This sermon was preached at North Pickenham 16th September 2012.
The Gospel of Mark is widely considered to have been the first written gospel, now in those days the gospel was considered an important message that had to be passed on to other people so that they too might share in the Good News of the Christian faith. As a message, the culture of the time dictated that it be delivered in person. As an oral, face to face telling of a message was considered respectful and showed the importance of the message. For a message or a letter to be written down was seen as a second class, lowly and almost disrespectful manner of communication. Not that the message it contained was unimportant, but it was deemed to be rude of the sender to send an important message without actually making the effort to visit in person to share the news. Therefore there was an automatic bias against written forms of communication. So, as we read in Acts, the Apostles made a particular effort to talk to people and to proclaim the gospel in the market places from town to town. However, apostles were only mortal and as time went by it became increasingly important that a firm record of the Gospel was written to ensure that people could read and hear the truth even when the apostles had died.
The, rather nice, tradition as to the authorship of the Gospel of Mark is that Mark was a close friend and disciple of Peter and he wrote his gospel based on the testimony of Peter and of others. His task was to somehow do the Gospel justice even though he was writing it down. And so Mark wrote his gospel very carefully. He planned when and where he would tell each miracle and teaching of Jesus. Not because it was fabricated, but to ensure its impact and relevance, to write a gospel that would challenge and provoke the reader for a reaction just as much as the preaching of the apostles did. Our passage today is no different. It is not just a story of Jesus asking what people think of him, it is a carefully positioned and crucial episode in the Gospel narrative that has far reaching implications even for us today!
Let me explain: One of the more common techniques that Mark uses is called a Markan sandwich. He takes a story and in the middle he places an important piece of teaching or something of significance. For example in Mark Chapter 2 we have the healing of the paralytic who is lowered through the roof and in the middle of that story we learn that Jesus has the authority to forgive sins. Another famous example is that of Jairus’s daughter where en route there is the story of the Sick woman who had been suffering from bleeding for years and she is healed by touching his cloak, then the Jairus story carries on. So in that case, Jairus and his Daughter are the bread and the sick woman is the jam, make sense?
Now, arguably our passage is the jam of the biggest markan sandwich. It takes place at the End of the 8th chapter of the 16 that make up Marks Gospel. Our passage is slap bang in the middle of this Gospel. Not only that but it is a pivotal passage around which the entire Gospel changes. The first 8 Chapters have been outlining Jesus’s ministry in Galilee and from this moment onwards he will leave Galilee and head towards Jerusalem. The gospel of Mark thus far is that John was in the desert proclaiming that someone special, who would be sent from God, is coming. Jesus is anointed by the Spirit of God at his baptism and faces temptation in the desert and from then on travels around galilee performing miracles such as the feeding of the 5 thousand, he is followed by crowds of people bringing him sick people of every description and they are all healed. He encounters people of all ages that are suffering from demon possession and he rescues them all. He teaches at synagogues, speaking in parables and stories and all are amazed at his teaching. He is the topic of conversation in Israel, where ever he goes people follow, whatever he says is discussed at length by fishermen, priests and kings! The question in everybody’s minds and on everyone’s lips is ‘Who IS! This man?!’ Here is someone special, here is someone acting and teaching with authority that is clearly not from Man, but from God, but who is he?
Jesus is aware that the people are talking, how can he not be when several times we are told that so many people were coming and going he did not even have time to eat. But he is aware that although there are many ideas and suggestions going around it is important that his disciples understand who he is. So he asks them ‘Who do the people say that I am?’ They reply with ‘Some people say that you are John the Baptist, others say that you are Elijah, still others one of the prophets.’ And now comes the important part, who do they, his chosen disciples who have seen everything he has done, say that he is? Have they understood his purpose? Peter responds with ‘You are the Christ’.
The word Christ comes from the Greek Christos which means ‘the anointed one’. In Hebrew this is rendered as messiah. Peter is saying that Jesus is the Messiah, the anointed one. Not just an anointed one, such as a prophet or a Priest or a King, but THE anointed one. Rather than just being a prophet, or just being a priest or just being a king, Jesus is all of these and more. Peter’s acknowledgement comes in the context of the Old Testament, which was embedded in Jewish culture at the time, where over hundreds of years, through more than 300 references there were more than 60 separate prophecies of special significance. These prophecies foretold the coming of the promised one of God who would be the messiah. These Prophecies concerning the messiah said things such as in Malachi 3:1 ‘I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple’, Isaiah said in chapter 35 ‘then will the eyes of the Blind be opened and the ears of the deaf be unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer and the mute tongue shout for joy.’ Isaiah again says ‘in the future he will honour Galilee of the Gentiles by the way of the sea along the Jordan.’ and Psalm 78:2 says he will open his mouth in parables.
