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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

September 16, 2012


The Riddle of Life

Proverbs 1:20-30

Mark 8:27-38

Some people are forever tied to the words they have spoken.  You cannot think of them without thinking of the memorable words they offered.  When you think of Abraham Lincoln, our sixteenth president who died on Good Friday in 1865, you will soon recall his most famous speech of all, the Gettysburg Address, scribbled on the back of an envelope as Lincoln rode the train to Pennsylvania on November 18, 1863.  The only words not included in Lincoln’s draft that were added extemporaneously in the last sentence were the words “under God.”  His opening words drew their inspiration from the Bible: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”  You cannot remember Lincoln without remembering his most famous words.

The same is true for John Fitzgerald Kennedy, whose words in his inaugural address on the steps of the Capital were drawn from words he had heard his Headmaster at The Choate School speak many times in chapel and at convocations.  In his fourteen-minute address, Kennedy made them forever his own: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country.”  Kennedy and his call to service and sacrifice in his inaugural address will always be linked.

 The same can also be said for Martin Luther King, Jr.  He shall always be remembered for his “I have a dream…” speech offered in front of the Lincoln Memorial.  His words, like Lincoln’s, drew their resonance and power from the Bible and from the Declaration of Independence.  “I have a dream…,” King cried, “that one day my children will be judged, not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

People are known and remembered by the words that they speak.  Indeed, through them, they continue to speak long after they are dead and gone.  Today I want us to focus upon some words of Jesus that I believe are utterly central to understanding not only His life, but the life He calls us to.  They are admittedly not His most famous or unforgettable words.  Those might be His prayer which we call The Lord’s Prayer, which we recite every week in worship, which appears in Matthew’s Gospel.  Or they might be one of His two best loved parables, The Good Samaritan or The Prodigal Son, which are both found in Luke’s Gospel alone.

The words of Jesus I am thinking of this morning are words found in all four gospels.  Apparently, you cannot tell the Gospel of Jesus Christ without including these words that Jesus spoke.  They are also words that sound paradoxical, or something like a riddle.  Here are Jesus’ words I would have you remember, and never forget: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

The Greek word used here to translate Jesus’ Aramaic word for “life,” is the word φυχή (psyche), from which we get the words psychology and psychiatry.  It speaks of your identity, your personality, your very self – what makes you distinct, what Thomas Merton would call “your true self.”  In this context, where Jesus bids us to take up our cross, deny ourselves and follow Him, it seems that Jesus is saying, “Do not build your life or your identity on gaining things or accumulating things.”  Indeed, Jesus says, “For what will it profit you to gain the whole world and forfeit your life?”  The King James Version asked, “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”

You can lose your “soul,” or lose your “life,” Jesus is saying here.  And tragically, many people do.  In some ways, this culture of ours almost inadvertently encourages it.  Ours is an individualistic culture, and we often send messages that say the way to gain significance is through gaining wealth, reputation, prestige and status.  We often propagate what my friend Craig Barnes calls “the myth of the self-constructed life.”  Your life is your own, we teach, and you can make anything of it you wish.  “You can be anything you want to be,” we say to our children.

And over against this claim that your life is your own to create, the Bible teaches that we belong, not to ourselves, but to God.  The Bible says that your life is a gift, not something that is yours to do with as you will.  Our lives are meant to glorify God, as we belong to Him.  The Heidelberg Catechism asks in the first question, “What is your only comfort, in life and in death?”  “That I belong – body and soul, in life and in death – not to myself but to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ….”  And Jesus says, not once, but in all four Gospels, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

I don’t pretend to know fully what these words of Jesus mean.  But I know that living into them, and seeking to live by them, is utterly central to living the life Jesus intends for you to live, the only life worth living, the only real life for you.

Jesus is saying that if you “gain the whole world,” it won’t be big enough or bright enough or substantial enough to make you sure of who you are.  Indeed, if you make saving yourself, or serving yourself or your ego needs the central pursuit of your life, you will literally lose your life, and your soul along with it.  William Sloane Coffin used to say that “the smallest package in all the world is a person all wrapped up in himself.”  Life is paradoxically saved by losing this all-consuming focus on self.  We find ourselves finally only by denying self, and finding our true self in God, who alone has the power to give us life, and who came in Jesus to give us abundant life.

These words of Jesus are powerful because of how He lived His own life.  Jesus found His life, the loveliest, the truest and the most important life ever lived, not by saving His own life, but by losing it, or more accurately, by giving His life away.  In the incarnation, Paul said that Jesus emptied Himself of any claim upon His own life, “He did not count equality with God a thing to be exploited,” and that is why “at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”  We remember Jesus not because of all He did to promote or to please Himself.  We still remember Jesus because of how He gave and finally lost His life!  Simone Weil says this losing or letting go of self is found in the very act of creation.  She wrote, “Creation was that moment when God ceased to be everything so that we might be something.”  In Jesus, God modeled for us this same humility, and it was ironically in dying on the cross that Jesus showed us best how to live.

C.S. Lewis writes about these words of Jesus at the end of Mere Christianity.  He says, “The more we get what we now call ‘ourselves’ out of the way and let Jesus take us over, the more truly ourselves we become.”  “Our real selves are all waiting for us in Jesus.”  Lewis writes, “The more I resist Him and try to live on my own, the more I am dominated by my own heredity and upbringing and surrounding and natural desires.  In fact what I so proudly call ‘My self’ becomes merely the meeting-place for trains of events which I never started and cannot stop.”  Lewis says, “It is when I turn to Christ, when I give myself up to His personality, that I finally begin to have a real personality all of my own.”

This is true in all of life.  Place your self at the center of your world and you will lose everything worth enjoying.  It is true in parenting.  You pour your life into your children, and if you are successful, you lose them.  They grow up, they find their true selves, and you let them go.  Hold onto them in fear and try to control their lives and you will cripple them or kill their spirits, and yours along with it.  Love is about letting go.  It is finally about losing.

It is true in marriage.  Make your marriage all about you and one day you will discover you don’t have one anymore.  Love is about losing yourself, giving of yourself, to another.  That is how you find love, paradoxically, not by seeking it, but by giving it.  Saint Francis said, “For it is in giving that we receive.”

It is true in how we relate to money.  Make your wealth your source of security and safety, and you will one day find that your money owns you, and holds you captive.  It is only in holding what we are given with open hands, and in giving it away that we discover true freedom and joy in the blessing of wealth.  A rich person is not someone who has a lot, but someone who is able always to give a little more. 

I love how Lewis spoke of this matter of losing your life in order to save it!  “Give up yourself, and you will find your real self.  Lose your life and you will save it.  Submit to death, the death of your ambitions and favorite wishes every day and the death of your whole body in the end: Submit with every fiber of your being, and you will find eternal life.  Keep nothing back.  Nothing that you have not given away will really be yours.”

Then he adds perhaps his best known, most loved words: “Look to yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, decay.  But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.” 

I know this is true.  Jesus said it was, and He is above all else a man of His word.  “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”


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