Luke 23:26; Mark 15:21; Romans 16:13
Do you want your story to be about more than just you? Do you want to be a part of something bigger than yourself? The sermon this morning is three points, which is really two points, but it’s all wrapped up in stories and you can’t pull the truth out from the story. But, as we start, here are the points: 1. Do what you do. 2. God will find you. 3. Follow him.
Today I want to tell you a few stories about everyday openness to God: people doing what they were doing, encountering God, then following him and finding a legacy that is much bigger than themselves. The first one is about a man that many of you have heard of. The second is about someone none of you know.
The Gospel-writer Luke [23:26] tells us only one line about this first guy:
“As the soldiers led [Jesus] away [to be crucified], they seized Simon from Cyrene, who was on his way in from the country, and put the cross on him and made him carry it behind Jesus.”
Mark, in his Gospel [15:21], gives us just a little more information:
“A certain man from Cyrene, Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus, was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross.”
Simon of Cyrene is a man who pictures prominently in the gospel story because he was walking into Jerusalem at just the right time. For reference, Cyrene is over 1500 km away from Jerusalem—it’s on the north coast of the modern-day country of Libya, on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. The journey from Cyrene to Jerusalem was a journey of days by sea and more than a week walking or riding on land. And Simon arrives in Jerusalem at just the right time to be conscripted into carrying Jesus’ cross.
If I’m honest, this doesn’t seem like much of a story. Certainly, it happened, so perhaps it’s worth saying just for that reason. But not everything that happened to Jesus was included in the Gospels. So why include it? What’s more, why would Mark includes even more detail: Simon is not only from Cyrene; Simeon is the father of Alexander and Rufus.
Mark and the other gospel writers are wise. They are not including random details or saying random words just for the fun of it. Luke tells us that Simon is from Cyrene and Mark tells us that Simon is the father of Alexander and Rufus because Luke’s audience know where Cyrene is—there were many Jews there at the time he wrote—and Mark’s readers know who Alexander and Rufus are! This is not random details.
Well, Paul ends his letter to the church in Rome by sending greetings to a big long list of people. One of the people he greets is Rufus! He says, “Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and his mother, who has been a mother to me, too” [Romans 16:13]. This is very likely the same Rufus who is mentioned in Mark as the son of Simon of Cyrene; which makes Rufus’ mother Simon’s wife. What can we learn from this or understand from this?
Simon of Cyrene had made this long journey to Jerusalem. Whatever his purpose in the city, maybe business, maybe even a religious pilgrimage, Simon met Jesus. Somehow, that encounter with Jesus changed him. Simon was literally forced to follow behind Jesus, to carry Jesus’ cross. For only about 600 meters, Simon carried Jesus’ cross and he followed directly behind him. Luke tells us that. Jesus had called his disciples to follow directly behind him and for 3 years they learned all they could! Then, Simon was forced to follow Jesus for one day—really only for a distance of about 600 metres. Can you imagine carrying a heavy weight, staring at the back of Jesus? Your mind is busy and full of all the plans you have for the day—you are going to go shopping later and you have some business to take care of. Maybe you’ll stop by a place of worship too! And your loved ones are back at home! All of this is interrupted as you are forced to follow behind Jesus and focus only on the task at hand. Who is this man? Why is this happening to him? What did he do? And can you imagine the conversation when finally you make the return journey and your wife asks you, “How was your trip?”
We do not know any of the details of Simon’s life after he met Jesus, but we read in Romans about the legacy of Simon’s life. When Simon met Jesus, the trajectory of his life altered. Until then, he was going about his own business; but after he met Jesus, he began following him for 600 meters. But somehow, he kept following the way of Jesus. As he went home, he was still following Jesus. As he talked with his wife and raised his sons, he was still following Jesus. At some point, Simon’s wife and at least one of his sons began following Jesus too, even when Rufus moved across the Mediterranean Sea to Rome. We do not know what happened to Simon after he returned home, but we know that his wife cared for Paul. This is yet another example of what I talked about two weeks ago: how Jesus re-orders family around obedience to God: “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my mother and brother and sister.” Paul says that Rufus’ mother “has been a mother to me too”. Paul did not have a brief encounter with Simon’s family, but a deep and meaningful connection, characterized by sharing, giving, care, service, and support.
This is yet also another example of God shaping a spiritual family and growing his kingdom with people, with members, and with partners from different ethnic groups—in this case, men and women who are Africans and Greeks.
