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St. Paul’s’s – Lent 2 – 2/28/21

Judaism has one basic theological conviction: there is a God and you’re not it. That’s what my Rabbi, Alan Tarshis said all the time. From what I’ve seen, maybe Judaism does a better job than Christianity in keeping the appropriate gap between who we are and who God is. That can be tough for us because we Christians believe in the Incarnation. We believe that in Christ God has come close to us. Still, as we get to know better that one who has come close to us, we are apt to have an even greater sense of God’s distance from us. Christ is not the Messiah we expected or even wanted.

Perhaps this goes against why we thought we came to church this morning. Church is where we come to be close with God, a place where we come to more sure and certain faith, where we deepen our understanding of God. In other words, church is where we come to close the gap between us and God.

But sometimes, and maybe this Sunday is one of those times, when we listen to scripture, we’re impressed by how little we truly understood God. It’s as if, in the scripture reading, preaching, and encounter with Christ, the gap between us and God is opened. We think to ourselves, Wow. I guess I didn’t know God as well as I first thought.

As a Chaplain in Episcopal schools, I would teach religion courses. When the course focused on the New TestamentThe first assignment I gave to the class was just to read straight through the Gospel of Mark.

We think that Mark was the earliest of the Gospels, and it is the shortest. Just read through this Gospel as if you didn’t know anything about Jesus, and then we’ll talk about what you have learned from your reading.

The first class session I said, Mark gives away his frame right at the very beginning. Mark says that he is going to tell us about Jesus, the Son of God, the Messiah. Jesus is not simply a spokesperson for God: he is God’s Son, he is God. Now, who can define God for me?

The members of the class called out various godly attributes. God is omniscient, omnipotent, all-powerful. God can do anything God wants to do. We are limited, but God is not. God is in control, and so on .

Then I said, Mark says Jesus is God. Now, from your reading of the Gospel of Mark, can any of you think about any episodes from Jesus’s ministry that illustrate Jesus’s godliness?

The class fell silent.

I was sort of bothered, said one student, when Jesus begins his work, the first thing he does is call these yokels and losers and tells them to do his work for him. It seems like if he really is the Son of God, and he was to change the world, how come he doesn’t just change it? How come he needs these guys to do it for him?

Another student said, It bothered me when he encountered the man who was blind. The man asked Jesus to heal him. So, Jesus touches him and tells him to receive his sight. And the man says, That’s better. But people still look like trees walking around.’ So Jesus gives it another try. If Jesus is God, how come it takes him a couple of tries before he heals a man?

The students’ reaction to Mark’s account of Jesus came to me a wonderful illustration of the way in which Jesus is indeed the Christ, the Messiah, God’s Son, the savior of the world—but not in the way we expected.

One of the reasons that Jesus was resisted, rejected and eventually crucified was that he just didn’t match up to our definitions of God. God is all powerful, high, and mighty. Then, in Jesus, God comes among us as a lonely, suffering servant. It’s not the God we expected, and maybe not even the God we wanted!

Jesus’s disciples have been walking with Jesus for a while now. They have had a front row seat from which to observe his exorcisms and healing wonders. They have heard him teach and preach. They have marveled as Jesus drew larger crowds. Perhaps they thought to themselves, This Jesus movement is really catching on at last. People are being drawn to him. And isn’t this corroboration that Jesus is indeed our long-awaited Messiah?

And right here, at this point in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus turns to his disciples and begins to teach them, and the lesson he teaches them is not one they wanted to receive. Jesus begins to tell them plainly that he will be rejected, suffer, and die. True, he mentioned something about resurrection, but nobody could’ve comprehended what that meant. The main thing that shocks them is for Jesus to say that he will be rejected, suffer, and die.

Peter, the lead disciple, rebukes Jesus for saying something this outrageous. It is utterly unthinkable that God’s anointed one, the Messiah on whom will be pinned all of the hopes of Israel, should suffer this ignominious fate.

The disciples are in the middle of their journey with Jesus. And right in the middle of that journey, Jesus surprises them by teaching them that they are walking a way that nobody wants to go. They are walking not toward glory and power but toward rejection, suffering, and death.

