Sermon – Lent 2 – "Who Do You Say I Am?" – Mark 8:27-38 – 3/4/12

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St. Mark begins his gospel with a bold proclamation – “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (1:1). After that, “immediately” goes to work. He’s baptized and tempted by Satan. He heals the multitudes; preaches great sermons; cleanses lepers; exposes false teachers; and tells earthly stories with heavenly meanings. He calms the stormy sea; exorcises the demon possessed, multiplies bread in his hands, walks on the water, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the blind see. He even raises Jairus’ daughter from the dead. And all of that is just the first half of Mark’s gospel.

Mark’s gospel is 16 chapters long. Today we come to the exact middle, the end of the 8th chapter, and Jesus asks the big question, “Who do people say that I am?” With the kind of groundwork that Mark has carefully laid out, what would you expect people would be saying about Jesus?

Mark has carefully recorded what people have been saying about Him up to this point. They say, “what is this?”(Question mark.) “Who then is this that even wind and sea obey him?” (Question mark) “He is possessed by Beelzebul.” (No question mark, but we wish there where one.) “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary?” “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead.” “He is Elijah.” No one gets it! No one sees. How blinded by our sin we are.

Ironically, the only ones in the first half of Mark’s gospel that get it are the demons. “I know who you are, the Holy one of God.” “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?”

So, when Jesus asks His disciples “who do you say that I am?” all of heaven is silent, listening intently to how they will answer. And when Peter answers, “You are the Christ,” the angels are dancing and the heavenly choir is resounding, the saints in glory are cheering and the confetti is flying. They get it! They see Him “as He is.” “You are the Christ.”

By the end of Mark’s gospel it becomes apparent that there are some who get it and some who don’t and never will. At the trial before the Sanhedrin, the Chief Priest and the Sanhedrin are still blind. “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed? ”(14:61). But the centurion at the foot of the cross get’s it. “Truly this man was the Son of God!” (15:39).

The Centurion, the Roman soldier (whom the Jews despised), the gentile (who was the wrong race), is the hero in Mark’s gospel, other than Jesus of course. He recognizes who Jesus is by His suffering and death on the cross. Jesus’ suffering and death don’t hide Jesus’ identity from him, it reveals it. Even the disciples are way behind this Centurion.

“And Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. And He said this plainly.” No parables, no symbolism, no figures of speech. No hidden meanings. He gave it to them straight, plainly.

Jesus says that this “MUST” happen. That little word “MUST” means that there’s no getting around it, no compromise, no deals. This is the only way.

You and I don’t like that little word, “must.” We bristle when we’re told that we ‘must’ do something. When we’re told we “must,” we immediately begin thinking of reasons why we “must not.”

But not Jesus. This was the Father’s “must” and Jesus delights in doing what His Father says He “MUST” do. Even if it’s “The Son of Man MUST suffer many things and be rejected and be killed and rise again.”

We need to learn to appreciate Jesus’ acceptance of what He “MUST” do. HE MUST suffer many things because WE have sinned against God. HE MUST be rejected because WE have rejected God. HE MUST die because WE have chosen the way of death over life. HE MUST be raised again because He has no sin and death has no hold on Him.

Either He MUST bear the punishment for our sin OR we MUST. He MUST rise from the dead OR you and I never will. He MUST OR we are without hope.

This is what it means to be “the Christ.” This is what it means to confess, “You are the Christ.”

There is not one clue in the first half of Mark’s gospel that this is the direction that Jesus’ career is headed. Matthew begins his gospel with Herod’s plot to find and kill baby Jesus. Luke tells us about Simeon at the temple warning Mary, “Behold, this child is appointed for a sign that is opposed.” (2:34). John begins his gospel saying “the light came into the darkness, and the darkness did it’s best to try to overcome it.” (John 1:5). But there’s nothing like that in Mark’s gospel. Not until Jesus drops this bomb, which Mark places right smack in the middle of things.

“And Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke him.” And like that, (snap), the music stops, the angels stumble over each other, the choir gasps, and the saints hang their head. He doesn’t get it. He is ‘rebuking’ Jesus for doing what He MUST do for us men and for our salvation.

No wonder Jesus, “strictly charged them to tell no one about him.” No preaching is better than false preaching.

“Turning and seeing the disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God but on the things of man.”

Setting our minds on the things of God and not on the things of man is the great challenge for all of us.

The “things of man” are those things that are commended, applauded and praised by men and women such as success, power, prestige and influence. We strive to achieve some measure of stability for our lives. We want to have a home to come home to, the nicer the better. That requires an income to pay the bills, the more the better. We’d like to have at least a little left over at the end of the week to enjoy some of the pleasures that this world has to offer and put a little something away for retirement. We want our children to be well-adjusted, independent, responsible citizens who make a positive contribution to society.

