Fork in the Road

Fork in the Road

Last week, our gospel passage provided us with three snapshots of pivotal points in Jesus’ life.

We began with Jesus’ baptism in the river Jordan.

Then came his commissioning into the wilderness for 40 days.

Soon after, we found Jesus back home in Galilee claiming his life’s purpose as the embodiment of God’s gracious and compassionate love.

We also witnessed his proclamation to repent and to believe the good news that God’s kingdom had come near.

Along with that, we had a story from Genesis about God’s covenantal promise to always bless God’s people, all God’s creatures, and the whole of God’s Creation.

All in all, it felt a hope-filled and compelling start to the season of Lent.

This Sunday, we began with another story from Genesis and another covenant. Here, this morning as Eric read for us we heard God initiating yet another convenant, another everlasting promise to bless Abraham and Sarah.

So far, so good, we might be inclined to think.

But then came our gospel text, again from Mark’s gospel.

My first confession for this morning is this: This morning’s reading feels a much harder text to engage with in positive ways. It feels harder to engage with not only because of its ominous and foreboding tone and content.

It feels a harder text to ponder together because I know what a hard sell its contents are for all us gathered here, all of us caught up as we are in the grand sweep of our postmodern, postcolonial, post truth, post Christendom culture.

There’s no escaping it, living as we do in such dark and foreboding times, this morning’s text from the eighth chapter of Mark, feels a particularly hard sell.

For me, this morning’s reading from the eighth chapter of Mark’s gospel feels more fitting for the last Sunday in Lent leading up to Palm Passion Sunday and Holy Week.

In other words, I want to put the brakes on re-visiting the sadness and despair of Good Friday as much as I possibly can.

If I had my choice, we wouldn’t be fast forwarding past all those stories about Jesus’ start up ministries-past stories about healings, cleansings, teachings and parables, and miraculous happenings that shout to the rooftops the good news of God’s in breaking kingdom.

But then, following on from there, we would also need to encounter the story of Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth and the news of John the Baptist’s death.

Those stories both reminders that all is not so wonderful and breezy in the unfolding of God’s vision of Shalom.

All that being said, this is exactly as it should be as we find ourselves plunging deeply into the season of Lent.

The season of Lent is a time in the Christian year when we come face to face with some of the more challenging parts of our call to follow in the Way of Jesus.

For many of us that can feel more than a little daunting.

As part of re-visiting the good news from Mark’s gospel this morning, we begin with a quote from Fred Buechner who says this: “Some think of a Christian as one who necessarily believes certain things. That Jesus was the Son of God, say. Or that Mary was a virgin. Or that the Pope is infallible. Or that all other religions are wrong.

Some think of a Christian as one who necessarily does certain thing. Such as going to church. Getting baptized. Giving up liquor or tobacco. Doing a good deed a day.

Some think of a Christian as just a Nice Guy.”

For Fred, being Christian is about being on the way, though not necessarily very far along it…A Christian is one who has at least some dim and half baked idea of whom to thank.” [1]

Thanks, Fred, that’s a helpful!

Here, this morning, our text helps us to delve more deeply into what that way might entail.

Here, this morning, we join with Jesus and his disciples and the ever-growing crowd in the context of Caesarea Philippi.

It’s a northern city in ancient Palestine located close to the border of what we now know as Lebanon.

Caesarea Philippi is also known to be a city dedicated for centuries to pagan deities and to Caesar Augustus, Emperor at Rome.

Here in the text, we’re told that Jesus speaks quite openly about what’s coming.

More often in Mark’s gospel, Jesus admonishes his followers to hold to themselves what they see and hear.

More often, Jesus’ encourages a culture of secrecy as to the full nature of his identity.

Not so, however in this text this morning.

Here, in this location, Jesus’ candid words, dark in somber in tone and ominous in content, provide us a signpost pointing in the direction of Jerusalem.

As the reading opens, in my mind’s eye, I see Jesus gathered in a circle with his disciples.

Speaking with courage and frankness, Jesus foretells his own death at the hands of the powers and authorities of the day.

Here, he also predicts that he will be raised from the dead after three days.

Imagine his followers’ sense of his alarm on hearing firsthand their longed-for Messiah foretelling his own death and resurrection and his prediction of extreme suffering at the hands of the political powers and religious authorities of the day.

To say this news would have been daunting for those first listeners would be an understatement!

Certainly this is the case for Peter as we see him taking Jesus to the side for a frank conversation about what’s what.

In response, we also see and hear Jesus rebuking Peter in return for this critique of what Jesus understands as God’s plan for his life.

Admonishing Peter for his impertinence, Jesus tells him tersely:

“Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Now the story is addressed to a wider audience as Jesus shares several teachings in the more public arena at Caesarea Philippi.

Outlining the costs and requirements of discipleship in those familiar paradoxical phrases we hear Jesus saying:

“if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me”

“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” [2]

And then at the end of this morning’s reading from the eighth chapter of Mark’s gospel, Jesus’ teaching takes an even more ominous tone with these words:

“Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with all the holy angels.”

