"Discipleship's Bottom Line"

October 22, 2006 Mark 8:27-9:1

Questioning the Unfairness

The pictures on the back page of this week's local paper were shocking: a police cruiser flattened like a pancake. No wonder (Const.Mounsey) David's injuries were so severe. For those who saw him in the hospital, emotions fluctuated from hope to helplessness. "It seems such a shame," we might say - that such a dedicated, service-oriented patrolman's life should be so impacted by a patch of ice and a hydro pole. Tragedies just "aren't fair", particularly when they happen to those we love.

But who ever guaranteed us that life would be fair? That would be a perfect world, unlike our own experience or the history the Bible relates. Ecclesiastes (7:15) "the Teacher" just after David's time observed, "In this meaningless life of mine I have seen both of these: a righteous man perishing in his righteousness, and a wicked man living long in his wickedness." That's hardly fair or just, either. As the New Living translation puts it: "I have seen...the fact that some good people die young and some wicked people live on and on."

Yet life's unfairness tempts us to become bitter and grumble. In fact we're just reacting to our incorrect assumption, that life SHOULD be fair - an indication of the conscience God has planted within us that can detect absolute standards and weigh right and wrong. The reality is, though, that life is fragile, not fair; we are mortal, "death is the destiny of every man" (Eccl 7:2). Evil, sin, and a corrupted creation interfere with our plans - whether that comes in the form of ice on the pavement or soggy soybeans in the field. Loss is part of life.

When Jesus shocked the disciples by teaching them repeatedly He must suffer and be killed by the religious authorities, Peter reacted out of a similar sense of "that's not fair". V32, Peter took Jesus aside "and began to rebuke Him". Peter believed in this Rabbi, his Master, one he avowed to be "the Christ": it was inconceivable that such a godly man and supernatural leader should suffer rejection and death. From our perspective, Jesus' death would class as "the greatest unfairness of them all". Yet time would prove that God could turn even that supreme injustice, that colossal unfairness, to good purposes. But first Jesus need to clue His followers in to some deeper truths about the real nature of life, eternity, and what's most worth living for.

A Key Question in a Pluralistic Place

Chapter 8 is a crisis, a turning-point, at the halfway point of the 16 chapters in Mark's short Gospel. Til now, despite a few run-ins with some religious critics, Jesus' reputation has been steadily rising. He stills the storm, heals the incurable, raises the dead, feeds the multitudes; a real Superman. There is widespread public speculation that this might be the long-awaited Deliverer for Israel from foreign oppression. He takes His disciples on retreat, far to the north, over a hundred miles from the mounting opposition in Jerusalem. He's checking about how He's coming across; v28f, "Who do people say I am?...Who do you say I am?"

Mark notes they were in the vicinity of Caesarea Philippi. The location is significant in relation to Jesus' question. David McKenna comments: "Caesarea Philippi is the place where gods are born and made. In ancient history, the city gained its fame as the centre for Baal worship, carrying the name Balinas in honour of the Phoenician god. Greeks, too, found their god of gods at the same site. According to Greek mythology, the birth of Pan, god of nature, took place in a cave from which sprang the waters of the Jordan River...By Jesus' time, [the city] is...the site of a magnificent marble temple built in honour of Caesar Augustus, the Emperor of Rome...It stands as the religious fortress of the pagan world which challenges His Godhead...So, in the arena of Caesarea Philippi, where gods duel to the death, Jesus asks His disciples, "Who do you say that I am?" If He is the Christ who comes, there is no alternative. The half-gods of Baal, Pan, and Caesar must go, and go forever."

Today, here, in our time, many 'gods' vie for our attention and devotion. Our community's annual "Witches' Walk" last night featured if not promoted fascination with death, horror, and the darker side of the spirit-world. Drugs are a chemical god demanding to be accepted and respected: a York university professor demands a place where he can smoke his medicinal marijuana, just like U of T affords their faculty. Other young people find their college studies suffer because they're tempted to spend more and more time tweaking their "mySpace" site, or gamble away their resources in online gaming. For older folk, infidelity, a bitter fight with chronic illness, or the accumulated effect of various tragedies can drag them down and lead them to doubt a loving Heavenly Father's care.

Who is Jesus - in the arena of pluralism? The crucial question may not come in the time of crisis so much as in the place where we are relatively safe and at ease. Will we choose to run life OUR way - or let Jesus be Lord?

