Lent: Choosing Sacrifice

(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on March 1, 2015)

Mark 8:31-38.

I’ve often thought of Peter rebuking Jesus as a great reminder that everyone makes mistakes.

Peter has just had such a high point, being the one person who correctly identifies Jesus as the Messiah, and not just like Elijah or John the Baptist or some other prophet. And yet here in the section today, he totally blows it and gets a stinging rebuke from Jesus.

And what I mean by a great reminder that everyone makes mistakes is actually: this makes me feel really good because I know my mistakes are nowhere near as bad as Peter’s stupidity here. That’s sarcasm, of course, but the reality is there’s a good bit of truth in it. I’ve often thought that Peter’s mistake of correcting Jesus, of acting like he knew better than Jesus did, is one that I don’t make.

The annoying part of looking at this passage again has been the realization that actually, I do sometimes make the exact same mistake that Peter does. I think many of us do. I actually think American Christianity as a whole often makes Peter’s mistake. So let’s dive in and see what the mistake was, see how we do it too, and then look at Jesus’ words to find a way to correct the mistake and live as we are called to live.

Peter’s bold statement in chapter 8, verse 29 is the turning point in the entire gospel of Mark.

“You are the Messiah.” Mark begins his account of Jesus’ life by writing, “The beginning of the good news about Jesus, the Messiah.” We as readers know from the very start who Jesus is, but until Peter’s words in chapter 8 it hasn’t been spoken by or to anyone actually living alongside Jesus.

Up until Peter’s words, Mark shows us an active Jesus, a healing Jesus, a miracle-working powerful Jesus. It all demonstrates his “messiahship”. Now with Peter’s words, we know Messiah is what Jesus is.

Except that immediately afterward, the whole direction of Mark’s gospel changes. Jesus immediately begins teaching them that things are not as they assume them to be. From this point on, the book of Mark turns toward the cross.

Jesus, newly identified as Messiah, starts talking about suffering and rejection and about being killed. It’s hard to overstate how incomprehensible that was to any Jewish person. The power and authority and miracles leading up to Peter calling Jesus Messiah, those were all the things associated with Messiah. Not suffering, rejection and death.

Evidence of how incompatible suffering was with the idea of messiah comes when we look at how Jewish rabbis interpreted Isaiah 53. The way ancient Jewish rabbis interpreted it is so telling. Anywhere Isaiah 53 talks about power and authority and might, they applied it to the coming Messiah. Anywhere Isaiah 53 talks about suffering and grief and sorrow, they applied it to the people or community of Israel.

It was utterly incomprehensible at the time to have “Messiah” and “suffering” go hand in hand.

Peter can’t go there. Just when he gets the big insight into who Jesus is, Jesus starts talking like the exact opposite. It’s like Peter is all in on the Messiah stuff, and maybe he thinks Jesus is just having a moment of self doubt about what’s coming up when he talks about all this suffering stuff. “Come on, Jesus, no! NO! I just spoke the truth. You are the Messiah! You’re not gonna be rejected and killed! That’s crazy talk!”

I’ve done a similar thing countless times. Like if someone has spent all this time studying for a test, and we’ve just talked about how they made the dean’s list and have been a top student in their major, and they say, “I’m gonna fail this thing”… I might easily say, “No, no, you got this!” Perhaps Peter isn’t so much telling Jesus how to act, as he is thinking he’s encouraging Jesus in a time of doubt.

But Jesus is on a totally different wave-length. Now that Jesus has established that he is the Messiah, he’s being very intentional to teach them what will happen to the Messiah, what it means to be the Messiah. He’s correcting them and challenging the wrong view.

Everything within Peter is telling him that what Jesus is teaching is just plain wrong. Not cause he doesn’t have faith, but precisely because he does believe so strongly in Jesus as Messiah.

God and God’s chosen one have all power! God and God’s chosen one do everything right! Nothing can defeat that! How can the right way be suffering and even death? Peter’s mistake is refusing to accept that God’s way of intervening through Jesus the Messiah is suffering and sacrifice.

When I think of Peter that way, I think about so many times where I relate.

I think of the time here years ago where I had tried so hard to discern how God was leading about a staff position that had to be cut. I was convinced that we had listened well, and now every thing would go well, because of course obedience to God always ends up going well. But instead that led to probably the most difficult period in my life, having to face rejection and struggle, having to deal with frustration with God that things hadn’t worked out well.

In therapy during that time, I actually said out loud to my counselor what I believed and was acting on. I said, “If I do my job right, if I explain things well enough, if I follow God accurately enough, others won’t be mad, others won’t disagree.” But of course some people DID disagree, and I had a reaction with God very much like Peter. “No God! This isn’t how it’s supposed to go!”

I think of some parts of the church in America, the ones that teach over and over again that God wants to bless us with the desires of our heart.

In many ways they assume just what Peter did: God is all powerful. God loves us. If we trust God, we will get everything we want. We can have that career we want. The car we desire. The spouse we feel we deserve. Being faithful to God means circumstances will always go well!

Jesus is proof that faithfulness to God does not always equal good circumstances in this life.

When Peter said “No!” to the suffering, Jesus saw and named it for what it was: a temptation to not walk the road that God had placed in front of him. A temptation to use his power to save his own life, to be accepted rather than rejected and killed.

Let me ask: How else are we saying “No” to God’s way, Jesus way?

