Christ the King, Palm Coast, FL ~ Pastor Jay Zahn ~ Mark 8:31-38 ~ Sunday, February 28, 2021
It wasn’t the one they wanted. The disciples were eager to hear from the Lord on what life would be like as they continue to follow him to Jerusalem. But Jesus didn’t tell them what they wanted to hear.
What they wanted to hear is the message so many long to hear still today. That message portrays the Christian life as holding some special secret to overcoming life’s hardships, and frustrations, and obstacles. Apply that secret and you will unlock the secret to living a victorious Christian life. Do it right and life will go well with you. The typical lucky charms are things like praying the right prayers, giving 10%, giving up certain God-pleasing things for Lent or abstaining for some other blessings from God for life, or dedicated devotional time, reading the bible through each year, and life will suddenly go well for you as a follower of Jesus. Obstacles will fall away. Frustrations will vanish. Success will crown your endeavors and your faith journey will reward you with a good life. Jesus’ disciples were hungry for that sort of message. “Jesus, tell us when you’re going to take over as king of our country and make life easier, more prosperous, unveil the glorious future you have for us as people of power and influence and means.”
The disciples couldn’t wait to hear from Jesus the secrets to mastering life and getting everything they ever wanted, how to think and grow rich, how to make more while working less, how to be healthy, wealthy and wise.
Jesus knows what they want to hear. Did you notice the message Mark says Jesus preached to them? “He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again” (v. 31). Jesus preaches the other kind of sermon about the Christian life.
Mercifully, Jesus’ message doesn’t pin every hardship you face in life on a deficiency in your faith. What Jesus does do is proclaim the reality of life in this world ever since Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. Life turned difficult. I don’t need to remind you of that. We all know that from experience, daily. That’s reality. Even for the most devout, most disciplined Christian! A favorite movie of mine is, “The Princess Bride.” Westley, aka the Dread Pirate Roberts, memorably speaks of the reality of life when he reminds Princess Buttercup: “Life is Pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” Westley’s wit makes me chuckle.
But when Jesus preached about suffering, rejection, the cross to his disciples, they weren’t laughing. In fact, “Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him” (v. 32). Just two verses before our reading for today, Peter had made this bold confession about Jesus to Jesus: “You are the Messiah” (Mark 8:29). But when Jesus starts talking about the kind of Messiah he is, Peter shuffles him aside just as quickly as he can and lets Jesus know: “THIS is NOT the kind of Messiah I signed up to serve!” Peter wanted a Messiah that would improve life not suffer. He wanted a Messiah who would restore power in Israel back into Jewish hands, not someone who would submit to Rome’s way of carrying out the death penalty! Peter had great hopes for the Messiah’s life. He had less than no interest in predictions of Jesus’ death! To quote a famous philosopher, Charlie Brown: “Winning ain’t everything, but losing ain’t anything.” And it appears that Jesus is not only planning on losing himself, but he’s inviting others to follow him in this way of suffering and loss too!
It makes me wonder. Maybe Peter didn’t say anything we haven’t thought or even wanted to say. Jesus has such a different understanding of discipleship than what most want. That often comes out when we’re going through tough times. If we are really honest, when things go wrong in our lives, how often don’t we do like Peter? Have you ever “rebuked” God, asking, “What did I do to deserve this, God?” / “Why is God doing this to me?” Because the way things ought to be seems as crystal clear to us as it did to Peter.
And so, when Jesus starts to talk NOT about the road to glory but instead the one that leads to the cross, Peter rebukes him…and Jesus rebukes Peter right back.
And if we sympathize with Peter maybe we’re struggling in our own understanding of Jesus. If Peter’s definition of “Messiah” is the one we prefer as well, something needs to change in us.
We, Peter, and just about everyone probably prefers a God who heals our every illness, provides us with financial prosperity, guarantees our security, roots our sports teams on to victory and generally keeps us happy, healthy and wise.
But that’s not exactly what Jesus says he’s offering.
Instead, Jesus points to a God Who meets us in vulnerability, suffering, and loss.
In other words, Jesus is offering the God who meets us in those moments when we really need God, when all we had worked for, hoped for, and striven for fall apart and we realize that we are, quite simply, mortal, incapable of saving ourselves and desperately in need of a God who not only can but will meet us where we are.
Let’s start there. In the midst of our limits, our suffering, our pain, our problems. Let’s start by thanking God that Jesus did not resist and rebel against facing suffering but entered personally into our suffering himself. When Jesus took up his cross, what did he do? He chose—he wasn’t forced—he chose to carry out the ministry that God called him to do. The Apostle Paul describes it like this in his letter to the Romans: “at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:6-8) Jesus’ commitment to God was so complete that he literally surrendered his life for it.
Isn’t it interesting what Jesus says to Peter, and then to all of us: “GET BEHIND ME… you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.” (v.33) – and in speaking to all his disciples, Jesus says, “If anyone would come after Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross and (keep on FOLLOWING) Me.” For Peter, and for you and me, as Jesus’ disciples, we dare NEVER “get in front of Jesus” – trying to “lead Jesus” – although that is our natural instinct – but properly “keep on following Jesus.”
