Here’s are notes and Scripture references from the second half of today’s sermon.
Jesus, the Individual.
When you read the Gospels, you can’t help but notice the way Jesus stands out from the crowd.
Now while he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Festival, many people saw the signs he was performing and believed in his name. But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all people. He did not need any testimony about mankind, for he knew what was in each person. –John 2:23-25.
When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law. –Matthew 7:28-29.
As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem. Luke 9:51.
He went out, bearing the cross for himself. –John 19:17 (NASB marginal reading).
It is one thing to admire a hero from a distance, but Jesus asks for more than that. He says we must lose our lives for his sake. There’s the rub!
The Weakness of the Individual.
Sometimes, by the grace of God, people come to acknowledge their own weakness. They come to recognize that their identity cannot be formed out of the inner resources of a single human being — themselves. The life of Christopher McCandless illustrates this truth. While some say that McCandless died trying to be a real individual, the moral of his story is that a single self is not strong enough to bear the weight of life. Some young people find it’s too much to try to find their identity all on their own. Others experience that same problem in a midlife crisis. This is the fatal flaw of Late Modern American Individualism, particularly in its secular manifestations.
By God’s grace, people can come to recognize that self-centeredness is a dead end. You can’t build a self out of a mere self.
For whoever wants to save their life will lose it… what good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? –Mark 8:35a, 36-37.
Once you recognize that your own self-creation and self-preservation efforts are futile, you begin to look for another foundation for identity. Now you are open to the possibility of surrender to Jesus. Find your identity in a relationship of faith in him.
Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. –Mark 8:34.
Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” –Mark 2:17.
We all recognize that there is something ugly about selfishness and something beautiful about humility. The key is to apply that truth to oneself — to humble ourselves before Christ, to acknowledge our own “sickness” and need of Christ the physician.
There is something appealing about the courage of individuals who yield themselves to God. For example, the prodigal son (Luke 15) who has the courage to recognize the bankruptcy of his own chosen path. Then, there’s the humble courage of this tax-collector.
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” –Luke 18:9-14.
There remains a strain of American thought that appreciates the idea of personal responsibility. Chris McCandless’ sister, Carine, wrote a memoir arguing that the dysfunctionality of her and her brother’s family-of-origin caused Chris to become a vagabond. The question of nurture versus nature versus personal responsibility is a hotly discussed topic in America today. The picture painted in Scripture indicates that we both sin and are sinned against. The fact that Carine lived a very different life than her brother speaks to the reality that we are more than merely the results of our environment.
Jesus went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.” Mark 7:20-23.
Personal responsibility before God is a significant theme in the Scriptures. See, for example, the parables about the final judgment in Matthew 13:47-49. By God’s grace, people can move from pointing the finger (“others ought to take responsibility”) to recognizing their own accountability to God for their own life.
The Divided Human Heart.
In Mark 9, we find the story of the father whose son is demon-possessed. It’s the story with this famous line:
I do believe, help me overcome my unbelief! –Mark 9:24
Many people can appreciate the experience of having competing interests inside themselves. So we have this idea that we can build a life upon our own abilities and desires and interests, but our self is not up for the task because it is not a unified self. We say, “Be yourself.” Sure, but which self? We look at our earlier self and say, “If only I knew then what I know now.” The individual heart is an inadequate foundation upon which to find an identity and build a life — because it is not unified, and because it changes over time. The gospel call is to faith in Jesus who doesn’t change. In him there’s a solid foundation for life.
For people in an individualistic society, slavery is one of the more challenging images of sin.
Jesus replied, Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. –John 8:34-36.
No individualist wants to be a slave. People suppose that by leaving God, family, or other authority structures that they will find freedom. In fact, we are always serving someone or something. We are always worshipping something. Sometimes people use the language of addiction to describe their struggle with bad habits. This line of thinking brings us close to the reality that sin has an enslaving power.
The topic of slavery to sin is found throughout the Bible. It is there latent in the word “ransom” (Mark 10:35) and the word “redemption” (related to God’s act of freeing us from slavery). See also the story of the Exodus from Egypt, and Galatians 3-4. The theme of idols, and the theme of evil desires are also relevant, as is Romans 7.
The bottom line? Don’t go it alone! Join yourself through faith to Jesus Christ!
Two resources I found helpful in the preparation of today’s sermon:
David Wells, “Self” Chapter V in The Courage to Be Protestant: Truth-lovers, Marketers, and Emergents in the Postmodern World. Eerdmans, 2008.
Tim Keller, “Preaching and the (Late) Modern Mind:” Chapter 5 in Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism. Viking, 2015.