Fine-tuning "Greatness"

1John 2(15f) warns us not to love the world, defining everything in the world (in this sense) as 'the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life' (NASV); or, 'the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does..." (NIV) That broadly falls in 3 categories: pleasure (flesh), possessions (eyes), and power (boastful pride). Parallels in Jesus' temptation in the wilderness (Mt 4) are: stones into bread, the riches of the kingdoms of the world, and throwing oneself from the Temple in a spectacular display. Many religious folks may succeed in overcoming the first 2 temptations (pleasure and possessions) only to get trapped on the last (power/pride). Any potential great world leader will have to deal with the latter. The current North Korean leader keeps rattling his nuclear sabre, even though such programs deprive his fellow countrymen of basic necessities such as food. Saddam Hussein's trial is dealing with charges that he committed genocide of 180,000 Kurdish people; and in another village, wiped out over 200 following an assassination attempt. Power is deceptively and deliciously addictive. It is disturbing to read reports of the United States, the world's greatest current superpower, exempting itself from the rule of law and due process by the use of military tribunals, or in the treatment of its detainees.

It's easy to pick on leaders, those who make headlines (as Garth Turner knows). But we ordinary civilians can be guilty of this too: schoolyard bullying continues to be a problem (which probably won't be helped by the new video game just released which features it). And spousal abuse is another disturbing violation of power - whether verbal or physical; it destroys families and perpetuates generational dysfunction.

As Jesus becomes increasingly recognized as 'the Great One', He takes pains to teach His disciples what true "greatness" is about; that Messiahship may be something different than overcoming the Romans at their own game. As soon as Peter declares "You are the Christ", in v 30 "Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him [probably because of their distorted ideas].He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again." That certainly didn't sound like the kind of Messiah they'd been waiting for!

Chapter 8 is sort of a high-water-mark in this Gospel. Up til now, Jesus has been a miracle-manufacturing Superstar. With the introduction of this teaching, Jesus turns south and starts making a beeline for the cross in Jerusalem, less than 6 weeks away. He doesn't just predict His trial, death, and crucifixion once, or twice, but three times (8:31; 9:31; 10:33). Each time in these three chapters there is a similar pattern: prediction - misunderstanding - clarification. Here the misunderstanding is Peter's rebuke; in chapter 9, the argument on the road about who's the greatest; in chapter 10, the request of James and John to sit at Jesus' side in His Kingdom. Aren't you glad Jesus chose disciples who were a bit 'thick' and didn't get it the first time? The eternal definition or understanding of greatness baffles us, like them; I too need to be told this repeatedly. Regardless of what the media tells you, true greatness isn't about 'having it all' or throwing your weight around to get what you want or even 'being number one'. Greatness involves a cross. Contrary to the world's logic, God's plan of redemption is a mystery. In it God's Son overcomes sin and Satan by seeming to succumb. It's by accepting and enduring the very height of unfairness that He ultimately makes things fair in the balances of eternity, and proves God's judgment to be just.

The Disciple's Orientation and Obedience

So what's greatness really about, then? What's it mean to be a Messiah? Jesus' words here fit in roughly 3 areas that follow on from each other: attitude, action, and attainment. Or, our Orientation affects how we Operate, and results in an Outcome.

First, consider the attitude, action, and attainment of the person who doesn't know God. They have in mind (33) "the things of men", looking at things from a purely human perspective. They are out to "save their soul" (35); it's only natural, after all, to be self-protective, to try to get ahead. Such a person in their mind may be "ashamed of Jesus and His words" (38) because a sacrificial lifestyle doesn't really help you promote yourself and get ahead in the business world or the line-up of your class-mates. That sort of thing could even get you laughed at or snickered about! The person focused on the "things of men" lives for the NOW, what pleasure or satisfaction I can get out of the moment.

What actions result from this humanistic attitude? They may succeed in gaining the world (36). They take whatever they can get, they elbow and shove to climb the ladder, they step on the toes of the person standing next to them waiting for the subway so they can get a more strategic position (as one of my corporate relatives once described).

What do they attain? Those who succeed in the rat race too often end up with a ratty disposition. They "lose their life/soul" (36); alienated from co-workers, fracturing their families, they may make a million but end up bankrupt in their soul, with nothing to give in exchange for the personhood that's been lost (37). And when the end comes - when the Son of Man returns, He "will be ashamed of him..."

