Lent 2: Mk 8/31-38

Mark 8:31-38 - Why Must We Carry a Cross?
Mark 8:31-38 - The Big "W"

1. The Connections:

Throughout his Gospel, Mark portrays a Jesus who is continually misunderstood by family and friends.  Today’s Gospel (in the common lectionary) is a case-in-point.  Jesus tells his disciples that his ministry will end in suffering and death in Jerusalem.  Peter takes Jesus aside and admonishes him for speaking such a gruesome message.  Jesus reacts with surprising sharpness to Peter’s rebuke.  The hard reality for Peter and his companions (including us) to accept is that cross is central to Jesus’ Messiahship – and must be a part of every follower’s acceptance of Jesus’ call to discipleship.  To be part of the new life of Christ’s resurrection in the life to come requires dying to our own needs and wants in the present. 

Sometimes a cross may be a particular burden; but our crosses can also be a strength or ability that we can use to bring Easter hope into the life of another.  Discipleship is the challenge of transforming our crosses into vehicles of resurrection.
Jesus’ strong rebuke of Peter challenge all of us who would be Jesus’ disciples:  What crosses are we willing to take up, come what may, for the sake of the values and beliefs we hold dear? 
While we naturally seek to avoid what is painful and stressful, it is in failure that we learn; it is suffering that we find healing; it is in the crosses we take up that we find the wholeness and joy of resurrection.
This life of ours is but an instant; it is simply a passageway to the eternal life of God; it is a journey by way of the cross to the promising of the everlasting Easter.  

Cross moves
A ten-year-old boy lost his left arm in a devastating auto accident.  Once he had recovered, he began lessons in judo.
His teacher -- his “sensei” -- was an old Japanese master.  The boy was doing very well.  But he could not understand why, after three months of lessons, the master had taught him only one move.
“Senei,” the boy finally asked, “shouldn't I be learning more moves?”
“This is the only move you know, but this is the only move you’ll ever need to know,” the sensei replied.
Not quite understanding, but believing in his teacher, the boy continued training and mastering this one move.
Several months later, the sensei took the boy to his first tournament.  The boy, to his surprise, easily won his first two matches.  The third match proved to be more difficult, but after some time, his opponent became impatient and charged; the boy deftly employed his one move and won the match.  Still amazed at his success, the boy was now in the finals.
This time his opponent was bigger, stronger and more experienced.  The boy appeared to be overmatched.  Concerned that the boy might get hurt, the referee called a time-out.  He was about to stop the match when the sensei intervened.  “No, let them continue,” the sensei insisted.
Soon after the match resumed, the boy’s opponent made a critical mistake: he dropped his guard and the boy used his move to pin him.  The boy won the match and the tournament.
On the way home, the boy and the sensei reviewed every move of every match.  Then the boy finally summoned the courage to ask what was really on his mind.
“Sensei, how did I win the tournament with only one move?”
“You won for two reasons,” the sensei answered.  “First, you’ve almost mastered one of the most difficult moves in all of judo.  And second, the only known defense for that move is for your opponent to grab your left arm.”

We all have crosses to bear.  We tend to think of our particular cross as a burden, something -- or someone -- that demands so much of our time and energy.  We consider whatever weighs us down, causes us pain and anguish, traps us in lives of desperation and despair as the "crosses" we have to bear.  We dream of the day when we can lay our crosses aside, never to pick them up again.  But, as the boy discovers, often our heaviest cross can be our greatest strength.  Many of our crosses are opportunities to be sources of hope, of joy, of discovery, of healing, of life for ourselves and others.  Christ now challenges us to transform those crosses of ours into vehicles of resurrection.  God lays on able shoulders the strength to cope, the ability to listen and console, the faculty to lead and lift up.  These crosses, when taken up in the same spirit of humble compassion with which Jesus took up his, are the first light of Easter dawn.  


You might remember comedian Yakov Smirnoff. When he first came to the United States from Russia he was not prepared for the incredible variety of instant products available in American grocery stores. He says, "On my first shopping trip, I saw powdered milk -- you just add water, and you get milk. Then I saw powdered orange juice -- you just add water, and you get orange juice. And then I saw baby powder, and I thought to myself, "What a country!"
Smirnoff is joking but we make these assumptions about Christian Transformation - that people change instantly at salvation. Some traditions call it repentance and renewal. Some call it Sanctification of the believer. Whatever you call it most traditions expect some quick fix to sin. According to this belief, when someone gives his or her life to Christ, there is an immediate, substantive, in-depth, miraculous change in habits, attitudes, and character. We go to church as if we are going to the grocery store: Powdered Christian. Just add water and disciples are born not made.

Unfortunately, there is no such powder and disciples of Jesus Christ are not instantly born. They are slowly raised through many trials, suffering, and temptations. A study has found that only 11 percent of churchgoing teenagers have a well-developed faith, rising to only 32 percent for churchgoing adults. Why? Because true-life change only begins at salvation, takes more than just time, is about training, trying, suffering, and even dying (adapted from James Emery White, Rethinking the Church, Baker, 1997, p. 55-57).

