Follow the Leader

(Every January I post an abridged text from one of my past sermons. Sermons are meant to be delivered for the ear, rather than for the eye. Still, but I hope you will find these messages edifying.)

From God’s perspective, what do you think he would consider the most radical thing you’ve ever done?

When I was eleven, I accidentally set fire to my family’s house*.  Yanked out of my classroom, I was driven home to the sights, sounds and smells of burning pandemonium.  Would God consider that radical?

At 19, I rented my first apartment.  While driving, I picked up a hitchhiker whose only possessions were the the guitar he was carrying and the clothes on his back.  He’d arrived just a week earlier from Jamaica.  Within minutes, I offered to share my apartment with him.  Would God consider that radical?

Three years after meeting Melissa while cycling on the Oregon Coast, I liquidated all of my assets and moved to this country to marry her, leaving behind friends and extended family.  Surely God would consider that radical!

In our passage today, Jesus informs his listeners of the most radical, counter-cultural and costly steps they could ever take in this world.

Then having called the crowd together, along with his disciples, he said, ‘If anyone desires to follow after me, he must deny himself, he must take up his cross, and he must follow me.”

Mark 8:34 / my translation

Chapter 8 is a turning point in Mark’s Gospel.  It pivots in verse 29, when Jesus’ disciples finally understood He was the promised Messiah of Hebrew scripture.  Having completed his ministry north in Galilee, Jesus turns his attention toward the south, and the road to Jerusalem and the cross.

So, here in verse 34 Jesus tells the crowd he has three non-negotiable requirements for anyone wishing to follow him.

I call them non-negotiable requirements because beneath our English translations, all three verbs are in the imperative.

I don’t know about you, but whenever my wife or God speaks in the imperative, I tend to pay better attention.

1. “He must deny himself.”

What thoughts does this phrase bring to mind?  For me, denying myself infers denying myself of something.  Maybe giving up dark chocolate-covered almonds or Pinot Noir for a time.

Monks in the Middle Ages interpreted this verse much more strictly than we do.  Many deprived themselves of sleep or basic needs in devotion to our Lord.  Others kneeled and prayed for hours on cold, hard stone to increase their personal discomfort.

But is that what Jesus was saying to the crowd that day?  That they should forgo luxuries or even basic comforts?

I don’t think so.  I think it’s more radical than that.

Denying oneself is dying to self.  This first command is about humility.

It’s a funny thing this humility, isn’t it?  Just when we think we have it, we don’t.  And when we think we don’t … we might.

I remember attending a Promise Keepers stadium event where one of the speakers asked 60,000 men how many of them perceived themselves as excelling in the humility department.  Immediately what seemed like half of the guys in the stadium raised their hands, and I’m pretty sure I was one of them.

The speaker made his point.  Jesus made his point:  True humility puts self last in a culture obsessed with finishing first. 

So, Jesus says a follower must dislodge himself from the centre of his own existence.  That place belongs to the one who gave him breath.  Humility is who we are in relation to God.

Remember, it’s in the imperative, so it’s not optional.  Only the radical need apply.

So, the first mark of a follower is radical humility.

Can’t you just imagine the crowd getting a little uneasy as this point?

But then he gives a second command …

2. “He must take up his cross.”

We really soften this one, don’t we?  Taking up one’s cross becomes a metaphor for tolerating annoyances.  The telemarketer who interrupts supper, or the driver who stops in a merge lane are two of my favourites.

We look upon these things as our crosses, don’t we?

But is that what Jesus was saying to the crowd that day?

I don’t think so.  I think it’s more radical than that.

In verse 31 Jesus tells his disciples that the Son of Man must suffer and die.  And, here, just three verses later, he is telling the entire crowd that anyone wishing to follow him, must take up his cross.

First century Jews well understood what taking up one’s cross meant.  In the words of one author, “Bearing the cross was not a Jewish metaphor.  It invokes the picture of a condemned man going out to die.  He was forced to carry on his back a heavy crossbeam upon which he knew he was going to be nailed at the place of execution.”

The crowd must have gasped in horror when Jesus used those words that day!

In contrast, have you ever noticed how non-believers appropriate biblical symbols without the responsibility behind them?

A few years back I met a friend at a café in Chapel Hill, NC.  While ordering, I noticed the waitress wore a necklace with an ornamental cross.  I blurted out without thinking (as I’m apt to), “Wow, you’re a Christian.  We’re both believers too!”

“No, I’m sorry.  It’s actually just for style.”

Just for style?  Just for style!?

When did God’s son and his atoning sacrifice become a fashion statement?

