TITLE: When the Chips Are Down SCRIPTURE: Mark 8:27-38
Jesus had been working in Galilee, where the people had, for the most part, been receptive. Crowds sought him out -- came to him for healing -- hoped to see him work one of the miracles for which he was becoming famous. They said in amazement, "We have never seen anything like this!" (Mark 2:12).
Galilee, as you will probably remember, is the northern part of what we now call Israel. Jesus was born in Bethlehem, in the southern part, near Jerusalem, but Galilee, in the north, is where he was raised. For Jesus, Galilee is familiar territory -- home turf.
People in Galilee aren't pretentious. They live far from Jerusalem -- far from the temple -- far from the bright lights -- far from the temptations of the city. The people of Jerusalem are very different -- sophisticated -- powerful. The people of Galilee are country bumpkins by comparison -- ordinary people -- people like most of us -- people who just want to live in peace and raise a family. Jesus gets along well with ordinary people.
But now Jesus pushes even further north -- to Caesarea Philippi -- to a different kind of place -- a place where Gentiles live -- a place where people worship the pagan god, Pan -- a place where there's a temple to Caesar Augustus. This is not Jesus' home turf. This is a place where he is an outsider. It is the furthest north that Jesus will travel. Soon he will turn around and begin his journey south -- to Jerusalem -- to the cross -- to his death.
It is in this far-north pagan place that Jesus asks his disciples, "Who do people say that I am?" The disciples answer, John the Baptist -- or Elijah -- or one of the prophets. Those were good answers. John the Baptist was a great man -- a Godly man. Elijah was a great man -- a Godly man.
But then Jesus asked "But who do YOU say that I am?" That's a tough question -- a direct question -- impossible to evade -- the kind of question that causes people to look at the ground and shuffle from one foot to the other. You know how it feels. You know how it feels when the teacher asks a question and you have no clue. You stare at the floor. You scrunch down in your seat and try to become invisible. You sit there hoping that someone will raise a hand and distract the teacher's attention.
I think that's how the disciples felt, but they had an ace in the hole. They could always count on Peter. Peter didn't always have the RIGHT answer, but Peter always had AN answer.
In this case, Peter did have the right answer. He told Jesus, "You are the Messiah." The word in Greek is Christos. It means "the anointed one." Peter said, "You are the Christ -- the Messiah -- the anointed one -- the one for whom we have waited all these years -- the one who will save us."
Good answer, Peter!
But then Jesus began to teach the disciples what that would mean. It would mean that he would "undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again."
But when Peter said that Jesus was the Messiah, that wasn't what he meant. Peter meant that Jesus was going to be a great leader -- a man like David, who would form an army to drive out the Romans -- a man who would use force of arms to restore Israel to its former greatness.
So Peter rebuked Jesus. He rebuked the Messiah. "You AREN'T going to die, Jesus! That's crazy talk!"
But Jesus rebuked Peter. He said:
"Get behind me, Satan!
For you are setting your mind not on divine things
but on human things."
And then Jesus invited the crowd to join the disciples, and he said:
"If any want to become my followers,
let them deny themselves
and take up their cross and follow me."
That wasn't what Peter wanted to hear. It's not what the disciples wanted to hear. It's not what we want to hear either. The thought of a cross is always a shock. The cross is always a hard sell, whether it's Jesus' cross or our cross. Like Peter, we want to hear how great things are going to be -- not how we're going to suffer.
Once when I preached a sermon on the cross, one of the people pulled me aside afterwards and said:
"I'll tell you what people want to hear, preacher.
They want to hear how God is going to help them."
It was a mild rebuke -- a word to the wise -- a bit of advice from an older man to a younger one.
"I'll tell you what people want to hear, preacher.
They want to hear how God is going to help them."
In other words, "Quit talking about the cross, preacher. Tell us that God loves us. Tell us that God answers prayer. Tell us that God will help us. Tell us that God will solve our problems. But don't tell us to take up our cross."
There are churches today that have taken that advice seriously. If they mention the cross at all, it is only in a song with a strong beat and a happy melody -- sung by a beautiful woman or a handsome man accompanied by a symphony -- a song that celebrates the cross as the solution to our problems -- but certainly NOT a song that asks us to do something difficult or dangerous or painful.
