine with a young man in a meditative position. Spread behind him is a sampling of all the latest outdoor equipment and in the background a 4x4 to carry it all. The ad tells us that to truly get in touch with Mother Earth you need not only one of everything, but you also need a new pick up truck to carry it all.
 

 THE DENIAL OF HUMAN REASON

The words of our Lord in today's Scripture lesson stand in dramatic contrast to the attitudes of our culture. The passage follows Peter's famous confession. Jesus had asked the disciples, "Who do people say that I am?" They responded with the latest gossip-some say Elijah, others Moses and some a special prophet. Jesus then got real personal with them and asked, "But who do you say that I am?" To which Peter responded, "You are the Christ the son of the Living God." Jesus affirms Peter for this insightful observation but then he said something rather strange. He sternly warned them not to tell anyone. I would have expected Jesus to send them through out Israel with that startling revelation.

The disciple finally understood the message. They finally put it all together. It was truly an "Aw, haw" experience for Peter. The puzzle finally became a picture. The parts suddenly fit together. Why not go out and tell the world? Jesus had a very good reason. The people were not ready to hear the message and the disciples were not ready for the reaction of the people.

This is uncomfortable dimension of the Christian message-the gospel creates conflict wherever it goes. We want our religion to be a soothing, tranquil experience that offers guidance through the problems of life and comfort during difficult times. After all, isn't Jesus the good shepherd who takes care of his sheep. Doesn't he promise to lead us beside still waters and find green pastures where we can lazily graze and indulge our appetites while he protects us from danger. Such a religion would be very appealing but Jesus does not offer it to us.
Not only would the gospel bring conflict but our Lord also told his disciples that he would have to die for the faith. Hearing this message for the first time, Peter takes Jesus aside and scolds him for having such ideas. The irony is startling. Peter, the quick tempered, uncouth vacillating disciple, is now instructing Jesus on how he should act in public. If Peter had done this to one of us there probably would have been a clash of egos. We would have seen this as a challenge. Peter would have been seen as the presumptuous student attempting to correct his teacher. We probably would have defended ourselves. Jesus cuts right through the clash of egos and sees Peter's rebuke as another effort by Satan to pull him off his course. In the third temptation, Satan offered Jesus the seductive possibility of an earthly reign without the messiness of suffering and death. "Recognizing Peter's devilish suggestion for what it was, Jesus resisted him with verbal force."3

The contest between Peter and Jesus was a spiritual contest of minds and wills. Human will against the will of God. Peter is thinking strictly in human terms. He is like a man who has just been named campaign manager of a promising presidential candidate. He is astonished by the candidates declaration that he will accomplish his goals by being jailed and electrocuted for a capital offense. The Messiah is supposed to save and liberate the people not be executed on criminal charges. The image of a crucified Messiah does not fit Peter's paradigm. It defies reason. However, this is God's way, and Jesus, obedient to God's way, will not be swayed by human thoughts. "If Peter cannot accept in trust the 'stumbling block' of the cross, then he will himself become a 'stumbling block' strewn in the pathway of God's Son."4

We may think are motives are pure. We may think our reasons are sound but we must learn that the first step of self-denial is to "let not our reason, nor our will, ...sway our plans and deeds."5 This does not mean that God's plans are always contrary to human reason. The outlandish, irrational and irresponsible methods are just that-outlandish, irrational and irresponsible. Just because an idea is silly does not mean it was spirit inspired.
The question arises, how do we discern God's will over and against our will. Unfortunately, God does not give us a criteria list by which we can elevate our plans and ideas. Only by staying open to the leading of the Spirit, only by maintaining an attitude of prayer and spending time reading the Scriptures with an open mind will we be able to discern the voice of God. We must realize that there is a clear distinction between the will of God and human reason. The latter may sound attractive and be very appealing but it is often the voice of Satan in disguise.

