A sermon on Mark 8:27-9:1 by Rev Richard Keith on 11 November 2018

Stories have power. Stories draw us in so that we see the world through the eyes of the characters inside them. Their experiences become ours. We wonder: what would I do if I was faced with the same situation? How would I feel? Which path would I choose.?

In fact, we make sense of our own life by telling ourselves a story. Without a story that makes sense of the things that happen to us, our lives have no meaning. Without a story the events that occur to us are just random, like leaves falling from a tree. So we tell ourselves a story, our own story. “This happened to me and then this happened because of this, and so then this happened.”

“I grew up in the only fibro house in the street. We didn’t have much. We never went on holidays. But we had all we needed. My older sister was a girl, obviously, and my younger brother was a baby. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was lonely … Blah, blah, blah.” This is my story. Listen to my story,  and you understand who I am. How I got to where I am today.

It’s no coincidence that the Bible isn’t a list of rules or a report in a science journal. It is a story. I don’t mean it is made up. It is a narrative, an account of what the creator God has done to make the world the way it is, and of our part in his world. At the heart of the Bible is a story – the gospel, the good news we have to tell to the world. And at the heart of this story is a man, a story teller. Jesus of Nazareth. All these things are no coincidence. Because stories have the power to change our lives, to change the way we see ourselves and the way we see the world and our part in it.

Let me prove it to you by telling you a story.

Jesus and his disciples went on a journey. They went far north of Jesus’ home in Galilee to a place outside the Jewish homeland. A place away from the crowds. A place away from the constant pressures of Jesus’ ministry. And while they were there, Jesus asked his disciples two questions that changed their lives forever.

The first question: “Who do people say I am?”

They replied, “Some say John the Baptist”, the great charismatic prophet whom some had hoped was God’s promised king. “Some say Elijah”, Israel’s second greatest prophet who was supposed to return before the world came to an end. “Others say one of the prophets.” Oh, how the Jews missed the prophets. For four hundred years there had been no clear word from God to make sense of the world. And many hoped that in Jesus that silence had come to an end.

Who do people say that Jesus is? Some say he was a good man. A simple man. A poor man. A man who came to show a better way. Some say he was a great prophet, maybe the greatest. Who taught a better way. A way of love. Some say he was a revolutionary leader. Who tried to change the world and failed. Some say he was only a legend, a man who never existed, invented by the apostles in order to create their church and to control foolish people.

This was Jesus’ first question: Who do people say I am? And this was his second: “What about you? Who do you say I am?”

The story invites us, compels us to give an answer. Who is this man? This man whose birthday is the best day of the year. This man whose death day creates a four day weekend. This man whose year of birth divides the calendar into BC and AD. This man whom about 2 billion people call Lord. Who do you say he is? A good man? A great prophet? A failed revolutionary? A legend? What is he to you?

Peter said to him, “You are the Christ”, the Messiah, God’s promised King sent to bring in his kingdom.”

Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him. And then began to teach them what kind of Christ he would be, that “the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again.”

With these words Peter’s dream became a nightmare. He’d been a simple fisherman until Jesus had come and turned his life upside down. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men.” And, oh, how they had fished. They had gathered men like a super trawler dragging a net over the ocean floor. And Jesus’ words and mighty deeds had kept them coming back for more. Sure, they had encountered set-backs. Storms. Deranged and demon possessed men. The disapproval of the Pharisees and teachers of the law. But time and again Jesus had led them through and out the other side. Until Peter was convinced that there was nothing Jesus could not do. That he was the one they’d been waiting for, the Messiah who would lead Israel into battle against their enemies and give them victory. Masters of their own land, vindicated as God’s chosen people to show the world who the true God was.

It was a great story. One Peter had told himself day after day. Jesus at the head of an army and Peter at his side, his right hand man.

But Jesus’ talk of suffering and rejection and death turned the dream into a nightmare. This was loser talk before they had even started to try to win. Peter tried to take Jesus aside to talk some sense into him. Jesus needed to keep these negative thoughts to himself and maintain a brave front in front of the others. If they were ever going to succeed, they needed the commanding Jesus, the man who told the wind and the sea to stop and it did, who spoke the dead back to life, who banished demons with a word. They didn’t need this Jesus with his second thoughts and doubts. It was bad for morale.

Which is what Peter was going to say, when Jesus shrugged him off and turned his back on him. Jesus looked at the others, but he was talking to Peter, when he said to him, “Get behind me, Satan! You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.”

Peter meant well, but it reminded Jesus of Satan’s temptations in the desert. “Oh, you’re hungry, are you? Just turn these stones into bread. Oh, you want people to follow you? Just jump off the temple roof and the angels will catch you and people will follow you to the end of the world. Oh, you want a kingdom? Just bow down and worship me and the world is yours.” Peter wanted Jesus to save them all, just without suffering or rejection or dying or rising again. Peter meant well, but to Jesus it sounded like Satan’s fourth temptation. They needed to know that he was not who they wanted him to be. He was who his Father had sent him to be. The lord who ruled by serving. The champion who won by losing. The king who received his kingdom by giving until he had nothing else to give.

By this time a crowd had gathered. It was time his disciples knew what it meant to follow him. He knew the path that his Father had set before him led to the cross and beyond. It was time they all knew they were all going that way. He said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”

People talk about bearing the cross like it is putting up with the trivial complaints we have every day. People say, “My knees hurt and my husband doesn’t understand me. But it’s just the cross I have to bear.” But it isn’t. The cross was a cruel way to die. They saved it for bandits and rebels and runaway slaves. They hung them up so that everyone could see them and learn the lesson by heart, “Bad folks come to bad ends. Don’t make the same mistake.”

The risen Jesus, the one we call Lord, still bears the mark of the nails of the cross in his hands and feet. This Lord says, “Take up your cross and follow me.” It doesn’t mean putting up with sore knees or uncaring husbands. It means that the way of Jesus is our path. Jesus who loved calls us to love. Jesus who served calls us to serve. Jesus who gave himself calls us to give ourselves. Jesus who suffered shame for our sake calls us to suffer shame for his. “Greater love has no one than this that he lay down his life for his friends. As I have loved you so you must love one another.”

Jesus said, “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it. But whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world at the price of his soul? What can a man give in exchange for his soul?”

It’s an excellent question, because to make a trade you have to offer something of equal or greater value. I can get a loaf of bread for $2 at the supermarket. If you want mine you have to offer me the same or more. What will you give in exchange for your soul? What do you have that is of equal value or more? A house? A million dollars? Not even close. Nothing you have can secure the trade. You have nothing more valuable than your life. Only if someone could offer something more valuable could your lost life be restored.

And what this world of seven billion lost souls needs is a life of infinite value given in exchange. The life of the perfect Son of God given up to the cross to purchase our lost souls from hell and misery. Our salvation is sealed by the mark of the cross. We are redeemed from our slavery by the blood of Christ. And so, Jesus said, our way of life is to be cross shaped as well. To rule by serving. To win by losing. To receive by giving.

This is the great story. It draws us in so that it becomes our story as well. Jesus speaks to us all, “Who do people say I am?” A good man? A great prophet? A legend? “Who do you say I am? The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected and killed and rise again. If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” And the moral of the story is: A cross shaped salvation leads to a cross shaped life. Will you make the great story your story too?