Monday, March 13, 2006

Sermon from Sunday, March 12

Hi all--here is the sermon from yesterday's worship service, Sunday, March 12.

We are now a week and a half into Lent, a week and a half into what is a solemn and yet deeply meaningful time of year for many Christians. During Lent, we take time away from something, maybe chocolate, maybe dessert, maybe television. This time away from something is not just a way of making ourselves feel bad, not just something we do because we don’t like to have fun or like to miserable. We don’t take time away from these things because they’re bad, but because they’re good–in fact, we so easily fall in love with these things. And we Christians cannot afford to be in love with anything except Jesus; and so fasting is a way of denying these things so that our ultimate loyalty to Jesus will not be challenged by these other things. There are seasons for feasting and enjoying God’s gifts to the full; but Lent is a season of self-denial so that we love God all the more.

Lent is a tool God gives us to forge a heart like Jesus. Last week, we looked at how even Jesus was formed by the tool of self-denial. In the wilderness, Jesus fasted and learned to lean completely on God. If we choose to walk in the wilderness of Lent, we too can expect that we will also begin to shape our hearts like Christ. We may be upside down, but the wilderness will turn us right-side up.

I start the sermon in this way because this passage of Scripture perfectly reflects Lenten values. It starts with Jesus, as he often did, teaching. And as often as Jesus taught, he taught radically. He taught, saying that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.

Once again, the Bible ought to shock us, but the book has become familiar enough that we are not shocked by this statement. I know I’ve told you this before, but in case you missed that Sunday, the Son of Man was a strong figure in the Jewish mind of the time. People expected the Son of Man to come in power and glory. In the book of Daniel, the prophet Daniel has a vision of the end times, what we would call an “apocalyptic” vision. And in the vision, he says: “I saw one like a Son of Man coming with the clouds of heavens. And he came to the Ancient of Days 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.” (Dan 7:13-14) People looked forward to the coming of the Son of Man and expected that he was going to be a great and honored King, ruling forever and ever.

And Jesus here offers a teaching that turns this idea completely on its head. He says, “This great Son of Man who you’ve been looking forward to? Yeah, him. He’s going to suffer, he’s going to be rejected by anybody who’s respectable, and he’s going to die, and then rise again.

And Peter takes Jesus aside and, you know Peter, he explains the situation to him; he says, “You just don’t quite see it; this doesn’t happen to the Son of Man.” The Son of Man isn’t rejected; he’s beloved. Especially by the religious people, the elders, the chief priests, the scribes; they don’t reject the Son of Man, they look forward to his coming! They celebrate his presence. And the Son of Man doesn’t suffer–the Son of Man triumphs over all who would reject him!”

And Jesus turns as quick as a wink and says something that is as close to terrifying as anything Jesus says to we who would be disciples. He says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!” Let’s keep in mind here that Jesus was not joking around; he looks at Peter and he does not see a disciple, nor a friend; but instead he sees someone who is in league with Satan, someone who is working not with Jesus but against him. How scary is this–that Jesus would look at his disciple Peter, the leader of the pack, and see not something godly, but something Satanic? Peter thinks he is doing Jesus a favor, but Jesus says that he is downright evil.

Jesus clarifies his remark by saying that Peter has his mind “not on divine things, but on human things.” Peter is so offensive to Jesus because his remark demonstrates that he has his mind in the wrong place–he has his mind somehow on “human things” rather than “divine things.”

Now, at first blush, we would think it would be the other way around. After all, Peter is thinking of texts like the one in Daniel. This is a “divine” text–where the last days are pictured, where God triumphs over his enemies, where God’s people triumph and win victory. And Jesus seems to be talking about human things, focusing on the earthy reality of suffering and pain, rejection and death. At first blush, it is Peter who is talking about divine things, and Jesus that is talking about human things.

And yet Jesus says that Peter’s focus is not right. All this talk of triumph and victory–these are human things. But speak of suffering; speak of rejection; speak of death; now you are speaking of divine things.

This truth that Jesus speaks has to impact on the way we think and the way we live. Consider how very different Jesus’ words are from the culture we live in. Turn on the television and see how those who are self-consciously Christian present themselves. See how they dress in the finest clothes, and in opulent, gilded pulpits they proclaim that the victory that they have found is the victory Christ gives to his servants. It seems to brush up against what Jesus is saying here; notions of victory and domination are not heavenly, they are not of God; they are not divine things. Rather, in Jesus’ mind, they are earthly, human things.

But don’t think it’s only on TV and so deceive ourselves. This desire to sanitize the Christian life is present at every level of our existence. We take the Gospel and we dress it up in acceptable clothes; we pretend that it’s about self-actualization, about realizing the goodness that’s already in you. We pretend that it’s about 12 easy steps to being at peace with ourselves, or about 5 easy ways to stamp out guilt. We forget that the Christian life is not a process of celebrating ourselves, but a process of changing ourselves. The Christian life is not about recognizing how good we’ve been all along; it is a process of being broken so that Christ can put us together again in the way he wants us to be. It involves suffering sometimes because being broken is hard. But it is necessary to be broken if Christ is to make us truly whole.

Throughout the New Testament, Jesus is referred to as a stumbling-block, and the idea is that the Christian life involves some stumbling over the cross from time to time. I'm not a skier. I tried once and let's just say it didn't work out so well. You get a different perspective on things when you're flat on your face in the snow. Stumbling offers one a chance to reconsider why one is skiing--or running, or whatever--in the first place.

