Life by Death

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A lot of people don’t like change. That is likely an understatement. Change means adjusting to a different reality and adjusting is not something we prefer doing. Many folks would much rather keep things the way they are. Routine, consistency, predictable outcomes—these are things we rely on for a sense of safety and stability in our lives.

Even good change is difficult, if for no other reason than what it takes to get there. Becoming debt-free, getting in shape, or starting a new job are all good changes to make, but to making them can take a lot of determination and effort on our part. In many cases, to change something about ourselves, we must be willing to admit what we are doing is not working and try something different.

God’s love in Jesus Christ changes everything. The kind of change Jesus talked about and died for was not making a few alterations to our lives or re-arranging some of our schedule. For Jesus, change is neither about exerting more effort nor adding things to an already full to-do list.

The change Jesus embraces is a complete transformation from the inside-out. For that to happen, to have a new life, the old life must die. What’s more, Jesus does not want us half dead because then we are only spiritual zombies, not really living the life God intended for us. No, if there is to be a resurrection and new life, there must be a death (John 12:20-33). There are three ways people need to die to live the life that God desires….

1.We need to die to our plans.

Jesus had a crowd of people following him wherever he went. He was interesting and compelling, even magnetic. Christ taught like no other person before him and healed all kinds of people. In the first century, Jesus became the latest fad.  With his fame, there were people who looked to Jesus to further their own agenda and their plans about how things should go.

Earlier in chapter twelve of John’s Gospel, the Apostle recorded a contrast between two people: Mary and Judas. Mary is a picture of dying to her own plans of how things should go. Mary took some expensive perfume, the kind that could have set her up for some needed financial security and poured it all on Jesus’ feet. Then, she humbly wiped it on him with her hair. It is a picture of giving herself completely and wholly to Jesus, no matter the cost, with no strings attached and no other agenda other than total devotion.

Judas, on the other hand, piously objected to Mary’s act of worship. We might hear him rationally pushback on what Mary was doing, saying to his fellow disciple, “My friends, this is a lot of money – money that could be used for the poor instead of needlessly wasting it. A little perfume is fine, but to use the whole bottle is over the top – it isn’t fiscally responsible!” Judas had a secret agenda. He was not thinking of giving himself completely to Jesus, but of how he could use the cash for himself and his own purposes. 

Judas is the picture of a spiritual zombie – half dead, walking around saying all kinds of spiritual things, but only devoted to Jesus and God’s kingdom when it agreed with him. Judas had his own ideas of how the kingdom operation ought to go. When he became convinced Jesus was not going to operate according to his agenda and plans, Judas betrayed him.

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

galatians 2:20, niv

In John 12:20-22, we have some Greeks (Gentiles) who want to see Jesus. They are interested in him. Unlike Judas and Mary, we are not told why they wanted to meet with him. But the fact that Jesus does not jump on the chance to interact with them probably says something about their motives. 

It is the nature of many people to want to observe whatever big thing is going on. They want to be in the know and talk about the latest happenings. Whenever we see “the crowd” in the Gospels, it is typically a negative connotation, a statement of by-standers, just looking on. 

Much of Christ’s ministry was to teach, heal, cajole, and do whatever he could to press the crowd, the by-standers, into not just following him as a novelty. Jesus wanted them to really follow him by dying to themselves and adopting a new life in the kingdom of God.

When I was a senior in high school the Pope came to Iowa, of all places! Never had that happened. 350,000 people came to see him. It was on a Friday, and we got two days off from school, mainly because trying to get around those two days was nearly impossible. Literally, everything shut down for the event. There were so many people that John Paul II got dropped in on one of Jimmy Carter’s presidential helicopters. 

I lived exactly thirteen miles from where the Pope spoke and had mass with the Catholic faithful. Protestants and Jews flocked to see him, as well. No car was allowed within a five-mile radius of the Pope. People had to park miles away and get shuttled-in. I knew several people from my small town that walked the thirteen miles one way just to see John Paul II. It was exciting and incredible, and is still talked about today in Iowa, forty years later.

Not everyone there that day in Iowa was a faithful Christ follower. Most people do not remember much about what John Paul II said, other than affirming the work of farmers as a needed vocation. Jesus was not at all interested in being a king in the conventional sense. He did not seek popularity or work to consolidate power through sheer force of will or personality. Instead, he died. And he calls us to die, as well – to die to our plans and to our perceived need to be in the know and hob-nob with a celebrity.

2. We must die to self.

This was the message of Jesus. There is no wiggle room to it. There are no walking dead zombies. Jesus responded to the request of the Greeks to see him by not even dealing with it but going on about what people really need to do: die to self.

To make his message clear and understandable, Jesus used the illustration of a seed that must die before it bears fruit.  Seeds wait to germinate until three needs are met: proper amounts of water, warm temperature, and good soil. During its early stages of growth, the seedling relies upon the food supplies stored within the seed until it is large enough for its own leaves to begin making food through photosynthesis. The seedling’s roots push down into the soil to anchor the new plant and to absorb water and minerals from the soil. And its stem with new leaves pushes up toward the light.

This is exactly the kind of process Jesus said needs to happen with people in the kingdom of God. People must never settle for remaining as seeds because that is not what we are designed for. Jesus wants us to be transformed, to experience new life, and to bear righteous fruit. To follow Jesus means to die being a seed and growing into a fruit bearing plant with more seeds to have the whole process occur again.

Jesus said that the person who “hates” their life will gain eternal life. That is, the person who is willing to give up everything to follow Jesus will find true life in Christ. The one who serves Jesus will follow him. Hate is simply a biblical term that means we make the choice to avoid one path in favor of another.