And here ends our reading for our ongoing prayerful reflection and contemplation this morning on the second Sunday in the season of Lent.

The season of Lent, the time in the church calendar year when, we as Christians are intentional about taking up a habit or a spiritual practice in the hopes of sensing God’s presence come close while others of us focus on letting go a habit or practice that causes us to avoid sensing God’s presence.

We can’t know how Peter, the disciples, and those gathered in the wider listening audience’s respond to Jesus’ teachings here in Mark’s gospel, all we can really do is gauge our own responses gathered together this morning.

For some of us here, this is just another one of those stories from scripture that are hard to wrap our head around.

For others here, this is just another one of those stories from our tradition that needs to be accepted as is.

For still others, we wonder what’s gotten into our beloved Jesus, the one we want to hold firm to-how could our kindly shepherd, gentle, meek, mild become so unreasonably terse with our fellow disciple, Peter…?

For me, Jesus’ clarity of self-understanding in this passage and what he perceives he must do in response to God’s claim on his life feels amazing to contemplate.

Here in just seven short verses from Mark’s gospel, I celebrate the Jesus who puts to rest any ideas we might want to cling to of his personality as meek and mild.

Here, in these 7 verses, I hear a cautionary tale about the perils and pitfalls of approaching or resisting God’s call from our own rather limited human and understandably fearful perspectives.

Here in these 7 verses, Jesus clearly delineates for us the costs and the demands of saying ‘yes’ to discipleship when he says:

“If any of you want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

Still, it does feel an unappealing, even scandalously dangerous invitation from the one whose embodiment of God’s grace and compassion also calls us into the incredibly demanding work of seeing justice and peace.

Gobsmacking in its intensity, Jesus’ words this morning bring us all to that proverbial fork in the road, that pivotal place where we, must decide are we ‘in’ for the journey or are we for turning back?

For me, Jesus’ admonishment to Peter to think beyond the mind he has; to acknowledge that what God requires from him far exceeds his human thinking capacities; and his terse reminder not to be tempted by human cleverness echoes through the ages. How about you?

Here, Jesus reminds me though I might want to do so, that there is no value in wrestling God’s truth to the ground.

Or to paraphrase the words of Joseph Small, Jesus is inviting us here into a faith that is not certain, a hope that is not optimistic, and a love that is not painless. [3]

Though there are 3 more Sundays to go in the season of Lent, there can be no denying we find ourselves knee deep in the murky darkness of fear and foreboding as Jesus’ footsteps turn towards Jerusalem.

And so it is I find myself wondering: What good news is there to be found then in this morning’s text to sustain us as our Lenten journey continues to unfold?

Stepping back from the text, I take hope in the words of Barbara Brown Taylor, American Episcopalian priest and biblical scholar who reminds us that:

We can’t get to Easter and new life in Jesus by driving straight there from Shoppers Drug Mart or Orchard Park Mall.

No, Barbara Brown Taylor says, the only road to Easter must pass through Good Friday.

For me, this morning’s reading from Mark’s gospel provides us with a dress rehearsal of sorts for our walk to the cross with Jesus on Good Friday.

In fact, I do take some comfort and I feel some relief at being able to bear witness to Jesus’ courageous clarity, his candour, and his ability to tell the truth in love.

During the season of Lent, we are invited to wrestle with the big questions of our faith and the circumstances and the paradoxes that make us uncomfortable.

We’re also invited to hold all that in tension with a God who wants us to trust in God’s covenantal promises to accompany us in all situations and all circumstances.

I believe we are called to learn to speak openly about our questions and our doubts just as Jesus does here.

I believe we are called to celebrate God’s gracious presence in our lives in all situations and in all circumstances, not just when there’s a crisis or hardship or ill health or when despair comes knocking at the door.

Immediately prior to our reflection this morning, we lifted our voices together in honour of the story of Abraham and Sarah being specifically called to journey faithfully together with God in confidence and in hope.

The lyrics of “I Have Called You by Your Name Your Are Mine” remind me of God’s abiding promise to not abandon us but rather, to be with us always.

For me, the living reality of that covenantal promise is found in this morning’s more edgy and sometimes uncomfortable portrayal of God’s beloved Son, Jesus, in his unwavering passionate and courageous response to God’s claim on his life.

May Jesus’ response to God’s call as outlined here in the eighth chapter of Mark’s gospel continue to help us to hone and sift and shape our responses as followers in the Way in this time and in this place.

For all of this and more, I say, may it be so and thanks be to God, amen.

Rev. Elizabeth Bowyer reserves all rights © 2018.
You are welcome to use, copy, edit or reproduce this sermon with copyright attached. Publication is prohibited.

[1] Wishful Thinking, a Seeker’s abc, Frederick Buechner, Revised and Expanded, 1993, p. 16

[2] New Standard Revised Version (NRSV), p. 820

[3] Feasting on the Word, Year B, p. 72