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“Straight Talk about Suffering and True Safety”

Mar.4/12 Mark 8:31-38


The last day in February has come and gone - the deadline each year for contributing to your RRSP for the previous tax year. Every year the banks and investment companies remind us to contribute before it’s too late. And each year it’s a good opportunity to stop and ask ourselves just what it is that we’re living for, what we hope to achieve in life, what’s our main goal.
    Some people seem to work just long enough to get away. A resort company sends out their regular magazine titled Endless Vacation, as if that would be everybody’s dream! [EXAMPLE] But something about that philosophy just doesn’t jive with how the Bible presents things. Pastor and author John Piper offers this example in his book Don’t Waste Your Life (p.46):
    ...a story from the February 1998 edition of Reader’s Digest...tells about a couple who “took early retirement from their jobs in the Northeast five years ago when he was 59 and she was 51.Now they live in Punta Gorda, Florida, where they cruise on their 30 foot trawler, play softball and collect shells.” At first, when I read it I thought it might be a joke. A spoof on the American Dream. But it wasn’t.Tragically, this was the dream: Come to the end of your life—your one and only precious, God-given life—and let the last great work of your life, before you give an account to your Creator, be this: playing softball and collecting shells.Picture them before Christ at the great day of judgment: “Look, Lord. See my shells.” That is a tragedy.And people today are spending billions of dollars to persuade you to embrace that tragic dream.Over against that, I put my protest: Don’t buy it.Don’t waste your life.
Would you consider that to be a tragedy? Isn’t that the apex of the American dream, to have a yacht, play baseball, and collect shells? Is there supposed to be more to life than just basking in the sun and surf?
    In today’s reading, Jesus outlines options for a truly significant life: one that doesn’t glory in passing pleasures, but one that’s an eternal ‘savings plan’. We save our lives, He says, by losing it for Him - as He’s already demonstrated for us.


Last time we ended up at the beginning of Mark 3, and today we’re skipping ahead to chapter 8, so let’s review what’s gone on in the first half this gospel’s 16 chapters. We had seen Jesus manifesting powerful miracles, healing all sorts of diseases, and running into some conflict with religious experts because He claimed an authority for Himself that went beyond what normal people could. Basically in chapters 3-8 Jesus has continued on performing mighty works, feeding five thousand then four thousand, walking on water, casting out demons, rasing a dead girl, and sending out His disciples to likewise heal and deliver. But apart from a few mysterious parables in chapter 4 about the Kingdom of God, there’s not a lot of teaching; black print predominates over the red if you have a Bible that shows the words of Jesus in red. Mark’s gospel, at least the first half, is a gospel of action; there’s no ‘Sermon on the Mount’ as in Matthew or ‘on the plain’ as in Luke. Mark (and probably Peter, from whom tradition tells us he got his material) was most interested in portraying the powerful miracle-working Son of God. For Mark, the ‘good news’ about Jesus seems to consist mostly in what Jesus DOES rather than in what Jesus SAYS. Why is this?
    One of the most spiritually potent passages he does include is 7:21-23, where Jesus says: “For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly.All these evils come from inside and make a man ‘unclean.’”
    That, Mark is suggesting, is our basic problem. Religions can’t ignore this; people are born with consciences, an internal moral compass that signals when we’ve messed up. All the world’s great religions share similarities about describing what’s wrong in human behaviour - killing, lying, adultery, and so on. But they run up against a wall in trying to find a way to deal with sin and the resulting shame and guilt we feel. How can we be made ‘clean’? If there is a holy God who is the eternal ‘yardstick’ of what’s good and right and true, how can we be made right with Him, get things ‘squared up’? We are fallen, sinful, imperfect creatures. What could we possibly offer to achieve reconciliation with a holy perfect deity?
    It’s at this conundrum that wonders who could possibly win for us access to God and freedom from guilt, that Christianity stands in a class by itself. In most religions, you’re left with a checklist of suggestions you can carry out in hopes that, if you try hard enough and long enough, you might someday earn your own clearance, God’s approval. But the founders of the religions offer no help personally; they’re dead and long gone, you’re on your own. There’s no ‘third party’ to come along and mediate between you and the Holy One.
    But in Christianity, God is 3-in-1; God Himself (the eternal almighty holy Father) sends God-the-Son as a perfect sacrifice to atone with infinite worth for those destitute sinners who believe in Him. No other religious leader in history claimed to do what Jesus says He does, that is, pour out His own blood for the forgiveness of many. Christianity is absolutely unique amongst the world religions in this regard: and if you ponder the fact of human sin, you begin to see the beautiful wonder of the doctrine of the Trinity and Christ’s atonement, doing for us what we could NEVER do for ourselves.
    So, for Mark, it seems Jesus’ main accomplishment was not to teach, but to die. His gospel as been described as a Passion Narrative with a preface, an introduction. Mark understood that Jesus was not just a wonder-working Messiah (the first 8 chapters - what the Jewish people of the time expected), but also a suffering Saviour (the last 8 chapters). Today’s passage marks that dividing-point. Rotting in the uncleanness and filth of our sin, our corrupt heart and pervasive moral failure, we require a Rescuer.


