Getting Behind Jesus (Isaiah 50:4-9; Psalm 19; James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38)
Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve taken this time to promote the idea of how important it is to interpret the Bible as it speaks to us in our own specific place as a community of faith, and not just as an ancient word to ancient people, all of whom are dead. Today I want to follow such words with some specifics of what listening to Jesus and following Jesus might look like for us.
Let me start by highlighting what, to me, seem the most important themes of 15 1/3 years of preaching. All of these will be very familiar to those of you who have been here a while, and even to those of you who haven’t been here all that long. The most important thing that I think we can carry forth into the community at our door is this. First, the God we meet in Jesus is a God of love, kindness, grace, compassion, and encouragement, not a stern, angry God who simply makes demands…or else. It is my hope that this is ground zero for us, and that all we say and do reflect this conviction. I have said many times, if you remember nothing else I have ever said or modeled here, it is: God is love and so be kind to one another. Love, in the Bible, is not a warm, gooey emotion, but active good will and action on behalf of those who don’t deserve it.
Coming right behind that theme comes the theme of “mission.” I may have beat it to death, but only because it’s true that the mission of the Church as a world-wide whole and as our own little local congregation is, primarily, “out there,” in the world. The world is where our work is. If we want evidence that mission is “out there,” we only need to think about what Jesus said in Acts 1:8: “…You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” God’s Spirit drives us from where we are (Jerusalem) out there into the (uttermost parts of the) world. And this is not just a geographical thing, but a sociological, psychological, cultural, philosophical thing as well.
I used to have a colleague that said that the church, through the centuries, has institutionalized the ways in which they last saw the Holy Spirit active and alive in the world. This is not only true of churches, but of organizations generally, when they change from being a “movement” of passion and excitement, into a rule making body that seeks to enshrine the passion in rules. It’s natural, but it is almost always eventually disastrous. For example, after churches began to experience “success” and became “respectable” and even the “state religion,” many leaders, especially, who enjoyed that status and prestige, especially, began to think that Jesus left out the important part in Acts 1. He didn’t talk about staying inside the church and strengthening the institution. There’s no question that there is work that we need to be together inside the church building to do, but that work is to prepare and empower us for the work outside in our communities, preparing the way so that God may transform people, not so we can be powerful in ourselves. We must take great care to be open to new ways of doing things (threatening though they sound). How do we know when we find the right tools for our task? How should we use them out there in the world? What do we do?
That may well be another commonplace in my work, as I look back on it What might be the niche of First Baptist in our greater communities and how do we let people know? This gets us to that messy word “marketing” that some would rather not use. Our scripture lessons this morning set out some things that I think are critical, but they are really scary, and because they are, they can lead people to retreat back into the safety of the institution with fresh resolve keep the rules and protect it.
The Old Testament lesson from Isaiah 50 is the third of four passages taken from Isaiah 40-55 that picture a figure called the servant of the Lord. Early Christian preaching and theology followed a minority in Late Judaism in referring these passages to the Messiah, who these same early Christians uniformly saw as Jesus; the perfect fulfillment of these passages from Isaiah. Such a move has led many sincere Christians to assume that these passages have everything to do with him, but hardly anything to do with us. But, to make what could be a long story very short, these passages are used in both the Old Testament and the New to refer to God’s people as well as an individual, such as the Messiah (Jesus). These words give Christians a basic identity as the Servant of the Lord.
In this passage the servant (fill your name in the blank if you like, or the church’s name) speaks as one who is obedient, and taught. The servant didn’t automatically know how to be and what to do, but had to be taught. The servant is taught to know the right thing to say. (And how many of us would like to be able not to put our foot in our mouths – and be able to “know how to sustain the weary with a word.” Wouldn’t that be wonderful?!) How did the servant get this way? By listening, not by talking. God opened the servant’s ear – a metaphor, of course, for enabling the servant to hear and obey.
To sum up what comes after listening, it’s not so much words, whether simple or intellectual, but actions: “I gave my back to those who struck me, my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard, I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.” In other words, the servant learned from God to act in open and vulnerable ways out there where it’s dangerous, and not to run when it got tough. And to suffer. None of this sounds very attractive or marketable, does it? Well, whether that’s true or not, the Servant seemed sure that this was the path and that God would make it right, no matter what. The mission was worth the cost. As we read this passage as for our learning in the present, not just safely about Jesus in the past, God makes it possible for servants like us to be vulnerable in a tough world – to serve and keep on serving, but only as we listen and learn.
The hymn we sang as a Call to Worship, based on the first 6 verses of Psalm 19, relates to these ideas when it asserts that the heavens tell the glory of God without words. The psalmist was concerned to affirm that the whole world speaks of God to those who have their eyes and ears opened to see and hear and learn. But our spirits must be attuned to God’s spirit to perceive God in action. To look at the created world and see that God’s at work in it, we’ve got to hear that silent speech or music. Again, just by being, the creation “speaks” joyfully as God’s handiwork.
