COME AND DIE
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Someone once famously said, “You can’t handle the truth!” This could be the basis for the question which is really our challenge today. Can you handle the truth? Can you handle the truth as we follow him along the way that leads to life? We are at the crux of the matter right here for Mark the evangelist. A passage that comes pretty much at the midpoint of his gospel. The final journey to Jerusalem is about to begin.
This is where they are going. They are now on the way. This phrase “on the way” will be repeated again and again in the coming chapters. Jesus’ ministry, which has mostly happened in Galilee is over. We have seen him proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom of God. We have seen him healing, seen him forgiving, seen him restoring life, seen him providing. We have heard him speak in parables that were not easy to understand.
Now we come to the heart of the matter. Nothing will be the same from this point on. The question of “What kind of Messiah is this?” is about to be addressed. The question of “What does it mean to follow such a Messiah” is about to be addressed. These are not questions we ever come to a full understanding of. To follow Christ is to come to an ever fuller understanding as we’re walking behind him on this way. Like the disciples, we need Christ to open our eyes. This is what Christ did for a blind man in Gentile town called Bethsaida right before this story. He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village; and when he had put saliva on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, “Can you see anything?” And the man looked up and said, “I can see people, but they look like trees walking.” Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again, and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.
Because coming to see things clearly is a process. Jesus is about to figuratively spit in the disciples’ eyes. He’s figuratively spitting in the eyes of anyone who wanted to get out ahead of Jesus. Anyone who wanted to put their own agenda on Jesus.
So pretty much everyone I would say.
He’s speaking to us in these words. But first, we have the words of Peter. Christ and his followers are in this town named after Phillip, Herod’s brother who ruled the area north of Galilee. They’re surrounded by a temple to the god Pan, and a gleaming white marble temple for Caesar Augustus. “Who do people say I am?” comes the question. Many of us are familiar with it. “Some say John the Baptist and others, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” Jesus asks them “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answers “You are the Messiah.”
The Messiah. The chosen one. Literally “the anointed one”. Messiah in Hebrew. Christ in Greek. Not Jesus’ last name, but rather a title.
Of course, we know how meaningless titles can be. It’s like getting a promotion at work that involves no pay change but a great new title – Assistant to the Regional Manager or whatever. This is the problem here. There was no general consensus on what Messiah meant. There was no general consensus on what the saviour of the world would look like. Of course, the official party line in Rome was that Ceasar was the saviour of the world – the one to bring peace and order and all good things. Not so much for the people living under the Roman boot. We tend to look at societies as very monolithic, and many have you have no doubt heard that the Jewish expectation of a Messiah involved someone who would free them from foreign rule. While this is true there was no general consensus as to what or who this would look like. A descendant of the line of David who would restore the Davidic monarchy. A divine figure who would destroy Israel’s enemies. One group expected a kingly figure from the line of David and a priestly figure from the line of Aaron.
Isn’t it much the same situation in our world today? A plethora of opinions and beliefs about who or what will save us? Whether it’s a political ideology or a leader with a Messiah complex or the inexorable march of progress or whatever it is we feel will save us.
Of course, the reader of Mark has already been told about the one called the Messiah. The one who heard the voice from heaven saying “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.” The reader of Mark has seen Jesus doing all the things he’s been doing and showing his power and authority and it’s been great. Just as it was for the disciples.
They didn’t quite understand. And don’t judge them too harshly because we don’t quite fully understand either. There was such a lack of understanding that Jesus told his followers not to tell anyone. It couldn’t begin to be understood until after, after all.
After what Jesus begins to teach them. Note that he speaks plainly. No parables. No images. Nothing that requires further explanation. Just some stark truth. “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.”
Who had ever heard of such a thing? This was not supposed to be the way to freedom, to peace. Sure Jesus had mentioned something once about being taken away but I mean everyone gets taken away from us eventually right? Sure there was talk about some people who wanted to destroy him but no one ever said anything about him being killed! He said all this quite openly.
Peter, ever impetuous, takes Jesus aside and begins to rebuke him. Same word that had been used for what Jesus did to stormy waves and demons. Surely this could not be part of God’s plan! Jesus turns and looks at them all and rebukes Peter and says “Get behind me Satan!” Get behind me adversary. Get behind me accuser. Get behind me. I don’t see this in a “Get out of here” way or “Begone” way but quite literally – Get behind me. In other words, follow me.
