Sunday, February 22nd, 2015 – First Sunday in Lent
Gower Christian Church, Gower, MO
Scripture: Psalm 25, I Peter 3:18-22, Mark 8:27-38
Hymns: “Standing on the Promises”, “Our God Reigns”, “We Will Glorify”, “‘Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus”, “I’d Rather Have Jesus”, “Break Thou the Bread of Life”, “Mighty to Save”
Special Music: “All Who Are Thirsty”
“Is It Worth It?”
So, when I think back to about a year ago, I remember that the first Sunday in Lent was actually the first time I preached a full sermon as pastor of this church. The first time I preached a full sermon here, it was my interview sermon, and the first time I preached as pastor, it was just a brief homily the day I was installed.
But the first Sunday of Lent… anybody remember what the first sermon I preached as pastor of this church was on?
It was about the temptation of Jesus Christ.
Way to jump into the pool headfirst, right?
Actually, I should be more specific. It was about the FIRST temptation of Christ. It’s the one that we talk about, that we use as an example of Jesus’ faithfulness to His calling and His ministry. But we never talk about His SECOND temptation.
Ah, yes, I see the wheels turning now. You may be thinking, “But wait. What second temptation?”
Why, the second temptation that occurs in today’s Gospel lesson, of course. The moment when Peter says that Jesus will never suffer the ignominious fate of death on a Roman cross, and Jesus looks him square in the eye and says, “GET THEE BEHIND ME, SATAN!”
Let me explain.
We need to think back to the beginning of the Gospel of Mark for a moment and work our way back to this point. If we go back and start right after Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist in chapter one, he performs the following miracles:
In chapter 1, he goes to the synagogue in Capernaum and casts a demon out of a possessed man. Then, he heals a man with leprosy. In between those miracles, he traveled through the Galilean countryside, casting out demons and healing sick people.
In chapter 2, he heals the paralyzed man. In chapter 3, he heals a man in another synagogue who has a withered hand. In chapter 4, he comes out from below-decks on a fishing boat into the middle of a thunderstorm, tells the storm to knock it off because he’s trying to sleep, and an instant later, is standing in the midst of a calm sea.
In chapter 5, he sends the demon Legion out of a man into a herd of pigs. Then he heads off to heal the daughter of the priest Jairus, and while he’s on his way there, the hem of his robe is touched by the hemophiliac woman, who is instantly healed. And let’s not forget that once he got to Jairus’ house, he told the man’s by now dead daughter to wake up – AND SHE DID.
In chapter 6, he takes five loaves of bread and two fish and feeds five thousand men (and the uncounted women and children in their families) with them. After that, he goes off and meditates and prays for a while by himself, then decides to go meet up with the apostles. He does this by going for a walk across Lake Gennesaret and scaring his disciples half to death.
In chapter 7, Jesus heals a man who was deaf and mute since birth, and finally, in chapter 8, right before today’s Gospel lesson, he again fed the multitudes – this time, four thousand men (and the uncounted women and children with them) with seven loaves of bread and a few small fish. Following that, he healed a blind man.
All throughout these accounts, the chapters of Mark are peppered with references to Jesus healing the sick and casting out demons, though no specifics are named. That means that in the first eight chapters of Mark, Jesus performs a WHOLE LOT OF MIRACLES. Now of course, we must bear in mind that these eight chapters take place over the course of about two and a half years, but still. That’s a lot that went on in Jesus’ ministry in the span of thirty months!
All of this, of course, leads up to Jesus asking the apostles the question, “Who do YOU say I am,” to which Peter, who was hotheaded, reckless, and incredibly perceptive beyond his foolishness, looks at him and says, “You are the MESSIAH.”
There is no equivocation on Peter’s part, no hesitation. He very clearly tells Jesus that he believes him to be the Messiah, the one promised by the prophets to liberate Israel. And if Peter was as thick sometimes as the Gospels have led us to believe, then Jesus must have been quite pleased that he had gotten through to him. In fact, I can imagine that Jesus, having heard those words come out of Peter’s mouth, had to have experienced the sort of happiness that we feel when somebody that we love makes a major breakthrough in life. Not pride, mind you – being proud would be a sin – but happy that Peter had made the recognition.
Of course, then he turns around and immediately tells the apostles not to tell anybody that he’s the Messiah. Make no mistake, this wasn’t because he didn’t want people to know, but because he didn’t want them to know because they were TOLD – he wanted them to figure it out for themselves. Coming to believe in the Messiah through FAITH was an incredibly important aspect of Jesus’ ministry – think back to the healing of the paralyzed man. Jesus wanted the people there to believe that he had the authority to forgive sins because of WHO he was, not because of WHAT he could do.
