Mark 8:27-38 (EHV)
27 Jesus went away with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”
28 They told him, “John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others say one of the prophets.”
29 “But who do you say I am?” he asked them.
Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.”
30 Then he warned them not to tell anyone about him.
31 Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things; be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the experts in the law; be killed; and after three days rise again. 32 He was speaking plainly to them. Then Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But after turning around and looking at his disciples, Jesus rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! You do not have your mind set on the things of God, but the things of men.”
34 He called the crowd and his disciples together and said to them, “If anyone wants to follow me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. 35 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it. But whoever loses his life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36 After all, what good is it for a man to gain the whole world and yet forfeit his soul? 37 Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? 38 In fact, whoever is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
Dear Heavenly Father, send your Holy Spirit upon us so that we may deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
Let’s imagine for a while that you could choose what God looks like and what he does.
If you could do so, what type of god would you want? What type of god would you follow?
Would you like a god who heals all your diseases and ailments? Wouldn’t that be nice? Just imagine – you could pray to God and ‘zip-a-dee-doo-dah!’ no more Coronavirus! No more cancer! No more Alzheimer’s! No more hay fever! No more getting old with all those aches and pains and limitations! Wouldn’t you think this type of god would be popular and worth following? He could be our miracle dispenser god!
Or would you like a god who makes you feel good? Wouldn’t this be a good type of god to have in a world filled with so much anxiety and depression? You wouldn’t need drugs or drink to help you escape from all those crazy and troubling thoughts. You wouldn’t need to find some other type of addiction to escape from uncomfortable situations or aggravating people. All you need to do is look at a picture of this god and you’d experience some form of heavenly feeling which fills you with joy and love and peace and hope. He could be our therapeutic god!
What about a god who grants success? Running late and the traffic light turns red? Pray to this god and the light turns green! Didn’t do the homework assigned to you? Pray to this god and you’ll know all the right answers! Stuffed up at work? Pray to this god and your mistakes will end up being the best decisions you’ve made! He could be our fix-it god!
How about a god who vindicates you and punishes all your enemies? This type of god would guarantee you’d never have to defend any of your words and actions because your god would come to your defence and make sure the other person gets what’s coming to them. You could feel some sense of smug self-satisfaction knowing the good get rewarded and the bad get punished. You could sleep easy knowing all the terrorists, criminals and scumbags will get their just punishment! He could be our Attorney General god!
So, what would your god look like? A Champion? A King? A Judge? A Freedom-fighter? A Climate changer? A Wilderness defender? A Friend? A Lover? An everlasting Tim-Tam Genie?
Of course, there’s a problem with this type of speculation.
We don’t get to choose who or what God really looks like or what he does. He’s God and we’re not. We either get to accept and follow the God who reveals himself to us, or we don’t. If we don’t like what he offers, we’ll look elsewhere for the god of our own choosing, which is what many people do.
This is the reason why, when we’re looking to God for healing and he doesn’t give it, we’ll look to someone or something else who offers what we’re looking for. When God doesn’t make us feel good, we’ll look to other people or things to make us feel good. When God doesn’t grant us success and blessings, we’ll search for this elsewhere. When we don’t like God’s instructions for how we’re to get on with each other, we’ll take matters into our own hands, and so on.
But when I offered the opportunity for you to think about what type of god you’d like to follow, did any of your internal speculations include a god who suffers?
Did any of you think: ‘Yes! I want to have a god who will suffer. I want a god who’ll be beaten and insulted and victimised and neglected and bullied and ostracised! I want a god who will die for me!’
Did any of you think this is the type of god you want? Did any of you think this is the type of god you’ll be willing to follow, even if this means you’ll also suffer as you follow him?
Yet this is the God who is revealed to us in the person of Jesus Christ!
He not only said he’s going to suffer, but he must suffer many things. It’s like this is the divine plan from the very beginning for the Son of God. He must be the Suffering Servant who was spoken about in the Old Testament through prophets such as Isaiah. This means he’s going to submit his back to those who beat him. He’s going to offer his cheeks to those who’ll pull at his beard. He’s not going to hide his face from disgrace and spittle.
Not only this, but his own chosen ones, including the elders, chief priests, and experts in the law are going to reject this Suffering Servant. They’re not going to recognize him and follow him, but they’ll call for his blood and death.
The Son of God came to this earth with one purpose in mind: to suffer and die for you and me. The Son of Man will die, and rise again after three days for us. This is God’s plan. This is God’s justice. This is God’s way of reconciling you and me to him.
Do you find this offensive?
St Peter did! This is why he told Jesus off!
