traditional sermon LENT 2
The 8th chapter of Mark’s Gospel from which we read today is a challenging piece of writing to be sure. This past Wednesday morning, my weekly Bible Study class studied this very chapter, and discussed the change in spirit that occurs in the roughly fifty verses of this chapter that stands in the middle of Mark’s story of Jesus. Up until this point in Mark’s Gospel, we have been hearing about Jesus’ public ministry.
Mark, of course, doesn’t abide any baby talk in his Gospel. There is no talk of visiting angels … no pregnant moms … no shepherds in the fields … and no drummer boy at the manger. Mark jumps right into Jesus’ public ministry just 14 verses into his Gospel. And Mark moves quickly in weaving his yarn … in fact, one of his favorite words is “immediately” … he uses it more than forty times in his Gospel. That fast pace allows us to see Jesus do lots of things. He preaches … he heals … he trains his followers on the finer points of discipleship … he exorcizes demons … he butts heads with the religious leaders of his day … he breaks some rules … he offends some people … he even brings a dead girl back to life.
But in the eighth chapter of the Gospel, life changes for Jesus … and thus for his followers. It changes with these words, which we just heard a few moments ago … “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.” Those who get paid to write books about such things, call this section of Mark, “the first of Jesus’ three Passion Predictions.” Translation … this is the first time Jesus talks concretely about his coming death on the cross. It is the first time that Jesus tells the disciples where his ministry is heading. He invites them, in so many words, to take a peek at the last page of the book, and see how the story is going to end. It ain’t pretty … great suffering, rejection, and death. It does in fact, include “rising again.” But since the concept of resurrection was a new and trendy idea that most people in Jesus’ day rejected … it would be surprising if the disciples had any clue about what that meant. So what they heard was “death and suffering.” Just to be sure they got it, Jesus then opened the conversation to others who had gathered to hear his teaching … And like a1st century Paul Harvey, gave them the “rest of the story” with these words: ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
If we are honest with ourselves and others, we will admit that those words are no more popular now, than they were in first century Palestine. Few of us in the 21st century like to think about suffering … cross-bearing is a word we only use in Lent, and even then it sticks in our throat when we try to get it out … and denying ourselves is quite simply something we have little time for. Pheme Perkins, author of one of my books on Mark, comments on this passage with these words, “Confronted with the necessity of suffering, most people react exactly like Peter …. In a ‘pain-killer’ culture, a balanced understanding of suffering is difficult to achieve.”
It is a perfect phrase for us … “Pain-killer culture.” Like Peter, we have perfected the avoidance of pain, wherever humanly possible … even in the face or warnings and advice from those we trust. The explosion of the opioid crisis in our country the past couple of years, is simply the most obvious expression of our avoidance of pain. It thrives in a sports obsessed world in which starting with high school athletes, we invite teenagers to use addictive narcotics to “recover” more quickly from surgeries, “manage” their pain more effectively from injuries, and “mask” their soreness from over-use and over exertion. At a more basic level. it cripples the lives of young and old who can barely wait for the next prescription to land in the local pharmacy with their name on it.
But it is not the only tool we use to kill the pain in our lives. Who has not heard the phrase “Drown your sorrows in a glass of whiskey.” Booze is one of our great pain-killers, isn’t it? We can hardly go out for dinner without consuming alcohol. When I left hedonistic Long Island upon graduating high school in the mid-70’s, I never expected to see booze show up in the supermarkets in which I bought groceries. Granted, we call them beer gardens in Lancaster County, so I suppose that softens the image a bit … but they’re certainly doing more with wheat and barley than selling it in their produce aisle.
And those are just the easy picking “pain-killers.” Is not Facebook a bit of a pain-killer, as we try to present our best faces to those who visit our pages, and shield ourselves from the scorn of those who might think less of the complications of our real lives? TV is its own brand of narcotic, just as the glut of digital media can be as addictive as any pill you take to dull your pain … I mean really, can you ever watch enough stupid cat videos and TED talks? If you are like me, maybe you read books to escape pain in your life, whether it be physical, emotional or relational, as you find that losing yourself in a good book is better than any narcotic. Need I go on? I wonder even if those who open fire on a school, or a nightclub … or who bomb a building or a race like the Boston marathon … are somehow trying to kill the pain in their own lives and have given in to the illusion that there are no other solutions besides death. We have perfected the avoidance of pain in our world … or have we? Can we in fact avoid pain in our lives?
Jesus might suggest to us that pain itself is not the issue, but the purposes for which we endure and tolerate pain are what really matters. When you endure pain, so as to help your children grow and mature … is that not a healthy pain that responds to the call to equip our young ones to live well in the world? When you turn down morphine in the final days of your life in a Hospice Center, so as to have a few more precious hours of conversation with your loved ones … is that not a healthy pain that responds to the call of healthy closure in life? When you open yourself to the pain of rejection when you court a potential lifetime mate … is that not a healthy pain that makes possible the gift of covenantal life together with another? When you gladly claim your Christian belief in the face of a few who might scoff at your out-dated religious mysticism … is that not a healthy pain that allows you to demonstrate the depth of your gratitude for God’s calling in your life?
Jesus would suggest to us that there are certainly things in this world which are worth the pain they cause. Experiences that mold us in ways that less challenging experiences will never do. Hardships that we endure, not because we find some selfish pride in our endurance, but simply because through our suffering we honor the one who suffered for us – that one who has fashioned us to experience this pretty amazing life at all of those times when we are not called to suffer. Jesus has a word for this kind of life that has optimism in the face of suffering. It is called “taking up your cross and following Jesus.” It is not morbid … it is not fatalistic … it does not justify evils committed that we cannot prevent … it does not excuse us from trying to correct evils that can be prevented. It is not a posture we accept grudgingly with long faces and sour attitudes. Because taking up the cross is what Jesus did for us … and through it, God fashions for us an experience that in not quite like anything else the world can offer you. There is satisfaction in this cross-bearing life … there is purpose in this life, especially in a world that pursues pain-killers instead of crosses.
And dare we say, there is joy in this life. Because it is modeled after the one whose own life has saved our lives. That one who made cross-bearing a good thing … a holy choice … a life-giving act. Jesus Christ … the one we have been called to follow. Amen.