Proper 19B

September 10, 2018

  • The Lectionary Gospel

    Mark 8:27-38

    Author: Leonard Vander Zee

    Digging into the Text:

    This is one of those texts that a preacher ought to approach with fear and trembling.  It’s like standing at the foot of a mountain one is about to climb, or setting out on a journey fraught with danger and difficulty.

    We have come here to the center of Mark’s gospel.  From now on Jesus and his disciples are on their way to Jerusalem and over theme looms the horror of the cross.  Whatever else the disciples and the excited crowds may have thought of Jesus– the healer, the teacher, the powerful enemy of evil spirits– everything changes here.  Now the wraps are off, now the truth comes out.

    One of the great dangers of listening to this text and preaching on it is to assume the position of one who is in the know.  Here we are, looking back at this crucial encounter and all the misunderstanding on the part of the disciples, but we know better.  We know that Jesus must die and rise again.  We know that this is what it means to be the Messiah.

    So we look with pity and a little impatience at those ignorant disciples.  We are quick to point out that they are deluded by a false understanding of what it means for Jesus to be the Messiah.  They have failed to grasp God’s plan for redemption.  That perspective of historical superiority will only serve to distance us from the fundamental message of the text.  It will be for someone else, not for us.

    A better way to approach the text is to assume that we are in exactly the position of the disciples.  We too are scandalized by a crucified Messiah.  We too look upon discipleship as a fulfilling and pleasing life-style.  We too expect success and approval rather than defeat and ignominy.  We too want to raise the approval of our faith in the eyes of the world, and enable the church of Jesus Christ to be a seen as a positive and admired institution.  Only then will we be able to listen to this text preach it for today.

    Many commentators point out the irony that this momentous event takes place in Caesarea Phiippi.  This was a capital built by Phillip to honor the emperor who had given him this area to rule.  It was famous for a temple to the pagan God Pan, the worship of Baal, the cult of  emperor worship.  In other words, it was a city built to celebrate worldly power.

    Here in this Washington D.C. of Palestine, Jesus accepts the Hebrew designation of Messiah, the chosen and anointed one who fulfills the promise to David that God will establish David’s throne forever.  Here Jesus refers to himself as the Son of Man, the exalted figure from Daniel 7 who will come on the clouds of heaven to be given dominion over all.

    But to all these symbols of greatness, power, and domination Jesus attaches the totally incongruous picture of rejection, suffering, and a cross.  This is a tectonic shift in in the deep crust of earthy reality that releases an earthquake that totally changes the landscape.

    The disciples have been around him for some time now.  They have listened to his words, seen his miracles, watched him pray, and witnessed his authority.  And now Jesus asks, “Who do people think I am?”  It elicits a string of answers– John, Elijah, a great prophet. All of these designations associate Jesus with the tradition of prophets whom God has appointed as spokespersons for his message to Israel.

    “But what do you think?” Jesus then asks.  I imagine that there might have been a few moments of embarrassed silence, as the disciples are afraid to make their personal speculations public.  But Peter, of course, pipes up.  He tells Jesus that they have dared to think that he is the long-promised Messiah, the anointed one who will fulfill God’s promises to Israel and deliver her from her troubles.

    He is the Messiah, of course, but now Jesus has to deliver them from any “messiah complex” they might have.  He then tells them in stark, horrific detail what it means for him to be the Messiah.  He will undergo suffering, rejection, and death, before he is finally vindicated by resurrection after three days.

    Peter is appalled, presumably along with the rest of the disciples.  Nothing has prepared them for this.  Peter, not wanting to embarrass Jesus in front of the others, protectively takes him aside to rather forcibly straighten him out.  He rebukes Jesus.  “What a stupid thing to say, Jesus.  Everyone knows that that kind of thing doesn’t happen to the Messiah.  It’s ridiculous.  You’re going to ruin morale here.”

    But if Peter is appalled, Jesus is even more so.  He’s hopping mad.  What Peter wanted to be a private dressing down of Jesus becomes a public put-down for Peter.  He turns to the rest of the disciples, voice trembling, points to Peter and says, “Get behind me, Satan.”  And then, a little less harshly, “You are setting your mind not on God, but on human ideas and expectations.”

    It is crucial to understand that we what we have here is not just that Jesus is correcting some mistaken ideas the disciples have about Messiahship.  He is not making a theological point.  In hearing Peter’s rebuke, he has heard the voice of Satan once more, the voice that haunted him alone in the wilderness months before.

    The cross was, for Jesus, not just a divinely assigned destiny, it was a choice.  Jesus, fully human as any one of us, had to choose, moment my moment, day after day, right up to the very night before his crucifixion, to accept the terrible calling he had from the Father.  It was never assumed, never automatic, never easy.  He was daily tempted to be another kind of Messiah, valorized, powerful, admired, victorious.  And now here, from his very own disciples, he hears those tempting words.

    Jesus immediately realizes that this has tremendous implications not just for him, but for them.  He draws a line in the sand.  “Do you still want to follow me?  If so it means that you must take up your cross and follow me.”

    It’s easy to miss the full scandal of this statement. Here, for the first time, Jesus uses the word cross.  “Take up your cross and follow me.”  He compares being his disciples to a terrible picture, probably familiar to them, of a condemned man carrying the beam of a cross on his shoulders to the place of execution.  That’s what disciples have to be prepared for.

