Getting Out Of Our Own Way
Jackson Snyder & Roger Talbott

Matthew 16:21-28

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REVIEW How to Get Along with Difficult People, Updated & Expanded  Florence Littauer - - helping self 

 

Guided Meditation

   Close your eyes and relax. I want to take you through a guided meditation.   I predict some of you will not open your eyes again until noon.

   Take a deep breath ... exhale (repeat). Think about the clothes you're wearing. Think about how they tell us who you are: your gender, your age, your economic status, how you feel about yourself.  Now imagine yourself dressed as someone in another time or culture.  Notice that you would not change, even if you were wearing the clothes of Eskimos.  You would still be you.  You are not your clothes.  Say, "I'm not my clothes."

   Think about where you live.  Think about what you own.  Would you change if a fire a hurricane took away everything you have?  Think about that and say, "I'm not my possessions."

   Now think about your vocation, whether you're a worker or a homemaker or a student or a retiree.  Much of our identity comes from what we do.  But what if you did something very different, would your essential self change?  Consider this and say, "I'm not my job."

   Think about your relationships: your friends, brothers or sisters, cousins, children, parents, spouse. Imagine that all these people disappeared tomorrow.  Would you stop being yourself?  Think about this and say, "My relationships are important, but I'm not my relationships."

   Now get in touch with your feelings.  You may be in pain.  You may be grieving.  Or you may be feeling very peaceful right now.  Maybe not.  Maybe you don't like this exercise and you're irritated.  Imagine now that the feeling you have are taken away and an opposite feeling is put in its place.  Would you stop being you?   Think about this and say, "My feelings are important, but I'm not my feelings."

   What are you thinking right now?  Maybe you're worried or you're making plans.  You're thinking critically about yourself or about me or about people you know.  You're thinking about the past or about the future.  Our thoughts are very close to who we are, but they are always changing.  Yet something about us never changes.  We are the same no matter what we think about. Say, "I'm not my thoughts."

   What about your life's experiences?  Imagine looking back and seeing all the people you've ever known: friends, neighbors, enemies, teachers, schoolmates.  See the places you lived, the schools you went to, and the places you worked.  Think of funerals and weddings, hospitals, sunsets, dark nights, rainy days and sunny days.  Your experiences have done much to shape you, and yet you have to ask yourself, would I be all that much different if my experiences had been different?  No, I'm not my experiences. But who am I?   Who am I?  Now, take another deep breath, exhale, and open your eyes.

 

Who Am I?

   Listen to the words of Jesus again:  "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it."

   When someone asks,  "Who are you?"  what do you answer?  Most of us begin with a name, and then -- well, it depends who is doing the asking.  If I'm calling Goodyear to see if my car is done, to them I'm just a car owner.   If I'm calling the school to make an appointment with the principal, to them I'm just a parent.  If I'm at a family reunion, to most, I'm just some relative's child.   If I'm calling my doctor to make an appointment, I'm just a sprained ankle.  But, if I'm calling on Father God, then who am I?

   Does God see me as someone else's brother or mother or son or wife?  Does God see me as a minister or a bricklayer?  Does God's understanding of me change depending on what kind of car I drive or neighborhood I live in?  Does God only think of me as a physical ailment?  Does God only think of me as a middle-aged guy whose hair is thinning while his waistline thickens?

   The person you are before God is the "I" who isn't what you wear or what you do or what you feel or think or own. Wouldn't you like to find that person -- that "I"?  Aren't you aggravated sometimes by the definitions of "you" that other people have -- and you often have yourself?  This so-called "self" that's defined by our jobs, our relationships, our marital status, our social status, our appearance and other externals is really a false self.   How do we find the true self -- the person we are before God?  To find that person, we have to lose what we think we are or what we think we are supposed to be.  It's very hard to do.  Sometimes it feels like crucifixion.

 

Things Lost; Identity Found

   Listen again to Jesus' words: "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me."  That exercise we went through at the beginning of this message was only the beginning of self-denial.  I deny that I'm the clothes that I wear!  I deny that I'm the job that I perform every day!  I deny that I'm my relationships!  I deny that I'm my feelings!

