Saturday, March 21, 2009

Preparing the Way Mark 8:31-38

Below is the draft of Sunday's message. It calls us to prepare for Easter and to give ourselves in radical discipleship. Let me know what you think.
Grace and Peace, Tom

The calendar has begun to move us rapidly toward Easter. In a few short weeks we will sing the “hosannas” of Palm Sunday and the “hallelujahs” of Easter morning. We come to these celebrations from this side of the empty tomb. We know how the story ends. The disciples that walked every day with Jesus did not get this luxury. They lived in the midst of the moment. Jesus tried to prepare them, but they had a hard time hearing. Finally one day he spoke plainly to them. He broke the hard news of what awaited him in Jerusalem.

It is hard to hear bad news. When someone walks into my office and begins a conversation with the question; “I have good news and bad news, which one do you want to hear first?” My immediate reaction is “tell me the good news and skip the bad news.” You know, despite what I say they always stay long enough to give me both the good and the bad news. I listen, but I do not like it.

I have discovered that I am not unique. Most of us cringe when the dentist looks at us and tells us, “I need to talk you about what we need to do next” or when the doctor says, “I have your test results, why don’t you sit down and let’s talk about them.” Those moments put a knot in our stomachs and can make our hearts skip a beat. As we begin to draw toward Easter, and as the disciples drew close to Jerusalem, we hear Jesus try to prepare them – and us – for the days that just ahead. Look for me at Mark 8:31-38. It reads; 31He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. 32He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.

33But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. "Get behind me, Satan!" he said. "You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men."

34Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35For whoever wants to save his life
will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. 36What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? 37Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? 38If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father's glory with the holy angels."

This is one of the passages where we hear Jesus trying to help prepare his disciples for his impending crucifixion and the resurrection. He is clear but they struggle to understand. It is more than they can imagine. If we are honest, even on this side of the empty tomb, it is almost more than we can imagine. How could Jesus – Emanuel – God with us, choose to claim the brutal pain of a Roman cross.

I. Hard Words to Hear vs. 31-33
This passage finds its place in scripture just after Peter has made his grand pronouncement of Jesus as the Christ. What should have been a moment of celebration turns in a moment of angst. Hear again; 31He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. 32He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. Peter cannot bear to stand to hear what Jesus has to say. With Peter’s dramatic confession of Jesus as the Messiah he would have also begun to understand the possible implications of the confession. If Jesus was the Messiah as they had understood it, then Jesus would usher in a military kingdom, claim the restoration of the nation, and his disciples would be at the forefront of what lied ahead. It was going to be great![i] In sharp contrast, Jesus offers a picture of conflict and death. The suffering and dying of the Messiah would have been completely foreign to their ears. The Messiah was supposed to come to conquer and establish a reign of God. How would this be possible? Let’s be honest, sometimes we find ourselves in Peter. We come to God with expectations – with our own agendas – and we expect God to deliver. We expect God’s blessing. We expect God’s protection. We expect God’s provision. We come expecting – and are sometimes shocked to discover God’s plan and our plans are not the same.

The next moment is a dramatic one. Jesus so upsets Peter that he pulls Jesus aside and rebukes him. “Rebuke” is not one of those words we use every day. In fact, even in scripture it is usually reserved for a spiritual context – like when Jesus rebukes a demon. Peter was so captivated by his own agenda that he challenges Jesus and demands he reconsiders what he has said. Every time someone besides Jesus "rebukes," they are proven to be wrong.[ii] Jesus wanted his disciples to understand but their own agendas kept getting in the way. He also understood that everyone would bring their own agenda to cross. He cannot allow the disciples to shape the journey that awaited him. Jesus immediately turned the table on Peter. Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. "Get behind me, Satan!" he said. "You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men." Can you imagine how these words would have stung Peter? Can you imagine the shock on the faces of the disciples? Can you imagine what it must felt like for the disciples to hear where they had hoped for glory they would find chaos, conflict, and death? We hear this passage from this side of the empty tomb. Can you imagine how a Galilean fisherman might hear the promise of resurrection?

Each Easter season Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ its way to movie screens, church halls and selected television broadcast. It is a powerful and painful movie to witness. But, one of the great flaws in Mel Gibson’s movie is that it seems to imply that the Holy Week story that carries Jesus from the Garden to mock trials, brutal beatings, and ultimately the cross is a story of something that HAPPENED to Jesus. If you listen to a chorus of preachers you would think Jesus was a hapless victim of the cruelty of humanity and the vengeful nature of God. They are wrong. Jesus knew exactly what he was getting into and chooses it as the means of redemption. Peoples’ agenda would have to give way to obedience to God. Chaos and conflict would have to give way to peace. The cross would have to give way to the power of resurrection – the witness of the empty tomb. [iii]

OK, I know it must seem to some of you that I am jumping the gun on an Easter sermon – after all, I am already mentioning the cross and resurrection. But what I want you to hear it that Jesus was talking about it long before that dramatic week in Jerusalem. He wanted his disciples prepared for what they were going to face. He wanted them to be prepared for what would be demanded of his follower on the other side of the resurrection. Jesus wanted his disciples and the crowd to understand that the idea of radical followship was not uniquely his.