But it needn't be that way. We can piece together from Jesus' remarks the profile of a different type of person, one who follows a better path. What's their attitude, their orientation? V33, they "have in mind the things of God", they're seeking to know what God's about, what the Lord would see happen in their environment; they're concentrating on building into their life godly characteristics and disciplines. V35, they're prepared to "lose their life for Jesus and for the gospel". This is the thing that really shocks the disciples, that their Master isn't going to cash in on all this success but allow Himself to be ridiculed, rejected, and become nothing under the attacks of His critics. For the sake of something nebulous called "the gospel", some "new covenant" God's enacting.

And this person isn't living for now, but anticipates the Kingdom - looking forward to the glorious appearing of Jesus. They're savouring the Saviour, not sucking on sensations.

What action results from this God-oriented attitude? A daily decision, v34, to come after Jesus by "denying himself and taking up his cross and following Me". Not making the choices that lead to personal advantage, to 'gain the world', but losing sight of personal interests for the sake of Jesus' priorities and practice. "What would Jesus do in this circumstance?" - then walk in that direction.

What does this person attain? What's the outcome of their obedience? V35, they 'save their life/soul'. Hell/Gehenna/destruction have no hold on them in eternity. And they're a whole bunch nicer to have as neighbours in this life! Eventually, when Jesus returns, they will not be ashamed but share with Him in the "Father's glory with the holy angels", the power of God's Kingdom (8:37f). The apostle Peter wrote that faith that is proved genuine when believers endure painful trials will "result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed" (1Pet 1:7). Paul told Timothy, "if we endure, we will also reign with him.If we disown him, he will also disown us..." (2Ti 2:12)

So, our orientation and obedience determine our outcome: it all starts with having God's things as our focus, and making those daily decisions to forget self-interest and follow Jesus.

Carry the Cross - Ugly or Beautiful?

What does it mean when Christ tells us to "deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Me"? This is no walk in the park! As we watch this 40-second video clip, think of all the adjectives you can to describe what the cross-carrier might be experiencing...

[video clip - walk to Golgotha, Gospel of John; possible responses - hardship, suffering, pain, rejection, loneliness, shame, humiliation, heavy load, scorn, misunderstanding]

Now, what's that parallel in your life? What hardship or weight or heaviness is being laid unfairly upon you - or do you sense God calling you to step in under? Note it's important to distinguish here between hardship or pain that results from our own sin and stupidity - that's not a "cross"; rather, Jesus is referring to suffering for the sake of righteousness. What load, or sacrifice, or strain might the Lord be asking you to assume as His agent at this spot on earth?

When you first watch the video, it can be a very ugly sight. It makes you want to turn away, it's revulsive. But when you stop and realize this is not really Jesus' cross - whose cross is it? Whose sins did He bear? "Surely He took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows...He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities...the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all." (Is 53:4-6) That cross is the one that should have been yours, and mine. It didn't belong to Jesus at all. When you realize that, suddenly He's doing a beautiful thing: in love accepting the shame and pain and punishment that should have been ours as sinners. Jesus took it up for me: the cross is the means by which He exchanged my bankruptcy for His riches.

Constable Mounsey was "responding to the call" of an overturned tractor-trailer when the rollover occurred: in the course of duty, he was performing a noble act under perilous conditions. So Jesus risks coming to our aid at all costs, even the cost of His own life. He promises salvation, instead of shame, if we receive and follow Him.

Something Better Awaits

Life is hard; it's tough; it can seem very unfair. But living for Jesus - with Jesus - assures us that one day all the suffering and self-denial will be worth it.

The sons of John D Rockefeller were destined to inherit the vast fortunes of their father. However, Rockefeller Senior wanted his sons to know what the life of the working man was really all about. So he insisted that they go out and work in the oil fields alongside the common labourers.

For more than 2 years the Rockefeller boys worked on drilling rigs. They worked long and hard hours. At the end of the workday they were exhausted, and they had to endure the unpleasantness that comes from being covered with oil on a hot, hot day. At night they would sit with their fellow labourers and talk. One day, another man asked one of the Rockefellers how he liked being among the common workers. He responded, "I love it! This has been one of the best times of my life." The worker who asked the question said, with an edge of sarcasm in his voice, "That's because you know you're not staying. You know there is something better out there waiting for you when this is all over. You would look at things differently if you thought that working in these oil fields was all there was for you."

Believers know that this life, with all the troubles and agonies that go with it, is not all there is. That alters the way in which we live. We see things differently and make wiser choices when we remember there is something better out there ahead of us. Let's pray.