   But the exercise is superficial.  It's one thing to say, "Of course I'm not my clothes. Of course, I'm not my possessions."  But it's quite another thing to go and sell all you have and give it to the poor and follow Jesus. It's one thing to say, "I'm not my job."  It's another thing to lose your job or quit your job or to retire for the sake of Christ.  It's one thing to say, "I'm not my relationships."   But it's another thing to have them radically change because you have changed. 

   Some of you may feel that this morning as you anticipate a child going off to school.  Who will you be if you don't have that preschooler around all day?  Some of you have a grandchild going off to college.  Who will you be if you have a child who is now an adult?  Who will you be if you have an empty nest?  You've thought of yourself in a certain way, but now you'll be different, because that relationship is different.  Even more profound -- and much more painful -- are the losses caused by death or divorce.  Who am I, if I'm no longer someone's child?  No longer someone's spouse?  No longer someone's mother?  Who am I?

   This church is full of people who have suffered losses of possessions, businesses, relationships, health. You know the pain.  People who have been through trauma can tell you that there's something to be discovered when what you always identified yourself with is stripped away.  Fact is, through the trauma, people often find the naked self that God sees and God knows. This usually happens involuntarily and painfully.  To avoid the pain, Jesus counsels us to deliberately lose ourselves: "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it." This sounds harsh, but it's really a prescription for spiritual health.  Letting go of the things that seem to define us gives us the chance to grow and the opportunity to change.  

 

Getting In the Way

   Sooner or later many of us come to the conclusion that we need to let go of pieces of our selves to find our true identity.  As the Steve Green song tells us, "If you're called by his name, you're sure to suffer some."  Yes, expect to suffer some when the world, the flesh or Satan takes precedence in some area of our lives, causing us to get in the way of our identity in Christ. 

   I speak of Satan here in the same way Jesus did.  When Jesus says to Simon, "Get behind me, Satan,"  he isn't saying that Simon is the Prince of Darkness.  He is saying that the satanic pride was distracting Simon from the purpose of God for his life.  Most real problems in life stem from the world, the flesh, or the devil successfully suggesting that we get in our own way, blocking us from being all we are meant to be be Jesus. 

   Sometimes we get in each other's way, and we do it thinking that we're being loving.  A businessman shares with his family that he's feeling the call to ministry.  His wife is shocked.  She can't why he wants to trade the high esteem of a business career for the low esteem of a minister of the Gospel.  The family's identity is also bound up with the husband's present career.  This man's effort to find himself by losing himself to God makes the rest of the family feel like something is dying rather than coming to life.  So all his family members and even friends raise objections, getting in the way of God's plan.

   Bible scholar Walter Wink teaches us that "Satan is yesterday's will of God."  When we do God's will we feel alive today; we feel like we're doing the right thing today; our lives have meaning and purpose today.  However, the thing that made us feel alive in Christ yesterday may not be life-giving today. It may have lost its meaning and its purpose. 

   So often the people who won't approve of change are those who found fulfillment in some long past "good old days" -- days when the church was full, or the offering plates were full, or when less commitment to Christ was expected or necessary. 

   Yes, we have a tendency to hang on to roles and relationships and possessions which had meaning at one time in our lives, but have lost that meaning now.  It may be the will of God to spend most of one's waking hours looking after a four-year-old, but it may not be appropriate when the child is 20 and it certainly not she is 40.   

   Our beliefs can also get in our way. We can understand that losing our possessions, our job, our relational roles might help us find our true self, but what about our beliefs?  Aren't our beliefs, especially religious beliefs about God and Jesus Christ, always true and always God's will?  Aren't our religious beliefs fundamental to who we are?  The answer is No.  Because our beliefs belong to yesterday.  In fact, our beliefs may even be inherited from someone else -- even the ones that seem to define who we are.  

 

   Many of us are like Oscar, whose friend asked him,  "Oscar, in election year 2000, are you going to vote for Albert Gore?  Oscar replied,  "No, I'm voting for the Republican, Elizabeth Dole." His friend asks, "Why?" Oscar replies, "Because my father was a Republican and my grandfather was a Republican and my great-grandfather was a Republican -- that's why I'm going to vote for Dole." His friend says, "Oscar, that's crazy.  What if your father was a car thief and your grandfather was a car thief and your great-grandfather was a horse thief, what would you be then?" "Oh,well, uhhh..." says Oscar, "in that case I'd probably be a Democrat today."  

