Mark 8:31-38
The Rev. Adele K. Langworthy, preaching
February 25, 2018

We desperately want Jesus to walk with us. We desperately need Jesus to walk with us. There is no impediment to walking with Jesus from His side, for He is always eager to share life with us and always faithful to His promises to be there for us. If we are not walking with Jesus, the hindrance comes from our side, for we are not always eager to share life with Him and not always faithful to our responsibilities to do our part. There is no question whether Jesus will walk with us if we let him, but we may refuse to let Him. For He cannot walk with us if we don’t let Him take the lead in our journey together and follow Him as our Leader.

David Gibson of Idaho tells this story, “My friend bought a 19-foot jet boat and invited me along for her maiden voyage. The boat is made of steel and fitted with a V-8 engine. We put the boat in the North Fork of the Snake River. The water was quite low because of a drought and heavy irrigation. We eased the throttle up until we were going 35 miles per hour. We grinned at each other as we raced across the water’s surface. Suddenly we hit a hidden sandbar, and the boat came to an abrupt stop. We stepped onto the sandbar, barely covered with one inch of water. Another boater came along, and after three hours of digging and pushing, we once again had my friend’s boat floating in the open channel. The boater who rescued us offered to lead us back to the landing since he knew the river well. He instructed us to follow exactly behind him so we would avoid hidden sand and gravel bars.

“Our leader pushed his boat up to 35 miles per hour, we fell in behind him, and once again we enjoyed the power of the machine as it skimmed over the water. After a couple of minutes, my friend steered our boat just a few feet to the right of where the lead boat had gone. Within seconds, we hit a gravel bar, and I was thrown into the windshield, injuring myself and busting the windshield. When the lead boat came back, the driver reminded us, ‘I told you to follow me.’”

If only David and his friend had trusted the leader, if only they had not ventured even slightly off the route the leader carefully took them on!

Jesus, in our passage today, tells us what it means to follow him. He gives us the three steps needed to be taken in order to stay on the route He sets for us — so we don’t get caught in the ‘sandbars and gravelbars’ of life, the snares of temptation.

The three steps can be abused and misused, but when followed in the purest sense, with Jesus as leader, they yield a rich and fulfilling life, one that God intends for us.

The three steps are: deny yourself, take up the cross, and follow Jesus.

To deny yourself is to keep your self in check—letting Jesus be Lord of your life and guide where you go and what you do. Denying yourself does not mean allowing someone to hurt you for no good reason, giving your things to other people just because they demand that you give them to them, or letting someone bully you. Denying yourself means putting Jesus ahead of you and doing whatever he asks you to do. It means saying No to your selfishness, your meanness, your defiance of legitimate authority, or any other attitude that displeases Jesus.

To take up the cross is to bear the cost of doing God’s will. It means that you do what is good and right in the eyes of God, responding or reacting as would Jesus, and you face the consequences of your actions.

To follow Jesus is to go wherever He leads you even if it seems to go against your self-interest and takes you away from what you think best for yourself.

William Barclay writes, “God gave us life to spend and not to keep. If we live carefully, always thinking first of our own profit, ease, comfort, security, if our sole aim is to make life as long and as trouble-free as possible, if we will make no effort except for ourselves, we are losing life all the time. But if we spend life for others, if we forget health and time and wealth and comfort in our desire to do something for Jesus and for the men for whom Jesus died, we are winning life all the time.”

To follow Jesus is to put His wishes and plans first, even when doing so seems to hurt your chances for happiness — and to end up doing the best for yourself as a result!

Billy Graham, the greatest evangelist of the 20th century, entered the Church Triumphant this past week at the age of 99. Karen Kingsbury writes of Billy:  Billy and Ruth Bell’s early love story didn’t unfold at all the way a romance writer might have penned it. There were no flirtatious winks across the room, no mushy meetings between classes, no plaintive pledges of undying love. They were far more serious about pursuing Jesus than each other.

“In some ways, their courtship—and, eventually, their marriage—was an answer to Ruth’s prayer as a young girl: that God would let her live out her days as a missionary. She was 12, the daughter of a medical missionary in China, and she pictured herself an old maid, leading Tibetan people to the Lord. The more difficult the mission field, the better.

God answered her prayer, but not by giving her a post in Tibet.

He gave her Billy Graham.

There was nothing flowery or sentimental about their meeting, courtship, or marriage, nothing of a traditional romance. The sacrifices made for love were not made for each other, but for the sake of the call to serve Christ alone.

By the time they met at Wheaton College, Ruth had lived in China all but her last two years of high school. She was cultured, strikingly beautiful, and driven to deep devotions each day before sun-up. She had no interest in the guys who couldn’t help but stare at her; dating was out of the question.