When living in West Michigan, my family enjoyed summers on the beaches of Lake Michigan. My girls loved being there on hot summer days. The beaches are actual sand, not with any gravel or dirt. I would tell my girls to follow me and walk in my footprints. I told them that not only because it would be easier for them to walk, but so they would not stray from me.

Lent is a season designed for us to remember Jesus, to remember we belong to God, and to repent of anything that keeps us away from the Lord.  This brings us to the third way we need to die….

3. We are to die to the world.

Now is the time for judgment on the world. The prince of this world is driven out. The death of Jesus means we can now die to the world. “World” is not the people of this world, in the sense of John 3:16 that God loves the world. This is “world” as the unjust systems that operate within it. Christ achieved victory over this world. He died so that we no longer need to be locked into the oppressive ways of bondage and evil.

Do not love this world nor the things it offers you, for when you love the world, you do not have the love of the Father in you. For the world offers only a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions. These are not from the Father, but are from this world. And this world is fading away, along with everything that people crave. But anyone who does what pleases God will live forever.

1 John 2:15-17, NLT

Jesus lived in a vastly different manner than people expected. He was quite counter-cultural. Christ rarely submitted to the usual way of doing things. Jesus did not operate like a worldly king. He did not teach like a worldly instructor. He died not only to redeem individuals but also to redeem entire systems and transform them into instruments of godliness. 

God cares about systemic evil, about ways of operating which keep people in bondage. Jesus cares about politics, economics, and social structures. He cares about governments and municipalities. The Lord cares about school systems and family systems and, yes, even church systems. Jesus died so that we can die to the world’s broken systems. God desires all our institutional ways of operation come under the lordship of Jesus Christ.

It will not do to only focus on private spirituality because Jesus wants to redeem the entire planet, systems included. Jesus is the Judge, and he is currently about the business by means of the Holy Spirit of making all things new. Eventually, the new creation will completely take over when Jesus returns. Now, in the present time, we have this crazy mixture of good and evil everywhere we go. Christians are to follow Jesus personally and privately, as well as corporately and publicly.

For example, the “factory system” is an actual phrase. The factory system is designed to mass produce products with the greatest efficiency possible. And it works. However, in the process, people become extensions of the machines they operate. With efficiency and production as the highest priorities, people can be replaced like cogs in the machine. 

Walk into many American factories and you will see sagging morale and deep animosities between workers and management because the system itself is inherently flawed. Simply implementing some safety protocols and giving a few raises are merely zombie tactics. The system still needs redemption.

When we take seriously the call to follow Christ, we see that the world and its systems are fundamentally broken and in need of redemption. Jesus has deposed the ruler of this world, Satan, through crucifixion and resurrection. We need to die to this world and to systemic evil.

Conclusion

We all become frustrated and discouraged at times, either with ourselves and/or with the world’s evil that exists around us, making our lives hard and even unbearable. Jesus knows how you feel. His soul was troubled with all the sin of the world. And he faced agony beyond anything we will ever know by allowing himself to die. The kind of death Jesus died was awful. It was that way because that is how horrible sin and sinful systems are.

Today Jesus is calling us to die – die to our plans of how we think things should go; die to ourselves by following in his footsteps; and die to participating in the sinful structures and systems of this evil world. We are to live differently. We are to live new lives – which means not simply tweaking some things but completely re-orienting our lives to serve the Lord.

Jesus is drawing us to himself. He is making himself known. Let us not treat Jesus as a novelty, but as the rightful Ruler of the universe by dying to our plans, ourselves, and the world.

Matthew 12:43-45

            Nature abhors a vacuum.  A plot of soil that is tilled will be overtaken with weeds if nothing is planted and nurtured in the turned-over soil.  The pecking order of a brood of chickens cannot handle the death of the top hen without filling the position almost immediately.  And, in the spiritual realm, the exorcising of a demon will not simply leave a person empty of evil – his life will be filled with something in its place.
             The Gospel story that Jesus told about the man who is rid of an unclean spirit is a powerful and simple narrative on the necessity of true repentance.  It is not enough to be rid of something bad and destructive; the evil must be replaced with something good and useful.  That is, genuine repentance is both a turning away from ungodliness and an embrace of righteousness.
             For example, the Apostle Paul exhorted the Ephesian believers to not only stop stealing, but also get a job and start sharing with others.  They were not only to stop lying and using their tongues for gossip and slander, but they were to start using their words to speak truth that builds up others.  The spiritual principle is the same as the principle from nature:  a vacuum will always be filled.  The man who did not fill his life with God ended up having a problem with evil seven times greater than when he started.
             Whether dealing with addiction, bad habits, or any kind of evil influence we must have a two-pronged approach to its eradication.  We expel the evil by replacing it with godliness.  The man struggling with pornography or adultery must not only stop the behavior, but take up and champion women’s issues.  The woman who gives herself to others to be used and abused must not only get away from the problem, but take on her true identity in Christ as a precious child of God.  These are not meant to be simplistic answers to complex situations; they are meant to illustrate why so many people do not experience freedom and continue to have greater enslavement.  Freedom can only be realized through replacing old practices with new disciplines that directly attack the old.
             O God, I no longer want to live with saying I’m sorry and going right back to the old pig slop of sin.  I cannot change on my own.  I need Jesus to both take away the sin and give me a new life of living for him.  Help me to make choices that put to death the old way of life, and the courage to live into my forgiveness from you.  Amen.