During last Sunday’s sermon the pastor referred to Matthew 16:24, where Jesus tells his disciples that if they want to be his followers then they must be willing to deny themselves.  This is one of those passages that is easier to just skip.  It is much simpler and less confusing to talk about a religion that teaches us to be good “Christians” rather than to engage a faith that asks us to abandon an entire way of life. Self-denial has never been a favorite sermon or bible study topic.  Taking Jesus’ words seriously have the potential to disturb the status quo and the status quo is comfortable.  To be honest I like things to be comfortable, predictable, safe, and secure.  These are the foundations of an uncomplicated life.

Self-denial removes me from the center.  It may even move my family, church, community, and country from the center.  According to Jesus, self-denial naturally leads to cross-carrying and cross-carrying leads to aloneness.

Jesus carried the cross 2,000 years ago because carrying the cross was what needed to be done.  Without the cross there could be no Easter and without Easter there could be no resolution to the sin problem.

When Jesus calls his followers to cross-carrying it is a call to courage.  It is a call to stand-up for truth even when no one else wants to hear the truth.  It means exposing and naming the powers that have neutralized the church’s prophetic place in the world.

When we name racism as a current sin, we risk our popularity.  When the church declares that we need a president of color because another white man will just reinforce the worst of our prejudices and stereotypes, we risk being called non-Christian.  When the church stands up against the raping of the environment just for cheaper fuel, we risk being called extremists.  When the church stands for the stranger and alien in our midst, we risk being labeled unpatriotic.

Friends, this is the call of Easter; a call to self-denial, cross-carrying, and truth telling.  It will not be easy.  It will not make you popular and you may end up feeling very alone.  Know this; we serve a High Priest, Jesus Christ, who understands.


A couple of weeks ago I watched “Troy,” a movie loosely based on Homer’s Iliad.  A scene near the beginning where Achilles must decide if he is going to join with the rest of the Greek kings in attacking Troy caught my attention.  He has gone to his mother for advice and she offers the following:

“If you stay in Larissa, you will find peace, you will find a wonderful woman, you will have sons and daughters and they will have children and they will love you. … When you are gone and when you children are dead and their children after them … your name will be lost…

If you go to Troy, glory will be yours.  They will write stories about your victories for thousands of years. … The world will remember your name.”

There is something appealing about glory, knowing that how I lived will be remembered.   I want my life to have meaning, to make a difference.  It would be really cool if stories were written so future generations might find inspiration from my life.

This year I turned 45. This means I am about halfway through my working years.  I suspect that it is somewhat natural to start asking the, “Have I made a difference?” questions.  How have I performed in my roles as husband, father, friend, pastor, and boss?  These are ultimately questions that others will have to answer.  But I would like to stack the deck towards a favorable response.

During my time as a pastor, I had the privilege of officiating at many funerals.  The centerpiece of every funeral service is the eulogy.   To be honest, some eulogies are much easier to write then others.  I remember visiting with one family that was glad their mother had died – not an easy eulogy to write or deliver.

There are eulogies that are easy to write.  They tend to have two themes – love and sacrifice.

If you think about it, this is the theme of John 3:16, “for God so loved the world (love theme) that he sent his son (sacrifice).

Do you want to be remembered?  Love unconditionally.  Sacrifice recklessly.

Heaven on earth

I like the Christmas season. It is a time of year that brings out the best in humanity. The ideas of peace on earth and good will to all become real possibilities.

Later this week our family will go and see a stage production of “A Christmas Carol.” This is quickly becoming a favorite Balzer family tradition. The evening has become an entire event, we dress-up, go out to eat (read – eat at a restaurant with linen napkins), and then head over to the theater.

A Christmas Carol is a powerful story. If a grumpy self-centered man like Scrooge can change and embody the Christmas spirit, then change has to be possible for the rest of us. Have you ever met an endearing self-centered person? I suspect that it just isn’t possible.

At every level self-centeredness stinks.

This might be why Jesus called his followers to deny themselves. Something powerful happens when we choose not to think of ourselves first.

C.S. Lewis, in his essay, “The Great Divorce,” tells the story of a bus ride from hell to the plains of heaven. Everyone on the bus is given the opportunity to enter heaven, if they choose. Most choose to return to hell. The excuses are varied; the theme of self-centeredness runs through every excuse.

If your world is only about you and your concerns, hell on earth is possible.

When we deny ourselves and think of the needs of others before our own needs, heaven on earth is possible.

What kind of Christmas are you looking forward to?