 SEEK NOT THE EXPEDIENT

Jesus goes on to tell his disciples that anyone who wants to follow him must be willing to deny themselves and take up their cross. People often misapply Jesus words by referring to any hardship or difficult circumstance as a cross. A woman living in an abusive relationship may wrongfully assume that she must not report her beatings to the police because the marriage is her cross to bear. A young man stricken with a paralyzing injuring wonders why God has forced him to endure such a difficult cross. A mother whose child is diagnosis with cancer and given only a few short months complains that this cross is too heavy and burdensome. While each of these people must live under difficult and painful circumstances, they are not crosses that God has placed on them.
A cross can only be taken up voluntarily. God never forces it upon a person. A cross is the suffering that comes when a disciple chooses a path of obedience. When the radical nature of the gospel confronts an indulgent society, there will be conflict and persecution and God's people will have to bear a costly cross of sacrifice.
William Willimon tells a story about a young man named Tom who grew up in Tennessee, in a little, country Baptist church. It was a fundamentalist church. They took their Bible straight. They believed it and taught their children to believe it. They told Tom that Jonah was swallowed by a whale, and he believed it. In Sunday school, he heard about Moses holding back the waters of the sea, and he believed it. He listened.
Then, when he was eighteen, he got a letter telling him to register for the draft. He sat down and wrote a polite letter to his draft board saying that he couldn't do what President Carter had asked because you see, as a Christian, Jesus had told him to turn the other cheek, to not take up the sword, to be willing to die rather than to kill.

Tom took the Bible seriously, literally. But when his church found out about his letter, they kicked him out, excommunicated him.

 "Where do you think I got this stuff?" he asked them. "You're the ones who made me memorize Scripture. You told me that Jesus wanted me for a disciple. Did you not expect me to do what I was told? I really believed you."6

Whether you agree or disagree with that young man's decision you should admire his courage. He made an unpopular choice. He could have taken the expedient route and just gone along for the ride. He was only asked to register. He was not asked to serve. All he had to do was keep his religious views to himself and sign a piece of paper. However, the gospel calls his to take a stand, not the most expedient but the most faithful. I wonder if we are willing to deny our self and take a step of obedience that may be unpopular and controversial.

 FORGETTING OURSELVES

A life of self-denial not only follows God's will rather than human reason avoids the expedient but it also forgets what people think of us. A friend told me about his brief stay at Fort Bragg's ROTC boot camp. It was not one of the more uplifting experiences of his life; prejudiced him forever against the town of Fayetteville. If you have seen Heavy Metal Jacket; or have yourself served in the armed forces, you know what the experience was like. They dumped a group of college age boys there in mid-June and tried to make soldiers out of them by the end of August. They were scared, they tried to act big, wanting to fit the role, play the part.

The first day was one of the worst with physicals, haircuts, and the first meeting with the sergeant. That night, when they at last were in bed and the yelling and the cursing had stopped and all was quiet. My friend heard, just a bunk or two beyond his own, someone speaking quietly. The young man was this named, Sweat. He was from Tennessee. Ran track for them. He was saying his prayers.

You do not need to much imagination to figure out how this display of piety was greeted by his barrack mates? There were hoots, cat-calls. "What the . . . are you doing, Sweat?" they cried. "He wants his mama!" others shouted. He didn't move. He kept praying. When he finished, he got back in his bunk and went to sleep.
Next night, after lights were out, there he was again. There were cat-calls and comments again, but they were fewer. The next night, when Sweat said his prayers, only one person said anything and then very little. The night after, I heard someone else say "Amen," when Sweat finished. When boot camp was over at the end of August, the platoon voted Sweat the best cadet.

He really wasn't so good a soldier. But he was what they might have liked to be as people. No one got down on his knees to join Sweat, everyone else was too busy trying to pretend to be soldiers.

Sweat demonstrated that sometimes the gospel calls us to forget about what other people think of us and just live out the faith.7
 

 CONCLUSION

John Calvin considered the topic of self denial so important he devoted an entire chapter on it in Institutes. He entitled the chapter "The Sum of the Christian Life: The Denial of Ourselves" In the first section he wrote: I wonder if the church is willing to listen to a message on self denial in an age of indulgence?



1.  Mayo Mathers ,"Too Much Stuff," Today's Christian Woman, January/February 1999, Vol. 21, No. 1, Page 52.
2.  Mark Buchanan, "Stuck on the Road to Emmaus," Christianity Today, July 12, 1999, Vol. 43, No. 8, Page 55.
3.  Thomas G. Long, Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1997, p.109.
4.  Long, p. 109.
5.  John Calvin, Calvin's Institutes: of the Christian Religion, (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, ) ed. John T McNeill, Vol. I, p.690.
6.  William H. Willimon, "Advice," Pulpit Resource, (Invern Grove Hts, MN: Logos Production, Vol 27, No. 3)
7.  Ibid.
8.  Calvin, p. 690.

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