The cross wasn't an easy sell in the 1st century, and it isn't an easy sell in the 21st century. I once heard a story about a couple whose car broke down. They sat at the side of the road for a long time watching cars go by without slowing. Finally a car pulled behind them and stopped. The driver got out and walked in their direction. The man in the stalled car greeted the newcomer by saying, "Our savior!" -- at which the newcomer stopped in his tracks. The husband said, "What's wrong? I didn't mean to offend you!" The newcomer said, "I remember what they did to our last Savior!"
The newcomer had it right -- there's a price to be paid for being a savior -- or for being the disciple of a savior. That's what Jesus meant when he told his disciples that he would die on a cross. That's what he meant when he said that they must take up their cross and follow him.
A cross was not a thing of beauty in those days. It was not something made by a jeweler to be hung on a gold chain around our neck. A cross was an instrument of torture -- an instrument of death.
So what does it mean for us when Jesus tells us to take up our cross? It means putting Christ ahead of ourselves. It means putting other people ahead of ourselves. It means being willing to serve -- and to sacrifice, when sacrifice is needed.
I cannot tell you for certain what cross-bearing will require from you. That will depend on the how your life unfolds. But I read something that might give you an idea. It was in a book by "Pappy" Boyington. You might have seen an episode of the old television series, "Baa, Baa, Black Sheep." That series was based on the life of a real person -- Colonel Gregory Boyington, a Marine Corps fighter pilot in World War II. The men in his squadron called him "Pappy" because he was thirty years old.
Pappy Boyington was an ace many times over -- a Medal of Honor winner. On his last mission, however, he was shot down -- picked up by the Japanese -- and imprisoned for the last two years of the war. His book, "Baa, Baa, Black Sheep," is his autobiography, written after the war.
In his book, he describes life in Japanese prison camps. You might expect that he would be angry, but he wasn't. You might expect him to describe the Japanese as brutal, but for the most part he doesn't. He encountered brutality -- beatings -- starvation rations. But he spends more time talking about Japanese who were kind to him than about those who were not.
He mentions four guards -- he calls them college boys (p. 281). One of the four kept a New Testament in his pocket -- kept it there secretly, because it was unlawful for the guards to be Christians. But this guard let Boyington catch a glimpse of his New Testament. He wanted him to know of his faith.
These four guards refused to beat the prisoners, and they paid the consequences for their refusal. Boyington sometimes saw them being beaten -- beaten because they refused to beat him. Before long, the four were transferred out of the prison -- probably sent to the front lines -- perhaps to their death -- transferred because they wouldn't beat prisoners. That was what taking up their cross meant for them. They were being faithful to Jesus, but theirs was a costly discipleship.
Boyington also talks about Mr. Kono, whom he describes as "one of the greatest men I ever met." He says, "I know that he was a Christian, although he never told me so." He describes Mr. Kono's deep compassion for the prisoners -- his "acts of kindness too numerable to mention" -- acts that left Kono vulnerable to punishment, even death. Boyington says:
"The man's courage in saving lives and preventing hardship
will apparently go unrewarded in the ordinary sense --
like medals from either Japan or the United States.
But I can assure you that he will stay in the hearts of many men --
for there was a far braver man than I" (p. 332).
Mr. Kono risked beatings and worse so that he could act humanely -- so that he could help prisoners in desperate circumstances. That's what taking up his cross and following Christ meant for him. That's what it meant for him to be faithful to Jesus.
I can't predict what life will bring you. Hopefully you will never experience terrible hardship or danger. However, you will almost certainly face situations where doing the right thing will be difficult or costly -- where you will be sorely tempted to pass by on the other side without helping. What will you do then?
You have seen the bracelets that say "WWJD" -- "What would Jesus do?" One aspect of taking up your cross and following Jesus is doing what Jesus would do when the chips are down -- when faithfulness would be costly -- perhaps even dangerous.
I pray that I will do what Jesus would do when the chips are down. I pray that I will have the courage to do the right thing. I pray that I will be able to put Christ first -- and to put others first. I pray that, when cross-bearing is needed, I will be a faithful cross-bearer.
I pray the same for you.