V31, “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.” Look at this closely. “He then” - when? Right after Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ or Anointed Deliverer, v29. A light went on for Peter, but lest he infuse the idea with all the mistaken popular content about a rebellious champion who would evict the Romans and restore the nation politically to the Jews, Jesus immediately begins to teach Peter and the others what true Messiahship entails. This is no skull-cleaving glory-ride.
    “He then began to teach them...” Remember back in chapter 2(2,13) Mark had described Jesus as preaching and teaching but offered no details? He’s been building suspense until now; for 6 chapters we’ve had to hold our breath, wondering about just what IS the content of Jesus’ teaching. Now Mark feels we’re ready for it; he brings it on - chapters 8, 9, and 10 each have this pattern where Jesus predicts His upcoming death, the disciples misunderstand, and Jesus elaborates in a way that educates. Around v31-33 in each chapter: bang, bang, bang. Then what do we hit in chapter 11? The triumphal entry – the beginning of the passion narrative, the sequence of events that climax in Jesus’ death. So Mark is emphasizing this is THE CORE of Jesus’ teaching, the gospel-writer no longer is holding back; see v32, “He spoke plainly about this.” Jesus was laying it all out clearly for His followers. “Here’s the game plan.”
    What’s He saying? Back to v31, “that the Son of Man must suffer many things,” be rejected by the religious leaders, “that He must be killed and after 3 days rise again.” Why MUST? What’s driving this?
    Recall what Paul passed on very intentionally to the church at Corinth as ‘Basic Christianity 101': 1Cor 15:3-4, “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures...” Hear the echo there of what Jesus was teaching in Mark 8, 9, and 10? What’s the ‘must’? Two things: ‘for our sins’ – the very nature of our sin/guilt dilemma, our colossal bind in our hearts’ uncleanness, necessitated some third party to pay the price we could not afford. Second: “according to the Scriptures” - God had foretold through the prophets, and afterward recorded in sacred writ, the events that would unfold over the next weeks; see Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53, for example.
    You see this as well when Jesus reminds the disciples after the resurrection that He’d foretold these things and that they HAD to take place, Luke 24:25f and 44-47: “...how slow of heart [you are] to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And, “This is what I told you while I was still with you:Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms...This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations...” It was needed in order for forgiveness to happen, and Scriptural prophecy to come true. Jesus, God’s innocent lamb, had to be rejected by the religious men in control, and killed.


So, He’s laying this all out, very clear – and Peter chokes on it. Some kind of Messiah-gag reflex, Peter just can’t swallow this “suffering Son of Man” plan. V32, “Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him.” (Note to self: NOT a good idea to rebuke God, suppose you know better than Him!) David McKenna comments, “Acting as a condescending friend, he takes Jesus aside and begins to set Him straight on what it means to be the Christ.Like us, Peter can accept only the immediate and positive side of Truth.The Christ whom he confesses is the God of Power, not Passion.He may serve, but He cannot suffer.Human thoughts and secular values still dominate the mind and heart of Peter.” What about you? Are you all keen to follow a Jesus who heals and feeds and looks after you, a Messiah who can bring success, but you’re not ready to sign up for a Saviour who suffers and calls you to follow in bringing God’s absorptive love for people into reality?
    Peter would rebuke the Son of God, but Jesus reverses the tables by rebuking him. V33, “But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. "Get behind me, Satan!" he said. "You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men."” Why does it say Jesus “turned and looked at His disciples”? He could easily have just spoken to Peter without looking at the others. Here is Satan’s tempting offer, as back in the wilderness – “Use your power as Son of God to turn stones into bread.Take the easy way.Exploit rather than give yourself in exchange.Bow down to me and I’ll give you all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour.” Do you see the temptation Peter was presenting to Jesus at that moment? That’s why Jesus says, “Get behind me, Satan!” It was the same temptation all over again. And would have been so tempting compared to the disgrace, humiliation, beating, pain, and torture Jesus knew lay ahead. Why did He look at His disciples? Because He was saying ‘yes’ to God’s saving plan out of love for them - and love for you. It was YOU He was looking at in that moment! Loving you helped Jesus have courage to go ahead with what He knew was necessary to have a relationship with you forever.
    Peter had things backwards. Jesus called him to a reversal of how he looked at life. As NLT puts it, “You are seeing things merely from a human point of view, not from God’s.” What’s your ‘focus’, your mind-set? Are you seeking God’s angle on the situation, or do you let the media and friends or family tell you what to see from a short-term, ‘grab all you can ‘cuz you only go around once’ perspective?


