Second Sunday in Lent B
Preached at First Evangelical Lutheran Church, Muskegon, MI, while on Internship.
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
I wasn’t all that thrilled when I read today’s Gospel. In fact, it was a tough decision whether I was even going to preach on it. Paul’s theological argument in Romans is full of great stuff that would make the perfect Lutheran ‘grace’ sermon.
But today’s Gospel kept coming back to my mind. It nagged at me each time I read it. And each time, it was accompanied by the question, “Well, now what do I do?” This whole thing about “taking up our crosses” is confusing. I’m not always sure what to do with it. But one thing is pretty clear. Jesus likes to ruin everything. He’s serious. And for everything, there is a price.
You see, the disciples had a sweet gig going. Immediately prior to this story is Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah, the savior of Judea, the king of all kings, lord of all lords. Peter had very high expectations for Jesus. It’s a very enticing way of thinking about Jesus. Imagine Jesus coming like the Son of Man from the book of Daniel (which is where the reference comes from):
“I saw one coming like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.”
This savior of the world is powerful, glorious, exalted, wonderful and mighty, a conqueror, a king. THIS is the God for whom we have been waiting for, THIS is the savior we need in this, as Jesus puts it, “adulterous and sinful generation”, where immorality and oppression run rampant in the streets, THIS is the leader we need to get the world back on track, who will right the wrongs, restore values to a sick society and usher in the kingdom of God, Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hossana in the highest!
There’s just one problem: This isn’t Jesus.
Instead, this Son of Man, this Jesus, must in his own words undergo great suffering and rejection. He must be taken down from his pedestal and made a mockery. He must be tortured, embarrassed, humiliated, and executed.
It’s no wonder then that Peter pulls Jesus aside when he hears all this and basically tells him, “Dude, you gotta cool it. Okay, not cool. You’re ruining everything.” Peter didn’t want Jesus to have to go through all of that. That’s not what the Messiah was supposed to do. How is Jesus supposed to be Peter’s ticket if he dies? He rebukes Jesus. Ever been rebuked? Peter wasn’t kidding. He wasn’t messing around. This was serious.
And Jesus fires right back, “Get behind me Satan!” He wasn’t kidding either. This was serious. Jesus had another calling in mind.
As I read further, I had to wonder, what is Jesus calling us to? “To take up one’s cross” in modern usage usually means to bear a burden. I’ve heard it, and I’m sure you have too, used to describe taking care of an elderly parent, or an autistic child, or an abusive partner—things that we struggle with, that God has “assigned” to us to test us.
I beg you not to write Jesus’s words off like that. That’s not what he’s saying. In fact, in some ways, he’s saying exactly the opposite of that. By focusing on ourselves, we are refusing to take up the cross.
We are a culture obsessed with ourselves. And it is so easy for us to hear Jesus say, “Deny yourselves” and to simply ignore it. I do it all the time. Good Lord, the more I read about what Jesus tells me to do, the more I realize that the people who claim to take the Bible literally still have a long way to go before they reach that goal.
Jesus tells me to feed the hungry, and I say, but I need that money to feed me. Jesus tells me to visit those in prison, and I back away in fear of “those people”. Jesus tells me that those ashamed of him will get the same treatment, and yet I still get anxious when people ask me what I do for a living. Do I tell them I’m a seminarian? Do I tell them I work for the church, and it’s not just what I do on the weekends? Most times, I tell them I am a grad student and hope that they don’t ask me for more details. If anyone needs to deny themselves, I need to be first in line. I need to stop focusing on me. Because really, what good does it do me?
There is a song by Toby Mac that comes directly out of this story. The chorus goes, “I don’t want to gain the whole world and lose my soul”. And in the verses, he prays to God that he doesn’t get distracted by all of the things in life that pull him away from Christ. He wants to keep his eyes on the things that are important, like being a good father and husband, being an artist with integrity. In some ways I think he still misses the point that we aren’t supposed to focus on ourselves, but in other ways, he’s right.
As Jesus said, “For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?” Or, as the old saying goes, “You can’t take it with you.” Jesus is confronting his disciples, both past and present, with reality. This is not a cake walk. This is not a hobby. It’s not a weekly obligation or just “what we’re supposed to do”. This is serious. There is a price to following Jesus. Up to and sometimes including our lives.
There are more Christian martyrs in the world now than ever before. An Italian study in 2002 concluded that 65% of ALL Christian martyrs throughout history died in the 20th century. That means that, in 2000 years of Christian history, more than half of everyone who has been killed for the faith died in the last 100 years.
I don’t tell you this to encourage you to go out and get hit by a bus for your faith. That was actually a problem in the early church (minus the bus, of course)—church leaders had to discourage believers from specifically seeking martyrdom. I tell you this because, as one commentator said, “Unless we see [this reality of suffering] clearly, we miss both the glory and the pain of the Christian gospel, for the glory and the pain are inseparably intertwined.” We, like Peter, wish that there was no pain and suffering and that we could skip ahead to the glory.
That’s not what Jesus stood for. He was serious. And that’s what makes him all the more important. The same commentator said, “If Jesus had not chosen the way of suffering, endured the Cross, his life would have had little to say to individuals or to a world in an agony of suffering. He would have spoken only as one who had never faced and conquered the pain and terror of evil.” At least Jesus is honest with us. We know what we are getting into. And it’s not all bad.
The story of Jesus doesn’t stop at the crucifixion. It doesn’t end with a painful death on a cross. It doesn’t end with a proper burial in the tomb of a stranger. If that was true, then yes, all I’ve been saying today has been pretty bad news.
But it doesn’t end there. Jesus was serious about what he would face in life, and what we would face in life. But he was also serious about overcoming it. He died and was buried, and was raised again. He achieved glory not through the accumulation of honours and accolades, but through and because of the suffering he endured. He lost his life and in the process saved all of ours.
In this season of Lent, we are reminded that one has to come for the other to make sense. There has to be suffering and humiliation for glory to take its place. The good news is not that we suffer but that suffering is not the final word.
So in this Lenten season, I ask, don’t shy away from the uncomfortableness of Jesus’s words. They are meant to be hard. They are meant to be unsettling. This is serious. But don’t let forget that Lent is a season of preparation, not a season of finality. All of this is setting the stage for something big.