Second Sunday of Lent — March 1, 2015

How Jesus Ruins Everything

NOTE: Sermons are aural events; they are meant to be heard, not read. The text below — which was not delivered exactly as written — may include errors not limited to spelling, grammar and punctuation of which the listener might be unaware and with which the preacher is unconcerned (h/t: Rev. Slim Wilson)

Mark 8: 27-38 

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” 30And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
31Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
34He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For 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. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
So if you were sleeping on Thursday night, like a normal person, you might have missed the latest controversy to blow up the Internet. 
It wasn’t your standard Internet scuffle.  The controversy wasn’t over war or peace, Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal.  It didn’t include the usual suspects like politicians, climate change or immigration policy.  Those squabbles are child’s play in comparison to the debate that began percolating on Wednesday afternoon and morphed into a full blown, international controversy on Thursday night.  The latest Internet-fueled controversy to divide families, friends, co-workers and even members of the U.S. Congress had to do with a dress. 
The debate was over this question:  Did the mother of the bride wear black and blue?  Or gold and white? 
A few days after a wedding on the Scottish island, a member of the wedding party was posted a picture of a dress on the Tumbler website and asked her followers for their feedback.  The photo soon was posted on Buzzfeed, Facebook and Twitter.  At its peak, more that 670,000 people were simultaneously viewing the photo.  Every one had an opinion, it seems, about the color of the dress.  And everyone was convinced that he or she was right. 
At the heart of this silly on-line debate was a curious mystery – how could different people see the same article of clothing so differently?  Like many questions, the answer hinges on the question of perception, how people interpret the world through different lenses.  But in the case of the dress color, it isn’t about ideology, or politics, or race.  Whether you see the dress as black and blue, or gold and white, has to do with how your brain processes visual information.  Every human being’s brain is wired differently, and the dress controversy certainly illustrates that fact. 
You and I look at the same photo of a dress.  I say it’s white and gold.  You say black and blue.  Which one of us is perceiving reality and which one of us is not?  The answer, as best as I’ve been able to figure, is this:  what did the creator of the dress intend the color of the dress to be?  I’ll save you the trouble of going to the Google when you get home.  The dress designer says it is black and blue.  Then again, that’s the perception of the designer.  Maybe the designer got it wrong as well.
This is all slippery, unsettling stuff.  What makes blue blue?  What makes gold gold.  Is color only in the eye of the beholder?  And it’s exactly the same kind of question being considered in our scripture this morning.  What makes the Messiah, the Messiah?  What does the Messiah look like? What is the Messiah supposed to be and do and behave?  In our text today, Peter thinks he knows what he’s seeing when he looks at Jesus.  Peter’s brain has been trained and wired in such a way that his perception of The Messiah is one thing.  And he is soon to discover that Jesus’ perception is quite different, in a way that will soon unsettle all the disciples.
Just remember what Peter has witnessed in his time with Jesus up to this point.  What Peter has seen is Jesus at his most dazzling. The gospel of Mark provides a narrative in the first eight chapters that seems to go out of its way to highlight Jesus’ amazing power.  Jesus has going head to head, toe to toe with Satan and emerging victorious.  Jesus casting out demons, calming a storm, healing countless sick, giving sight to the blind, raising a girl from the dead, feed 5,000 people with some scraps of bread and fish, and walking on water. Wow.  For the first eight chapters of Mark, what we see when we see Jesus is power, power, and more power.  Power over sickness, power over death, power over Satan. 
Peter sees all powerful stuff happening when Jesus is around and he is pretty sure that he has figured out the puzzle.  Peter is pretty sure that he knows exactly who Jesus is and says it out loud.  – Jesus is, indeed, the Messiah.  The hope of Israel.    Peter thinks Israel has finally gotten what they’ve been waiting for since forever — a successful, powerful Messiah. 
But what Jesus has in mind for the future of his ministry is very different from what Peter is anticipating.  Because Jesus perceives with the mind and eyes of God, and Peter has the mind and eyes of a human being.  And Jesus tells his disciples that, from this moment on, their lives will be lived in the shadow of the Cross. 
Sigh.  Big sigh. Jesus has ruined everything.  What once was a beautiful picture of a light-filled and powerful Messiah has been transformed to black and blue suffering. 
Jesus paints a clear picture. No parables this time.  No folksy metaphors for what is about to happen.  Jesus speaks clearly about suffering, rejection and death.  Over and over again from this point on in the gospel of Mark.  And at every point, the disciples don’t see what Jesus sees. 
And how could they? In the disciple’s religious imagination, the Holy One of Israel should be about accomplishment, glory, wisdom, and above all, power.  Power to defeat the Romans, not to be killed by them.  Power to be the living breathing hope of Israel, not a dead criminal on a cross.  The disciples are scandalized, confused, maybe a little embarrassed.  Probably even angry.  Wasn’t the Messiah supposed to save them?  What good is a dead Messiah?  All of Jesus’ gloomy talk is going to completely destroy this ministry.  Doesn’t Jesus know that?
 And Jesus tells Peter to get a grip.  This is how its going to be. 