Then comes one of Jesus’ hardest sayings - one that He makes a point of, one He calls the crowd to hear along with His disciples, one that only HE is truly qualified to command because HE has already done it for us. Vv34-35, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.”
    If there were ever a saying that was ‘anathema’ to the “ME-generation”, this is it! Jesus calls us to renounce and relinquish - to find our life in HIM rather than scrabbling and grabbing as if we could manufacture our own significance and security. He says one who’d follow Him “must deny himself/herself...” To ‘deny’ here in the Greek means “to forget oneself, lose sight of one’s self and one’s own interests.” Golly! Robertson comments that this means to “say no to himself.” That’s certainly not what the advertisers tell us!
    Next, “Take up his cross...” We’re not talking about a piece of religious deco-art or polished furniture here; to Jesus’ hearers it must have seemed as dreadful as carrying a noose around your neck. You’re ready to die to yourself, one step at a time. Jesus is saying that if you want to save your life, hang on to your life, you’ll risk losing it; the way to actually save your life is to lose it for Jesus and the gospel, the Good News that God has done for us what we couldn’t do for ourselves, in Jesus. Renounce your rights, relinquish your bossiness, your inbuilt tendency to rule the roost and chart your course apart from God’s guidance. If “God is your co-pilot”, it’s time to release your grip on the controls, and switch seats.


Vv36-37 get down to brass tacks, the question of what’s ‘really real’, what’s of ultimate value. Are you striving for the wrong reasons? Jesus asks, “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?” NLT puts the last part, “Is anything worth more than your soul?” In other words, Jesus is saying, “You can gain the whole world – all that splendour Satan dangles in front of you, that glitz and glitter, those ‘endless vacations’ – you can gain ALL of it but find you come up short. You’ll have bartered away your soul, your core, what makes you ‘you’. You’ll have traded for a bag of baubles and beads the most precious part about your whole person! You’ll have been ripped off – you’ll find it’s a bad deal; NOTHING can be worth losing that!”
    So, when the world beckons with all its ‘glam’, stop and re-assess what’s really worth it. Jesus doesn’t want you to get sucked in to the devil’s thievery. What’s fun for the moment can quickly turn sour, detestable in hindsight.
    “What can someone give in exchange for their soul?” Once you’ve lost that, there’s nothing left – it’s the bottom of the bucket, relationally. A profound emptiness and aloneness. If we give away our core, we have nothing left to redeem ourselves with, nothing to offer anyone but a shell. Jesus would spare us that trap!


The closing verse of chapter 8 contains words of Jesus that prompt us to ‘zoom out’ from a temporal view of life to an eternal view - the really long-range way of looking at things. They jar us into re-evaluating what this life holds as so valuable, so worth scrambling-up-the-corporate-ladder for or tearing-down-your-neighbour-by-juicy-gossip for. V38, “If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.” Wait a minute – HOW did He just refer to our shiny progressive culture? “This adulterous and sinful generation.” Isn’t that what keeps the tabloids and tongues humming? It seems perhaps people’s hearts haven’t changed much since the first century.
    Contrast that with Jesus’ surroundings at His return – He says it’s “in His Father’s glory with the holy angels”. The Father’s beauty and majesty and glory, the host of heaven radiant in holiness: wouldn’t you rather be lumped in with THAT crew? At the Transfiguration less than a week later, Peter, James, and John got a ‘sneak peek’ of Jesus’ glory – dazzling-white clothes, for instance. He wants you to be able to share that new and glorious spirit-body existence with Him, not be ashamed of you. Live today in such a way that when Jesus returns, there will be no regrets! Acknowledge Him and His teaching in public, in private, by how you live and make your decisions and plan and pray. When Jesus comes back from the Father’s side, the best this world can offer will pale infinitely by comparison.


ChristianWeek tells of Nathan Colquhoun who runs a graphics and web design company in Sarnia. In 2007 he cofounded a church called ‘theStory’; it started in a living-room, then in 2008 they bought a downtown storefront. Worship and teaching have an interactive flavour; there’s a potluck every week. Colquhoun says, “We try to make it really comfortable for people to just walk in off the street...It’s a pretty tight knit community of people; a bunch of us moved into the same area and we ‘do life’ together.”
    Colquhoun and his wife purchased a 9-bedroom home. They have 3 friends living with them now, and an open house for people who need a place to stay. I’d imagine that takes a fair amount of what Jesus calls ‘denying yourself’ and ‘taking up your cross’!
    Colquhoun has had experience leading large Emerging Church conferences in the past, but now senses God’s call to serve in a more localized way. He admits, “I used to be drawn by the impact of a grand movement. Getting all these people together in a room and making them believe the same thing...But I think the world is actually changed through these small local communities who love their neighbours, and when their neighbours are hurting they bring them dinner.Now, we’re just learning what it looks like to be a Christian in Sarnia right now...I don’t care if I’m known out in the world.I care about making a difference here.”
    He adds, “I’m growing in understanding that faith is something you work out locally in community.Small communities of people who care about each other are vitally important. Being rooted somewhere and building trust in the people around you. Just being in my community and staying here for the rest of my life is the best thing I can do as a Christian for the world. Building relationships with my neighbours. Raising my kids in a way that they’re going to care about the world the way that Jesus cared about the world.”
    In such statements I hear echoes of a suffering Saviour who promised, “Whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.” Let’s pray.