But my main point is that all of this happened because at just the right time, God brought one man to just the right place so that his life would begin to be changed. Had Simon arrived in Jerusalem an hour earlier or later, he would have missed the procession, he would not have been forced to follow Jesus or to carry the cross, he would have missed the procession out of the city. In other words, without God’s intervention and planning, Simon’s life would have carried on exactly how he (Simon) planned it, and it would have come to far less in the grand scheme of things. This may all seem like coincidence, but Christians do not believe in coincidence—we believe in God’s providence. We believe that God is in charge of this world and that he is working all things for good. Even things in Simon’s life. Even things in your life!
God organized and worked that Simon would encounter him. Simon’s openness to God when he encountered Jesus led to a transformation in his family—his wife and sons—and also a transformation in Cyrene in Libya—and even an effect on the apostle Paul and on the city of Rome when his son moved there years later. This is how change and how movements always start—they begin life on life. Movements do not begin with someone behind a microphone. Movements begin with thousands of little details and someone gives their life to someone else in a real embodied way. And the gift is passed on to a few more, and a few more, and a few more, until it swells to millions. One minister wrote that, “Whenever our will meets God’s will, there will always be a cross.” (Howard Edington. The Word Made Fresh.). This was true for Simon; there was literally a cross. But it is true for all of us too.
One more story: Last fall, I visited Kaylee and my friends Andrew and Gerda in Spain. Then, in February, I returned for Andrew’s funeral after he died suddenly. Like Simon from Cyrene, Andrew met Jesus on a long journey after leaving home. He was brought up on Praetoria, South Africa. His dad was actually a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa. Andrew was taught as a child that white people like him were better than people of other ethnicities, simply because of their skin colour. And this was in the church! Years later, as he was training to be a lawyer, Andrew began to travel. During his work in other countries, God opened his eyes and showed him that all people are created equal. Andrew would say, “God broke my mind-shackles.” These trips were not especially long; but Andrew was open to God’s leading and began to follow him fully. Andrew and his wife Gerda talked for hours, for years about how to give their life to God and to others. They served all people and learned from and with many diverse people. They sent many students on mission trips—from the US to Spain and South America, and from Spain to Africa and the US—all intending that God could open their eyes and minds as well, that these students would meet God working in the world and decide to follow Jesus fully.
When I visited Gerda for Andrew’s funeral, I thanked her for how she and Andrew had been like parents to me during several years of my life, when we lived in the same town in Colorado. And even after Andrew’s death, the ministry he started to introduce students to Jesus locally, nationally, and internationally continues. Others have continued his work to help students open their eyes and their minds and meet God working in the world and decide to follow Jesus fully. All of this happened because Andrew was doing what he was doing; God found him and showed himself to Andrew. And Andrew (and Gerda) followed him more and more.
Funerals remind us of many things, including that we cannot write down in a few words or pages the total of what a person means to us and how they impact us. I cannot tell you all the details or meaning in my relationship with Andrew; just as we cannot know all the details of the life of Simon of Cyrene. But we can see the impact of the life of someone who encountered God and who remained open to God as the followed Jesus more fully day after day and year after year.
We know only part of the story of Simon’s cross. And I know only part of the story of Andrew’s cross, where his will met God’s will. You each know only part of your story as well—much still waits to be written. It is easier to tell the story of someone whose life is over and whose story is finished. While we continue living, it is much harder to try to pull together all the threads of our life and figure out which are most significant. But also, we can usually see better the impact of someone’s life as people around them grow up, develop, and as they are changed by a person’s encounter with God. The stories of our lives are told over decades, not minutes. But the minutes and days define what the point or goal of our story will be.
If you want to be a part of something bigger than yourself, you need only to do what you do. But while you are doing it, remain open to God. Because God will find you. We believe that God will continue to show himself to you and to invite you to see higher and further and differently. God will call you to follow him and you will have to decide in one moment—but also in every moment—whether you really want to work for something bigger than yourself, or if you are content simply serving your own desires.
Where your will meets God’s will, there will always be a cross. But Jesus will be right in front of you, leading you forward to the place where he will forgive you and redeem you, restore you, and give you greater honour, a greater legacy as part of a greater story!
As we close, I will challenge you not only to remain open to God, but to give yourself more fully to God every time you see him at work; because you may have plans for yourself, but God’s plans are better. You may have hopes for your children, but God’s hopes are bigger. You may be good at making connections; God will connect you with people and with his power—fare greater than you can find on your own. And you may (you will!) be afraid along the way. With Simon, you may be mistreated or forced for a short time—but God will protect and guard and guide you far better than you can yourself.
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