The telling of hard truths is an intimidating endeavor.
Perhaps the only thing more difficult than the telling of hard truths is the acceptance of hard truths. And this morning’s Scripture lesson tells some really hard truths and shares the honest human struggles to accept them.
Hard truths are, well, hard, because they challenge our conception of reality. Hard truths trouble the waters of understanding, rock the boat of expectation, and upset the apple cart of aspiration.
That’s why the apostle Peter has such a hard time wrapping his head around the hard truths that he hears from no one less than Jesus himself: namely, that God’s Messiah must suffer an agonizing death before rising from the grave.
That’s nothing close to what Peter understands about the Savior that God promises to send nor anywhere near what Peter expects God’s Savior to do. So, Peter’s gut instinct is to shut down such crazy talk. But in a heated exchange between the two, Jesus turns around and quiets Peter with the telling of some even-harder truths.
That’s scene one of our lesson, and scene two comes six days later, when Peter is treated to a heavenly sight more reminiscent of what he imagines all things of the Messiah to be.
So completely dazzling is the moment that Peter feels compelled to build a monument that commemorates the event. But once again, the Lord shuts down Peter and his construction plans with a simple command: Listen! Listen to hard truth! And take it to heart!
The spiritual journey of Lent calls us to consider hard truth by taking hard looks at those things in which our hearts are invested. We are challenged not only to listen to hard truth but also to be changed by hard truth, even if making those changes seem difficult or darn-near impossible.
Sometimes, we’re quite content holding fast to the status quo, because, however flawed and imperfect, the way things are is at least familiar. But, again and again, the Lord implores us to listen, even if and especially when what we hear is unsettling, and to repent, even if and especially when the life to which we cling stands in the way of God’s healing intent for us and our world.
Let us turn our listening ears toward heaven and open our anxious hearts to God as we listen for the Word of the Lord starting first at the end of chapter 8 in Mark’s Gospel.
Then Jesus began to teach them 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.
Jesus said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Jesus called the crowd with his disciples and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.
“For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.” (Mark 8:31-9:1)
A poem by Stewart Henderson begins to explain the raw human emotion that Peter displays and Jesus dispels. It’s called “Splintered Messiah”:
I don’t want a splintered Messiah
In a sweat stained greasy grey robe
I want a new one
I couldn’t take this one to parties
People would say “Who’s your friend?”
I’d give an embarrassed giggle and change the subject.
If I took him home
I’d have to bandage his hands
The neighbours would think he’s a football hooligan
I don’t want his cross in the hall
It doesn’t go with the wallpaper
I don’t want him standing there
Like a sad ballet dancer with holes in his tights
I want a different Messiah
Streamlined and inoffensive
I want one from a catalogue
Who’s as quiet as a monastery
I want a package tour Messiah
Not one who takes me to Golgotha
I want a King of Kings
With blow waves in his hair
I don’t want the true Christ
I want a false one.
That’s Peter’s spiritual struggle in a nutshell, and those lyric verses say a whole lot about our spiritual journey, too.
Peter has spent many months with Jesus, watching him heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, cure the blind, teach the ignorant, challenge religious authorities, and raise the dead. Peter has firsthand experienced the sheer strength of Jesus’s ministry and the full, heavenly authority of his word.
But now, Jesus intends to take a different tack – a future course marked by weakness, vulnerability and death. And Peter wants nothing to do with any of that. He won’t cotton to believing and following a Splintered Messiah.
Peter instead pines for a strong God who’ll swoop in, kick some tail, and take some names.
Like others at the time, Peter is expecting a mighty leader from the line of David to overthrow the Romans and restore the political fortunes of God’s people. And if he really is the Christ of God, well then, it’s only a matter of time before Jesus starts cleaning house and draining the swamp.
A couple millennia have passed, and we still yearn for a mighty God who’ll swoop into our fear and brokenness, set the record straight, and make things right.
When we are hurting or suffering, feeling abused or neglected, facing sickness or death, absolutely we want to turn to a strong God who’ll flip the switch and turn our darkness into light.
That’s not necessarily all bad, but here’s the problem: We more often than not measure God’s strength in very human terms. We understand strength to be the same thing as might, strength to be the same thing as vindication, strength to be the same thing as victory. But in the eyes of God, strength is woven with wholly different cloth.
For God, strength is measured in vulnerability, in sacrifice, in a willingness to endure all things in the name of God. That, of course, is the example that Jesus – the Splintered Messiah – is about to demonstrate for Peter and company.
And that, of course, is how Jesus wants us to live our lives too.
“If any want to become my followers,” Jesus declares, “let them deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.”
There is a real cost to discipleship – to splintered discipleship that follows the lead of a Splintered Savior.
