Points for Preaching and Teaching
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless
What a perfect word for our time! Notice where it is that Wisdom cries out for our attention — “in the street, at the busiest corner” of our lives. We are in danger of missing wisdom from the Lord when our lives are so busy that we simply miss what God has to say!
Speaking of listening for the wisdom and word of God — “the heavens are telling!” Without any speech, we have the presence of God displayed before us. What we need to learn, we most often can by simply stopping and looking up (and around.) Now there’s a thought!
Wisdom of Solomon 7:26 – 8:1
Another text reflecting on the wisdom of God (ironically — or, perhaps not so ironically! — portrayed in the feminine.) True wisdom “spotlessly” reflects the working of God. I love the promise, “Against wisdom, evil does not prevail.”
Making a firm determination to follow the ways of God is often tantamount to “asking for trouble” in the world. There will be contention, there will be opposition. But, with God for us — who can be against us, eh?
There is a temptation to “praise God” when we get an answer to prayer that we like. When we have cried to the Lord for help, and have received deliverance — it’s all good! But, what about those for whom the answer was not so redemptive? Are we committed to trust in the goodness and mercy of God — in advance — no matter the outcome?
Truer words have ne’er been spoken: “We all make many mistakes.” For those who speak the words of the Lord — who represent Christ — few mistakes are as onerous as those we make with our words. I learned to sing in the preschool department of my church’s Sunday School : “Oh, be careful little mouth what you say…for the Father up above is looking down in love…so be careful little mouth what you say!” Still a helpful little ditty, I think.
Jesus is making a firm commitment to follow the will of God to Jerusalem and all that the Holy City holds for him. This passage is a “gut check” for the disciples who claim that they will follow him, wherever he leads them. It’s going to get pretty tough. Taking up crosses is no picnic. Time for deep meditation on Jesus’ words: “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.”
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton
When I read our gospel lesson, many sermons from my childhood came to mind. In them, the question from the first part of the story, “Who do you say that I am?” was used as an evangelistic tool. We were taught that our eternal salvation was dependent on what we “said” about Jesus, Where we would spend eternity, heaven or hell, depended on our thinking, on our believing, on our confessing the right things. And I never “got saved” because, apparently, I never thought the right things about Jesus, so I never felt him come into my heart.
In many of those same sermons, the next part of this text; the part where Jesus predicts his own suffering and Peter is unwilling to accept it, leading Jesus to yell at him, “Get behind me Satan,” was used to talk about how much Jesus suffered for us. These descriptions were pretty vivid and made it crystal clear that the perfect, sinless, Son of God had to die because of the hormone driven, naughtiness of a twelve year old boy – namely me; it was all my fault – at least that’s the way I heard it.
Interestingly, I never heard anyone talk about how Peter failed to understand Jesus when he turned the image of being the Messiah upside down; from one of kingship to kinship, from sovereignty to servanthood. Nor did they talk about how Jesus must have been genuinely tempted to turn away from the path of suffering; otherwise he would not have used the term “Satan” with Peter – Jesus was shouting at himself as much as he was shouting at Peter.
And, in my remembrance, the whole “Deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me” mandate was really trivialized. The denial of self was equated to “Deny yourself basic human enjoyment of life and join the church.” Take up a cross became “Put up with whatever less than ideal conditions you find yourself in, it may be bad but it’s not as bad as what Jesus went through to save your sorry self from Hell, so quit complaining.” And following Jesus apparently consisted of being in church twice on Sunday and also on Wednesday night and giving enough to the church to raise the preacher’s salary. If that’s not what this text means – then what does it mean? What is Mark trying to tell us by putting this story together in this way?
Well first of all, he’s trying to clarify for his readers who this preacher/teacher/healer/miracle worker named Jesus was. Remember, Mark is writing after Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. He is writing primarily to the members of the early church who have already heard most of the stories he is writing about. They are the “oral tradition” of the church. They show up in sermons, in letters, in dinner table conversation among disciples; “Hey, remember the time we were down in Capernaum? What was it he said to that old man? Are you sure – I didn’t hear it that way?” Or “Now boys, break it up! Be nice to your brother. Remember Elder John said that Jesus said we should love one another.”
Mark has taken this material and arranged it in something like chronological order – beginning with the John the Baptist and ending with the trial, crucifixion, death and resurrection. The in between material is arranged in such a way as to make it clear who this Jesus you’re heard so much about was.
In the first half of Mark, Jesus is baptized, he gathers followers, he preaches, he teaches, he heals, he casts out demons, he becomes somewhat well known. We have reached the midpoint of Mark’s material. A turning point.
It is time for Jesus to make it clear to his disciples exactly what it is they have signed up for. And in telling this story, Mark is making it clear to the members of the early church what it is they have become a part of in deciding to follow Jesus the Messiah, the Christ, the Resurrected One.
Mark lays the story out in the form of three brief episodes that are connected by Peter’s Confession and Peter’s Protest. First Jesus engages in a bit of questioning dialogue with his disciples. This is a standard teacher technique, to force the learners into thinking more deeply than they would have if he just told them the answer. And after a little hemming and hawing about Elijah and John the Baptist, Peter blurts out the right answer “Messiah!”
Jesus rewards him with a smile and says, “Right you are, Peter,” and then moves on to explain to them what being the Messiah really looks like. “Suffering, rejection, killed, rise again after three days.” I’m guessing Peter heard everything but the “rise again after three days.” And if he heard it, he had no way of understanding it. All he knew was that this picture of what it meant to be the Messiah was upside down and backwards from what he, and everyone else he knew, thought a Messiah was supposed to look like. It wasn’t just the suffering and rejection and death – it was also the lack of subjecting the oppressors, the Romans and their minions, to a bit of “suffering, death, and rejection,” themselves. The Messiah was supposed to come in and kick some serious Roman behind – what is all this about “suffering and rejection and death?’
So Peter injects himself a second time, “Whoa, whoa, whoa – that’s not right! That’s not how this works. That’s not what happens to you!” And though Peter “took him aside,” Jesus makes this a teachable moment, making sure everyone hears him when he rebukes Peter, for he knows that Peter is just saying what everybody else is thinking. Jesus isn’t really calling him Satan, instead in Peter’s words Jesus recognizes the very temptations to power, the temptations to avoid the necessary suffering, the temptations to do this another way besides God’s way that he suffered in the wilderness after his baptism. And so Jesus yells – he yells at Satan, at Peter, at himself.
Then he lays it out for everyone – Peter, the disciples, the crowd. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” No sugar coating, no “follow me and get your emotional and spiritual needs met.” No “follow me and you will be highly respected in the community.” No “follow me and all your career and economic plans will work out.” No! It’s a simple, straight-forward “follow me by denying yourself and taking up your cross.”
Simple – but not easy. Our mission is clear and at times it feels a bit like Mission Impossible. We don’t want to suffer. We crave recognition, not rejection. We spend billions and billions of dollars staving off death through medical care and, from the proliferation of handguns and assault weapons in this country, it appears there are many causes for which we are willing to kill and very few for which we are willing to die.
And yet, that is the invitation. As Bonhoeffer said “When Christ calls (someone) He bids (them) come and die.” Jesus makes it plain. To follow the Way he is going is to turn aside from serving self and turn toward serving others. To follow the Way he is going is to put down all the possessions and honors and expectations we have for ourselves so that our hands are free to take up the cross of suffering for, and meeting the needs of, others. To follow the Way he is going is to not let the fear of death stop us from doing the right thing – because on the other side of that death is rising again.
Amen and amen.