Monday, March 5, 2018

The Third Sunday of Lent: A Story of Self-Denial

Two texts demanded our attention yesterday and both of them told the same story of self-denial. The stories of Psalm 31 and Mark 8.31-38 are told in such a way that self-denial makes sense and is almost expected. In fact, all stories worth remembering pivot in some way around the theme of self-denial. No one tells a story, makes a film, or describes a worthy character that is not distinguished by self-denial. No one makes a war movie about a coward who refuses to risk his life for the cause. I can’t recall a good sports film about athletes who are lazy and refuse to work and sacrifice for their goals. No fairy tale tells the story of a prince who doesn’t love the girl enough to fight for her. Indeed, every good story revolves around the sacrifice and subsequent transformation of the characters. Sacrifice. Self-denial. Costly love. These are what make a story beautiful. Furthermore, these are what make a life beautiful. Donald Miller puts it like this. “If what we choose to do with our lives won't make a story meaningful, it won’t make a life meaningful either.” Brothers and sisters, the Almighty can accomplish great things through lives of sacrificial love. The Austrian Philosopher Ivan Illich was once asked about the most powerful way to change a society. His answer acknowledges the power of a life/story. 
Neither revolution nor reformation can ultimately change a society, rather you must tell a new powerful tale, one so persuasive that it sweeps away the old myths and becomes the preferred story, one so inclusive that it gathers all the bits of our past and our present into a coherent whole, one that even shines some light into our future so that we can take the next step... If you want to change a society, then you have to tell an alternative story  
The narratives of Psalm 31 and Mark 8.31-38 invite us into a transformative story in which self-denial makes sense. 
Into your hand I commit my spirit;    you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God. (Psalm 31.5, ESV) 
And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone 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, 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.” (Mark 8.34-38, ESV)
As Jesus quotes Psalm 31.5 from the cross and as he invites us to the path of self-denial, King Jesus describes a radical trust of our Father in Heaven such that we will continue to obey even if things aren’t going our way. He narrates a life of sacrifice.  

What kind of story does your manner of life tell? Do our lifestyles narrate an ethic of self-guardedness or self-denial? Are our choices characterized by demanding our way, getting what we want, and pursuing our agenda? Or, do we confess with the Psalmist, “I trust in you, O Lord; I say, “You are my God. My times are in your hand.”

In every good story the main character is transformed through difficulty. No one remembers a story in which the protagonist gets everything she wants. Rather, we remember and want to emulate those characters who, somehow in loss and in sacrifice their story becomes beautiful and they are glorified. Through love that sacrifices our lives can tell such a beautiful story. Through not demanding our own way our lives can tell such a beautiful story. Through faithfully persevering with our loved ones, not as we wish they were but as they are, our lives can tell such a beautiful story.  By God’s Spirit may each of us tell a better story, so that on the last day we will hear our Savior say, “Well done. That was a good and faithful story.” 

Here you can listen to yesterday’s message, Entrust My Spirit.