This is a really wonderful thing in this passage. Throughout Mark the disciples have shown themselves to be non-understanding. A little inept even. Through it all they are still with Jesus. Still following. Still involved in his Kingdom work. Despite and in spite of themselves. Doesn’t this encourage you? It encourages me. The invitation has stood for over 2,000 years now. A standing invitation from Jesus that says “Follow me!”
This is what kind of Messiah Jesus is. One who will show that glory is to be found in self-giving, self-sacrificing love. One who will show that there is nothing, not even a degrading, dehumanizing death from which God cannot and does not bring life. Jesus calls the crowd over to join his disciples because this invitation is not just to the disciples. It’s to anyone who would take up this call to follow. “If any wants to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” In other words, if anyone wants to follow, then follow. Look at what it means though.
Let them deny themselves. Let them say no to themselves. Someone has described it as “…rejecting self-centredness, relinquishing control over one’s life, abandoning oneself completely to the will of God. As Jesus does, so whoever wishes to follow him must do.” We’re not talking about acts of self-denial, like not having dessert (or another piece of dessert). We’re not talking about self-hatred either. We’re talking about a foundational shift in how we see ourselves. Another writer puts it this way – “Jesus stipulated that those who wish to follow him must be prepared to shift the center of gravity in their lives from a concern for self to reckless abandon to the will of God.”
This is the call of Mark here! Reckless abandon to the will of God. We’re not simply talking about an act of will either. It requires daily help from God to have the strength and the courage to daily take up one’s cross. Our having a cross to bear doesn’t mean things that annoy us (or things about us that annoy others) – it means we’re following Jesus to the cross daily and in so doing dying. To ourselves. Sometimes actually dying. The world behind me, the cross before me, is how one hymn puts it. No turning back, no turning back. Following this path with the courage of a lion. The symbol of a lion was how Mark is depicted in the Book of Kells. It’s the picture we’ve used for our series. Someone has said that “Paul and John emphasize believing in Christ. Matthew emphasizes obedience to the law as authoritatively interpreted by Jesus. Mark is a lion, strong and tough. Here to be a Christian is to follow Jesus on his costly way in an imitation of Christ that brushes aside the pieties usually associated with that phrase and goes for the jugular of life itself.”
So who wants this? Who would want such a thing? To follow Jesus on a death march – remember that’s what carrying your cross means here. To die to self.
Why would we want this? Because in one of the great paradoxes of our faith – in this way and in this Way is life and truth.
Because three days later there was life. Let us never forget that. Jesus is talking about dying to self for his sake, for the sake of the good news. He’s not talking about suffering for suffering’s sake.
And after three days there is life. “Where else would we go?” Peter famously asks in another Gospel. “You are the one with the words of eternal life.” “What can they give in return for their life?” Jesus asks earlier in Mark. No one’s come up with an answer for that one. We can’t accumulate anything in return for our life.
But we have found that to follow Christ in the way of the cross is to know life. It’s something you have to experience, isn’t it? It would be like experiencing something like the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls with pictures, videos, and then seeing it for yourself. To understand this paradox you need to live in the middle of it. What do we find? Two weeks ago we talked about what we’ve found. What has Jesus done for you?
Jesus promises at the end of the passage “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come in power.” There are many ways to read this promise, but one is that there were those in that crowd who witnessed the kingdom of God come in power when the grave was found empty. When Christ arose three days later. Those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. They will know life. This life is open to us all this morning.
We’re going to read together a section from Calvin’s Institutes. It contains wonderful truth and expresses a desire on our part to live in the truth of Christ. If you’ve never made such a profession, I invite you to do it with us this morning. If it’s the first time, tell someone afterward. Let’s read it together:
We are not our own;
therefore neither our reason nor our will should predominate in our deliberations and actions.
We are not our own;
therefore let us not propose it as our end, to seek what may be expedient for us according to the flesh.
We are not our own;
therefore let us, as far as possible, forget ourselves and all things that are ours.
On the contrary, we are God’s;
to him, therefore, let us live and die.
We are God’s;
therefore let his wisdom and will preside in all our actions.
We are God’s;
towards him, therefore, as our only legitimate end, let every part of our lives be directed.