Sunday, September 16, 2012

Do You Hear Me? (Mark 8:27-38 Sermon)


Preamble-ly comments:

1. No one got the joke about Peter.
2. I don't know why I'm surprised that I so often preach "death is not the last word" sermons.  I shouldn't be, should I?
3. I'm giving up on trying to wrestle with Blogger on the margins and indentations.  Whatever.


I want you to try to imagine something this morning.  I know that for most of you it will be impossible; most of you have been hearing about Jesus all of your lives. You know the story; you know what happens to him; you know how it turns out in the end.  You take it for granted.  But today, I want you to imagine that you don’t know it.  That you’ve never heard it.  For one or two of you, that may even be the case, and this won’t be such a challenging assignment.  But for the rest of you, it will be, and so I ask you: Pretend.  Try to situate yourself in a place, in your mind and heart, in which you know nothing about Jesus.

Except for a few beginning things.  Imagine that you live, you, yourself, whoever you are, in the Mideast of the first century.  You have lived an ordinary life; you are a farmer – although you plant vineyards rather than corn, and your livestock consists of a couple of donkeys rather than a barn filled with cows.  Or you are a homemaker – which means that you cook over an open fire rather than on a stove.  Or you work in the first century version of an office, which is to say that you are a craftsperson: you are a carpenter, or a potter, or a weaver, or a fisherman. But you are still you.

And you do know a few things about Jesus: You know that he is a very compelling person.  A startlingly charismatic person.  A person who by the very force of his personality drew you into his circle of followers one day, a few years ago.  You were just going about your business --- you were leading your donkey down the road; or you were sitting by the water well, talking with a group of friends; or you were delivering fresh bread to your housebound neighbor – when this Jesus came along and invited you to join him.  And something, some kind of gut feeling, told you to follow him.
And so that’s what you’ve been doing.  And as you’ve followed him, you’ve seen, and sometimes heard about, extraordinary things.  Healings of body and mind.  Storms stilled and the lake becoming a footpath.  Meals served to thousands, seemingly out of thin air. 

Quite naturally, gossip has arisen.  This Jesus – he wandered out of Nazareth one day and began to perform these extraordinary deeds.  And so you and your friends have begun to whisper.  Is it possible?  Is he the one?  For generations, your people have dreamed of a messiah, of a Christ – which means “anointed one.”  You have dreamed of one anointed by God who will come and liberate you from the oppression of the Roman state that has weighed you down for two centuries.  You have dreamed of a messiah so powerful that you can throw off the burden of centuries of conflict and captivity, centuries of memory of slavery and suffering.  A messiah greater than the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and the Romans.  The greatest political and military leader the world has ever seen.

But – to tell the truth – when you look at Jesus, the whole idea seems unlikely.  Jesus doesn’t seem to have any interest at all in politics.  He doesn’t seem to care what form the government takes, or who runs it.  And he hasn’t shown any interest in a military career, either.  Jesus hasn’t been to boot camp; he hasn’t signed up for officer training school.  He owns no weapons and the only boats on which he’s been seen are fishing boats.

You know, because you’ve heard it all of your life, that God is going to send a great liberator.  Someone who will establish God’s own kingdom here on earth.  But it seems doubtful that Jesus would be that person.

And yet the background noise continues: the whispering, the gossip, the hopeful wondering.  Until one day Jesus turns around and says, “Who do people say that I am?”

Odd question, you think.  Jesus hasn’t been much concerned with what other people think; why does he care now?  And the answers – maybe those are a little odd as well.  John the Baptist, that great proclaimer of the coming of – of what, exactly?  He was Jesus’s cousin, but he ended up dead, his head on a platter.    Elijah, one of the greatest of the prophets, one of God’s most dramatic spokesmen – carried up to the heavens and never seen again.  Other prophets – yes, great spokespeople for God – well, you suppose, perhaps it makes sense that one of them has returned, and somehow been reincarnated into Jesus of Nazareth. 

Truthfully, you don’t know what to think.  Jesus himself doesn’t seem particularly impressed with the answers he’s getting.  So he turns again to his disciples, his closest friends, his inner circle, and he asks, “Who do you think I am?”

Now that fellow Peter – you know who he is.  The most impulsive one of them all.  He’s always moving too quickly, speaking too fast.  No filters, that one.  Whatever pops into his mind, he says.  It’s clear that he has no potential for leadership whatever.  But what comes out of his mouth this time? Well, maybe it’s not so surprising.  Peter is the most likely candidate to burst out with what’s been on everyone else’s mind for some time now. 

“You are the Christ!” he says.  “You are the anointed one!”

Oh, the look on Jesus’s face!  That was the WRONG thing for Peter to say. Jesus tells him, along with everyone else, not to repeat what Peter has said.

