First, follow

Second Sunday in Lent – February 25, 2018 – Mark 8:31-38

I had the privilege of preaching at St. Mark’s in Little Rock, AR a few weeks ago. I was honored to receive the Anne Kumpuris scholarship from the parish, and I am thrilled that the parish hosted me. You can watch the sermon here. 

Let’s take a moment to set the stage for today’s gospel. In the scene immediately preceding today’s Gospel, as Jesus and his disciples enter Caesarea Philippi, it becomes clear that there is confusion about who Jesus actually is.

Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say I am?” They reply, “A prophet. John the Baptist, Elijah.”

“And what about you? What do you think?” Jesus asks.

Peter responds, “You are the Messiah.”

“That’s correct,” Jesus says to Peter, “but don’t tell anyone.”

Don’t tell anyone.

At that point, today’s Gospel begins. Jesus immediately tells his disciples that he will undergo extreme suffering and rejection.

That’s right. Immediately after Jesus affirms that he is indeed the Messiah, he tells his followers that he will suffer and die.

“I am the Messiah, and I will die.”  Those two things do not fit. Jesus’ followers have just confessed that they believe him to be the Messiah, and then he tells them that he is going to be attacked and killed.

We get it, but for Peter, this is shocking news. It just does not add up. Peter pulls Jesus aside and scolds him—“Don’t say that, Jesus! It doesn’t look good! “The Messiah doesn’t come to die! He comes to reign!”

Peter’s confusion is understandable. Jesus is not the type of Messiah that Peter, or any of the rest of Jesus’ disciples, have been expecting. The Messiah they are expecting and the Jesus who stands before them do not match.

The Messiah their ancestors died waiting on would never forecast his own death. The Messiah they expect is a warrior who will destroy their enemies before their very eyes, not someone who will submit to Roman imperial authority. The Messiah they are looking for will come in a triumphant blaze of glory to usher in the new age, not to die a criminal’s death outside the city walls.

Jesus needs to get his disciples to understand their tradition in a new way. They have long-expected a Messiah, but this Jesus before them doesn’t exactly match their expectations.

Jesus has made some progress with them so far. After all, Peter was able to identify him as the Messiah. Even though Peter got the answer right, that doesn’t necessarily mean that he understood the question.

We have all been there. If you have studied a language or taken a math class you might know that just because you answer correctly doesn’t necessarily mean you really “get it.”

Just because you fill in the blank with the appropriate verb conjugation, or write the correct number on the line, doesn’t mean you really understand why those answers are correct.

Likewise, just because Peter answers that Jesus is indeed the Messiah, that doesn’t mean that he understands all that it entails.

Peter and the others still have some learning to do.

That’s fine. We all do.

John and Debra have been married for 18 years. They have two children. John is a very successful accountant, a partner in his firm. Other than at church on Sunday, the family doesn’t get much time together. But John always tells them that he loves them. That’s sort of his thing. He always tells his wife and children that he loves them.

When he wakes up he says, “I love you.” Before he heads out the door he says, “I love you.” He works late nearly every day. On Saturdays when he inevitably misses soccer games and dance recitals he texts, “Good luck today, I love you!” On Valentine’s Day he sends his wife flowers and a card with this message. “I’m sorry I can’t make the reservation. I love you.”

John is very sweet, and it is clear that he knows the importance of telling his loved ones how he feels, but his wife and kids cannot help but think, does he really get it?

Just because you tell someone all the time, that doesn’t necessarily mean you really know what it means to love someone. Just because you write a sweet note, draw a perfectly shaped heart, and say, “Happy Valentine’s Day!” with the biggest smile ever doesn’t mean you really know all that love entails.

Just because you confess Jesus as the Messiah doesn’t mean you really understand what it means.

I remember as kid listening to my father talking to a traveling salesman who was selling a cleaning product—some sort of polishing solvent. This was the best product on the market, you understand.

This product could clean anything! This product was second to none!

“Well, what does it do.”

“This is the premier product on the market.”

“How does it work?”

“You won’t find a product as good as this one.”

“Yes, but what is it exactly?”

Just because you know something is the best, doesn’t mean you really understand all that it has to offer.

“You are the Messiah, Lord!” says Peter. “Don’t tell people you’re going to die!”

“No!” says Jesus, “You don’t get it yet, Peter.”

He even says, “Get behind me, Satan!”

We tend to focus a lot on the “Satan” part of that phrase and not as much on the “get behind me” part. Satan means “accuser.”

Let’s not be more dramatic than we have to be. Focus on the “get behind me” part.

Jesus says, “Get behind me. You don’t get it yet. I’m in charge here. You need to get behind me and start paying attention.”

Well, behind Jesus is a pretty good place to be. It’s from there that we follow him.

“Peter, you don’t quite get this yet, so get in line. Get behind me. Let me be the leader now. You just keep following. There will come a time when I will be gone and you will have to lead, but right now, it’s my turn.”

Follow me, Peter, so that you can see difference between the one who you expect and the one who I am. The difference between the Messiah so long expected and the one who I embody.

Follow me and I’ll show the difference between the things you expect, and the things that God has in store. “For now, you don’t need to tell anyone who I am; you just need to follow me, Peter.”

That, brothers and sisters, is the gospel’s call to all of us. Follow.

Lent can be a disorienting season. Even in the midst of the challenges, Jesus calls us to follow him.

When you don’t understand why bad things happen, what are you to think?

When you want to throw up our hands after 17 kids get murdered, what are you to do?

When you lose a loved one, what are you to know from that experience?

Those questions, and so many more, can be answered first by following Jesus.

When bad things happen, we grasp at answers, we seek out solutions. We think if we can identify an answer, then we can solve the problem.

The truth is, having the right answers is not enough.

But Jesus does not call us to right answers, he calls us to follow.

Understanding and finding answers is good, but it is not where we start. Jesus calls us to discover why his way is the way. How do we do that? We follow.

We follow him all the way to Easter.

Follow Jesus.

Follow him into Jerusalem and learn what a parade for real king looks like. Follow him to the Mount of Olives and learn a lesson from a fig tree.

Follow him to Gethsemane and learn what it means to sweat blood. Follow him all the way to the cross and learn what it means to weep and wail and cry.

Even when you don’t know why.

Stand there. Behold the blackened sky.

Stand there. Watch him die.

Stand there. For three days. Wait on the Lord. And early one morning, it will be clear enough.

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