Jesus showed us that taking up one’s cross can never be for style.  The cross is agonising … it’s humiliating … and it’s deadly.  It’s covered with blood and it’s scarred with nails.

Just ask an early centuries martyr in Rome or Lyon under Emperors Nero or Diocletian.  Just ask a 21st century martyr in some Islamic countries, where they still nail Christ-followers to crosses.

Just ask God’s Messiah. There are no pretty, stylish crosses.

So, the second mark of a follower is a willingness to suffer, when necessary, for our Lord.  Risks must be taken in his name if we are to follow, even if those risks lead to death.  Jesus doesn’t seem to want comfortable, cultural followers.

So a true follower must deny himself, and he must take up his cross.

Okay, so this isn’t in the text, but can’t you just see those who remained in the crowd that day, saying “Oi vey!  I came here for a motivational message, and maybe a miracle!

Then Jesus shared a third requirement …

3. “He must follow me.”

For my younger readers, I have to emphasise that this requirement has absolutely nothing to do with social media. (All the same, I’d be thrilled if you followed my blog!)

We sometimes interpret this command as imitating Christ, but we know few will suffer as he suffered, and none will accomplish what he accomplished.

Millions of us, perhaps billions of us, around the globe call ourselves followers of Christ.  It feels good to be a member of such an impressive worldwide following, doesn’t it?

But, is that what Jesus was saying to the crowd that day?  Recruiting more warm bodies to jump onto his growing bandwagon?

I don’t think so.  I think it’s more radical than that.

The verb here, to follow, is in the present active tense, giving it a continuous aspect.  A more literal translation would be, “he must keep on following”.  It’s not just a one-time or momentary thing. It’s ongoing.

I gained a new appreciation for what it means to keep on following when Melissa went into labour with our baby Elizabeth, almost 18 weeks early.  She was rushed via ambulance from Beverly Hospital to New England Medical Centre in Boston.  I was told by the ambulance driver to follow as closely as I could in my car. “Stay close, but not too close!”.  He was concerned about my safety, but he didn’t want me to be separated from my precious wife and baby-on-the-way.

Pulling out of the parking lot, my heart was pounding.  Following was easy in suburban Beverly, but on the highway and as we got closer to Boston, more cars seemed to be trying to dart between me and the ambulance to get a free ride through traffic. To keep on following means you can’t slow down for toll booths either, so we set off the alarms on the Tobin Bridge.  Eventually, running on adrenaline, I made it to the hospital.

Keeping on following is about ongoing obedience: Walk in his ways.  Stay the course. Keep standing, even when outnumbered.

Jesus says this step is not optional.  Only the radical need apply.

I began today by asking the question, from God’s perspective what do you think he would consider the most radical thing you’ve ever done?

Hopefully, you’ve never set a house on fire.  Many of you drive right by hitchhikers, rather than inviting them to move in with you.  And, very few of you will engage in a romantic pursuit beyond your borders.

May I speculate that the most radical thing you’ve ever done, from God’s perspective, is to claim the name of Jesus Christ?  To identify yourself as a follower of His.  The moment you do so, any possibility of resting passively in your faith evaporates.

One of the games young children used to play was “Follow the Leader”.  With short attention spans, it doesn’t take long for one and more kids to quickly fall away.

Mark 8:34 teaches us that true followership isn’t about playing “follow the leader”.  It’s about following the leader, no matter what.

Outside of these freshly-painted doors, denying oneself is considered by some as fractured self-esteem, and maybe even pathology.  Out there, humility’s opposite — pride, is a multi-coloured virtue.  But, Jesus commands humility.

Outside of these doors, bearing one’s cross can be bad for one’s health, and rather extreme.  To some, even fanatical.  Yet, Jesus commands we suffer for his sake.

Outside of these doors, obedient following is totally foreign to a culture that exalts individuality and permissiveness.  Yet, Jesus commands obedient, submissive and courageous followership.

Until our Lord returns, let us find comfort in these facts: The One who created us is also the One who knows our limitations, so we have no excuses.  And, the One who saved us, is the same one who sets the requirements.

“Then having called the crowd together, along with his disciples, he said, ‘If anyone desires to follow after me he must deny himself, he must take up his cross, and he must follow me.”

Mark 8:34

Jesus offered this message to everyone in the crowd — not just to his disciples, but only the radical need apply.

Blessings on your home,


* Read about this experience in the post “Dogs Can’t Talk

3 thoughts on “Follow the Leader”

  1. A great and challenging word. Needed to read this today. Thanks for sharing. __________________ 7100 Valley Lake Dr. Raleigh, NC 27612

    Inspiring others to passionately pursue REAL LIFE in Christ


    Liked by 1 person

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