Mark 8.31 thru 38
Someone said to me recently that they didn’t like Lent because it was so depressing. They asked, “Why should we try to be so morose when we know full well that Jesus lives and had victory over this crucifixion and death in the end.” I understand that sentiment…it is kind of morbid to be talking about someone being whipped until he was bloody, having a crown of thorns put on His head until blood was streaming down His face, then being nailed to a cross and left to die from suffocation as His chest caved in from hanging by those nails. I mean this did happen two thousand years ago and we all know about it, so it isn’t some kind of news flash. After all, we do know that he rose again in the end, ascended to be with the Father and is now with us today in all His glory. But, would we appreciate what He did for us as much if we weren’t reminded at least once a year of exactly what He did?
There was a brand new pastor that went out to his first call and delivered His very first sermon. He was pretty excited about having done fairly well in delivering the message that morning. Given that it was his first sermon with his new congregation (I know how nerve racking that can be). He was greeting people at the door after the service and one of the more prominent members came up to him to talk to him. This new pastor already knew this man was a large contributor to the congregation and pulled a lot of weight around there so he really wanted to hear what he had to say. The man pulled him aside and told the pastor that, “they didn’t like to hear about all that blood and dying around there and that he would appreciate it if he could keep the sermons a little more cheerful.” I asked myself, in hearing this story, “What would I do in that situation?”
Again, I understand this sentiment. This is not a very cheerful topic and people come to church to be uplifted. The world is depressing enough out there without having to come to church and hear about this bloody death yet another time. All we have to do is turn on the television if we want to hear about bloody death! We can watch it in full color on all the CSI shows or we can hear about it on the news right around the corner or far away in Iraq. We get enough depressing news every day of the week. Do we really need to hear more? After all, this isn’t exactly the best way to bring in new converts or guests that happen to be visiting our church during this Lenten season. This is not a “seeker” kind of sermon that describes Jesus’ suffering and death. Maybe we should make sure we talk about his victory over death and eternal life, that is what people need and want to hear right now. They need to hear the good news…right! Well yes and no.
Let’s look at what Jesus did. Jesus was starting to wrap things up in His ministry here on earth. Our text takes place during His final Galilean ministry and He was now setting his sights on Jerusalem and what He had to do there. Now He could have started telling His disciples about his victory over death and held back the part about undergoing “great suffering” and being “rejected” and being “killed”…but He didn’t. Our text tells us that is exactly what he began to teach them. It sounds as if He told them this in a very straight forward manner. The text tells us that He said it quite openly or in plain terms. He wasn’t glossing over it to make it easier for people to take or to make it more “seeker friendly.” He tells them that He “must” do these things. This is not being said in a way which He was predicting it. But this is showing us that these were things He was intending to do. He was intending to let them do these things to Him! You see, beginning in chapter 8 in Mark, this book is a Lenten book. From here on out Mark records the growing restlessness of Jesus and the increasing confusion of the disciples. They are struggling to understand these dark prophecies of suffering and death.
This is when Peter rebukes Jesus and shows his lack of understanding. Remember this takes place just after Peter has confessed to Jesus, “You are the Christ”! He tells Peter to “Get behind me, Satan!” and that Peter is thinking “not on divine things but on human things.” It is, after all, certainly understandable in human terms that Peter would not want these things to happen to Jesus, Peter’s “Master,” his Rabbi or teacher, the one he has been following for three years. To be fair to Peter, Jesus does use the term “Son of Man” which elicits the Daniel 7 understanding of the Messiah and this term is used in the apocryphal book of Enoch which both speak of a figure who would bring judgment and punishment on the unrighteous and vindication to the righteous. To look at it from our perspective this could be kind of embarrassing. Here he has been following this “Messiah” and now his master is going to be rejected by all the big shots and killed in front of everybody. What would that say about Peter? Is Peter ashamed of Jesus’ words? This does turn out to be what Jesus has to explain is part of following Him and being His disciples. He says to them, “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words”…“the Son of Man will also be ashamed.” Isn’t that what we are showing when we don’t want to talk about His words when it applies to bloody suffering and being nailed to a cross?
There are actually some interesting patterns that take place here in Mark. We have healing and showing Himself as the Son of God, then a passion prediction, then the disciples misunderstand of His passion, then showing Himself as the Son of God again and healing again after two tries showing who He is, then another passion prediction, and again misunderstanding. This happens three times! This not being able to see clearly and having to try twice to get the blind to see, book ended around showing the disciples that He is the Son of God and must suffer and die is interesting isn’t it? There is another way of looking at the pattern. He is not only teaching about who He is, but what it is to be a disciple or follower of Jesus after each of the three misunderstandings of the passion predictions. His passion and our understanding of who His is and what it is to follow Him are very closely tied together.
Lent is all about His passion. We are walking with Him as He walks to Jerusalem to suffer and die. But as He walks He is telling us what it is to follow Him and that He is the Son of God and can do anything. Specifically, in this text, He is telling us that we must deny ourselves and lose our life. That we must take up our cross and follow Him. What does this mean for us? Jesus was making clear that there was a cost to following Him. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer says, “When Christ calls a man he bids him come and die.” We must first let our old self die. This means all of our old self! This is not an easy thing to do. I still have parts of my old self that seem to come alive with memories, even tastes and smells. Discipleship costs our lives just as Christ lost His life. Too many churches today want to proclaim cheap grace that promises secular success and a life of ease to those who follow Christ. Jesus tells us in Mark that there is a clear cost to sharing in His mission. This part that must die is the old self that comes between us and God. We must be willing to give up selfishness and preoccupation with self in order to discover the true self in Christ.
Lent is a lot like communion. We are called by Jesus to prepare our hearts for His death just like we are to prepare our heart for communion. This is a time for reflection on our life and to look at the places in which we have not been following Him. We are called to look at ourselves honestly and see where we may not have confessed Christ and Christ crucified as Paul tells us to. This is the cross we have to bear. We are in fact an adulterous and sinful generation as all generations have been since Adam and Eve. Being ashamed of Jesus is the worst sort of adultery and this happens in many subtle ways in our lives. Evasion of the law is more common than obedience to the law in the world both yesterday and today. W.C. Fields was purported to have said that he studied the Bible looking for loopholes. This is the sinful world we live in. The world around us pays lip service to Christianity. Many professing Christians pick very carefully the arenas in which they are willing to admit their faith or talk about Jesus. We are called to maintain our confession even in the face of rejection or ridicule just as Jesus continued on to the cross.
But there is the hope that comes with this gospel message for today just as there is in communion. The “Son of Man” will ultimately have dominion and establish the kingdom of glory. He will come “in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.” This is why Christ showed the disciples who He was and what He could do each time before He predicted His passion. He wanted them to see who it was that was going to the cross. This rejection and suffering is short lived and Jesus will return as the triumphant Christ. This lesson of Lent is a troubling one for those who want religion to be the source of comfort and success. We, like Peter, want to take Jesus aside and tell Him just to skip the ugly part. If, however, there must be pain, we want to leave all that to Jesus long ago and far away. We certainly do not want to entertain the thought that we might be any part of the problem, as was Peter. This is one of those passages that require reality therapy.
What is the life that most of us seek? Fame and riches, here and now, are the primary values of American culture. Pleasure seeking is the order of the day, and many Christians are not ready to renounce that life we enjoy. We must take up our cross, not to earn righteousness, but out of love for the one that suffered the excruciating pain of being nailed to a cross and hung to die for us first. This is the saving event that gives us an understanding of the sacrifice that was made for us. He carried our sins to that cross so that we might have life through faith in Him.