Jesus turns to the crowd that had been following him around and says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and the sake of the gospel, will save it.”  Jesus is very clear about what it means to be his follower.  Suddenly, following Christ isn’t about power, power, and more power.  Suddenly, following Christ isn’t about success and glory and accomplishment and wisdom in all the ways we think about it as human beings.  Suddenly, following Christ isn’t about solving problems and making life easier.  Following Jesus is about complicating your life in ways you never imagined.  And it begins by being willing to lose everything.
You know that question – how do people make it through life without faith?  After hearing what Jesus has to say, maybe a better question is – why would anyone want to go through life with faith?  At least in this guy.  Because what Jesus is promising to the disciples in this text doesn’t look very promising.  In fact, you wonder why anyone would want to follow Jesus at all. 
The first half of Mark’s gospel is all about how to live.  Throughout the first chapters, Jesus gives instruction of one kind or another on how to best fashion our lives.  And then, at this moment, Jesus makes the turn and begins to show us how to die.  Playing it safe is no longer an option, says Jesus.  There is sacrifice expected.  Death stops being a reality to be feared, but one to embrace.  Now that we have been given new life in Christ, Jesus shows us how to give it up or give it away.  And much to the crowd’s disappointment, and maybe to our own, Jesus points to the cross and insists that it is the only way we will be saved.
Jesus could not have chosen a more vivid and terrifying image than the cross.  In first-century Palestine, the cross meant one thing – death, the cruel tortuous death that awaited anyone who dared threatened Caesar’s kingdom.  The Romans put up crosses like billboards advertising Caesar’s supremacy and the fate of anyone who dared to challenge it.  Jesus’ hearers knew exactly what taking up the cross meant.  In 6 AD, they had watched the Romans crucify 2000 Galilean insurrectionists.  Imagine the impression that must have made on the disciples.  Imagine the impression this must have made on young Jesus. 
This invitation to lose one’s life is a terrible slogan for the Christian church.  Nobody is much interested in dying or picking up an extra burden for the sake of the gospel. What Jesus is saying here is not going to attract flocks of people to our sanctuaries. At least, not people who would join a church because it makes them feel good or confirms their own way of living or doesn’t require much of them in the way of change or growth or sacrifice.
If the church were really following Jesus, we would say that if you’ve been viewing your faith as a security blanket to make you feel warm and cozy, it’s time to give it up.  If you’ve been using your faith as a weapon to judge and exclude other people, stop it.  If you have been coasting on something you once believed a long time ago and are not currently wrestling with your whole heart about what it means to follow Jesus, you better start struggling.  If your goal as a church is merely to survive, give up that idea right now.  Jesus embodies a different logic –the logic of the cross that says it is only in suffering and struggling and dying that we will be saved.
That sound you hear in the gospel text today as Jesus makes the turn to the cross is the ideal of a powerful Messiah crumbling.  Some of the sounds we hear in the pews these days are the sounds of our perceptions of the church of Jesus Christ beginning to fall apart.  And that is good news. Because when our beliefs begin to unravel, we learn to quit worshiping our own beliefs, our own experiences, our own community, and finally begin to worship God alone. 
Jesus ruins everything for Peter because Peter’s perception of who Jesus should be, blocked his ability to see Jesus as he is.  We are also guilty of this.  We assume that we know what we know about God’s intention for us, so much so that even a powerful word from Jesus cannot dissuade us.  We still live as people blinded by our prejudices and preconceptions of the way we think things should be for us.  We think if we are faithful enough, our lives will run better.  We think if we are smart enough, our church will get better.  And Jesus comes along and ruins everything.   Thank God.
Because we have so much more to learn.  Because the God revealed in Jesus Christ shows up not in our successes, but in the broken places.  Like Peter, we are often disappointed that we do not get the God we want, the God we’ve been taught to worship, or the God we believe we have a right to expect.  Like Peter, we want to hang out with a winner who attracts the popular crowd.  Not a suffering servant who very may well get us killed as well.
The good news is that the Jesus we get is the Messiah we need.  The Messiah who lowers himself to join us in our earthy, stumbling humanity.  The Messiah who sheds every bit of heavenly glory to enter the little hells we have created.  The Messiah who abandons all the trappings of power so that God can get close enough to embrace us and redeem us at our places of weakness and brokenness. 
Perhaps this is what Jesus meant by saying that those who want to save their life – along with all our expectations for what Messiah should be – will lose it and those who are able to shed those expectations and the lives they’ve built around them will find life.  True life.
In the last paragraph of his great book entitled Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis has these important lines:  “The principle runs all through life, from top to bottom.  Give up yourself and you will find your real self.  Lose life and it will be saved.  Submit to death – the death of ambitions and secret wishes.  Keep nothing back.  Nothing in us that has not died will ever be raised from the dead.  Look for Christ and you will find him, and with him, everything else thrown in.” 
Let it be so for us.  Let us keep nothing back.  Let us look for Christ in own lives and in the life of our church.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.