It is hard when things that we intend for good turn out to be terrible. But Jesus is the Messiah who came to redeem us lost and broken sinners and bring us into God’s kingdom. Loved and encouraged by Jesus in the midst of our emptiness and suffering, we become more like him. Enlivened and directed by him, we step into the opportunities he gives us to love and encourage others who suffer. (Based on Mark 8:27-38.)
I find myself fascinated by sports, not only because I am interested in the sports themselves, but also because things that happen in sports often connect to things in real life. For example, last month, the Seattle Seahawks fired their offensive coordinator, Brian Schottenheimer, due to “philosophical differences” despite the fact that the team started the season with a 5-0 record for the first time in franchise history and finished atop the NFC West division with a 12-4 record. “Philosophical differences” is a code-phrase for saying that two people do not agree on how to accomplish a goal that they share. Head Coach Pete Carroll wants the Seahawks offence to run more often so that opposing defences cannot defend against them so easily.
The goal in NFL football is to win the Super Bowl. We could say that the goal of life is to live life well. But how does one do that? To help us as we think about this question, I invite you to join with me in reflecting on Mark 8:27-38.
The Most Important Question
This passage starts off by telling us, Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. (Mark 8:27 NIV) Caesarea Philippi was significant in that time for being the place where people went to worship the god Pan. In ancient Greek religion and mythology, Pan had the hindquarters, legs and horns of a goat, and was the god of nature, flocks, shepherds and sexuality. Back then, the headwaters of the Jordan River flowed out of a cave called Pan’s Cave and people would come and make sacrifices to Pan at a nearby temple. Those who believed in such things said that Pan was one of the few gods who travelled to Hades, which was the place of the dead, and returned. So that area was known in ancient times as the Gates of Hades, or, as it is sometimes translated, the Gates of Hell.
As Jesus and his disciples walked from Galilee to Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asked his followers, “Who do people say that I am?” They replied with several of the responses that they had heard, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” But then Jesus asked what is perhaps the most important question any of us will ever answer when he said, “But what about you? Who do you say I am?” (Mark 8:29 NIV)
Even today, people answer this question in many different ways. Some will say that Jesus is a great moral teacher, others that he was an ordinary human that people made into a mythical superhero after he died, while still others might say that Jesus never existed at all. But the key question that Jesus asks of us is “Who do you say that I am?”
Matthew, in his biography of Jesus, records this answer from Simon Peter, for us: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” (Mt. 16:16 NIV) To say that Jesus is the Messiah does more than say something about Jesus, it also says something about us. For the Messiah is the Anointed One, the Savior sent from God to save his people. First promised just after Adam and Eve ruptured the perfect harmony of life with God in paradise by disobeying him, the Messiah would be a descendant of Eve who would crush Satan, end his control over humanity and undo all the corruption caused by sin.
When we say that Jesus is the Messiah, we are saying that we stand in the long line of Adam and Eve’s broken and sin-scarred descendants who need to be rescued from sin, death and everlasting estrangement from God. We need to have our sins forgiven, we need to have our hearts cleansed of guilt and shame, our minds renewed, and our bodies resurrected and restored. And we look to Jesus to do that for us.
But we also look to Jesus as Lord. Saying that Jesus is the Messiah is admitting that even our best self-guided efforts invariably turn to ashes and we need Jesus in our life to direct all our steps, clarify all our thoughts and channel all our desires. We need the Son of the Living God to come to us and occupy first place in our heart so that we can follow him and grow in becoming the person that God has in mind for us to be.
Jesus then responds to Peter’s answer in this way: Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Mt. 16:17-20 NIV)
What Jesus is saying here is that faith in Jesus as the Messiah is the foundation of his Church. By believing in Jesus as our Messiah, we enter into a new kind of life where, together with our sisters and brothers in Christ, we storm the Gates of Hell and break them down to proclaim freedom in Jesus’ name for all who have been gripped by the devil’s delusions, crushed by shame and guilt, and bound by addictions and false beliefs. Jesus has brought us into the kingdom of God, where our hearts are governed by God’s gracious and godly rule. We live in this world, but our citizenship is from heaven. Therefore, we serve in this realm as Christ’s ambassadors, empowered by him to both forgive and warn others in his name. Whatever words of warning or forgiveness we share will be as true in heaven as they are on earth because we speak those words, not with our own authority, but with Jesus’ authority. Jesus is describing for us what life with God looks like and that’s the life that Jesus is offering to you.
Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah is the high point of today’s passage for it shows that Peter and Jesus agree on who Jesus is and why he came. But the low point soon follows, and it comes because of philosophical differences between Jesus and Peter regarding how Jesus’ mission of seeking and saving all that has been lost was going to be accomplished. Turning back to Mark’s account of this event, we read: He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. (Mark 8:31-32 NIV)
Jesus states that he is going to accomplish the redemption and the renewal of all things by going the Way of the Cross. He was very clear in telling his followers that the cost of reclaiming and forgiving all things would be humiliation, rejection, suffering and death for him, a price that he will gladly pay because of his infinite, unconditional love for the whole world. And the sign that would prove that Jesus had accomplished what he set out to do would come when Jesus rose from the dead on the third that followed.