Peter took Jesus aside and rebuked him. Why? Peter believes the kingdom of God can be obtained instantly by force. Peter has a worldly view of the Kingdom and Jesus is speaking about a heavenly kingdom. For a moment I would like you to listen to this story with new ears and see Jesus through the eyes of Peter and the rest of the disciples. Get rid of all your notions about who Jesus is. Take away from your mind Jesus as the Son of God. Strip from your memory that he died on the Cross and that he did that for your sins. Forget that Jesus ever said love your enemies or love your neighbor.

Now I want you to think of Jesus only as a military leader. Imagine that your country has been invaded and is being ruled by godless men. Sense, now, that the tension is mounting and you are about to go into battle. That you are about to conduct a coup d'etat. That you and this band of ruffians are going to attempt to overthrow this government by a sudden violent strike. That the odds are stacked against you but you have a very strong belief that God is on your side despite the overwhelming odds.

Now you are thinking like Peter...
There are two kinds of dogs in this world (not people this time!). There are the dogs who eat everything and anything - toss them a bit of anything, meat, cauliflower, mushrooms, shoe leather - and it will be snapped out of the sky and scarfed down without hesitation.

Then there are the dogs that approach every tidbit offered to them with suspicion. They stop, they sniff, they consider, and then they finally - tentatively - accept the goodie offered to them.  The spoiled doggie message being sent here is that the gift you offer is accepted with the attitude that "I am doing you a favor by eating this." 

The "scarf hounds" joyously wolf down whatever comes their way from our hands because they trust that we are always offering them something good, something that they want and they need.  

The "spoiled dogs" also show up for treat time, but they convey an attitude that suggests that we need them to be there. Those pampered pups take their invitation as a given, and their finicky feeding manners emphasize that they are "gracing us" with their presence and their acceptance of what we offer to them.  

Did you come to worship this morning as a "scarf hound" or as a "spoiled dog"? Are you here because your soul trusts in God's providence and presence, and hungers for the divine gift of being able to draw near to God? Or are you here because you are doing God a "favor" by showing up? Do you somehow imagine that God needs your presence and the witness of your worship in order to validate God's divinity?  

In this week's gospel text Peter once again demonstrates his ability to get everything right, and then with the next breath get everything wrong...

 The Cross Has Always Caused Problems 

A Pastor on Northern Vancouver Island wrote to online study group this message:

"I'm having difficulty with the Gospel this week; what is this cross that I am to take up, and what am I to deny in following Jesus?"

Another Pastor, a student minister in the United States wrote:

"I find this a hard gospel text because it talks about suffering rather than joy."

The cross has always caused problems to people. Brutal and barbaric - the
cross was a tool of political power for the Romans. They maintained their
power because of the fear of death on the cross.

When one was condemned by the state, the condemned literally had to "take
up his cross" and carry it to the public place where he was to be crucified. It was part of the humiliation process, the mechanism of social control for which crucifixion was invented.

The cross was an instrument of suffering and shame - and no more so than among the Children of Israel - where the scriptures themselves declare: "cursed is anyone who hangs on a tree".

To die on a cross was a sign that one died cut off from God, and cut off from the people of God - a sign that the person was rejected. And of course in the case of Jesus this was very true.

Richard J. Fairchild, If Anyone Would Follow Me
I Am No Longer My Own

In his covenant prayer, which he offered every year at midnight on New Year's Eve, John Wesley prayed,

"I am no longer my own but Thine, put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt, put me to doing, put me to suffering, let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee, exalted for thee or brought low for thee; let me be full, let me be empty; let me have all things, let me have nothing; I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal."

As disciples of Jesus Christ, we'd do well to pray with Wesley and be reminded that we're not free to follow the dictates of our own sinful nature; we're free to surrender our wills to the will of God and to submit ourselves to the authority of Jesus Christ.

Philip W. McLarty, The Cost of Discipleship

 Taking Up Your Cross - Service 

During the dark days of World War II, England had a great deal of difficulty keeping men in the coal mines. It was a thankless kind of Job, totally lacking in any glory. Most chose to join the various military services. They desired something that could give them more social acceptance and recognition. Something was needed to motivate these men in the work that they were doing so that they would remain in the mines. 

With this in mind, Winston Churchill delivered a speech one day to thousands of coal miners, stressing to them the importance of their role in the war effort. He did this by painting for them a mental picture. He told them to picture the grand parade that would take place when VE Day came. First, he said, would come the sailors of the British Navy, the ones who had upheld the grand tradition of Trafalgar and the defeat of the Armada. Next in the parade, he said, would come the pilots of the Royal Air Force. They were the ones who, more than any other, had saved England from the dreaded German Lufwaffa. Next in the parade would come the Army, the ones that had stood tall at the crises of Dunkirk. 

