Old Testament Reading Genesis 17:1–7, 15–16
Epistle Reading: Romans 4:13–25
Second Gospel Reading: Mark 8:31–38
Sermon: “Take Up What Cross?”
Frederick Buechner, a famous author and theologian of the 20th century suggested in his book “Whistling in the Dark” that Jesus spent 40 Days in the wilderness asking himself the question of what it meant to be Jesus, and that during Lent, Christians are to ask themselves, in one way or another, what it means to be Christians – Children of their heavenly Father.
Scripture is full of examples, preserved for us, of those who asked themselves what it truly meant to follow God’s call on their lives and who sought to faithfully serve. Not one of them was successful all the time. The Good news is that God graciously forgave the lapses and encouraged them to go on. The story of Abram is just such a case. When he was called by God to leave his home in Ur to go to a land that God would show him. He did just that by faith. He up-rooted his family and left on a journey that he did not know where it would end. At the point of this morning’s reading, Abram, now renamed Abraham, has been on that faith journey for 25 years.
It is important to note that when Paul says in Romans 4:19 “He (Abraham did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb.” Paul is speaking in overarching, gracious terms of a man who followed and succeeded eventually, but honestly had a messy path with some embarrassing stumbles on the way (just like Simon Peter by the way, but we’ll talk about him a little later). It is important that we note such things to remind ourselves that scripture tells us of God’s working through very real and vulnerable people just like us. They were not two dimensional, halo’d story book characters, but men and women doing their best to follow God and finding God’s grace was sufficient for their shortcomings.
For instance, we read earlier in Genesis that Abram WASN’T content to wait on God and had a son by his wife’s maid Hagar – Ismael was his name. As if that weren’t bad enough, The next verse after today’s reading from Genesis ends has Abraham falling down on his face laughing at God’s promise of a son at the young age of 99. Don’t feel any superiority here – you would have laughed too. Abraham is an example for us, not because he was perfect, but simply cause he was willing to take risks and step out in faith repeatedly.
When we consider our gospel passage this morning, it should cause us to consider what it means to follow the call of God on our lives, just like Abraham and Peter had to figure it out as well. But, before we can deal with the question for ourselves, we should first understand, at least a little bit, what it means to say that Jesus is the Messiah – that is God’s anointed one. In order to do that we need to back up a few verses before today’s reading began. Mark has described for us episodes of Jesus’ ministry: – he has taught of the kingdom of God – sometimes plainly but usually in thought provoking parables; he has called disciples, he has healed sickness, cured infirmities and handicaps of all kinds, fed multitudes from almost nothing, cast out demons, and even raised the dead. He has welcomed sinners, forgiven sins and crossed verbal swords with the religious leaders of the day, who seem more determinedly blind than the man whom Jesus had just cured with a couple of applications of his hands and a bit of spit.
And now, at the turning point of the gospel, Jesus asks a key pair of questions: First – who do people say that I am – This question gathered various answers – all of the same type – from Elijah, John the Baptist or perhaps one of the other prophets – any way, a great prophet sent by God. Then Jesus asked the crucial question: “But what about you? who do you say that I am?” Friends, we frequently pick on Simon Peter, but here is one time, however briefly, he gets it just right: “You are the Christ”. Shockingly, in Mark’s telling, Jesus simply says not to tell anyone! Instead as we heard in the reading this morning, Jesus begins to tell them what it means to be the Christ – the Messiah, and its not at all what they had in mind – no, not at all! As Mark records: (Mark 8:31 NRSV) “Then 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.”
Now its hard to know just what the Disciples were expecting, clearly nothing involving rejection and death, they likely didn’t even really hear the part about resurrection – At least they certainly didn’t act like it after the crucifixion anyway. Many have suggested that the disciples like others of the time, expected the Messiah to be another great King like David of Old, someone to lead the nation to victory over the oppression of the Roman Empire. Perhaps they had noticed the name that Jesus used for himself – “Son of Man”. Perhaps for them, as it certainly does for us on this side of the resurrection, it reminded them of the passage in Daniel 7 where it refers to a splendid heavenly figure who is given dominion and kingship over all peoples of the the earth by God himself. But linking that glorious image with one who was sent to suffer and die was almost inconceivable – we still have trouble with it today. Jesus says it “must” be that way – indicating that it wasn’t just likely or inevitable, it was the express plan of God, It was an essential part of who he was and why he was there.
