Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Sermon from Sunday, September 13

Mark 8:27-38

27Jesus 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.”

Do you ever feel in over your head? Like you can’t quite grasp everything that is going on and being demanded of you? It’s the feeling you get when you show up to sign your mortgage and they tell you they need you to sign 20 different pieces of paper. Or the feeling on the first day of class when the syllabus is 15 pages long and has an appendix. Or you show up for the first day of work and they begin to describe the duties and you realize that they expect you to do all of them when it sounds like there are enough for fifteen people. They say babies don’t come with instruction manuals, and I think every first time parent knows the feeling of being overwhelmed.

It’s a disheartening feeling. It makes us wonder if we’re good enough, strong enough, capable enough. It makes us question ourselves and those around us. It sends us scurrying for comfort, for home, for milkshakes, and all those wonderful things that don’t ask much of us, just give us that wonderful sensation of home.

I would imagine that’s what the disciples felt like. We find them on the way to Caesarea Philippi. What they were planning on doing there, we don’t know. Caesarea Philippi was not exactly the center of Jewish worship. It was, in fact, the center of the worship of the earth god, Pan. There was a cave there were individuals could toss their sacrifices inside. I would imagine that as they drew closer, the disciples each began to wonder exactly what Jesus had in mind for Caesarea Philippi. What was he intending to do?

It was on the way there that he turned and asked the disciples this unexpected question. “Who do people say that I am?”

It was there that he rebuked Peter for taking him aside and confronting him about speaking of his suffering and coming rejection.

It was there that he first mentioned the cross.

What do you think of when you hear the phrase, “Take up your cross”?

(Nervousness, fear, etc.)

I can’t imagine that we are alone in feeling those things. Surely the disciples must have shared in these emotions. This was the first place in the Gospel of Mark that the cross is mentioned. It’s the first place that Jesus talks about his coming death. The healings and the miracles probably started to look a little different through eyes that were now caught up in images of torture and death. I doubt they had expected this—just imagine how you might feel if you walked into church one day and I told you that you needed to take up your lethal injection and follow me. Well, the image doesn’t work exactly, since I’m not the Son of God. And, well, you’re not following me.

But you get the general idea. Can you imagine the thoughts that ran through the minds of these disciples at this point. Cross? Resurrection? Cross? Death? What?????

I would imagine that everything else Jesus said was lost the moment he mentioned crucifixion. This is the most painful death imaginable. It is a terrible, awful, painful and long-drawn out method of torture. The Romans dreamed it up to discourage others from opposing the empire. This was not something to be taken lightly. The cross might have sent others scattering from this sudden lightning rod of persecution. Take up your cross was asking those following him to accept their coming death and move on with their lives.

I read it this way because of my view of death. Death, as viewed in American culture, is not a good thing. It is an end. It is something we keep at a nervous distance, that I have anxieties about, and that I, to be completely honest, am not very excited about. Death is the great unknown, the mystery at the end of our lives. As Americans we don’t have a very healthy theology of death.

This is not a passage about death. It includes death, but if we focus on the aspect of losing our lives we miss the point.

So when Christ talks to mentioning how we need to pick up our coming death and follow him, it makes us pause and think about death. But what Christ wants is for us not to stop and think about death, but rather to stop and think about life.

Our lives are cluttered with any number of things. Work, family, stress and an infinite list of things become the focus of our moments and our days. We schedule around them and allow them to devour our time and energy as we hope that tomorrow might bring more free time and less stress. We are constantly distracted by telephones that fit in our pockets, computers that seem always present, televisions that drone on and on.

What we read in the Gospels is a plea to turn all of that down. Not to turn it off and go lead solitary lives in the desert, but simply to turn it down and move everything one place farther down the list. We are filled with anxiety and worry about so many things that we forget the single most important thing we are to live for. Christ uses this time, here on the road to the center of pagan worship, to remind us what should truly be at the center of our lives. It’s only appropriate that Jesus chose that place, on that road, to focus on this issue.

We have so many idols, and we are so busy sacrificing our time and our money, our efforts and our love to them that we forget what is truly supposed to be in the middle of our lives. We know it is true, but so often we forget what our first priority is supposed to be.
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, and with all your strength.”
When Christ says to take up the cross and follow me, he is proclaiming a powerful truth: our view of life needs to be one that is not lived in fear of death, but rather that we cannot worry about death but rather need to be worried about our lives, about how we are spending our precious days here on Earth. When Christ tells us to lose our lives, he is telling us to stop holding on to life so tightly and to instead hold on to Christ that tightly, and all else will be taken care of. If we can center ourselves around the one who is holy and righteous, then death and the rest of our lives can assume their proper place in our list of priorities.
So how on earth do we squeeze something else into our over-stuffed lives? How do we make God a priority when there are so many other pressing things demanding our time, our attention and our money?

We need to address this list at the beginning of every day. What is it we need to do, and how important is it? What needs to come first?

I challenge you this week to pray as soon as you wake up. To make Christ the center of your mornings. Begin your day with Christ, so that Christ is first on your mind, and go forward from there. Having trouble finding the words? Use the Psalms. There are 150 of them, each one a prayer unto itself. Read one first thing in the morning. Start your day with Christ, and see how long you can keep God in the front of your minds. As you make your list of things to do today, put ‘Glorify God’ at the top. See if you can achieve this. For one day, see if Christ can be first in your mind, first in your heart. Then, at the end of the day, after you have thanked God for another day, go to bed, wake up in the morning, and do it all over again.
Christ is pleading for us to make our lives about Him. Not because what is filling our lives now doesn’t matter, but because God matters more.

Christ has this eternal vision, the ability to understand all of time at once. We don’t have that. We can’t see and understand life as merely a short chapter in the eternal book God is writing. We have to go day by day, moment by moment. Christ is begging us to lose our understanding of everyday life and our everyday duties as the center of the universe. God is asking us to realign our lives so that God sits on the top of our list, and everything else comes afterward. For the sake of Christ, may we lose our understanding of life and adopt his, taking up the call to glorify God.

Let us pray.

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