Billy noticed Ruth long before she knew anything of him. That fall, Billy wrote to his family back home about the girl who had caught his attention. When a third party finally introduced the two, Billy was so taken by Ruth that he wrote home again, this time saying he’d fallen in love.

Now he only had to work up the courage to ask her out.

But Ruth wasn’t interested, that much was apparent. But Billy wasn’t dissuaded. With the gift of persuasion he would later use to lead millions to Jesus, Billy went about winning the unattainable Ruth.

When he took part in a small-group Bible study that Ruth attended, he prayed aloud, fervently and with passion. Suddenly he had Ruth’s attention; she had never heard anyone pray with such feeling. She could see that Billy’s deep relationship with the Lord was like only one other Ruth knew: her own.

When Billy found the courage to ask Ruth to accompany him to a performance of Handel’s Messiah, Ruth said yes. Afterward, they walked along a snow-covered path to a professor’s house for tea. For Billy, the night was magical. Again he wrote home, this time declaring that he would marry Ruth.

Ruth kept her feelings to herself, but she was just as changed by that first date. That night, she changed her prayer. Instead of seeking an arduous place in the mission fields of Tibet, she asked God to let her serve him with Billy Graham.

But Billy had begun to doubt himself. How could he win over such a girl? His insecurity kept him away for six weeks, and when he finally asked her out again, he expressed his hesitancy. He didn’t share her interest in the mission field and didn’t want to hinder her.

He said he was willing to walk away if Ruth felt called to Tibet.

“I’ve asked God to give you to me if that’s his will,” Billy said. “But I’ve also asked him to keep me from loving you if that would be best for both of us.”

Over the ensuing months, it wasn’t romance or sweet talk or shows of sentimentality that drew Ruth to accept Billy’s proposal of marriage. Rather she felt God calling her to be Billy’s wife. In what may have seemed more like a ministerial partnership than a glorious love story, they were married. But the glorious love story most certainly followed.

Being married to Billy meant sometimes six months or longer without seeing him, even as their five children came along. From early on, Billy made it clear that preaching and evangelizing took first place in his life. Typically Ruth handled that with feisty determination. But one day she read a letter from a missionary who wrote, “It must be glamorous to be the wife of a well-known evangelist. I’m just stuck here with my husband.” Ruth’s eyes welled as she told a friend, “At least she’s with her husband.”

Being married to Billy was a mixed blessing. It was a marriage in which love was always fresh and new, since Billy was often away. It also wasn’t far from the old maid life Ruth had prayed for. But she would tell anyone who asked that she would rather have Billy part-time than anybody else full-time.

Though she was a strong nurturer and disciplinarian of their children—often playing both mother and father to them—she regularly asked God for wisdom on how to better live out her calling. Often that wisdom came in the form of practical, even comical, advice to her husband. When he was considering a career in politics, Ruth said, “I don’t think the American people would vote for a divorced president, and if you leave ministry for politics, you will certainly have a divorce on your hands.”

Though his ministry cost Ruth much, she wouldn’t have had it any other way. Ruth was Billy’s lifelong bedrock, often speaking up to offer advice, yet she just as often stayed silent so that he could focus on his mission.

“There would have been no Billy Graham … had it not been for Ruth,” said the late T. W. Wilson, a key member of Graham’s staff, in A Prophet with Honor, William Martin’s biography of the evangelist.

With Ruth to keep him grounded, Billy could easily admit publicly that he was merely a sinner saved by grace, and that he had to constantly seek the Lord for forgiveness. It has been noted that their sins were not those that plagued other famous evangelists, and maybe that was why they both excelled at their calling. They did not struggle with immorality or financial disgrace, but with ever attempting to live a life worthy of their holy God and Savior.

Time proved that Billy and Ruth were indeed made for each other. As they reached their later years, something amazing happened: They found romance. The love story that did not mark their beginning marked their twilight years.

Shortly before Ruth died in 2007, after almost 64 years of marriage, Billy said, “I am more in love with Ruth now than ever before.”

For those who knew them, Billy’s words came as no surprise, because God blesses those who follow his call. Billy’s mission field was the world; Ruth’s was the faces around their dining room table. But in the end, they served out their separate callings in a way that brought them together.

Ruth and Billy found love born of a passion to serve Christ—in humility, whatever the cost. They set about that endeavor almost as teammates driven to a common goal. Maybe that’s why their marriage stands as a beacon of faithfulness in a world of shallow commitments. Because their love came as a result of the greatest calling. The call to follow Christ.

Each of us can be as happy as Ruth and Billy. But to be as they we have to decide, as they did, to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow our Leader however and wherever He leads us.

Jesus is now calling each of you. I invite you to reflect on your call and to answer it with a resounding Yes!, as together we sing “Will You Come and Follow Me?”, hymn number 726.

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