Peter was right; this man Jesus was the Christ. The one who had been promised by God is here! However! These were not the only prophecies concerning the messiah. If we focus on Isaiah’s prophecies we read that the Lord says ‘I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting.’ Isaiah says ‘He was pieced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities’ He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows familiar with suffering.’ ‘It was the Lord’s Will to crush him and cause him to suffer and though the Lord makes his life a guilt offering he will see his offspring and prolong his days and the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand. After the suffering of his soul he will see the light of life and be satisfied by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many.’ At the point of our passage these prophecies clearly hadn’t been fulfilled, yet if he was the messiah he couldn’t only fulfil the nice ones where people are healed but he would have to complete the unpleasant ones. He would have to walk the path into darkness, into pain, into suffering and trust in God the Father that after the suffering, after the death, he would be brought back to see the light of life once again. Jesus knew this, but his disciples didn’t. Not yet.
So Jesus took his disciples aside and began to teach them that the Son of Man, another messianic prophecy from Daniel chapter 7 where denial sees one that looks like a son of man who is given authority, gory and sovereign power, one who is worshiped and adored by everyone on earth and a kingdom that will never fade. Jesus taught 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. He spoke plainly about these things.’ This was the Gospel prophesied by Jesus before it’s happened. Everything in the history of the Jews had been leading up to this moment, from that first covenant with Noah and the Covenant with Abraham where God promises to bless his descendants and through his seed, bless the entire world. All the way through Genesis, through exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, the books of Samuel, the Books of Kings and Chronicles, through Ezra, Nehemiah, Psalms, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel Daniel Hosea Joel Amos Jonah, Micah and Malachi and the rest of the Old Testament everything points towards God and his relationship with his chosen people. Everything is leading up to the moment in Matthew 27, Mark 15, Luke 23 and John 19. Everything is leading towards the focal point in history where God, the maker and sustainer of the entire universe, steps into the world and suffers for us. Dies for us. Is buried for us. Is resurrected for us. The moment where God enables us to know him and enter into a relationship with him where we live in his holy kingdom that shall never fade, rather than the kingdom of man that is here today and gone tomorrow. Civilisations have come and gone but the kingdom of God is a kingdom of eternity. That’s why Jesus is here in our passage, that is the path that he must walk and that’s what he is telling his disciples.
The problem is that they don’t understand, they see the miracle worker who is amazing everyone with his teaching in Galilee, they don’t understand how this man that they love and respect can talk of being rejected, how he can talk of dying. Surely not? And so peter, with his human eyes and heart takes Jesus aside and rebukes him. Jesus’s response is shocking, ‘Get behind me Satan! You do not have in mind the things of God but the things of man.’
This is not to say that Peter was possessed by Satan, but whereas Jesus is to be the King of Kings Satan is the Prince of Darkness, the ruler of the World in opposition to the kingdom of Heaven. So when peter talks against the plans of the Kingdom of heaven and speaks as one that is living and thinking by the standards of the World Jesus responds appropriately and calls a halt to that line of thought immediately.
If we return to the concept of sandwiches, we’ve seen that the Old Testament is pointing to the Cross and Resurrection, The Law and the prophets have become a slice of bread upon which the jam can be spread. The Jam, of course, represents the blood that was spilt on the cross by Jesus. But what about the other slices of bread? Well in our passage Jesus is explaining what will happen to him, in another passage after his resurrection two men are walking along the road to Emmaus. Jesus meets them on the road and they don’t recognise him and they are discussing the confusing events of the weekend. Of his death and how his body had gone missing and Jesus spends the time with them explaining what had to happen and showing them the scriptures that had foretold it. Before his death, Jesus had explained to his disciples what was going to happen, after his resurrection he explained what had happened and why. The rest of the New Testament is the same. All the adventures of the Apostles as found in acts and most of the epistles, be they written by Paul or others, all point back towards the cross and the empty tomb. Just as Israel didn’t always understand what was going to happen and God sent Prophets, the Church from the early days to right here right now hasn’t always understood the message of the Gospel. But through God’s Grace there have always been messengers that were called by God to love God and to share his message. The first slice of the Sandwich was the Law and Prophets, the second slice of the sandwich is the Church and us here today! From the Beginning everything point forwards to the Cross, forwards to the day when it would finally be possible to enter into a true relationship with God where the stain of Sin is removed from our lives and we can both Love God and be Loved by God as he originally intended in the Garden of Eden. Since the cross we are called to point back to it, to tell others and to be proud of our God that loves us.
To conclude with the second half of today’s passage: ‘Then, calling the crowd to join his disciples, he said, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake and for the sake of the Good News, you will save it. And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul?* Is anything worth more than your soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my message in these adulterous and sinful days, the Son of Man will be ashamed of that person when he returns in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
I said earlier that Mark wrote his Gospel to have an impact, be almost force people to make a choice. I pray that today we can make our choice, I pray today that we won’t make the mistake that peter made of looking at the situation through eyes that are focused on the world but rather on God. I pray that when the culture around us is obsessed with their own desires and constantly try and rationalize their sinfulness as goodness we may stand firmly rooted in the love of Christ that was so strong it took him to the Cross to be humiliated for us so that when he was restored to life, we might have life. I pray after the fashion of Paul in Philippians 1.20 “I pray That we may eagerly expect and hope that I will in No Way be ashamed but will have sufficient courage so that now, as always, Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or death.” Amen.