    That phrase, “take up your cross,” is subject to lots of misunderstanding.  In my opinion, it does not refer to the ordinary sufferings associated with human life in the world– sickness, pain, grief, and loss.  It means suffering for the sake of Jesus. It means taking on the ignominy and rejection of the crucified messiah.  It may sometimes mean being killed as he was.

    The church rightly prays for persecuted Christians around the world and seeks to help and support them.  The problem is that it may give the impression that this is not the way things ought to be.  Jesus is saying that it’s exactly what we might expect if we follow him.

    Some Christians today want to make sure that their religious liberty is respected, their “rights” guaranteed.  Indeed, religious tolerance is a good thing.  But that is not what we ought to expect from the world, and that language can turn into an expectation that Christians ought to be admired and respected.  Jesus said that what we can expect mockery, rejection, and persecution.  Of course, we are not to seek it out, but we are to expect it.

    Jesus puts it in several ways to emphasize the seriousness of his call.  He talks of denying oneself.  Self-denial, it seems to me, is not a distinguishing feature of North American Christianity these days.  In some ways, the church distinguishes itself as exactly the opposite, the place to find self-fulfillment.  This is the corrosive acid the of the world-wide phenomenon of the “Prosperity Gospel,” as well as the more acceptable idea of finding self-actualization.

    No, says Jesus.  Following me means self-denial, not self-fulfillment. It means self-sacrificing love, not self-actualizing power.  It means giving up our lives in order to find our true self in the Kingdom of God.  As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in his “Call of Discipleship,” Jesus “bids is to come and die.”

    There is no way for the preacher to sugar-coat those words, and they are precisely the words the church in North America needs to hear.  Self-denial leads to self-fulfillment.  Self-giving love leads to deep self-satisfaction.  “[U]nless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed.  But if it dies, it produces many seeds.  Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” John 12: 24-25)

    But Jesus then sharpens the point.  “If you are ashamed of me before the world, I will be ashamed of you when I come again.”  It’s personal.  Who is willing to take my side when the world rejects me?  Who is willing to stand by me while the world heaps mockery and scorn on me.”

    It happens, doesn’t it.  The name of Jesus is scorned, and we are made to feel like religious bigots or ignorant fools because we follow Jesus.  How easy to keep silent, to act like Peter in the courtyard of the High Priest, “I never knew the man.”

    But behind these warnings stands a wonderful promise.  “Those who lose their lives for my sake, and for the gospel, will save it.”  Ultimately, following Jesus is not a losing proposition, it’s the key to eternal life.  And this is not just true in some far off future, but right now.  The joy of following Jesus on the path of the cross eclipses any joy that we can try to dig out of life through the pursuit of wealth, power, or pleasure.  Self-giving love is the only path to true and lasting happiness.

    Preaching the Text:

    How does a preacher tackle a text like this, so filled with deep truth, crucial insight, and gospel significance?

    The most difficult, but, I think, rewarding way is to approach it as a narrative, and retell the story while commenting on its significance along the way.  This is, more or less, the way I have approached it above.  It’s difficult because, first of all, it takes time, and if you are intent on a 15 or 20-minute sermon, it probably won’t work.  It’s also difficult because it takes a great deal of imagination to retell a familiar narrative in a way that engages the listeners.  But, if you are willing, I believe this will be most rewarding to you and your congregation.

    When using the narrative as a base for the sermon, I find it helpful to sometimes paraphrase the what’s is being said as I have above. It serves the purpose of awaking the congregation by leaving behind the familiar biblical prose for words that have more punch.  Of course, it’s important that the paraphrase really seeks to capture the biblical text.

    Another way is to focus on a section of the text.  It may be the first dramatic section in which Peter both speak the truth, and then denies it.  Or it may be the second section where Jesus draws out the meaning of his suffering and death for his disciples, those who will follow him. In either case, it will require you to at least briefly deal with the other section as well because one cannot stand on its own without the other.

    The one thing you should not do is to approach it as a topical sermon: “The Joys of Self-giving Love,” or some theological teaching like, “The True Biblical Image of the Messiah.”  This text is a narrative, and without keeping that aspect at the forefront, it loses its power and punch.

    If you have not referred to it recently, the book and film Of Gods and Men may be tremendously helpful as an illustration.  It’s the story of the Christian monks at Tibhirine, Algeria.  They have lived as practicing Christians among Muslims for many years, and now, with the rise of fundamentalist and jihadist groups, their very lives are threatened.  They have to choose whether to stay or leave.  They eventually choose to stay, and are murdered, and martyred, by the jihadists.

    The Abbot, Christian de Chergé, anticipating their fate, writes a letter to be sent to his family and friends if he is killed.  That letter can be a powerful and fitting climax to this sermon.

    Note: CEP Director Scott Hoezee is on sabbatical during the Fall semester 2018, but will return to his work and his regular writing of these sermon starters in December.

  • Old Testament Lectionary +

    Proverbs 1:20-33

    Author: Stan Mast

  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 19

    Author: Leonard Vander Zee

  • Lectionary Epistle +

    James 3:1-12

    Author: Doug Bratt