If memory serves me right, it was just a couple three months ago that two ginormous lotteries spat out two ginormous jackpots at just about the same time. As I recall, because of the confluence of these two events, there was a lot of hooplah about that; lotteries have the power to generate hooplah. Under normal circumstances, a lottery will give the buyer of a ticket the opportunity to dream. Lotteries are successful because they give the buyers of tickets the opportunity to imagine what the good life might be like with an extra million or two to play with. And, of course, people do dream, and they do imagine, and some may even pray. But for the overwhelming number of people who purchase lottery tickets, dreams, and the opportunity to imagine, is all that the lottery ever delivers. And I suspect that most of us can dream, and most of us can imagine, without having to spend a buck or two to do it. It seems to me, though, that with those two absolutely ginormous lotteries, winning one of them would have turned one’s dreams into nightmares, and one’s imaginings into horrifying realities.
But we do so want to live the good life, don’t we? We want our lives to be fulfilling and rewarding, and when we come to the place where we believe that they are not, we feel as though we have been cheated. We expect to live a life of ease and comfort, not one of suffering and death. We want our lives to evince both health and wealth, and we spend our energies and resources trying to achieve both.
And yet, Jesus says, and there is no way to soften this, because it is so frighteningly shocking, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Deep down, none of us wants to deny ourselves anything. It doesn’t help that we live daily in an environment of self aggrandizement and idolatrous self-adoration.
Our passage this morning begins innocently enough. Jesus has decided to play the role of the curious questioner. What are you hearing, guys, what’s the word on the street, “Who do people say that I am?” That’s a tough question for the disciples, because they have heard it all. Jesus is both loved and despised. There are as many opinions about Jesus as there are people. And perhaps a bit wisely, the disciples choose to avoid bringing up the negative stuff. They know the negative stuff, and Jesus knows the negative stuff: no need to discuss it. But there are, at least, three really good, really popular possibilities.
Some of the folks out there are convinced that Jesus is John the Baptist raised from the dead. This one is not all that strange. Jesus began his ministry at just about the same time that John the Baptist had his appointment with the royal head remover. Herod himself believed that Jesus was John the Baptist raised from the dead, and apparently so did quite a few others.
Other people in Jesus’ day thought that Jesus might be Elijah. Elijah had the benefit of not having to die a natural death. When it came time for Elijah to retire, God sent a heavenly limo for him. Elijah’s special ride to heaven eventually led to a popular belief, that in the end times, that Elijah would return to this earth to conduct a second ministry. End times fervor was very high in the first century, and Jesus seemed to be fulfilling some of the kinds of things that people expected to see in a returning Elijah.
And lastly, some people suspected that Jesus might be one of the prophets of the old covenant returned to earth, and quite possibly the greatest prophet of all time, Moses himself. Moses is indisputably the savior of the old covenant, and hope was brewing among some of the people that Jesus could potentially repeat the ministry of Moses and deliver his people from the oppressive rule of the Romans. We probably should note with some admiration for the mindsets of the people of the first century, that in the very next verses here in Mark’s Gospel, that both Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus on the mount of transfiguration. That’s probably not an accident.
And while all of this is very important and also very nice, Jesus cuts to the chase. “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter is all over it. He knows, and so he blurts it out. “You are the Messiah.” You are the long-awaited one; you are the Redeemer. You are the fulfillment of the prayers of faithful people everywhere. You are the glorious climax of God’s plan of redemption for all of the ages.
And then, without any warning at all, Jesus suddenly changes the topic, and begins to talk very plainly about his soon and very soon suffering and death. There is no parable here, there is no metaphor to soften the blow, just plain talk about suffering and death. Jesus says to his disciples that he “…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.”
And when Peter hears that, he explodes. Everything that Jesus has just said is not only terribly wrong, but also incredibly foolish. It is trash talk. It is nothing less than a total repudiation of Peter’s glorious announcement that Jesus is the Messiah. Now is not the time to be talking about suffering and death, now is the time, Jesus, for you to emerge in your full glory and in your full power. Now is the time, Jesus, to usher in the age to come, with all of its joy and wonder and peace and glory! And is not that also our prayer this morning!
Jesus’ rebuke of Peter is equally strong. In the King James Version, it is “Get thee behind me Satan!” That rebuke very clearly indicates that Peter needs to get himself out of the way. Jesus is saying, Peter, you are the opponent, you are the adversary, you are the enemy of God’s entire plan of redemption, beginning with Adam and Eve, Noah and his family, Abraham and Sarah, and the great nation that sprung from his loins and her womb, and Moses, who is the great redeemer. You have just negated all of the covenants of human history that God has made because of your own selfishness and greed!
Now, it may be difficult for us to imagine that all of that can be packed into one, simple sounding phrase, like “Get thee behind me Satan!”, but every bit of it and more is there. When we are opposed to the work of God, there is no middle ground.
Peter was to discover this later on, much to his shame and remorse. In a very human moment, and in an attempt to save his own life, rather than lose it, Peter three times denied ever having known Jesus. Apparently he had forgotten Jesus’ words when he said, “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.”
And yet, in spite of his utter failure, Peter experienced a level of grace and forgiveness that far exceeded his ability to imagine. And in obedience to his Lord, Peter ultimately and perhaps literally, took up his cross and followed Jesus.
We, too, have failed, and perhaps we have even failed in the same ways that Peter failed. And if we have failed, and if we have denied our Lord, and if we have preserved our lives, and if we have striven to gain the whole world, have we not also discovered and experienced a level of grace and forgiveness from our Lord that is truly unimaginable and incomprehensible? I pray that we have. If we have received that forgiveness, then we must also focus on God’s divine plan for our lives. We must set aside our human strivings and longings, even if they seem commendable to us. Can we deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow Jesus? Can we embrace, as much as we wish to reject it, a path of suffering and death?
Jesus asks us, what does it profit us to gain the whole world, but to forfeit our lives in the transaction? Do not be deceived. That is a very difficult question that is too often carelessly and easily answered. It is possible, to deny our faith with glibness, and, it is also possible to affirm our faith with glibness. Too often our voices speak carelessly and easily about faith, but our lives themselves demonstrate otherwise. Perhaps the lesson here is that we must be careful how we speak. Peter’s courtyard encounter at Jesus’ trial brought that reality home to him, much to his shock and horror. And it may be, still shaken from his experience, that Peter shared, very directly, the very frightening words of verse 38, with Mark the Evangelist, who then in faith wrote them down for all of us to consider.