To be clear, as we keep on following Jesus through life, he doesn’t ask us to carry his cross, but he does say that we need to carry ours. I think it’s important to slow down a minute on this idea and get clear understanding of what cross-bearing isn’t to gain a more precise understanding of exactly what it is. Christians often equate cross-bearing with anything that is unpleasant, like cancer or lack of employment, or some sort of physical pain, but that isn’t it because even unbelievers face things like these too. Now those may be burdens that I must bear, but just because something is unwelcome doesn’t make it a cross I bear for Jesus. But those things become a cross when Satan uses my trials, tribulations and sufferings to tempt me to question God. When he assaults my heart and head with doubt about whether God is truly good and whether God’s will for me actually beneficial. When my struggle is to contend for my faith against doubt, to push back against the argument that it just isn’t worth it to follow Jesus, that’s a cross.
Taking up your cross also means denying your own wishes, wants and desires for your life when they conflict with God’s will for you and your life. What does that mean? One example: It means pinching yourself whenever you say, “If I were in charge, I would do things really differently. I would do things right.” Maybe you would, and when you’re in charge, you can do that. But if God hasn’t put you in charge of the family, of your company, of your church, of your school, of your government, your committee, or your team then your cross is to put aside your personal preferences in order to support and encourage the people God has placed in positions of authority over you. And if God has placed you in a position of authority, your cross then is to crucify the temptation to use your power and influence for your own purposes rather than accomplishing God’s will. Your cross is to put to death the desire to use your role for self-glory rather than leading in ways that bring greater glory to God.
German pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who served in Germany under the Nazi Regime, and who resisted the ungodly actions of the Nazi regime during World War II has a poignant perspective on the Christian’s cross. He explains it like this: “The cross is laid on every Christian. The first thing which all Christians must experience is the call to let go of the attachments of this world… the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise God-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our new lives in Christ. When Christ calls a person, He calls them to come and die.”
That sounds dark, defeating. But there was, to be sure, a ray of hope in what Jesus is saying to his disciples. Jesus will be killed, but he will also rise again (Mark 8:31). Furthermore, those who lose their lives for Jesus’ sake and the sake of the gospel will save it (Mark 8:35). It would be awhile before the first disciples would personally experience the full reality of what Jesus is promising for them and what he is predicting about himself, but in the meantime his promises give them hope.
They still do for us too. We know the promise of Jesus’ resurrection has been fulfilled. By faith in him we live each day in the sure and certain hope that he will raise us up physically, bodily at the Last Day too! But Jesus’ promise isn’t just hope for the hereafter. His promises fills us with hope for another kind of dying and rising that we experience as we go on living here and now. As one pastor said, “we follow Jesus not just to be saved or to go to heaven; we follow Jesus because it’s worth it.”
Just how worth it is it? Jesus tells us: If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. Let’s pause here and think about that for a second. What gives you the greatest joy in life? What creates, for you, the deepest sense of purpose? When do you feel most alive, most true to the person you believe God created you to be?
My guess is you aren’t thinking about something you bought, or even earned, but rather of something that was rooted in relationship, in acts of service, and even in acts of what the world calls “sacrifice” when you are caring for another person. You see, self-denial and cross-bearing are not about being less happy, but about discovering the real and abundant life—a kind of life the world can’t even imagine—the kind of abundant life Jesus promises not only in the ever after, but also for right here, right now (John 10:10), the kind that comes in sacrificing selfishness so your heart is filled up with God’s merciful love, the kind that comes from putting to death self-centeredness so you can and do give your life in service, even sacrificial service, to God and the people he brings into your life.
As a result that means we get to experience the real value of things like prayer, and generosity, and regular devotions, and Bible reading, not as accomplishments to wear for our own glory, and certainly not as lucky charms to unlock a life free from problems. We get to experience the real blessing of what these things are: real and tangible ways by which Jesus pours his self-sacrificing Spirit in us and exercises that same Spirit through us. He fills our hearts with his joy and peace so that as we face the troubles and trials of life, we are moved to make our choices and decisions based on faith not fear. And while the Christian life is lived under the cross, it does also give us relief from many burdens, burdens that God never intended us to bear. The burden of guilt. The burden of shame. The burden of fear of death. The burden of thinking that we have to earn God’s acceptance by doing good things, and thinking good thoughts, and saying good words – which often translates into trying to please all the people around us, an effort which is doomed to fail. Faith in Christ does relieve us of many burdens, and, ironically, we find that relief as we pick up the cross God gives us, the cross that Jesus himself personally designed and shaped for each of us.
That’s quite a change from what the world teaches us to expect. It is a huge change from what we naturally assume. Have you found this kind of full and abundant life yet? Are you living it to the full? Friends, I have good news for you! This life is fully and freely available to anyone and everyone who pick up their cross and keep on following after Jesus. God’s Spirit work in each us the desire to do just that each and every day! Amen.