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Questions Jesus Asks Us: “What Good Will It Be if You Gain the Whole World, yet Forfeit Your Soul

April 1, 2012


Sermon:  Questions Jesus Asks Us:  “What Good Will It Be if You Gain the Whole World, yet Forfeit Your Soul?”
Text:  Matthew 16:24-26


Today in our sermon series Questions Jesus Asks Us, we will consider the question, “What good will it be for you if you gain the whole world and lose your soul?” I invite you to turn with me to our text, Matthew 16:24-26.  Hear now the Word of God.

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.  For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.  What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his own soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?”

This is the Word of God for the people of God.

Yesterday in Charleston, the city many South Carolinians call the Holy City, 36,462 of my best friends ran across a bridge in what is called the Cooper River Bridge Run.  Some of you have taken part in that run.  Maybe you were in Charleston yesterday.  I do not want to lead you for one moment to think that I was running across the bridge.  That would really be an April Fool’s joke.

Imagine just for a moment how this event would look to a person who knew nothing about large races in large cities.  Imagine a person dropping in from another planet and seeing all of these people gathered in a city like Charleston, many of them catching buses in downtown Charleston and riding across the very bridge that they would then turn around and cross.  Because the sky was threatening rain, the race began late.  In some ways, the event must have looked pretty foolish.

Today on this Palm Sunday, we come to another city also called the Holy City and to an event that must have looked pretty foolish to those who watched.

April Fool’s Day was a fun-filled occasion when I was a child.  Our family enjoyed playing pranks.  The children often played jokes on people passing by on the road in front of our house.  We would place a beautifully wrapped box containing a brick in the middle of the road.  When a driver stopped his or her car, we would jump out of the pine trees and shout, “April’s Fool!”  Some drivers laughed, but others became angry and kicked the box.  One guy actually got out of his car, picked up the box, and took it with him.

Pulling jokes on April Fool’s Day has also been a long-standing tradition in Clare’s family.  Her grandmother used to bake delicious apple-cinnamon muffins.  The savory smell of those muffins wafted throughout the house.  Hidden inside each muffin on April Fool’s Day was a cotton ball.  Family members biting into a muffin would get a mouthful of cotton.  Clare has done similar antics on April Fool’s Day at our house.  Some of you enjoy pulling jokes on people, too.  You have even played jokes on me today.

We read about a festive celebration during the Middle Ages – the Feast of Fools – that occurred soon after the vernal equinox.  Pious priests and simple townsfolk alike wore masks, dressed in funny costumes, sang silly songs, and performed outrageous skits.  Members of the clergy often painted their faces to resemble clowns, and many of the townspeople mocked their superiors.  For example, altar boys dressed like a bishop, a cardinal, or even the pope as a way of making fun of those who ranked higher on the ladder.  Sometimes the parodies, songs, and dances performed actually became profane and lewd; but all of this mockery was done in an attitude of tomfoolery, an attitude of revelry.  The community often elected a lord of misrule, an April Fool’s king.  Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which provides details about this celebration, depicts the hunchback himself, Quasimodo, as the chosen king of fools.

In the year 1582, Pope Gregory XIII decided to create a new calendar, which we now call the Gregorian calendar.  He moved New Year’s Day, which had been on April 1, to January 1.  Believe it or not, some people did not like change even in that day.  Those who would not accept Pope Gregory’s altered calendar insisted on keeping the Feast of Fools.  They became known as April’s fools and were often sent on foolish errands.  They were the object of all kinds of practical jokes.

Ordinarily we think of April Fool’s Day as a rather secular day; but today we have a conjunction of this day with the beginning of Holy Week and Palm Sunday.  This year, the first day of Holy Week, which we consider sacred, is mixed with a day some might regard as profane.

Do the two days have any connection?  I pondered a possible connection between the two while preparing this message and found some interesting passages containing the word “fool” in the Bible.  An identical quote appears in both Psalm 14:1 and in Psalm 53:1:  “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’”  Some have said April’s Fool Day ought to be the high holy day for atheists because only a fool would say God does not exist.

The wisdom literature of the Old Testament provides a great distinction between what is wise and what is foolish.  The book of Proverbs, which refers to the word “fool” or “foolish” seventy-one times, does not talk so much about right and wrong.  The topics of sin and righteousness certainly appear, but Proverbs focuses more on who is wise and who is foolish.  Ecclesiastes, another of the wisdom books, uses the words “fool” or “foolish” twenty-four times.

