February 25, 2018

Preached by Rev. Jim McKay on February 25, 2018.

Genesis 17: 1-7, 15-16
Psalm 22
Romans 4: 13-25
Mark 8: 31-38

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The Way Less Travelled 

The conclusion of the poem, ‘The Road Not Taken’, by Robert Frost, sprung to mind this week as I listened to the lesson from Mark’s Gospel which we read today on the second Sunday in Lent:

“Two roads diverged in a wood and I – I took the one

Less travelled by, and that has made all the difference”

Like a headline in the daily news, the Gospel of Mark opens with the announcement, “The Beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (Mark 1: 1)

Quickly the narrative describes the preparatory ministry of John the Baptist, followed by the baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan, punctuated by the descent of the Spirit of God and the heavenly voice of God confirming Jesus as “My Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”

Dramatically, the scene shifts to the wilderness in whose harsh setting Jesus endures a 40-day period of intensive interrogation through the devilishly persistent questions, “Who do you think you are?  Who are you really?”

Emerging from this rigorous assault on his sense of Call, Jesus goes public with a witness John the Baptist is no long able to proclaim, declaring, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe in the good news.”

Is it day?  Is it night?  Is it Winter?  Is it Spring?  It is Lent.

The script calls for action and immediately Jesus gets busy recruiting staff.  He invites fisher folk, Simon (later called Peter), and Andrew, James and John to be followers and help him fish for people, drawing others into the ‘good news network!”

This little group, soon to be 12 disciples hits the ground running, and for the next 7 or 8 chapters in this barely 16-chapter story, they tour the Galilean towns and countryside, while Jesus preaches, teaches and heals to rave reviews.  People everywhere are astounded, the religious establishment…not so much.

Who is this Jesus?  A guilty King Herod is haunted by his beheading of John the Baptist and is spooked by the power which this Jesus is demonstrating.

Then, on their way to Caesarea Phillipi the good news company halts. They have come to a crossroads.  Jesus hits the pause button and everyone is quiet.

Like a tutorial professor questioning his students, or a medical specialist probing her interns on clinical rounds, or a political leader addressing his caucus, Jesus asks, “Who do people say that I am?”  There is no shortage of answers.

Everyone is abuzz Master.  They’re saying that you are John the Baptist, or Elijah, imagine that(!), or one of the other old prophets.

“OK”, says Jesus.  “Now who do YOU say that I am?”

Peter, ever Peter even with a new name, answers, “You are the Messiah”.

There.  That’s done it!  I’ve said it.  We’ve all been thinking it.  You asked.  It just needed to be said.

That reply opened a glorious teaching moment for Jesus’ Way of the Cross and he laid it out graphically.

“Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo suffering and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the scribes and be killed and after three rise again.”  (Mark 8: 31)

“Disaster” shuddered Peter to himself.  “The Master has gone off message.”  Like a campaign manager whose candidate has tossed the party platform for an apparently totally rogue announcement, Peter immediately takes Jesus aside to put him right.

“Master, this must not be.  It will not sell!  It will not move the needle towards the liberation of popular expectation.  A dying Messiah, a rejected, suffering, dying Messiah is a non-starter.”

Jesus’ response is two-fold.  First he widens the audience to include the 12, and chastises Peter for thinking too little of the reach of God and too much of the way things are done among mortals.

Jesus reminds them that this venture of proclaiming the Kingdom of God is not a venture in public policy, this is a mission to prepare the way for people to turn back to God and to be reconciled with the one who desires their being made whole.  Through the healing of forgiveness they shall be set free to live fulfilled lives to the glory of God.

Secondly, Jesus widens the circle of teach to include the villagers coming out now to meet and greet 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.”  (Mark 8:  34-35)

This is the Way of the Cross.  The Way of personal and community change, renewal and fulfillment.

Jesus is careful and plainly opening up for them a road map for discipleship…a road map called “The Way of the Cross”.

Let a person deny oneself, take up the cross and follow me.

It’s clear by now that Jesus is not asking for our opinion of him.  Jesus is asking for our life!

It is to be a life of self surrender.  A life of selfless service in Jesus’ name to the ministry and outreach of reconciliation.  It will entail not letting your ego get in the way of your witness- lest you be tempted to bully others in order to get your own way amongst the friends of Jesus.  (Something the first disciples themselves had to learn).  Discipleship is a shared surrender of selves in ministry.

We know people who always appear to put others before themselves.  Their humility, their generosity, their kindness – some of them are at our elbow here this morning.  They’re selfless.  They don’t walk on water but we do see the selfless way of the cross in them.

Secondly, discipleship will require sacrifice – taking up the cross – for some martyrdom for their faith as occurred in the early church and in some regions continues to occur to this day.

For most of us here, sacrifice might be put this way, a way that I learned years ago from someone who coined the phrase, “Let my heart be broken with the things that break the heart of God.”

That heartache and the action that compassion motivates expresses the sacrificial heart of discipleship.  What breaks the heart of God these days?  What breaks your heart, and mine?

We see others living sacrificially in all sorts of ways; giving up opportunities vocationally so that newcomers may take up a new vocation.  We see those who give up measures of their personal freedom to care for their aging spouse, or to raise a child with special needs or to support a particular mission or charity, or to donate an organ for someone waiting for a transplant or someone standing in the way of danger that others may be spared.

Thirdly, to follow Christ to me means commitment – staying close to Jesus in all of life, listening, learning, growing in the way of the Cross.  The Cross of Jesus Christ stands in the way of everything in life that would deny us life in all its God-given fullness.  And that is what we need to share with people whether or not we think we have the resources – the money or the people – always let us remember “God pays, for whatever God orders!”

A case in point is provided by First Presbyterian Church in Port Colborne, Ontario (Niagara Region) in a devotional piece written two weeks ago, a member asked, “Can we make this change?”  the congregation realize recently that they would have to leave their church building and move.  Renovation and redevelopment of the property to build a smaller, manageable sanctuary wasn’t possible.

What would they do?  They knew that they couldn’t remain the same.  Then, through prayer, scripture, soul searching and discussion – an opportunity for a store front ministry downtown emerged.  They had no experience with such a ministry but realized that if they were to continue to worship together and serve God they would have to define a new missionary thrust for their congregation.  The new location will be called “The Gathering Place” and they are now engaged in learning what needs they can fill in the downtown and how they can serve their community.

“God is urging us to change the way we reach out and minister to a changing world.  Are we willing to follow as he leads us?” she asks.

Finally, her prayer asks God’s help for all people who need to make large changes in their lives – changes that are so difficult.  Show us the way Lord.  Lead on.  Amen.

Two ways in life diverge for us – we can live without God, completely self-centered, without much regard for our neighbour, and preferring to lead as a rule, than follow and be regarded as weak and dependent.

OR

We can choose the way of the Cross – for us – life’s game changer and live lives that reflect that change for the sake of the love a compassionate and just God who desires our reconciliation – a peace that endures.  A peace that shall make all the difference now and forever.

Amen.