Of course, we stumble in life too. Perhaps we get into a major car accident and are laid up in the hospital for a few weeks–that’s stumbling. Or maybe there’s a downturn in the stock market and we lose a good amount of money. Something happens and we stumble and we land flat on our face. When we are flat on our face, of course, we re-think things in a way we never do when we’re running around. Maybe I should live differently, re-evaluate my priorities, spend more time on the things that matter. In that way, while stumbling is difficult, it is an opportunity.

When Jesus is referred to as a stumbling-block, it refers to just this fact. We can just breeze along through life; We think we have this God thing completely figured out. We think, “I know what’s right and what’s wrong; I know what I believe; I know what I need from God, from the church, from my life; I know just what to do in any given circumstance. I know that what God mostly wants is for me to be the same kind of person the New York Times wants me to be; open-minded, tolerant, breezy, academic. Or, I know that what God mostly wants for me is to be the same kind of person James Dobson wants me to be; disciplined, rigorous, focused on my family.” And we have so many ideas of what we are supposed to be that what we forget is that we, like Peter, are chasing human things: notions of victory, notions of the good life, the victorious life. When Jesus says, “Real life begins when you stumble over the cross and are broken by it so that I can make you whole.”

Jesus calls the crowd over and he pushes the issue still further. “Do you really want to be my disciple? Then, he says, all who would truly follow me will take up a cross and follow me to the site of the execution. I have not come to make you attain the deepest longings of your soul, I have come to kill your soul and that I may give you new life, my own life, my resurrection life. All who would truly follow me will practice self-denial, will recognize that the cross where you relinquish everything is the only way to that kind of life.”

Jesus pushes on, pushes the crowd, pushes us. “If you are so bent on saving your life, saving everything you hold dear, that is the surest way to lose your true life. If your life is about self-assertion, about self-preservation, about being comfortable, about protecting yourself from anyone who might force you to re-think things, about avoiding stumbling, that is no life at all. That is the surest way to avoid true life. But if you want to know true life, a life that means something, come and die with me, and then you will be given true life.”

Do you remember the story of the rich young ruler? The man came to Jesus and he asked what he needed to do to gain eternal life. And Jesus told him to keep the commandments. And the man said he had done this, and so he was very happy. And then Jesus said, “Oh, by the way, there’s one more thing; sell everything you have and give it to the poor.” And the man was very sad, because he was rich. He could not fathom giving away everything he had; because he had learned to identify himself with it. He could not imagine himself without it; he could not imagine being happy or fulfilled without his stuff. He had given his soul away to these things. And Jesus makes him stumble, but at the same time, he gives him the tools he needs to be made whole. Basically, Jesus says, “If you want to know true life, if you want something that will make you truly happy, you’re going to have to get rid of everything around you because you’ve given your soul away to it. But if you do that, if you can bring yourself to do that, you will be happier, more truly alive, than you have ever been before.”

Is your life about preserving the life you have made for yourself? Is your life about protecting your home, your assets, your retirement account? Is your life about protecting some identity, some image of yourself, so much so that you never listen to someone who thinks differently? Is your life about making sure you never stumble, making sure you never experience pain? If so, it is no life at all; it is a half-life masquerading as true life. For to know true life entails pain, the pain of stumbling and landing on our face, the pain of taking up a cross.

Allow me to be frank for a moment. You hear me talk about the spiritual danger of living in the suburbs sometimes. The reason I believe the suburbs are so dangerous is because here, people are so afraid of stumbling, of showing weakness. Out here, people will do anything to hide weakness from you; they will never share the pain they feel. They’ll buy big houses and big cars and hide their broken spirits inside them. People will go to any lengths to avoid showing that they are broken people out here. Even though inside they might be dying, they show off how whole they are, how they have perfectly styled hair, perfectly white, straight teeth, perfect surgically-enhanced bodies, perfect cars, perfect homes, perfect life.

The reason this is so dangerous is because it is the exact opposite of the gospel. The gospel demands a rejection of human ideas of wholeness and an embrace of our brokenness. And we cannot embrace our brokenness while we’re so busy showing everybody we’re perfect. If you’re really going to take up a cross, you’re not going to be able to hide it. Everybody will see it, everybody will see you are broken, everybody will be able to see you are not perfect, everybody will see that you are dying to self. And they may talk about you. They may say, “Oh my gosh, did you see that Mike Jordan guy? I hear he’s an alcoholic. I hear he has trouble with his temper. I hear his kids aren’t perfect. I hear he has to pray to keep it all together.”

But do you know what? As much as the suburbs may talk when they see you being broken people, it is deep down what the suburbs desperately want. They want somebody who doesn’t have to be perfect all the time, somebody who can be honest about their struggles, somebody who’s living for something more than their retirement account. They want someone whose sense of self is strong enough that it can be broken from time to time; they want to know that there are still people in the world who can give themselves away knowing that their true life is in Christ. They want to know that there is still honesty somewhere in the world. They want to know there’s something worth dying for; they want to know there’s something worth giving their lives away for.

This is a Lenten call, a call to brokenness; a call to divine brokenness instead of human triumph. May you be broken that Christ may make you whole, that you may give yourself completely away to a world more broken than they know.