We find these two words in the teachings of Jesus.  In Matthew 5:21-22, which offers the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said,

“You have heard that it was said to people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’  But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.  Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin.  But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.”

The Aramaic word Raca means contempt.  Jesus’ stern words here addressed the issue of calling another person a fool.  Jesus warns us not to be demeaning, not to use this word as a casual put-down.  Jesus actually used the very word “foolish” in one parable where he talked about one man who built his house on the sand and another man who built his house on a rock.  Jesus said that a man who builds his house on the sand is foolish.  As children we actually learned the song, “A foolish man built his house on the sand.  The rains came down, and the floods came up.  The house of the sand collapsed.”

I enjoy going to the coast and staying in those houses built on sand.  In my deviated way of thinking I have contemplated that on a dark night, a fellow with a chainsaw could do a lot of damage with all these houses propped on stilts.  Having a house built on sand, especially one built on props, is quite precarious.

Luke 12:13-21 is perhaps more to the point of our text today.  A man has approached Jesus, concerned about his inheritance.  Jesus chastised, “I am not the one to do this arbitration.  I am not the one to be the judge here.  Watch out!  Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist of the abundance of his possessions.  Talking about net worth is not the way to talk about life.  You are not the sum total of what you possess.  You are not the sum total of your bank account.”  Jesus continued with a story.

16 “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. 17 He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’

18 “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. 19 And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’

20 “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’

21 “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”

The Apostle Paul also talked about being foolish in his letters.  In Romans 1, he said that people who become obsessed with materialism – people who allow possessions to become more important than people and more important than God – are foolish.  Idolatry can turn wisdom into foolishness.  In an ironic twist, Paul also says that those of us who are Christians are “fools for Christ” (I Corinthians 4:10).  In the Corinthian letters, Paul refers to himself as a fool seven times.  He even says that preaching itself is foolishness, that God has chosen the foolishness of preaching to spread the good news of Christ.

I find personal application here.  I was ordained on April Fool’s Day of 1970.  Many people think that correlation is so appropriate; “Of course, you were ordained on April Fool’s Day, Kirk.  You should have been ordained on that day.”  I must tell you that in 1970 I had not considered the long-term implications.  In subsequent years, however, I have often thought about the correlation.  In my ministry spanning forty-six years, forty-two since my ordination, I have felt foolish on many occasions.  Many days I have come home and wondered about what good I did that day.  Even when I was dead tired from work, I wondered, What good did it do?  Is this all foolishness?

The Gospels offer several different accounts of Palm Sunday, but I primarily want to address Luke 19 today.  The Scripture says that as Jesus was descending the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples into the village to find a donkey tied there, one which had never been ridden.  Jesus directed, “Untie the beast and bring it to me.  If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ tell him, ‘The Lord needs it.’”  Jesus’ request seemed like a fool’s errand.  Would they accomplish their mission?  They would if Jesus told them to do so.  The two sent ahead found the donkey, just as Jesus had told them they would.  As they were untying the donkey, the owner questioned them about their actions.  When they replied, “The Lord needs it,” the owner allowed them to take the animal.

Do you ever wonder which two disciples Jesus sent on this fool’s errand?  What if James and John, the two who wanted the places of honor, had been sent to fetch a donkey?  Is that honor?  What if Peter and Judas, the one who denied Jesus and the one who betrayed him, had been sent?  The truth is that the identity of the two does not matter.

When I read that passage, I often place myself in their position.  Would I be willing to fetch a donkey, one I did not own?  Would I simply say, “The Lord needs it”?

We owned a pony named Cocoa for several years.  Because we did not ride him much during the wintertime, he would get really frisky.  It was like having to break him again in the spring.  Cocoa had to get used to the fact that he was going to be ridden again.

One year when we were having trouble just getting a saddle on Cocoa, my dad bragged, “Let me show you how to ride that pony.”  He placed the saddle on Cocoa’s back and mounted the pony.  He was a funny site with his long legs dangling to the ground.  He could not put his feet in the stirrups without his knees coming up under his chin.  Cocoa took off, galloping across our backyard with Dad bouncing along.  All of a sudden, Cocoa stopped dead on a dime at a grape arbor and threw Dad over the arbor and onto his back.  Cocoa then galloped away.  We eventually found him down the street, munching on the pansies of a neighbor who was not very happy.  My dad was sore for three days after being thrown from that pony.  It was foolish for a grown man to ride an animal like this.