And then, the next thing you know, Jesus is standing there, telling his apostles that when they get to Jerusalem, he’s going to be rejected by the religious authorities, arrested and tried by the Roman authorities, and put to death, so that three days later, he could be resurrected to new life. He didn’t obfuscate or disguise his words – he told the apostles quite bluntly what was going to happen. And that is where the second temptation of Christ comes in.
Peter, the Rock, the loyal if sometimes a little thick, the apostle who had just proclaimed that Jesus was the promised Messiah, butts in and rebukes Jesus for saying this. “This will never happen to you, Lord!” Peter tells him.
And you know, you have to think that for just a split second, this offered a temptation to Jesus the human son of Mary and Joseph of Nazareth. Here was his friend, this faithful follower with insight that most of his students lacked, the one who had just told him that he knew exactly who he was, saying that the crucifixion didn’t have to happen. Here was Peter, offering up this get-out-of-death free card to Jesus, this chance to look back at him and say, “NAAAAAH. Let’s go play whack-a-mole with some Pharisees and Romans!” It was his opportunity to show the true power of the Christ, of God incarnate, to show the religious and governmental authorities who was REALLY boss.
But we can’t forget his encounter with Satan in the desert, before the beginning of his ministry. A time when he was tempted with food, with glory, with power, all offered to him by the great deceiver. In his own way, Peter was offering up the same temptation to him now, and so Jesus, no doubt with a mix of frustration and sorrow in his voice, looked at the man who was quite unwittingly serving at that moment as the tool of the devil, and said, “Get behind me, Satan!”
Jesus offered this rebuke to Peter not because he truly believed that he was allowing himself to be used by Satan, but because Peter had fallen victim to thinking as a human would, concerned only with the things of our world and not with the life to which God had directed him. And so, Jesus used this as a teaching opportunity: “If you would become my follower, you must deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me,” he tells the crowd that has gathered around the apostles.
Take up your cross, Jesus says. Jesus himself ended up bearing a quite literal cross – the cross with which the Romans saddled him, forcing him to drag it up the Via Dolorosa, to the top of Golgotha. And when we follow Jesus, we must take up our own crosses. To be sure, we do not take up a roughly-hewn instrument of execution, but for each one of us, following Jesus requires sacrifice.
For some, taking up your cross means following so closely in the footsteps of Jesus that your ministry to the poor and downtrodden eventually leads to your death, as we learned last week. For most of us, though, taking up our cross and following Jesus means something simpler. Many of us who stand in the pulpit on a weekly basis are skilled in another field that could have led to much more lucrative and visible jobs. For me, personally, had I stayed in the hotel industry, I could very well be the assistant general manager or even general manager of a top-tier hotel by now. But my calling was to ministry, and so I took up that cross and followed Jesus.
For others, the cross is even simpler than that. Simply coming to church on Sunday morning is, in and of itself, a form of sacrifice. Perhaps it means sacrificing your rare chance to sleep in, after a long and tiring work week, with the prospect of another on the horizon. Perhaps it means sacrificing the chance to attend a Chiefs game, or a Royals game. Perhaps it means sacrificing being in a sports league, because you would end up playing so often on Sunday mornings as to never be able to go to church. All of these are certainly sacrifices, but know this – they are sacrifices of human things, for the sake of the worship of God.
But above all, there is one cross that we each are called to bear, one that often requires sacrifices that we are not sure can be made – the cross of supporting the church itself.
Personally, I hate talking about money as it relates to the church. If I had my way, no church would ever have to worry about money. No pastor would ever have to give stewardship sermons to his congregation. No church finance chair would ever have to stand up in front of a congregation and tell them that the church is in dire financial straits, or worse, that the church may have to close.
But we live in a world that is preoccupied with human things, and because of that, we often must sacrifice in order to ensure that our churches continue to be focused on the things of the divine.
This afternoon, we will consider the budget that the stewardship committee has prepared for the coming year. It’s not a small matter. It’s a sizable budget, seeking $160,000 for the operations of the church from March 1st, 2015, until February 29th, 2016. It means that over the next fifty-three Sundays, the general fund will need an average of $3,019 per week in order for us to meet our budget. That includes those Sundays during the dog days of summer, when attendance is traditionally sparse and giving low.
It’s a hefty cross to carry. Three thousand dollars a week? That’s a LOT of money. And considering that the middle class, which makes up the vast majority of this church, has largely still not recovered from the stock market crash of six and a half years ago, asking this church to take up that cross is no small matter.
But is it worth it? Is it worth it to each of us to say to ourselves that perhaps that twenty dollars a week which we put into the coffers of Starbucks, or McDonald’s, or DirecTV, or any number of other expenditures of this world, would be better put toward the things of the Divine?
I think so. I think we’re all agreed that the town of Gower is a better place because Gower Christian Church is here. This is a place that has been set aside by God for the ministry of Jesus Christ, and our call in this place is to take up our crosses and follow in his steps.
We will, in this world, be tempted by the human things, but we must consider what Jesus would have us do, and work for the things of the Divine.