Saturday, March 3, 2012

At Risk of One's Life

Mark 8:31-38
Lent 2
March 4, 2012
William G. Carter

Jesus 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. 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. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those 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.”
The theme for this season of Lent is “Deliver us from evil.” As you will remember, it is a line from the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus teaches us to pray for God to protect us, to move us out of reach from all the forces in the world that threaten to do us in. There is evil in the world. People hurt one another. People hurt themselves.

What’s more, there are irrational powers that are poised against us. In the first century, the people of Jesus’ time were quick to call them demons. If you had a migraine, the neighbors said a demon attacked you. A crippled spine or a paralyzed limb was evidence of an oppressive spirit. If a person struggled with mental illness, the common diagnosis was that an evil presence invaded them. If a cloud of sadness descended and would not leave, or if manic energy overwhelmed you, everybody believed something had gotten into you.

This was the New Testament way of saying there is evil in the world. If God is ruling in power and might from heaven, it often seemed as if there was an opposition force invading from hell. The Jews were very careful to declare that there is one God, all loving and all powerful. They were very clear that God alone is God, and that God is just and good. At the same time, they had to make sense out of the daily reality that life gets twisted into destruction. How else can you make sense of the headlines, except to say there is some systemi

As we have heard from the Gospel of Mark, Jesus began a ministry of confronting evil. He delivered people from evil. On the very first day of his work, he went into a synagogue to teach the scriptures – and evil was waiting to take him on. It was seductive – a member of the congregation stood to question him, to disturb him, to attack him. And whatever it was that had gotten into the man said, “I know who you are! You are the Holy One of God.” Evil Personified could see Jesus very clearly. With that, the question is posed: “Jesus, have you come out to destroy us?” Jesus muzzles the nasty spirit and restores the man.

The confrontation began in a synagogue. It continues in a community. Right after Jesus leaves the synagogue, the whole town of Capernaum start bringing him all of their wounded, all of their afflicted, all of their damaged. And one at a time, he takes them by the hand, or he looks them in the eye, or he lifts them out of the dust. This is his work – to restore people from the ravages of evil. To release them from the oppressions that lay heavy upon their lives.  

His work begins in the synagogue. It continues in the community. It spreads through the surrounding region. And now, as we heard, even one of his own disciples now attacks him. It is the moment when Simon Peter can see Jesus for who he is. He is the Christ, the Messiah, the Strong Son of God. The whole book has been moving to this moment. Who do people say that I am? “You are the Christ, the Messiah of God.”

But no sooner does he say it, no sooner does he begin to explain it, when Simon Peter pulls him aside and starts yelling at him. He rebukes them – that is, he reprimands him and says, “You are talking nonsense. You are not going to die. The Messiah does not die. Jesus, stop talking this crazy talk!”

And Jesus glares at him and says, “Shut up, you Satan!”

That has always sounded harsh to me. He looks at the very first disciple that he selected in the Gospel of Mark and calls him a devil. He points the muzzling finger at the first person in his inner circle to get it right. Up to this point, the twelve disciples have been bumbling along. They are like third-rate actors who miss all the cues and mess up all their lines. Peter finally gets something right; and not just something, he gets the big thing right. He sees that Jesus, his powerful friend Jesus, is really the Messiah.

And Jesus thunders at him, “Stop, you Devil. Be quiet. Get in step behind me.” That’s harsh.

Last Saturday, when Buz Myers was here, he helped us understand some of this. He pointed out that, for hundreds of years, the Jewish hope was for a Messiah, for a Chosen One who would save the people. And the defining characteristic of a Messiah is that he would not die. He would never die.

This is what the Jews of that day believed, ever since they heard God’s promise to David, the greatest of their kings. The Messiah will come from the house of David. The house of David will be an everlasting house. It will not die. Even when the Babylonians invaded in 587 BC, and killed all of David’s royal descendants, they held firm that one day, sometime in the future, God would send a Messiah to make everything right. When the Messiah comes, the Messiah would not die!

Simon Peter says, “You are the Messiah, Jesus. You are the Chosen One.” And Jesus says, “I am going to die.” That’s when they begin their little shouting match. And that’s when Jesus looks at Simon Peter, and says, “Get behind me, Satan.”

