God of promises

Preached on 25 February 2018 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington
Second Sunday in Lent, Year B

Mark certainly has a way of making discipleship unappealing, doesn’t he?  I mean, really, who in their right mind would want to follow Jesus based on what we heard today?  And at the end of this gospel, the disciples all run away; they abandon Jesus – even the women at the empty tomb run away in fear.

So, here we are, we’ve jumped ahead in the gospel from where we were last week.  Jesus and the disciples have left Galilee and headed north, up in the border-lands in Caesarea-Philippi.  Just a few verses earlier, when Jesus asks them, “but who do you say that I am?” Peter blurts out, “You are the Christ,” and Jesus orders them to keep quiet about it.

That’s where we come into the story today.  It’s Jesus’ first prophecy of the Passion.  In contrast to the secrecy up until this point, Jesus is openly teaching the disciples just what it will mean to be the Messiah, the Christ.  He will be betrayed and suffer, killed and raised from the dead.

Peter again, protests, but Jesus doubles down.  It is necessary for this to happen, he insists.  But not only him, he turns to the crowd and extends this call to them as well; what it will mean to follow him.  You must deny yourself, take up your cross and follow.  If you try to save your life, you will lose it but if you lose your life for the sake of the gospel you will save it.

What does that even mean?  Deny yourself.  Take up your cross.  Lose your life for the sake of the gospel?

I don’t have a definitive answer but we can explore a little.  I do want to point out that the phrase, “for the sake of the gospel” is key.  This isn’t about the general pain and suffering that’s part of life.  It’s not the arthritis or the cancer or the struggle with addiction and certainly not an abusive spouse.  None of those is “your cross” that God gives you to bear.  Rather, Jesus is acknowledging that there is serious risk in following him; in doing what he does.

When Mark talks about the gospel, he’s talking about the kingdom of God: that it is near us, among us, it is within us.  The kingdom of God is not about geography, of course, nor is it about power or control.  It’s about relationship.  Perhaps better metaphors or translations might be commonwealth of God, as the New Zealand Prayer Book says, or community or family of God.

This is not about a personal, political agenda, although it may well take place in the arena of politics; rather it is about God’s agenda, moving toward a community of compassion, justice, and mercy; acting from a position of love, not fear or anger.  It’s speaking openly, challenging the powers of the world, questioning the systems that are taken for granted.  It’s welcoming, feeding, healing, restoring, forgiving those whom the world may see as undeserving, if it sees them at all.  That is what Jesus does.

God’s desire is for the wholeness of every human being, it’s about the holiness of every person.

What would that look like in our lives?

One commentary put it this way, “Christian faith is not a lifestyle choice.  It is a vocation of struggle.  In giving ourselves to others, we find ourselves.”

Lent is a good time to do this kind of reflection, discerning God’s desire and how we fit into the work of God.  This Lent, I am reading the poetry of Ann Weems in her book, Kneeling in Jerusalem.  This one seems particularly appropriate it’s titled
“A Listening.”[1]
A Listening by Ann Weems

The self-examination and repentance of Lent is not strictly an individual undertaking, it is also communal.  In our weekly confession, we use the plural pronouns, “we confess that we have sinned against you… by what we have done and by what we have left undone.  It’s communal – we as a community of faith; we as a society; we as a people of privilege or wealth or power.
We confess not only our actions but our failure to act.

Miroslav Volf has pointed out, “There is something deeply hypocritical about praying for problems you’re unwilling to solve.”  Of what shall we repent?
How shall we follow Jesus?

While Mark’s words are disconcerting to say the least, we can look to our Old Testament readings for hope and assurance.  This year, during Lent, we hear a series of lessons about God’s covenants.  Last week we heard the story of God’s covenant with Noah’s family and all of his descendants and all flesh, after the flood.  The covenant whose sign is the rainbow about which God says, “When I see the bow in the sky, I will remember the everlasting covenant between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”

This week we hear about God’s covenant with Abraham, the promise of children and land.  The promise to be his God.  It is the third time that God comes to Abraham about this covenant.  Abraham already has a son through Hagar.  But this time, God makes sure Abraham knows that the covenant is also with Sarah.  God will bless her and she will give rise to nations; kings of people shall come from her.”

We follow Jesus for the sake of the gospel.  We take this risk because ours is a God of promises, a God of covenants.  Again, a poem by Ann Weems.  This one’s called, “Walking Rainbows.[2]

Walking Rainbows, by Ann Weems

 

Perhaps this is what it means to take up our cross and follow Jesus; to be a walking rainbow, bringing the  hope of good news to a broken and suffering world.

[1] Weems, Ann. Kneeling in Jerusalem: Poetry for Lent and Easter. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993) 36.

[2] Weems, page 32.