II. Get Ready vs.34-38
In the second half or our passage we hear Jesus choose his words very carefully. There are three phrases he claims I want to focus on for just a moment. The first is the phrase is where he calls his followers to “deny himself” Jesus wanted those gathered around him to understand that the radical followship would require them to change their orientation. They were going to be expected to dump their personal agendas – to put self aside. This becomes crystal clear in the second phrase, “take up his cross.” Jesus claims the picture of the most hated, most vile symbol of Roman oppression, the cross, to show them the depths discipleship. He wants them to understand that they will have to choose to pick up their cross – and will model what that looks like in his own Jerusalem moment. Occasionally you will hear someone profoundly misunderstand this idea. They will say things like; “my arthritis is just my cross to bear”…..or “my boss is a jerk, but that is just my cross to carry.” Jesus had something much deeper in mind. It was not about dealing with our life pains or professional discomforts; it is about taking up the kind of discipleship that dies to self – every aspect of self – for the sake of radical obedience to God. It is about throwing out our agendas – our well crafted plans – our expectations of economic success and community recognition. He shows that in the third phrase; “and follow me.” “Follow me” claims a verb form that implies a continuing action – a habit – of following.[iv]

When you wrap these three together you begin to understand that Jesus was calling his followers to the kind of faith that would compel them to set self aside, to take up a self giving way of life where radical followship is the normal, natural result; where our habit is to follow faithfully follow God. Jesus goes on to teach them that it was not about what you could claim as your own – but who claims you as His own. That this kind of faith is not something we would earn or buy – but is expressed in its daily living out of life. It is the kind of faith that will prepare us for the chaos of the streets of Jerusalem, will allow us to tremble at the feet of the cross, and rejoice at the site of the empty tomb. It is the kind of faith born in a Christ who chooses to claim his cross on our behalf and then bring us into the hope and the power of the resurrection.

I saw this kind of faith in the voice of a student from Southern India who is ready to leave his family and his culture and risk his life to share the Easter story in the Muslim dominated north of his country. I saw it in the face of a young Chin woman who will lead a children’s ministry among the Burmese – because she loves them and wants them to know Jesus –even though it might lead to her arrest. We will not face these kinds of dramatic choices, but the call to follow at all cost still echoes for us. We find it when realize that God does not want parts of our life – or even our best – but all of us. Jesus wanted his disciples to understand quest for this kind of radical discipleship will how they would experience the drama of Easter week. He wanted them – and us – to see the cross not only a symbol of agony but also a place of divine choice. He wanted them to understand that the empty tomb will become a place of miraculous hope and life transforming promise. It becomes the strong promise that God is with us and that we live now and for eternity in the midst of God’s presence and power. It becomes the place of promise that will empower them to live as God’s children; a people of radical followship.

We started this service in a time of dedication for four families and their new babes. We agreed to be their family of faith for these families and to model our faith for their children. This is a sacred commitment. It beckons us to live the lives of radical followship that can serve as a living witness to these children and as a source of encouragement to their families. As these children grow they will face a culture where Christianity has been push to the margins and where the values they embrace will be challenged at every front. They will desperately need models of radical followship. The will need to live in the midst of an Easter people who live in the shadow of the cross and the power of the resurrection.

It is time to hear the hard words of Jesus that will draw him to the cross and draws us to the empty tomb. It is time to begin preparing the way to claim lives of radical followship born in the Easter story. It is time to begin preparing ourselves for Easter – for its agony – its joy – and its call to follow. Its time…..[v] Let’s pray.

[i] Influenced by Culpepper, Alan R. “Mark,” Smyth and Helwys Bible Commentary, (Smyth and Helwys: Macon, GA, 2007), p.286.
[ii] Available online at, 2009.
[iii] Influenced by Jung, Carl Gustav, from “Psychoanalysis and the Cure of the Soul” cited as a supporting quotation in “The Ministry of Reconciliation: The Cross of Changes” published in the biweekly newsletter of Le Penseur Reflechit on December 22, 2008.
[iv] Turlington, Henry E. “Mark” The Broadman Bible Commentary: Volume 8, (Broadman Press: Nashville, 1969), p. 337.
[v] Other resources consulted include: Homoletics web resources; “Mark: A Study Guide” by Hershell Hobbs; “Mark” in The New Interpreters Bible; Mark 8:31-38, in Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary's An Exegetical Study of the Common Lectionary, coordinated by Prof. John E. Alsup.

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