It seems so harsh. Yet what is this, that stirs Jesus to say this? What is it, that makes him look right at a trusted friend and denounce his word as evil? It seems to be rooted in the very next word Jesus speaks, “You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” There is God’s way, and there is the human way. Simon Peter is merely being himself, while Jesus is pursuing the mind of God.

Now what do I mean by this? Simply this: there is no greater human need that self-preservation. I got into the car on Friday morning to drive a hundred miles, and somebody said to me, “Take care of yourself.” No problem. I am an expert at taking care of myself. I am a human being. I excel at taking care of me.

That does not mean I am very good at it. I eat too many potato chips. The doctor said, “Stay away from peanuts,” and I sneak a handful of peanuts when my wife is not looking. And if she catches me, I blame her for bringing peanuts into our house. I know how to take care of myself, even if I am not in tip-top shape.

I am really good at taking care of myself. When there are chores to do, and I don’t want to do them, suddenly my ears stop working when somebody calls me to the chores. When there are obligations to meet, and I would rather do something else, I skip the obligations and do whatever I want. When there is something challenging before me, something that I really need to do, I will take the shortcut, or I will look for the detour, or I will rehearse the apology so I can justify to anybody who will listen why I did what I did, or why I did not do what I did not want to do.

Oh, believe me, I really know how to take care of myself. Left to my own ways, to my most natural inclinations, I will do whatever I can to take care of myself. Because I live with the presumption that my life is all about me. These are “the human things” that Simon Peter sets his mind upon. This is what he expects of Jesus - - that Jesus will take care of himself. This is what every human being will do, when left to one’s most natural inclinations.

You hear it, I think, when people makes some money, find themselves with some spare time. What are you going to do? The answer is usually, “Whatever I want.” Going to get myself an easy life, do whatever I want, whenever I want to do it. That’s called “taking care of yourself.”

You hear it when the student graduates from school. Sleep to noon, nobody is going to tell me what to do or when to get up. It’s about me, and my needs, and my comforts, and taking care of me. Simon Peter says, “Jesus, you are the Messiah. Watch out for yourself. Be good to yourself. Take care of yourself. Live forever. Take a cruise to the islands.”

Jesus says, “Shut up, Satan. You are thinking about human inclinations, and not the will of God.” And this is the will of God: to confront every form of evil. The will of God is to make people well. To offer love to those who have no love. To share a meal with the person who has no food. To embrace the teenager that the world excludes. To untangle the woman who is twisted by fear. To lift up the man that the world puts down.

The will of God is to push us beyond every natural inclination for self-preservation, so that we can make a constructive difference in a tormented world. God has a mission to the world in sending Jesus the Messiah. He is coming to heal people who don’t realize how sick they are. He is coming to raise up from the dead those who have lost any joy in living. He is coming with surgical skill to remove the cancer of despair from people who are worried sick. He will do whatever it takes, and he is not the least bit inclined to “take care of himself” and play it safe. And if the world hands him a cross, well, that comes with the territory.

For Lent, I chew on this as I offer the prayer, “Deliver us from evil.” Jesus comes to deliver us. The first thing that he delivers us from is our own preoccupation with ourselves. He will not play it safe. He will not chase after his own comfort. He refuses to paddle around in a hot tub of cozy feelings. No, he is on a mission. His life has a purpose. God sends him as Messiah to take in the whole world for repairs.

And lest we think that the task is his alone, he turns to his own church and says, “Follow me. Get behind me and follow me. If you wish to save your neck, you will lose it. But if you would lose yourself for my sake and for the sake of the gospel, you will find yourself saved and delivered.”

This is the mystery of Lent. What do we give up for Lent? We give up ourselves. We stand contrary to our own natural desires, and we join with Christ to make this world a beautiful place, a healed habitation for God and all God’s creatures. We tell the truth in a culture of lies. We announce sin’s forgiveness. We celebrate God’s claim on us with bread and wine. We repair what we can. At all costs, we continue the work of Jesus.

And if somebody hands us a cross and says, “Carry this,” it comes with the territory. 

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

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