And is there anything wrong with any of these “things of man”? Of course not. But what if it came down to having to make a choice between these “things of man” and the “things of God”? The “things of God” are the daily details of life lived out according to God’s Word and the 10 Commandments along with the living hope that in Jesus Christ and through faith in Him, I have forgiveness for all of my sins and where there is forgiveness of sins there is life and salvation.

I’ll ask the question again. What if it came down to a choice between the “things of man” and the “things of God?” Would you be willing to let go of the “things of man” to hold onto “the things of God?” Let me just add that this is a choice that we are confronted with on a daily basis.

When Peter rebukes Jesus he may not be as concerned for Jesus’ destiny as he is for his own. Peter is not as dimwitted as we think he is. He processes the implications of what Jesus has said very quickly. If this is the way that Jesus MUST go, what will that mean for the disciple of Jesus whom Jesus has bid to, “come, follow me”? Peter thought that Jesus would attain success, power, prestige and influence and that his disciples would participate in that. Now Peter hears that Jesus is deliberately headed for suffering, rejection and death, and His disciples will participate in that. Peter will either have to forsake the “things of man” to follow Jesus. Or he will have to forsake Jesus to follow the “things of man.”

Peter rebukes Jesus for creating such a terrible dilemma for he and the other disciples. Whether he likes it or not, and he certainly didn’t seek it, Peter and the disciples are being confronted by the cross of Jesus Christ. The only way to avoid this confrontation is to deny that Jesus is “the Christ,” or to change the definition to make things easier for us, who “have in mind the things of man” but who also want to be called a CHRISTIAN.

The Lutheran theologian Richard Niebuhr claimed that we, when given the chance, define the meaning of Christ much differently than Jesus. Niebuhr writes, “we desire a God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.”

But these are not the kind of Christians to whom Mark addresses this gospel. Mark writes his gospel to the Christians in Rome who were living during the reign of the Emperor Nero. A brief bit of background might be helpful.

In the year 64 AD a terrible fire destroyed much of the city of Rome and public opinion was that Nero himself had ordered the fires to be set. (The man was a lunatic.) In desperation, Nero needed to find a scapegoat to blame for the disaster. Blame for the fire was placed squarely on the Christians in Rome.

The historian Tacitus wrote, “First, Nero had self-acknowledged Christians arrested. Then, on their information, large numbers of others were condemned… Dressed in wild animal’s skins, they were torn to pieces by dogs, or crucified, or made into torches to be ignited after dark.” The city was invited to the ‘circus maximus’ to watch half-starved lions eat the Christians alive.

This is the audience for whom Mark writes his gospel of Jesus Christ. These are those who ‘had in mind the things of God’ and who renounced the ‘things of man’ but would not renounce the name of Jesus Christ, and for His name’s sake, experienced terrible SUFFERING, REJECTION AND DEATH, just as Jesus had.

Last week, we heard Mark’s account of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. How brief it was. No mention of the three tests from Satan at all. But one of the details that Mark includes that none of the others do is that Jesus was in the desert with the wild animals. Think of what that must have meant to those Christians who were in the arena with the wild animals.

Think of what it must have meant to them when they read Mark’s gospel and heard Jesus say, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will loose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? For what can a man give in return for his life?” Mark was telling them that nothing that they were experiencing under Nero was alien to what Jesus had also experienced. He was falsely accused just as they were. If they had been betrayed by a close friend, so had He in Judas Iscariot.

The hero in Mark’s gospel was a Roman, a gentile, just like them. They were heroes. They knew Jesus according to His cross. Jesus was revealed Himself to them through His cross. They recognized Jesus by His cross and their participation in His suffering and rejection and death.

What encouragement to those who were severely tempted to deny their Lord for the sake of the “things of man,” to remain steadfast for the sake of the “things of God.”

“For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

In truth, some of them had been ashamed of Him. And some of them had denied their Lord, just as Peter had under pressure. “I do not know the man,” he repeated, not once, but three times. But even Peter was forgiven and restored.

The same Peter who had rebuked Jesus for saying that He must suffer, be betrayed and be murdered, was arrested in Rome under Nero’s orders. What a spectacle Nero could make out of one of Jesus’ own disciples. When Peter was informed that he was going to be crucified, he did not deny, but confessed. Peter requested that he be crucified upside down, so that no one would confuse his death with Christ’s death. The cross, which he so objected to as a young disciple, he now embraced in his old age. In losing his life, Peter found his life, just as Jesus said he would.

We’ll conclude like this. In his letter to the Christians in Rome, Peter writes, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as through something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share in Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. If anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name… Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.” (1 Peter 4:12)

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