Jesus’ plan is at odds with how Peter thought things should be done. Peter’s approach could be called the Way of Glory. It is hardwired into each and every human being for we tend to think bigger and better is best, and we think that God works that way too. We tend to believe that the big church in the city with a beautiful building and great tech and talent has more of God than the small church in the country that struggles to pay the heating bill. We think that families with 2.3 kids and a nice house in the suburbs have more of God than someone sleeping in the trees behind the church because they have no home. We think that someone who is thin, healthy and pulling down a fat paycheque has more of God than someone whose life has obviously been disrupted by mental or physical illness, addiction or Covid-19 and they are unable to work.
Jesus’ response to Peter is shocking. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” (Mark 8:33 NIV) This is what happens when we approach life from a human perspective. We miss what God is trying to do in the moment and we end up serving Satan’s purposes by trying to pull people out of God’s path for them with our plans which are based on our built-in Theology of Glory.
Jesus’ Solution to Our Dilemma
So what is the solution for us? Jesus tells us. “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. (Mark 8:34-35 NIV) Jesus is calling us to stop looking at the world and our life in it through the lens of our personal human perspective and start looking at things the way God sees them. God has placed us in our particular circumstances for something much more important than our own personal comfort, prestige and glory. We are God’s agents in this world who serve our King by reflecting his love, joy, hope, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, forgiveness and self-control into the lives of the people around us. This we do by putting a stake through the heart of our old sinful self-centredness and focusing our thoughts and desires on Jesus and his love for us so we can receive his direction for how we can share his love with others.
There is a special kind of suffering that comes when one turns away from feeding their own deluded ego and stops propping up all the faulty foundations that they thought were necessary to support and enhance their life. Everything comes crashing to the ground and in our insecurity and hunger it feels like we are left with nothing. But then we discover that Jesus is there for us in our nothingness and that that’s where our new life with him begins. What we thought in the past was everything, we now realize is worth nothing, and what we thought was nothingness is now everything to us for it is the space where Jesus loves, supports, encourages and directs us. So everything in life can be taken away from us, leaving us with nothing, and we will still be more than okay. Because Jesus will still be with us and nothing, not even death can ever take him and his great love for us away from us.
Serving While Suffering
Among the “I Am Second” videos online is a conversation between TJ Stevens, who was a high school shooter, Beth Nimmo, mother of one of the victims in the Columbine High School shooting. In one of the key moments in the video, Beth, who still grieves the loss of her daughter, Rachel, who died at the hands of two other high school shooters, encourages and ministers to TJ. When TJ says that the words “earn it” are his inspiration to change lives with the pain that he created, Beth gently encourages him to rethink those words. She said, “You don’t have to earn anything. God doesn’t expect things of us because, without him, we can do nothing. Instead of ‘earn it,’ you just walk in it. You walk in the gift. That’s what I see with you, … I see a man who understands second chances. Who understands what it is to be in the depths of despair, and the hand of God pulling you out of that pit and saying, “I really never let you go. You did experience the torment of what hell looks like and feels like. But my hand sustained you during that season.”
How is it possible that a grieving mother, even while she was still suffering, would have compassion and encouragement for a man who went into a high school with a rifle like the two young men who killed her daughter? Only God could make something like that happen. Only God the Father could put an arm around us and say, “I am your heavenly Father who loves you perfectly. I know what it is like to lose a child and I am here with you.” Only Jesus could hold us close and say, “I am the God-human who knows what it is like to have everything stripped away and be left to suffer and die, and I will carry you through this.” Only the Holy Spirit could bring comfort to our sorrowful soul by saying, “I am the God who gives life to your spirit and I promise you that a new day will dawn when death and mourning and crying and pain will be no more and your Messiah will wipe every tear from your eyes.”
So the challenge that I am setting before you today is to make a habit of meeting with Jesus in your nothingness. Set aside some quiet time during the day when there are no distractions and sit with Jesus. During our visits before he passed away, one of the people that I would visit was a man named Paul who told me that he would set up a chair across from him and talk to Jesus as if he was sitting in that chair. You can do that if it helps you, or pray silently, or read Scripture, or journal, or some combination of those things. Whatever helps you to draw closer to Jesus with nothing. Because Jesus is always with you, Jesus always loves you and you are forever safe with him. Jesus is the Messiah who suffered, died and rose again to redeem us and all things. By following him wherever he leads, even when it involves suffering, we can be part of his redemptive mission.
And remember, Jesus is the Messiah who suffered, died and rose again to bring us into God’s kingdom and mission. Amen.