Do you have examples in your own life of where your assumption that following God brought good circumstances…did that ever lead you to say “No” just like Peter did? Maybe it didn’t feel like a “no”, maybe it felt more like a “what is going on here?” But do you have other examples of when something inside you screamed “Wait, God is good! Life should be going better than this!” [ASK]

Maybe you don’t agree with me, but I see in Peter’s rebuke toward Jesus, Peter’s “no” to Jesus…I see in Peter the same struggle that we’ve just identified within us.

Something inside us just doesn’t sit right with this. How can we believe in Jesus, God’s all-powerful Son, our Savior…but have that belief still not completely eliminate suffering and struggle in our lives? It’s even more difficult to think that God chose to face the evil of the world with submission, to conquer it through suffering and death. It’s perhaps hardest of all to live into what Jesus teaches here, that we have to take up our cross, that we have to stop pursuing our own gain and instead pursue Christ…that gaining the whole world, gaining success and security and wealth actually leads to forfeiting our soul!

“Jesus stipulated that those who wish to follow him must be prepared to shift the center of gravity in their lives from a concern for self to reckless abandon to the will of God.” [William Lane, NICNT commentary]

As individuals we must face how we join Peter in saying “no” to Jesus’ way of suffering. As Americans and maybe even especially as American Christians, we have to corporately face how we join Peter in rebuking Jesus’ call to suffering and the cross.

The thought that we are blessed by God as a Christian nation, that we have a destiny to fulfill in the world, that our power is ok to exert because we are on the right side, that God will protect us and all who oppose us are by definition going against all that is right: these thoughts and beliefs are just like Peter, rebuking Jesus for his method of choosing the cross and suffering. It’s choosing power instead. On a corporate level, it is us choosing to protect and save our lives…perhaps in ways that Jesus would say are forfeiting our souls.

I recognize that is a provocative statement, and not one that all would agree with.

But it kept coming to mind this week as I looked at Jesus’ words, as I tried to wrestle with how we are like Peter, rejecting and rebuking Jesus for how Jesus chose to deal with the evil in our world. I raise it for us as a question…and we can move back to figuring out the practical side of individually taking up the cross and denying ourselves.

Look with me again at the end of Mark 8. [READ 8:34-38]

If we want to follow Jesus, we do it his way. Our focus and purpose is obedience. In one of Jesus’ famous reversals, the act of trying to protect ourselves, giving our efforts toward self-preservation, will lead us to hurt others and will miss the core truth of what Christ has done.

Have you seen this at work? At our house we have a door that goes from our dining room out to a deck, and it’s one of those doors that has a bunch of different glass panes. Elaine bought some of those window markers last spring, and she’s been writing quotes from stuff that she’s reading on the windows. One of them that’s been up for awhile is this:

“No one gets to love or be loved well in self-protection. Self-protection is one of the great oxymorons…Once we hide from trusting God and others, we become more enflamed, more self-justified, more calloused in repeating our blame.” [The Cure: John Lynch, Bruce McNicol, Bill Thrall]

Why is this so? Why does self-protection make it difficult to love well and be loved? Why did God choose the path of suffering instead of power? Maybe Jesus, in order to love all of us, had to walk the way of the cross. Jesus would have had to make some people his enemies, enemies to be defeated, if he chose overcoming as the way… if he tried to avoid suffering. By sacrificing, by giving up self-protection, Jesus is able to avoid making some people enemies to conquer, and instead is able to love all.

I am becoming more and more convinced that this wasn’t just a one time thing that only Jesus was called to do. But I think instead, Christ’s suffering is not only our salvation, but our example. Relinquishing the natural right to self-preservation is taking up the cross.

“Would you follow Christ? Then be humble as he was humble. Do not scorn his lowliness if you want to reach his exaltation. Human sin made the road rough. Christ’s resurrection leveled it. By passing over it himself he transformed the narrowest of tracks into a royal highway.” [Caesarius of Arles, Sermons 159, I. 4-6]

The biggest question then becomes: how do I know if a particular action is obedience to God, or selfish preservation?

For me this is often a difficult thing to figure out. Asking the question helps. Questioning my motives helps. Naming my desires helps. I was just telling our wisdom group on Wednesday about the process I went through years ago in Boise, trying to decide if it was ok to apply for the lead pastor position here at Newberg Friends. Part of that process was journalling a lot, naming all the reasons why I wanted to come to Newberg…and ending with the commitment that even so, if God wanted me to stay in Boise, I would. Then naming all the reasons why I wanted to stay in Boise…and ending with the commitment that even so, if God wanted me to go to Newberg, I would.

What about you? How have you tried to go about this process of deny yourself and taking up your cross as you follow Jesus? What has helped you? [ASK]

This denying of self, taking up the cross, faithful and obedient following of Jesus…this is what leads to everlasting life!

“We suffer momentarily until death is swallowed up in victory. Then this cross itself will be crucified.” [Augustine, Letter to Laetus]

May we, in this season of Lent and always, walk in Jesus’ steps…taking up our own cross, relinquishing our own self-preservation.

A Prayer of relinquishment. From Richard Foster, book Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home:

.

Today, O Lord, I yield myself to you.

May your will be my delight today.

May your way have perfect sway in me.

May your love be the pattern of my living.

I surrender to you

my hopes,

my dreams,

my ambitions.

Do with them what you will, when you will, as you will.

I place into your loving care

my family,

my friends,

my future.

Care for them with a care that I can never give.

I release into your hands

my need to control,

my craving for status,

my fear of obscurity.

Eradicate the evil, purify the good, and establish your

kingdom on earth.

For Jesus’ sake, Amen.

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