Last of all, he said, would come a long line of sweat-stained, soot-streaked men in minor's caps. And someone, he said, would cry from the crowd, "And where were you during the critical days of the struggle?" And then from ten thousand throats would come, "We were deep in the earth with our faces to the coal." We are told that there were tears in the eyes of many of those soot laden and weathered faced coal miners. They had been given a sense of their own self-worth by the man at the top. 

Service does not always come with big fancy ribbons. And I think that it is forever true, that it is often the humble acts of service that provide us with the deepest sense of joy and the most fulfilling satisfaction. 

Brett Blair,

The Fork in the Road 

According to that great font of wisdom, Yogi Berra, "If you come to a fork in the road, take it." Mark 8 is a kind of theological fork in the road. This chapter is the hinge of Mark's gospel. Not only is this the exact middle of Mark in terms of chapters and verses, it is also theologically the center point at which the ministry of Jesus takes a decisive turn toward the cross. Jesus seems to know what he is doing and also where he is going (or, better said, where he must go whether he wants to go that direction or not). For the disciples, however, Mark 8 does present a kind of fork in the road. And like Yogi Berra, as they look at the fork in the road, they want to take it. They want it both ways. They want to stick with Jesus and be his followers while at the same time insisting that Jesus follow them down the path they want to take. 

Scott Hoezee, The Lenten Fork
Take up Your Cross

This is a cheerful world as I see it from my garden under the shadows of my vines. But If I were to ascend some high mountain and look over the wide lands, you know very well what I would see: brigands on the highways, pirates on the sea, armies fighting, cities burning; in the amphitheaters men murdered to please the applauding crowds; selfishness and cruelty and misery and despair under all roofs. It is a bad world, Donatus, an incredibly bad world. But I have discovered in the midst of it a quiet and holy people who have learned a great secret. They are despised and persecuted, but they care not. They are masters of their souls. They have overcome the world. These people, Donatus, are the Christians -- and I am one of them. 

Cyprian, a third-century martyr.

 Built around the Cross 

There's a great story about the artist Rodin, who one day saw a huge, carved crucifix beside a road. He immediately loved the artwork and insisted on having it for himself. He purchased the cross and arranged to have it carted back to his house. But, unfortunately, it was too big for the building. So, of all things, he knocked out the walls, raised the roof, and rebuilt his home around the cross (Best Sermons 3, Harper & Row, 1990, p. 115). 

When you hear Jesus' call to radical discipleship, I hope you will decide to knock down the walls and rebuild your life around the cross. Remember, Jesus said, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me." 

Mickey Anders, Cross-Bearing
Hard Truths

Billy Graham poses the question this way: "When Jesus said, 'if you are going to follow me, you have to take up a cross,' it was the same as saying, 'Come and bring your electric chair with you. Take up the gas chamber and follow me.' He did not have a beautiful gold cross in mind - the cross on a church steeple or on the front of your Bible. Jesus had in mind a place of execution." 

Gary Weston, Hard Truths

Living Life from the Outside In 

Were I to create a short list of people who live from the outside in, it would include people who don't know what their political beliefs are until they've read their favorite political columnist; don't know what books they want to read until Oprah tells them; don't know how to decorate for Christmas until Martha Stewart directs them; don't know what to believe until their denomination tells them; don't know what to wear until they have consulted a fashion guru; don't know how to respond to the controversial issues of the day until they check their windsocks to see which way the breeze is blowing.  

People with this pattern are like submarines cruising through life at periscope depth and they will not come to the surface until they have surveyed the surrounding territory, making sure that their emergence will occur within optimal conditions for safety from others they perceive to be potentially menacing critics.  

Living life from the outside in -- we have all been there at one point or another in our journeys. And when we are accurately so described, we are the same folks Jesus had in mind when he talked about people who have gained the whole world, but forfeited their lives.  

We've gotten it backwards, Jesus says. Instead, turn matters inside out and live from the inside out.

Robert A. Noblett, Sermons for Sundays in Lent and Easter, CSS Publishing Company

 Sermon Closer: We Have a Choice to Transform 

There is a story about two young brothers who were caught stealing sheep. The punishment back then was to brand the thief's forehead with the letters ST which stood for sheep thief. As a result of this, one brother left the village and spent his remaining years wandering from place to place indelibly marked by disgrace. The other remained in the village, made restitution for the stolen sheep, and became a caring friend and neighbor to the townspeople. He lived out his life in the village--an old man loved by all. 

One day a stranger came to town and inquired about the ST on the old man's forehead. "I'm not sure what it means," another told him. "It happened so long ago, but I think the letters must stand for saint." 

We have a choice. We can lay down the cross we have been given to bear and passively live life with no challenge to change or we can take it up and be transformed, living for something greater than ourselves: The Kingdom of God. The choice is yours. But I adjure you: Take it up!