Some of you may know that in a former life, I underwent a significant amount of training for a career in music. This was a rich period of my life. The rigors of my training enriched my understanding of something that had—from the farthest recesses of my memory—called out to the deepest parts of my being. I met people who would become life-long friends. The experience opened my mind to a host of perspectives I had never encountered. And the lessons in discipline, patience, and delayed gratification have served my life in vocation in ways I never imagined possible.
That said, as I moved about the social groups that made up my colleagues in the field of music, I quickly became aware of some ways of being that would eventually drive me away from my ambitions to the higher echelons of professional music. There were pressures of all kinds that I found began to stifle and suffocate my humanity—the pressure for perfection, for self-promotion, and for recognition and esteem in the eyes of both my peers and my audience.
All of these temptations robbed me of the life that music had originally spoken into my soul. The feeling of utter worthlessness I could experience after a harsh criticism or poor performance made me question quite frequently the path in life I had chosen. At times, it was impossible for me to celebrate the accomplishments of my peers—for all I could discern in them was the feeling that none of my hard work would ever get me playing like so-and-so.
There were times when it felt like I had chosen death rather than life. In some cases, (though thankfully none that I experienced personally) these pressures could drive people to do some astonishingly heinous things. While studying composition in New York City, one of my classmates who had done her bachelors at Juilliard related horrifying stories of some of the dangerous and deadly things she had encountered in her peers. I remember one infamous instance where the competitive pressure to succeed had driven one student to hide razor blades in between the keys of pianos they knew other students would be using.
It seems the gods of success and prestige do like blood sacrifice after all.
And so as we hear Moses speak to Israel today on behalf of God, I am put in mind of these experiences. This is a time when Israel is discerning their identity as a nation. And Moses lays these two options before them: choose life; or choose death. Walk in God’s ways, or walk in the ways of the nations that will surround you. For I think Moses knew that Israel would be surrounded on all sides by nations that worshipped different gods—the gods of prestige, success, money, sex, power.
They would end up developing political aspirations. We should be like other nations! We should have a king! This is where they fall into the trap of worshipping these other gods. And we know what happens.
They get their kings.
They get their way.
They get their wars.
They get their exile.
And so what Jesus does this morning ought to catch our awareness. Because, of course, what did any first-century Judean want in a Messiah? A warrior king, who would kick Rome out (violently and quickly). So he hides the nature of his identity. He orders his disciples to do the same. He knows what will happen otherwise.
Peter proves it. He correctly names Jesus as the Messiah; but in another gospel telling of this scene, Peter objects when Jesus describes the rejection, suffering, and death that must befall the Messiah before he is raised on the third day.
The sons of Zebedee prove it. They (or their mother, depending on which gospel writer you ask) petition Jesus for powerful positions at his right and left hand in the Kingdom.
The faithless of the crowds prove it. This man is doesn’t look like a Messiah! He’s from Galilee! Who does he think he is?
The world will expect something different. The world will often ask us to choose death.
Lent is a time when we can take stock of these dualities—these choices—in our lives. This Lent, I think it is worth taking the time to listen and discern where God is giving you life, where God is speaking life into your life. Yet also, where has this life been robbed from you? Where does God invite you to lay aside the worship of these other gods? Where does God invite you to walk back into the larger life that Jesus shows us in his unexpected, socially unacceptable way? Where is God inviting you to take a different path?
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