Thursday, March 12, 2009

Sermon on Mark 8:27-38 for the Second Sunday in Lent. "Who do you say that I am?"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Today’s sermon is from the Gospel reading, Mark 8:27-38. Jesus asks His disciples and us that all-important question: “Who do you say that I am?” It is my aim that you would be able to answer that question for yourself with certainty, or at least make it a front burner issue to decide what you think of Jesus. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Jesus’ first question to His disciples, was “Who do people say that I am?” What was Jesus after? Did He have an identity crisis? Was He looking for validation? No, He was looking for the disciples and others to take a position on who He was. The public opinion poll about Jesus came in from the disciples that some thought He was John the Baptist (the prophet and cousin of Jesus who had recently been executed, and who some feared was now back from the dead). Others thought He was Elijah, the great prophet of old, and others thought He was another one of the prophets. If we polled people today about who they thought Jesus was, we could get a whole different range of answers. I think the most common result is that Jesus is targeted as a great moral teacher, in line with Aristotle, Confucius, or Gandhi, or maybe a martyr for His cause. Some might merely try to dismiss Jesus’ existence all-together, not aware of the weight of the historical evidence that He lived and walked and taught in the land of Israel 2,000 years ago. Or people may just try to co-opt Jesus for their own purposes: the Jesus that is used for marketing everything from popular movies, books, and toys, to being the champion of our personal political causes, to the sale of hybrid cars and the promotion of vegetarianism.

Examples of how Jesus is misused abound. But in many ways, this “Jesus” of public opinion is even less than a faint shadow of the real Jesus. This “Jesus” of public opinion has been tamed down and apparently been made “safe” for consumption. This sort of Jesus doesn’t make any demands of us that would require any real self-sacrifice. Certainly not along the lines of what He told His disciples it meant to follow Him—“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (Mark 8:34-38). The real Jesus cannot be turned into a harmless milquetoast.

No, the real Jesus won’t be done away with so easily, or brushed off as just another moral teacher. The atheist-turned-Christian defender of the faith, C.S. Lewis, wrote about this in his book “Mere Christianity.” He wrote that people will say,
“I am ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.” That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon, or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

Lewis’ point is that there are really only three viable positions about who Jesus was: He is either a Liar, Lunatic, or Lord. Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” simply cannot be answered with: “Jesus is a great moral teacher, but not God.” He doesn’t fit into that character. Jesus’ claims and demands don’t allow for such a “safe” middle position. Jesus’ claims force us to adopt one of those three alternatives—He has not left it open to have the patronizing opinion that He is just a great human teacher. He never intended for such a lukewarm response to His claims.

So what were Jesus’ claims, and how do they force us to make a choice about this crucial question of “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus said in our reading today that He would come in the glory of His Father with the holy angels. He said that He would suffer and be killed, and after three days be raised again. He said that God had appointed Him judge over all humanity (John 5:22). Now ask yourself some questions. Can any mere human being claim to know the precise manner and timing of His death, and promise that He will be able to rise to life again in 3 days? And if you would disregard those claims as lunacy or someone having a “god-complex” for someone else, would you still accept such a person as a great moral teacher? If a mere human being proclaimed that after death he would return with God the Father’s glory and accompanied by angels, to be the judge of all mankind, living and dead, would you say “he’s half-baked on all that,” but I’ll still accept everything else he says?? To make claims like that, and not really be God would qualify anyone as insane at best, or a malicious liar and deceiver at worst. And no one would consider either type of person a great moral teacher.

No…Aristotle or Buddha or Confucius or Gandhi never made such radical claims as Jesus, and those claims just don’t permit Him to be counted on the same level. Because if His claims to be God are false, then all the rest has to fall with it. But does the eyewitness report of Jesus, from His first century followers and the description of His enemies as well—do His teachings themselves bear the mark of the ravings of a madman or a liar? Could someone who was deluded with grandiose ideas of being God, teach with such power and authority and wisdom that even His enemies were confounded and amazed? Even His enemies were forced to admit that He cured the blind and the lame, though they despised the fact that He did it on the Sabbath day, which they thought violated God’s command to rest. Even His enemies couldn’t produce His body, and were forced to acknowledge His empty tomb, after He died on the cross—and they were forced to spread rumors about a stolen body. Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, who had no interest in religion or truth, found Jesus to be guilty of no crime deserving death.