We cannot and will not have God on our terms. We cannot and should not live with a cozy Christianity that’s merely comfortable or prosperous. What we can and should do is profess splintered faith, and unfortunately but blessedly, living into and with splintered faith is an incredible challenge.
That’s the hard truth of this passage: If we truly want to follow in the way of Christ, then our lives as individuals and together as the Church will be complicated, messy, and sometimes downright painful.
That hard truth, however difficult to hear, arises from the words of Jesus himself: “Those who want to save their life – their soul – will lose it, and those who give up their life – their soul – for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
That feels like a contradiction in terms. We all want to hang onto the life we’ve got. Decline, despair, and ultimately death are harsh realities that we’d all just as soon avoid. Unless depression or grave illness has eclipsed for us any sense of life’s goodness, most of us would have to admit that most days, most of the time, we like being alive. We don’t want life to end.
Which is why, when Jesus predicts his own end, Peter tries to shout Jesus down. “Don’t talk that way, Jesus! Save your own life first, so you can save and improve our lives, too!”
At its core, Jesus is speaking in terms of finding our identity. If we find our identity in our personal preferences or comfort zones, then we will lose our true identity, because that’s the nature of an impermanent, shifting, broken and fearful world. That’s what Peter is learning the hard way as evil tempts him to believe otherwise.
But if we find our identity and ground our lives solely in Christ and in his Gospel, then we most certainly will preserve our lives, because Christ and his Gospel are eternal.
Our daily challenge thus becomes sorting out those things that are of God from those things that are of ourselves.
Many of us, myself included, are well aware that we sometimes dress up ours egos in ways that allow us to fool ourselves into believing that one of our ideas, preferences or opinions is of God.
But the Holy Spirit ever challenges you and me to set aside things of ego and allow God to be at work in us. However clichéd, we must desire less of us and more of God. We die to ourselves, so the Lord can live more fully in us.
That’s why, in my morning prayers, I ask the Lord to set my priorities on any given day. Sometimes that demands sacrifice on my part, but that sacrifice is part and parcel of living a splintered faith in lockstep behind a Splintered Savior.
And oftentimes, that hurts, because splinters burrow deep in human flesh.
This Lent, I wonder if you and I can summon the courage of the Holy Spirit to embrace the splinters, and the pain, and the scars of ego-death and self-sacrifice, knowing with blessed assurance that we, too, will be resurrected in Christ and brought into the presence of the God, where such pain and suffering will be no more for all eternity.
Six days pass since Jesus issues that challenge to Peter and now to you and me. But you get the feeling that the passage of time doesn’t helped Peter – or us – make much sense of any of it much less be peace with any of it. Which brings us to the second scene of this morning’s lesson as we turn the page to chapter 9 of Mark’s Gospel.
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves.
And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus.
Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them anymore, but only Jesus. (Mark 9:2-8)
In the wake of hard truths about splintered faith and a Splintered Savior, God the Father himself puts in an appearance, throwing in some divine razzle-dazzle with cameo appearances by two heavyweights from Israel’s past.
And God does all that not for the sake of eye-catching spectacle by itself but instead to back up and reinforce everything Jesus has said in the past and will say in the future – including everything Jesus tells Peter about self-denial and cross-bearing.
“Listen to him!” thunders the voice of God. “Listen to him!”
The apostles surely should pay attention. Because not long after this mountaintop experience, they’ll witness something else before which they’ll cower and tremble: Their friend Jesus impaled on a spit of wood at the Place of the Skull. But even on that dark day, job one for the apostles will be the same: Don’t believe what you see but believe what you hear. “Listen to him.”
“It is accomplished!”
“Today you will be with me in paradise.”
Listen. Listen to him!
Indeed, our Messiah was Splintered, but he overcomes his wounds.
These days, I’m feeling rather splintered, and maybe you feel that way, too. But we rejoice in the splinters of the cross in our bodies. And, if we remain steadfast, we also will overcome, and our names will be acknowledged before the God the Father and his holy angels.
As for Jesus, he has no other way to go. He must die. And if we’re smart, we’ll let him drag us down with him, because this same Jesus surely has a thing or two to say about what happens three days later.
So, listen! Listen to him! However hard his truth!
Pastor Grant VanderVelden shared this message on the second Sunday in Lent, February 28, 2021. It is the second in a series of sermons around the theme “Again and Again: A Lenten Refrain,” which draws on Psalm 13. Scholarship, commentary and reflection by T. Denise Anderson, Steve Griffiths, Scott Hoezee, Pheme Perkins and Lauren Wright Pittman inform the message. (Artwork: Lauren Wright Pittman, Transfiguration, SanctifiedArt.org)