 But it gets worse.  Because then Jesus takes advantage of the opening Peter has given him, and begins to talk, for the very first time, about what is going to happen to him.  Now remember, you don’t know this story.  The year is 33, not 2012.  You have no idea what to expect.  And all the talk about a messiah – you do know what that means: Victory!  Military triumph!  Political achievement!  You are thinking about white horses and gleaming helmets and shining swords; you are thinking about the downfall of the Romans and the glorious temple, and Jesus says – he says –

“The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”
               
 What?  You must have misheard him.  Suffering?  Rejection?  Death?  What does this have to do with messsiahship? 
                
And it gets even worse.  Because Peter also thinks that Jesus has misspoken, and he voices the feelings of all: Jesus is wrong.  Jesus clearly does not understand what it is to be the messiah.  And this time, Jesus calls Peter Satan!  “Get behind me, Satan!” he orders.  And now, on a roll, he begins to talk for the very first time about what it means to follow him:
              
 “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
               
 Now remember, you have never heard or considered any of this before.  You are in complete shock.  Take up our cross? What does that mean?
               
 For us, safely ensconced in 21st century, the threat is not great.  How do we think about the cross?  Look at the one we have up here – all polished and shiny.  Really pretty.  Many of us, women and men alike, wear crosses as jewelry, as pendants on necklaces or as brooches, maybe even as earrings.  As a Christian symbol, the cross can seem pretty innocuous.
               
 But back to your imaginary first century self: the cross is a symbol of brutal oppression, of great suffering.  Crucifixion was a Roman form of execution, imposed only on those who were not Roman citizens – which meant slaves, and immigrants, and Jews, and other subjugated people.  It was designed to punish sedition – treason and opposition to the government – by terrorizing and torturing.  Those who were killed by crucifixion died a long and lonely death:  taken to the outskirts of town, publicly humiliated, and left to die, their bodies to be tossed aside.  This gleaming cross in our sanctuary doesn’t begin to hint at the real thing – heavy, and dirty, and splintered, and tortuous.
              
 Take up our crosses?  Jesus cannot possibly mean that.

But here it is, at the center of the Gospel of Mark and at the center of our Christian faith: take up your cross and follow me.  And so think about it for a moment.  You probably will not be asked to die for Christ.  You probably will not be asked to die for anyone – although, in this time of warfare, it’s possible that people you love will be asked to place their lives on the line.  If that’s the case for you, then you have an idea of the cross and its connection to death.  If not, well: What are the other crosses we bear? What crosses do you observe others bearing?

What does it mean, to draw close to this Jesus?  I would suggest to you that it means two major things.  First, there is no question that when we serve others, we draw closer to him. Jesus himself tells us, “When you care for the least, so you care for me.”  When you see and feed the hungry, when you see and house the homeless, when you see and visit the imprisoned – you have seen me, cared for me, and acted on my behalf.

But there is a second way of drawing closer to Jesus, and it occurs when we ourselves suffer.  When you are the one standing at the graveside, when you are the one submitting to treatment in the hospital, when you are the one struggling to walk down your driveway – when you are that person, then you are closer to Jesus than ever.  When you are that person, you are coming closer to understanding his priorities, his desires, his decisions – to walk just as we walk, to live just as we live, to suffer just as we suffer.  When you are that person, you are being invited to understand what he says on this day; you are being invited to participate in his life as he participates in yours.
               
 What kind of discipleship is this?  Yes, we would prefer the kind that involves joining Jesus on a mountaintop, enjoying the view and taking note of the crises far below as we relax on our thrones.  But that’s not the life to which Jesus calls us.  Jesus calls us into the muck of life, into the sadness of life, into the struggles of life.  We are there anyway, of course, but he calls us to be there with him.
                
But then – but then – do you hear what he says?  What he first says to Peter?  I think that Peter – just like your own stunned first century self – is so horrified by Jesus’s prediction of suffering and rejection and death, so determined to deny what he’s heard – and remember, Peter is the master of denial – that he doesn’t, and maybe you don’t either, hear the full sentence.
              
 “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”
               
Did you hear it this time?  What’s that last verb?
                
Rise.  He will rise again.
                
Yes, there will be rejection and suffering and death.  Yes, Jesus will endure those things, just as we do.  Yes, our own suffering invites us into a deeper, closer relationship with him.
              
 But they are not the final words.  Death is not the end of the story.
              
 Peter doesn’t hear it.  Maybe your first century self doesn’t either.  It’s more preposterous, more unlikely, more bewildering than the suffering and death.  But there it is. 
                
He will rise again.  And so will we.

Thanks be to God.

1 comment:

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