Sermon September 12, 2021
The First Reading: Isaiah 50:4-10
The Lord GOD has given me
the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain
the weary with a word.
Morning by morning he wakens—
wakens my ear
to listen as those who are taught.
The Lord GOD has opened my ear,
and I was not rebellious,
I did not turn backwards.
I gave my back to those who struck me,
and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
from insult and spitting.
The Lord GOD helps me;
therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
he who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
Let us stand up together.
Who are my adversaries?
Let them confront me.
It is the Lord GOD who helps me;
who will declare me guilty?
The Gospel: Mark 8:27-38
Jesus 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?’ And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’ And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
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. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But 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.’
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.’
Both, the lesson of Isaiah and the gospel are about suffering, which is a difficult issue. Of course, we try to avoid or eliminate suffering whenever we can. When we are in pain and/or sick, we take medication. When tragedies or disasters happen we try to help and ease the situation. At the same time, we know that suffering happens. It is out of our control; not every situation is predictable and we cannot be prepared for every possibility.
Obviously, no one who was going about their business in NYC, 20 years ago, yesterday, had any inkling that within a short period of time the towers of the World Trade Center would be turned into rubble. The event itself brought suffering and trauma that is hard to digest. The wars that followed within the last 20 years brought more suffering, loss, and trauma, without bringing any resolution or closure.
Natural disasters in form of fires and floods have destroyed lives, towns, livelihoods, landscapes. The losses suffered are immeasurable.
And suffering happens in private lives through illnesses, broken relationships, isolation – it can intrude every aspect of our lives. It can be physical or emotional. The last thing we would say is that we welcome suffering or that we choose it. If we can avoid it, we do.
So then we read Isaiah and the gospel and their message is not to avoid suffering, quite the contrary, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross.” These words may sound strange to us. For Jesus’ contemporaries they were probably very offensive and tasteless. These people literally knew what it meant to take up their cross. The cross was the Romans’ tool of choice to execute the death penalty. People knew how a crucifixion looked like. The condemned were often forced to carry a portion of their own cross and along the way, the crowd would make fun of them, spit, and throw insults.
The equivalent to Jesus’ saying today would be, If you want to follow me, put yourself in an electric chair, which sounds offensive and tasteless. But I think it makes clear that there is quite a gap between our reality and the realities into which Jesus spoke.
Isaiah also talked about his suffering and the things he had to endure – beatings, having his beard picked, insults and spitting, all acts that were meant to hurt, humiliate and shame him. Yet, he rose above them and declared that he had not been disgraced.
Isaiah and Jesus went willingly through suffering and humiliation. But they were not fools who chose suffering for the sake of suffering. More so they accepted the fact that a life lived in faithfulness and speaking the word of God, which includes speaking truth to power, can get you in trouble. They did not choose suffering. They chose being faithful and accepted the consequences when their faithfulness collided with the powers of their time, which in Jesus’ case were both political rulers as well as religious leaders.
When Jesus addressed Peter and the other followers, he made it clear that this is the standard not only for him, but for them as well. And this is when things became difficult, especially for Peter who had correctly identified Jesus as the Messiah, but had the wrong ideas what that actually meant. And I think this is where we are close to Peter. He figured that this Messiah would make life better. He would restore Israel to its old glory, get the Romans out and establish a great nation again. Our expectations are not the same, but I assume that we too hope to get good things out of faith: comfort, strength, inspiration, an uplifting feeling.
The gospel today functions a little like a needle in a balloon, because it focuses on the more serious and demanding side, on expectations that come with faith. And some of the expectations Jesus articulated in the gospel are sacrifice and self-denial.
God calls us to a ministry where we get our hands dirty, where we put service for others first, where courage may be required to speak up even when it is uncomfortable. So faith and following Jesus as he described it is not just about feeling good, but there may be negative consequences to it. Jesus’ understanding of suffering and self-denial is certainly not in step with the culture we are living in, but it is its polar opposite.
However, Jesus’ call for denying oneself is not to be understood as asceticism, or as self-hate, or as suffering just for the sake of suffering. Just giving up things and being miserable will not make anyone a Christian. I think it is more about realizing that there are different sides to faith. Yes, there is the side that gives comfort, strength and direction, but then there are also expectations and a call to focus.
When Jesus said to Peter, “For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things,” he talked about a focus in life. How does the life of Christ inform our lives? If we believe that Christ is not only a triumphant but also a suffering Christ who can be found in places where pain and suffering prevail, then we as his followers have to go there as well. Following Jesus may potentially make our life more difficult or complicated, but it is also true that behind all this there is a loving and forgiving God.
It is God’s love that accompanies us throughout our lives, that keeps us alive and that nourishes us. We can trust in his live building power which enables us to be in this world and to face our cross, in whichever shape it may present to us. Amen.
And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.