Peter didn’t want to accept a suffering Christ. He probably wanted Jesus to be a healing miracle worker, a powerful warrior, or a conquering King. That Jesus would instead need to suffer and die wasn’t in Peter’s plans. In response he attempts to silence Jesus.
I wonder if we too would do the same. Wouldn’t we also prefer a healing Jesus, a warrior Jesus, a feel-good Jesus, a shepherd Jesus, a friend-of-children Jesus, a punish-all-the-bad-people Jesus, or an equal rights Jesus?
Do we struggle with the idea our Lord and Saviour not only chose to die in our place, but that there was no other choice? That he had to die for you and me? That someone had to pay the blood price for our disobedience, and Jesus is the only one who could do it?
Do we also struggle with the idea our Lord and Saviour would die for our enemies? That he would forgive those we don’t want to forgive? That he would grant eternal life to those who believe, even if we reckon they don’t deserve this?
Do we struggle with the idea that, if we follow this Suffering Servant Jesus, we’re going to suffer too? And here we’re not talking about the stub-your-little-toe type of suffering, but the suffering which comes because we bear the name of Jesus?
The suffering we receive because we’re choosing to love and forgive and be gracious and patient and loving to recalcitrant and difficult people? The suffering we receive because people like to insult those who trust in Jesus and his gospel message? The suffering we receive because he asks us to die to our own desires and expectations and submit to God and his Word?
Our human problem is that we often want to fashion God into our own image of what we think he should look like, which always excludes suffering and death. We’re too busy thinking about the things we humans want and we’re not thinking about God and his word and ways, which use suffering and death for his redemptive purposes.
We spend a lot of energy worrying about and seeking to avoid any type of suffering and death, which is why so many people are struggling with the threat of viruses, diseases, long-term medical conditions, restrictions to our freedoms, anything which affects our sense of self-worth, or anything which reminds us of our inevitable end.
We avoid conversations about pain or death or the suffering which comes with it. We avoid conversations which asks us to die to ourselves through admitting fault or seeking repentance. We avoid showing or admitting weakness. We avoid the necessity to forgive when we feel as if we’re the victim of injustice.
Yet all the things which we want to avoid, Jesus welcomes. He welcomes it because there’s something worse than suffering. There’s something worse than death.
Now, you might ask: what’s worse than suffering and death?
Eternal separation from God!
When we don’t want what God offers, when we look to other people or other things to give us what we want, when we don’t live according to God’s word, when we neglect to care and love and forgive those around us, and when we don’t accept suffering and death as part of his plan for us, we rebel against God and deserve his anger and punishment. We deserve eternal separation from God.
But our eternal separation from God was too much for Jesus to bear, so he stepped in and said he’ll pay the bill for our rebellion. He did this even though he knew this would cost him suffering at the hands of those he came to save, and even though he knew he would need to die for the ones who sought his death.
He did this because he loves people like Peter who struggled with the idea Jesus would suffer and die. He did this because he loves the people who hurt him, abuse him, and reject him. He did this because he loves you and me, even though we struggle to love and follow him as we ought.
Jesus suffered and died for you and me so that we might be forgiven and reconciled to our Heavenly Father. He rose from the dead so that through faith we might be raised with him and be eternally welcome in God’s presence.
Jesus calls us to deny ourselves and our selfish nature which wants to fashion our own god. He calls us to take up our own cross of suffering as we imitate our loving, forgiving, and gracious Christ to those around us. He calls us to follow him because there’s no other way to receive forgiveness, peace and life in his eternal Kingdom.
While we wish and pray for a life without suffering and death, this isn’t what God promises us. He promises his presence, his forgiveness, his cleansing, his healing, his peace, and his life through faith in Jesus, which remain ours long after we’ve suffered and died. Suffering and death don’t negate his promises. In fact, some of his promises can only be fully received on the other side of the grave.
Even though we fear suffering and death and would like to fashion a god in our own image, we know eternal separation from God and all his goodness is worse than suffering and dying.
We thank God for Jesus who suffered and died in our place, and we’re not ashamed of what he did for us. We’re also not ashamed of the fact we need to be forgiven; that we need to be saved. We’re not ashamed of Jesus and his gospel of forgiveness, life and salvation through faith in him.
Because we’re not ashamed of Jesus and his gospel message, we carefully consider the words we speak, even when we’re suffering. We don’t speak to tear down or insult or abuse. We instead speak to forgive, to bless, and to encourage. We love as we’ve been loved by him. We forgive as we’ve been forgiven by him.
So, let’s all deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Jesus. After all, as Jesus said, whoever wants to save his life will lose it. But whoever loses his life for Jesus’ sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it, which is why…
…the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.