Saturday, March 03, 2012

A sermon of opposites?


I’m going to say a word to you and ask you to give me its opposite!
So… Heavy (light)
Dangerous (safe)
Clean (dirty)
Big (small)

When we think of opposites we usually think of something being one or the other – it’s either clean or dirty, big or small etc – we don’t think of it being both at the same time!
But when we look at the gospel of Jesus we seem to see opposites that do occur at the same time.
Which words would you use to describe the message and work of Jesus, or to describe the Christian life that flows out of the message and work of Jesus?
Would you use ‘triumph’ and ‘victory’ and ‘celebration’?
Would you use ‘trial’ and ‘suffering’ and ‘challenge’?

Those two sets of words seem to be opposites to one another. On the one hand, triumph and victory and celebration; on the other hand trial and suffering and challenge. But rather than the gospel and the Christian life being one or the other, being an ‘either/or’ it’s like God shows us that his love meshes them both together, because for now we live with the experience of them all. (Hands mesh together).

And that’s not a new thing! Look at the disciple Peter. In Mark’s gospel, immediately before the passage we heard today, Peter has answered Jesus’ question “Who do you say that I am?” with the words, “You are the Christ.” Well done Peter, who has begun to recognise the truth that Jesus is indeed the one who has come from God – the Messiah (or Christ – the anointed one) – the one who so long before, God spoke about through the prophets. It’s a triumph – a victory for Peter in his realisation and a sign of the victory of God’s plan through the coming of the Messiah.
But then look at what happens next… Jesus begins to teach the specifics and we’re told that he spoke plainly – that he would suffer many things, be rejected by the Jewish leaders and elders, that he would be killed (and after three days rise again).
Peter’s response to that was to take Jesus aside and rebuke him! I wonder what was going through Peter’s mind? “You’re the Messiah, the Christ! What are you talking about – suffering, rejected, killed”?!
This was not what played out in Peter’s understanding when he dwelt on what the Messiah was going to do! And for his rebuke he got from Jesus, “Get behind me satan!” Peter was throwing back at Jesus his entirely human response but Jesus couldn’t be deterred or discouraged from the plan of God and so he had to silence the voice that could sow doubt or deny what was coming.

Imagine a large company – business is going down the drain, workers are discouraged and worried about their jobs, morale is at an all time low. The management have been talking for a long time about drafting in a great business consultant who will come in and turn everything around, boost business, retrain and reenergise the workers, give a renewed sense of job security. And then they arrive – the workers recognise that this is the one, the consultant, and there’s great expectation.
But then instead of doing what’s expected this consultant says he’s going to break up the business, hand over the company to the administrators, lay off the workers and even say that his own job would go down the pan too in trying to deal with the mess!

It’s just an illustration but the difference between expectation and reality are a reflection of how far removed Peter’s expectation of Jesus the Messiah was from the reality of what Jesus said was going to happen!

Now of course, it’s different again for us. We have the benefit of knowing what Jesus meant when he said “and after three days he would rise again”. After the crucifixion would come the resurrection; after the suffering would come the victory.

We live in the time after the resurrection – Jesus is alive again – back where he came from. We live in the time when sin and death have been defeated on the cross. We live in the time of sure hope that God is making everything new and that we’ll experience his kingdom in all its wonderful glory one day. But we also live in the time when death still painfully interrupts life, when we can know complete forgiveness and the slate wiped clean but still struggle with some of the old nature. We live in the time when we see amazing answers to prayer as well as the time when God can seem far away as we call out to him! We live in that time of so-called opposites when we’re called to follow Jesus’ way of suffering while knowing that Jesus has won the victory over evil and sin and death!

I think a problem only arises when Christians take one half of those opposites I mentioned earlier and proclaim them as though the other half wasn’t enmeshed.
If you speak only triumph and victory and celebration (in a sense just resurrection) to someone who is in the midst of grief or struggle or pain (because there’s still a whiplash of these things in our lives) then it can cause them to lose any sense of finding God in their grief and struggle and pain. And God is there to be found! But what we do want is to be able to speak of a sure hope that out of pain God can and does bring healing and hope and life (sometimes right now and sometimes in a while) – that after the crucifixion comes the resurrection, that after Good Friday comes Easter Sunday! It’s something I’m aware of week by week when I meet bereaved families and conduct funeral services – how to balance the hope of resurrection and new life with the immediate reality of the pain of loss and separation where God longs to bring his comfort and presence.
Psalm 23 – “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me, your rod and your staff they comfort me.” That has a reflection of what Jesus says to Peter, the other disciples, and the crowd in today’s verses – “take up your cross and follow me” – while we still live in the here and now we may need to make sacrifices for Jesus and we may even follow him to death as many around the world still face today; that in standing with Christ in faith, they lose their lives (but they also gain through him an amazing and eternal life). Jesus warned that it may be so, and said be willing to take up your cross and follow me.

On the other hand we need to not get lost in, or speak only of, trial and suffering and challenge. These are indeed a factor in the Christian life, just as they were in Jesus’ life and yet Jesus gave many signs of the reality and presence of God’s kingdom in the here and now. We can eagerly desire healing and freedom and hope and victory because Jesus won them for us on the cross.
Death and sin died with him and life and freedom and righteousness were raised with him – and all for us to follow in his wake. We should have expectation of the kingdom of heaven, of God, being seen and apparent – close at hand!

And I think all that means that we need to be GENTLE with one another, and gentle with the world. And by ‘gentle’ I mean sensitive to how the Spirit of God would have us respond to people.
Paul said to the Philippians: “Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.”
And Peter said in his first letter, “always be prepared to give the reason for the hope that you have; but do this with gentleness and respect…”

Let the Spirit of God be your guide (so ask him to guide you) as you live in the light of the crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus; as you live with both trial, challenge and suffering AND triumph, victory and celebration; and as you speak the gospel news of both to the people you abide with and who cross your path. Be gentle with others – “mourn with those who mourn and rejoice with those who rejoice” while always holding on to the hope that in the darkness God is present and in the light we see the final act being played out – even now.

When I was a youth leader back in the 90’s, one day a member of the group asked me about how I coped with being a mum? “There’s so much pain in the world” she said, “when you love someone so much wouldn’t you rather not have the fear of pain and the worry for them?” And I answered her that the love was so amazing and such a delight that I would risk the pain to experience the love. I wouldn’t sacrifice the love in order to get rid of the pain.
For now they are enmeshed in our experience of life but God is bringing humanity to a time and place where the pain is finally vanquished for good and the love and delight is what’s left – “there will be no more death or mourning, crying or pain, for the old order of things will have passed away!”
And there is our hope and the good news we have to share with the world! We live in the light of BOTH Good Friday AND Easter Sunday.


At March 04, 2012 2:07 am, Blogger Martha Spong said...

Blessings as you preach this good word!


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