 

   Our beliefs are often inherited.  They may have been right and true and meaningful for our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents, or some grand time in the hey-day of our past experience, but friend, inherited beliefs always get in the way of our NOW, stopping us dead from discovering who we are in Christ today. 

   That's exactly what happens to Simon in this passage.  Only minutes after he affirms that Jesus is the Messiah and Jesus commends him and calls him a rock and tells him he is the foundation of the church, Jesus starts talking about having to die.  Now this isn't Simon's understanding of who Jesus is.  Simon had an inherited, junior church idea of the identity of the Messiah -- a king with a long white beard sitting on a throne in the Jerusalem temple and ruling forever. 

   He starts to argue with Jesus. "You can't die -- that's not what the Messiah does. The Messiah lives forever."  Simon's "sacred cows" were getting in the way of hearing the Jesus and seeing the Jesus and understanding the Jesus and following the Jesus that was right before him.  They were getting in the way of Simon becoming Peter -- the follower of Jesus -- even to death.

   When Jesus says that his followers must be willing to pick up their crosses to follow him and lose their lives in order to find them again, he means that we have to lose even our long-held beliefs so that we can discover a newer, truer faith and a more timely mission.

 

Jesus Never Changes, But We Do

   Friends, Satan is yesterday's will of God for you.  So who are you to be today?  What are you to believe today?  What must you do today?  What do you want for today?  Are you still on yesterday's mission? 

   To take up a cross means that we're willing to let go of everything that was true of us yesterday, even our very lives and beliefs, and let God show us who we are today, both as individuals and as a community of faith.  We need to die to yesterday in order to be raised up today.  The strange thing is that we discover that the more we let go of yesterday, and of who we think we are and what we think we want, the more consistent and stable and sanctified we become.  And the more comfortable we become with our real identity in Christ. 

   There really is a true self down there inside of each of us --  a self that has been there from the time we were babies and will be there until the day we die.  A self that we claim he has recreated in his image.  It's that self that Christ calls out to the surface to follow him into a new world.  It's that self that needs to let go and let God, so it can pass through the eye of a needle and enter Christ's Kingdom. Let's get out of our own way and be resurrected, revitalized, renewed and restored.  Let's step aside and let God have his way.  Dream your dreams.  Perceive the new thing God is doing in your life.  Take a hold.  Amen.

 

NOTES:

 

 Based on a message by Roger Talbott.  Edited September 1, 1996; preached January 25, 1998.

 Or a daughter comes home from college and announces that she wants to be a missionary.  Her well-meaning parents try to talk some sense into her.  "You could do so much more good by finishing medical school and supporting missionaries with all the money you'd make.  You could do community service." But what they're really saying is, "I've already begun to picture myself as the parent of a certain kind of adult child, and you're changing my view of myself and of you."

 Here's an illustration to use if you dare:

  Recently a district committee interviewed several people who were preparing for the ministry as a second career.  Each one lost the life he'd been living.  Two of them were businessmen in their fifties.  Both had quit at great financial cost to go to seminary.

   One was a young woman who had grown up in a very conservative church. She testified strongly of how she'd given her life to Christ when she was a teenager and how that meant that Christ needed to become the Lord of her whole life: the way she related to others, to family, even to those we did not like.  As a leader in her church, she worked hard to win college students to Christ and fundamentalism.  But then as she continued to describe her spiritual journey, something didn't quite fit.  She became a member of a liberal church known for its diverse congregation, its interracial marriage and open acceptance of people living "alternative lifestyles."  She began to attend a very "liberal" seminary.

   One of the committee members asked her how she managed to put all this diversity together in her life.  She said, "It was a real crisis of faith for me because I felt, when I gave my life to Jesus as a teenager, I had found the truth and all of the truth. How could I find new truth?"  The answer came to her in understanding that Jesus never changes, but we must change in our understanding of him and his will for us in our own ministries.  To make such a switch in church allegiance is traumatic; yet we must admire this young lady for her openness to the voice of God.