Sometimes churches put a sign on their lawn in an attempt to attract passersby: The Friendliest Church in Town, or, Lonely? Anxious? Come to our church, and we’ll fix that.Imagine how many people this church would attract if we put a sign out front saying, Looking for more pain, anxiety, suffering, and stress in your life? You’ve come to the right place. Join us in our journey with Jesus. How many takers would we get with that offer?

That Jesus had to stop and turn from preaching to the crowds and instead began teaching his own disciples suggests that he knew that his disciples were confused about who he really was and what his mission entailed. Perhaps they had signed on to Jesus, thinking he was the Messiah who would fix their lives, make things easier for them, and give them whatever they thought they just had to have. So, Jesus stops and teaches them that the Messiah must be rejected, suffer, and die.

And perhaps that is just what Jesus is doing for us this morning in the Gospel. He is teaching us. We may have thought that Jesus is the savior that we thought we just had to have. Jesus is the God that we thought we deserved. In his teaching, Jesus tells us clearly his identity, the end of his mission, and the fate that awaits him. In the middle of the journey, Jesus tells us that he is walking down a way that few want to travel.

I remember a commercial from the past (seems like it was a beer commercial) in which a reassuring voice pushed some product by saying, be good to yourself. Perhaps we have gotten confused into thinking that the Christian faith is a means of being good to ourselves, a way to make a wise choice that will enable us to live the lives we think we must have. It is only natural for us to avoid pain and to seek pleasure.

How Unnatural it is for us to give our lives to one whose message is deny oneself. Can this be who God really is? Is this the path we must walk, if we would be close to who God really is?

I was watching a television show where a doctor was speaking on brain plasticity. The doctor said that as we age (here is where I began to listen up) our brains quite naturally seek to protect us from stress.Our brains are lazy. They tell us to seek the easy way, rather than the way that requires more thought and effort. So when you are faced with some challenging task, like walking up a set of stairs, or going down a flight of stairs, your brain says to you, in effect, ‘Hey, why bother? Let somebody else fetch whatever you need for you. You deserve to take a rest.’

That’s why it can take a good deal of effort just to get out of bed in the morning for many older adults. Your brain is telling you, ‘rest, relax, what do you have to get out of bed for?’

The doctor went on to say that a main way to resist the debilitating effects of aging is to push ourselves, to put ourselves under some stress intentionally in order to make our brains work harder than they would like to work.

Is that why you are in church this morning? Your brains have told you to take it easy, to be good to yourself, to take the easiest path. But something in you brought you here. You are daring to listen to Jesus. You are bold to take his teaching more seriously than lots of the lessons the world has told you. Though you could have taken the road more traveled, you have decided to walk behind Jesus down this path.

Though few are walking down this path with us, I think you ought to give yourself some credit. Jesus is saying to you words that you cannot say to yourself. He is telling you truth that maybe you would rather not hear. God saves through the path of suffering love. Furthermore, 

Jesus calls us to walk with him down this path. He says not only that he is going to take up the cross but that there will be crosses for us to bear as well.

And yet, though these are tough words to hear, there you are. You are here walking with Jesus. Bless you, for your courage!

The going is going to get even rougher as we journey through the next Sundays of Lent. Jesus’s prediction that he will be rejected, suffer, and die will be fulfilled. He will not only go to the cross, but we will be graced to feel some of the weight of the cross on our shoulders as well.

And yet, though there will be even tougher words to hear, there you are. You are here walking with Jesus. Bless you for your courage!

Let us pray:

Jesus, 

as we journey with you toward your cross, 

your way becomes narrower and more difficult for us to follow. 

Most of us, when we began this journey with you, 

did not know that it would be so demanding. 

We fear that we are falling behind. 

We wonder if we can make it. 

It’s one thing for you, Son of God, to go to the cross. I

t’s altogether another thing for people like us to go with you.

If we are going to make it to the end of this journey, 

you will need to help us. 

Teach us, we pray. 

Correct us when we are wrong. 

Strengthen us when we are weak. 

Keep encouraging and re-assuring us that we, 

even in our many weaknesses and limitations, 

are up to the journey with you.

Keep walking with us, Lord, so that we can keep walking with you. 

Amen.