Genesis 17: 1-7, 15-16; Psalm 22: 22-30; Romans 4: 13-25; Mark 8: 31-38
Those of you who were here when I last preached will remember that I began by telling you how much fun I was having listening to, and preaching from the Gospel of Mark. Mark is fun because he is so breathless. He races us through one scene and then plunges us headlong into the next before we have time to catch our breath or ponder the significance of what has just happened. It’s like being doused with a pail of cod water, and before we have time to cry out in outrage we are doused with a second pail of even colder water. Today is no different. We have just been doused with cold water and almost before we have had time to register our shock, a second and third pail of equally cold and equally icy water hits us.
The first pail of cold water came in the few verses before our gospel appointed for today. Jesus and his disciples are in the region of Caesarea Philippi and as they walk, Jesus asks them a question: “Who do people say that I am?”1 The disciples then shout out the various possibilities: John the Baptist, Elijah or one of the other prophets.2 I can almost hear them tossing out the various options. But then I can see in my mind’s eye Jesus stops waking, he turns and looks at each one in turn and says, “But [you] who do you say that I am?” I can hear the silence and feel the reluctance but suddenly, probably unthinkingly, Peter blurts out: “You are the Messiah.”3 Again, I can hear the silence and the gasps. I see Peter biting his tongue wondering why on earth he said such a stupid thing. But I can also feel the hope hanging in the air, for in those four words are wrapped all the hopes and dreams and aspirations of the people of Israel. “You are the Messiah.” This is what God’s people having been waiting for, for generations. Can it truly be that the hope of God’s people is standing before them?
That’s the first pail of cold water, and while we stand there shocked, cold and wet, the second is on its way, and this is where our gospel for today begins. It is here that Jesus begins to teach about his Passion, “that the Son of Man must undergo great sufferings, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed”4 and Peter is outraged.
We have lost, I think, our proper sense of outrage. Sure we get outraged (although I am sure none of us do), when someone snaps up that one parking space we had marked out for ourselves or cuts ahead of us in line. But for most of us, most of the time, we have lost our proper sense of outrage. Perhaps of all the things the Occupy Movement has done is to restore a proper sense of outrage to the public discourse. And that is what happens here. Peter is outraged, not because someone has trumped him, but because Jesus has dashed his hopes. Peter is outraged, not because Jesus has predicted his Passion, but because Jesus has dashed the hopes of God’s people. Peter is outraged, so much so that Jesus must rebuke him: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”5
Peter and all the people of Israel are eagerly awaiting the Messiah who is longed for and who will be greeted by all (at least all the people of Israel); not only by fisherman and tax collectors but also the elders and chief priests and scribes. The Messiah is not to be rejected but welcomed! The Messiah is not to suffer but to rule. The Messiah is not to be killed but to restore all things. The vision of the suffering Messiah that Jesus holds up is outrageous and the second pail of icy cold water hits us dead in the face.
We have lost, I think, our proper sense of outrage, and what God does is often outrageous for no matter how much we think we know how God will act, God frequently acts in other incomprehensible and outrageous ways. And this is one of them: the Messiah longed for by all will be rejected by all, except by a few raggedy fishermen, tax collectors, prostitutes and their unlikely companions. And that is outrageous.
But God has a habit of acting outrageously for what Jesus proposes here is not much different than what God promised to Abraham centuries before: for Abraham “as good as dead”6 and Sarah’s womb barren were to be the parents “of many nations”7. God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah was nothing short of an outrageous joke and “Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, “Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?”8 God’s sense of humour seems to be a pretty outrageous joke.
But again, no matter how much we think we know how God will act, God frequently acts in other incomprehensible and outrageous ways. And this is one of them: that God indeed would keep his covenant with Abraham and Sarah and they would become “the ancestor[s] of a multitude of nations”9.
But even as we stand shivering, shocked and cold from the second pail of icy water, the third is on its way. For we have barely had time to comprehend what Jesus means when he declares that the long anticipated Messiah is to be rejected than he calmly informs us that “if any want to become [his] followers, [they must] deny themselves and take up their cross and follow [him]”.1
As outrageous as it is that the Messiah is to be rejected; or that Abraham and Sarah are to be the ancestors of many nations, this admonition to take up our crosses is equally outrageous. It is one thing for God, but now we too must act outrageously. No matter how much we think we know how God will act, God frequently acts in other incomprehensible and outrageous ways, and now so too must we. And all through the ages God’s people have taken up their crosses and acted outrageously as they have followed the only One who gives real meaning to life.11
Peter and the other disciples acted outrageously when they left families, homes and jobs to follow Jesus. Antony of Egypt acted outrageously when he sold all his property and gave it to the poor so that he could spend the rest of his life wrestling with demons in the Egyptian desert. Francis of Assisi acted outrageously when he stood naked in the market square having abandoned wealth, and power and family in order to “rebuild God’s church”. Oscar Romero acted outrageously when he stood by the poor and dispossessed of El Salvador. The Occupy chaplains acted outrageously when the declared that the church belonged in the tent cities of the Occupy Movement in Boston, New York and London and not just in the churches and boardrooms before which they encamped. And each time God’s people have acted outrageously they have suffered, and been rejected and sometimes even killed. And the third bucket of ice cold water has been thrown in our faces.
We have lost I think, for the most part, our proper sense of outrage. But I think we should be outraged for no matter how much we think we know how God will act, God frequently acts in other incomprehensible and outrageous ways. Just look for a moment at the history of God: Creation, Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection, Salvation. All of these are ultimately outrageous because each time we think we know how God will, or should, or must act, God acts in other incomprehensible and outrageous ways. Sometimes they are so outrageous that they make us angry. Other times we fall on our faces and laugh. But perhaps the truly outrageous thing is that we are expected to follow suit, and to take up our crosses and follow.
Just when we think we know how we should, or must or need to act God intervenes in our lives and we act in ways that are incomprehensible and outrageous, especially to those who love us most. Yet it is when we take up our crosses and act most incomprehensibly and outrageously that our lives become full of meaning in union with God.
Like Abraham, like Peter, like all those who have gone before us in the way of Christ, we think we know how God will act, yet God frequently acts in other incomprehensible and outrageous ways. We only have to look at the life of Jesus to know that it true. Like Abraham, like Peter and the other disciples, like Antony and Francis and Oscar Romero, God sometimes asks us to act outrageously, even to the point of taking up our cross and following Christ, and when we do we discover that our lives become rich and full of meaning.
So here are a couple of questions for you to ponder today:
Just when you think you know how God should act in your life, how has God acted incomprehensibly and outrageously?
And what incomprehensible and outrageous thing has God asked you to do? Maybe that is where you will find both your cross and your life’s meaning.
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