Imagine Jesus’ legs dangling as he rode the donkey toward Jerusalem.  Imagine people throwing their cloaks over the back of the donkey and onto the road.  Imagine the group of disciples joyfully praising God, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”  Is a king supposed to look this way?  Is a king supposed to ride a donkey?  How foolish!

As the crowd approached Jerusalem, Jesus stopped and wept over the city.  The name Jeru-salem means City of Peace.  “If you, even you, had known on this day what would bring you peace – but now it is hidden from your eyes” (Luke 19:42).  They did not know the things that made for peace.

Jesus still weeps over cities.  Can you imagine his weeping over Damascus?  Can you imagine his weeping over Iran?  Can you imagine his weeping over Baghdad?  Can you imagine his weeping over Washington, D.C., New York City, Los Angeles, or Spartanburg?

Consider this scene.  Here is our Savior riding a donkey, with legs dangling, eyes burning, tears streaking his face, and a crowd shouting, “Hosanna, the one who saves!”  Jesus looked so foolish in his coming-out party, in his public appearance, in his debut as a King.  The people calling Jesus “King” and waving palm branches also looked foolish.  They did not even afford their King the dignity given Quasimodo as the King of Fools or the dignity given the King for a Day at Mardi Gras in New Orleans.  This King was a laughing stock.

By Friday, Jesus appeared in another procession, this time with no donkey.  We see Jesus now struggling as he carried a cross and fell under its weight.  We see his body, which had been stripped and beaten.  We see his body, which was dripping with blood from his wounds.  We see none of the dignity and the modesty Renaissance artists afforded him in their depictions.  We see Jesus crucified and a sign printed with the word “King” in several languages.  We see those disciples, who had followed Jesus for three years, hoping against hope that he was the Messiah. How foolish!  These events would not make much sense to anyone who saw them.  As these events unfolded, it all looked so foolish, like everything was lost.  If we do not rush ahead to the joy of resurrection, if we will take in all that happened between Palm Sunday and Easter, we see just how foolish all of this must have looked.  Of course, we will gather here next Sunday and celebrate a victory, but it is a little too early for that celebration.  There is too much between now and then.

Paul wrote about the foolishness in I Corinthians 1:1:  “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing; but to those who are being saved, it is the power of God.”  Jews demanded miraculous signs.  The Greeks looked for wisdom.  We preach that Christ was crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles.  To those whom God has called – both Jews and Greeks – Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God.  God has chosen the foolish things of this world to confound the wise.

Consider Jesus’ statement:  “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.  Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good will it be for you if you gain the whole world and lose your soul?” (Luke 9:23-25). Those words sound like a riddle without an understanding of the roots auton and pseuche, which are used in the riddle.  Auton means selfishness.  We get from that root the word “autonomy.”  Jesus’ statement means that a person who wants to save his auton, his selfish self, will lose his pseuche, his soul, the essence of life.  A person willing to give up the selfish self, the auton, will save his pseuche.  The words of Jesus are not so much a riddle when you understand those two words.  The truth is that most of us nurture the selfish self at the expense of our very soul.

I have mentioned before that I met a man at the Louisville General Hospital whose stomach, intestinal tract, was riddled with bleeding ulcers.  This high-powered, hard-driving man with a type-A personality was furious that he was sick and confined to hospital bed.  At the request of his doctor, I tried to talk with him.  After listening to his complaints, I finally asked, “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his stomach lining?  What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his family?  What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul?”

Jim Elliott and four of his friends, all missionaries, wanted to minister to a tribe of Indians in Ecuador, a tribe that had been previously unreached by the gospel.  The group made several attempts – the first by airplane and then by establishing a base camp.  They thought they had made friends with one of the Indians.  Then on January 8, 1956, a group of native warriors overwhelmed and killed Jim and his four companions.  Jim’s wife, Elizabeth, latter found his journal, containing these words in the last entry, “That person is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep in order to gain what he cannot lose.”

Following Christ means giving up that selfish self and gaining a soul, gaining salvation.

As foolish as Jesus may look, have you followed him?  As foolish as some people may think you are, have you followed Jesus?  Have you made the one decision that matters most, acknowledging Christ Jesus as your Savior?  If you have never made that decision, today is the day.  You respond.

Kirk H. Neely
© April 2012

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