No wonder Jesus had kept telling those few who recognized him for the Messiah not to call it out. It didn’t mean what they thought it did. He was the Suffering servant described in Isaiah, not the victorious King – not yet. When Christ returns to claim his kingdom at the last days, that is precisely the role he will have, but not then. First, he must Save and Redeem and then Judge and Rule.
Peter of course knows none of that yet. So he rather forcefully takes Jesus aside to explain to him that his dying wasn’t what they had in mind. We don’t have a record of what he said, but it was likely something like ‘No, no, no .., the Messiah is to have Prestige, power and dominion. This is David’s throne we are talking about here – ruling the nations with power and might! Suffering, rejection and death are not on the agenda. That is not Good News at all!’
How often are we guilty of this sort of thing ourselves? Desperate to tell God just how we want things to work out! So sure are we that we know what must be done. We know how to keep our country secure, we know how to prevent mass shootings in our schools. We know what’s best for us! Peter was very wrong and was rebuked for his rash act of trying to steer Jesus away from the will of God. Instead, Jesus offers a very different view of what it means to be his disciple: (Mark 8:34-38 NRSV)
 He 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.”
O yes, “The Son of Man” is most certainly coming in heavenly glory, but we are not to appropriate any sliver of that glory for ourselves. Following Jesus is just that, following him to the cross. Following Jesus is understanding that self giving love is our standard. It wasn’t just a message for a few carefully chosen disciples either, Jesus gathered the whole crowd together and let them know that following him was not all abundant feasts on the mountainside and calmed seas. No, the path that Jesus followed does not follow the glorious path that people want to imagine about God. Instead, God is revealed in love, suffering and the cross. Just as Peter had tempted Jesus to be a different sort of Messiah, we are tempted to be a different sort of Christian than what Jesus calls us to be. We too are tempted to rely on wealth, power and privilege. We are tempted to legislate and command obedience to the way we are convinced things should be.
That is not the way of Christ dear friends. At the risk of offending some, let me offer some examples from the headlines. If you don’t like abortion, and you shouldn’t by the way, then make alternatives possible by love and care and giving. You would be a lot more obedient to Christ to volunteer with Living Hope or Young lives than picket or defund Planned parenthood. If you feel that the schools are failing and that children are often overlooked or neglected. Will you help to mentor and get involved even at the risk of your own time and priorities and taxes. I know some of you have done just that already. Finally and riskier still: Will we turn our communities and schools into inside out prisons with more and more guns or will we really seek to understand the cost of ignoring mental illness, the malignant swamp of social media, and the isolation faced by those who are different from ourselves. This litany could go on for quite a while, but hopefully I’ve given you food for thought. Taking up our cross and following Jesus means being willing to follow even where its not convenient, safe or easy. It means laying aside our priorities and taking up God’s.
Messy and dangerous you say? Yes, yes it most certainly is. So easy to be misunderstood and blasted for being a bleeding heart when tough measures and force are called for? Yes again, most likely. And that is the point Jesus is making. The road of political might is the one that Jesus refused to trod. He will weep over the future of Jerusalem, knowing that rebellion and sectarian division will bring about its destruction. The passage concludes with a warning. Its not a warning to the unsaved world, its a warning to would be followers of Christ: (Mark 8:38 NRSV) 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.”
In our earthly existence, we are not sent into a grim struggle, doomed to face tragedy. No, our Savior has already won the victory over sin and death for us. But neither are we set on a superhighway with no traffic. We are called to lead intentional, self giving lives of gratitude for the wonderful grace that has been given us. To live out our faith, following in the steps of our Savior Jesus Christ. The Good news of the Gospel saves us and claims us. We belong to God, we are not our own, for we were bought with a great price – the blood of Jesus. Let us live for him in all that we say and do.