On our recent trip to Nova Scotia, I was reminded of a time when I learned from a friend and scholar in the biology department of the university about the whole ecosystem that lived in the slimy red mud of an estuary from the Cornwallis River to the Minas Basin. It was microscopic, it was silent, but as I looked at it through a glass, it spoke silently and clearly to both my physical and spiritual eyes. I could almost sense in those tiny plants and animals, the joy of being God’s creatures, just by being. And I thought of Psalm 19 again.
Our lesson from James 3 talks about what it takes to be a teacher – that is, to move from being one taught to one who has the right to teach – and he says, not nearly as many people who do, really ought to. James 3:1 was displayed in my office for many years. Maybe we ought not to be as quick to teach as we are, for we need to realize that those who teach are judged more strictly than those who know better than to try. This passage talks about one terrible and fatal flaw in those who would try it: intemperate words. We must be truthful but gentle.
So, since our mission is out there, we need to realize that our first job is to listen out there as one taught and to be vulnerable and not defensive as we face our world. Second, we must be a little more like the heavens and tell the glory of God silently by our lives, but when we do get around to talking and teaching we must, above all, be careful not to use our tongues intemperately (whether in here, where we practice, or out there in the real world). James made the point that the tongue is a little thing (like a bit in a horse’s mouth, or a rudder on a ship), but it can control the whole body, and, certainly the whole way a relationship goes. The tongue can be, as James says, “a fire…a world of iniquity…it stains the whole person…and is set on fire by Gehenna itself.” We don’t need a demonstration of this. Everyone here has said things that we wish, either immediately or later, that we hadn’t said, but can’t take back. James makes it so simple, again from the silent speech of nature:
Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree… yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.
But, alas, we do sometimes try to let the same mouth utter blessing and cursing. It seems to me that churches who want to “tell it like it is,” and be abrasive and judgmental, rather than following the way of Isaiah 50’s servant or Psalm 19’s silent speech, would be better just to stay inside the four walls and not worry about explaining who they are, or who Jesus is, out there.
Let’s give Jesus the last word again. In Mark 8, he asked his disciples what they were hearing. Who do people you know say that I am? Various worthy names came back. But Jesus, then, asked the disciples, who had been with him more than anyone, for their own read. “You are the Messiah,” came the answer from Peter. Jesus, first said, “Now, don’t tell anybody that!” Especially in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus was always seeking to keep sensationalism at bay. Would that some of his followers had followed his strategy. Jesus knew that the term Messiah would be marketed in the wrong way – and misread in the marketplace either as a traditional or radical religious or political figure, mistakes that we have continued to make. I think Mark wanted the disciples to experience the Messiah as rejected, vilified, crucified and risen before they jumped off the deep end with how wonderful it was to follow him.
That’s what happened next, Jesus began to teach his disciples what it meant to be the Messiah from his perspective. It meant faithfulness, it meant suffering and even death because of that faithfulness to the kind of a life he was talking about. We might agree with Peter that this was not the right marketing strategy for Jesus or for his followers. Jesus said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan.” Such a rebuke came to Peter, quite literally, from not knowing his place, which was “behind Jesus,” not ahead of him. Jesus said, “Get back where you belong!” Disciples are followers, walking after their master, imitating their master. If they cannot listen before they speak, cannot be open and vulnerable, if they insist on using intemperate words, they are not “behind Jesus,” where disciples belong.
And here’s where it gets to be about more than just Jesus. Mark follows words about what kind of a Messiah Jesus is by words about what kinds of disciples such a Messiah has. Jesus starts, literally, by saying, “If anyone wants to get behind me (the same words he had just said to Peter as a rebuke, usually watered down to “be my disciple”), this is what must happen.” As those who, with Peter, confess Jesus to be the one who interprets God for us, we must understand that there is a cross at the heart of what we say and do, just as there was at the heart of what he said and did. By using the word “cross,” I do not mean to concentrate on either Jewish sacrificial theology or a Roman device of execution, but on the sacrificial life that models the sacrificial life and death of Jesus. This is the spirit in which we say and do things as disciples. It is a lifestyle of open, vulnerable, self-giving love that interprets such life by open, vulnerable, self-giving speech. We listen, learn, and thereby we speak as those who have learned from God, who is speaking through the world all around us; through the scriptures interpreted by our experience, reason, and traditions; through our teachers (co-pilgrims in Christ), and, pivotally, through Jesus of Nazareth himself, the Messiah. We determine who we are and what we say and do by faithfulness to Jesus’ teaching and his life and death; and resurrection on our behalf.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, AMEN.