What mere man, having successfully gotten crowds to believe He was the Son of God and Messiah, would face an agonizing death and abuse on the cross—the worst of Roman torture—and not break down and admit that it had all been a sham. At that lowest point, there was nothing to be gained, there was no earthly profit in staying the course. There were those who spit on Him and called for His crucifixion, treating Him like the liar or lunatic. But they did not praise Him as a great moral teacher. No, it’s really unthinkable—it’s beyond reason, that He could have been a Liar or Lunatic. Neither a liar nor a lunatic could’ve faced death in the way that He did. More than just holding to His innocence and more than just maintaining His claim to be the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One—He showed an unearthly love and forgiveness to His tormentors. Without bitterness He forgave them from His cross, and didn’t cry out curses or revenge against them. Even the Roman centurion who stood guard over His death could come to no other conclusion after seeing a death like this, than to cry out “Truly, this was the Son of God!” (Matt. 27:54). At the cross of Jesus, all our falsely constructed identities of Jesus crumble away, and there the true Christ, the Savior sent from God is revealed.

So now we’re faced with the crucial question again—in light of all this, Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” And the answer that everything is pointing to, “You are the Christ, my Lord” is a daring one. Not daring because there should be any doubt, but daring for what it’ll mean for your life, for my life. Daring because it’s far from the safety of easily dismissing Jesus as a great teacher, but a mere human who has no claims on your life. Daring because you’ll have to step out of the indecision of not knowing. But daring most of all because to call Jesus the Christ—the One whom God specially chose to be the world’s Savior—to call Him Lord, is to deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Him. This is no easy task. And Christ Jesus says that “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s sake will save it.”

Holding on to our life, trying to save it by avoiding the question or avoiding the uncomfortable implications of who Jesus is, will only end up with losing our life. What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? In the end, by trying to save our life and gain everything this world has to offer, we lose the very life we’re trying to save. And on the Last Day, Christ will be ashamed of us. But by losing our life to Christ—surrendering ourselves to believe and receive Him as Lord—this is to truly have our life saved. By giving everything up to Him, taking the risk to believe, we gain more than we ever lost. In Christ, we gain the forgiveness of our sins through His cross, the cleansing and freedom from our guilt and shame, the certain promise of eternal life with Him. So call everything you have and are a loss, and count it as nothing, and fall down at the feet of Jesus Christ and worship Him as Lord and God, and you will receive a fullness of peace and life that you have not known, and on the Last Day, Christ won’t be ashamed of you, but will call you brother and sister—God’s child and His heir.

This is to say, that the risk and danger of losing your life, giving it up to Jesus by putting your full trust in Him, is worth all the gain that He promises. Not an easy life, nor one free from suffering…but one filled with His promises, His forgiveness and eternal security, and His peace and hope. The Son of God did not go to such great lengths and pain to suffer death on a cross, to bring us petty things. Discover what an inheritance He has in store for you, as His free gift to all who believe. May you answer Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” with this answer: “Jesus, You are my Lord.” Amen. Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points:
1. Who did people say that Jesus was in His own day? What do people say about Him today?
2. The title “Christ” (Greek) or “Messiah” (Hebrew), both mean “Anointed One.” When Peter confessed Jesus as being “the Christ,” he was acknowledging that Jesus was the one God had chosen from the beginning of the world, to be our Savior.
3. What did C.S. Lewis mean when he wrote that there are only three possibilities for who is: either Liar, Lunatic, or Lord? Why would Jesus’ claim to be God either prove or discredit His teachings?
4. Who do you say that Jesus is? What implications does this have for your life?
5. What is the risk involved in believing? What does it mean to “deny yourself and take up your cross?” What does it mean to “lose your life” for Jesus’ sake, only to find it? What gain is there in losing our life to Christ?

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