2nd Sunday in Lent – 2/28/2021
Quite a few years ago, I discussed with my junior confirmation class the meaning of the Seventh Petition of the Lord's Prayer: "Deliver us from evil." To introduce the lesson, I asked the class to define evil. After several answers giving specific examples of evil, like murder, breaking the commandments, and even one person simply saying, "Osama bin Laden," one of the girls responded, "Evil is anything that opposes God!" Wow! I could have hugged her! What a budding theologian!
One name for the evil one is Satan, from the Hebrew for the adversary. From the very beginning, Satan was busy opposing God. This ancient enemy of God and man has deceived himself into thinking he knows better than God. With his sly, slanderous, and lying tongue, he has also managed to dupe our whole human race into thinking that we know more than God. Accordingly, we can rightly say that every one of our thoughts, desires, and actions that oppose God, His Word, and His will is indeed evil; that is, satanic!
God receives the most opposition, whether from Satan, our world, or even our sinful flesh, with His plan to save sinners. Chiefly, God's enemies are zeroed in on that place where our salvation is achieved: the cross of Jesus.
Yet, it all began so innocuously. Just before the occasion of our text, Peter had given a glowing confession of Jesus. When asked by Jesus who His disciples believed Him to be, Peter boldly said, "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God." Sounds impressive. But as we shall see, Peter's concept of what it meant for Jesus to be Christ was contrary to the truth!
Mark notes that at this juncture in His earthly ministry, Jesus taught his disciples quite straightforwardly about His true mission as the Christ. Instead of talking about how He would make things better for the people of Israel by defeating their dreaded rulers, the Romans, Jesus told them that He needed to suffer. Instead of receiving a royal welcome from the Jewish ruling authorities in Jerusalem, Jesus predicted he would be rejected. Instead of victory, he spoke of being killed.
Such talk of suffering and death proved too much for the poor, glory-minded Peter! He couldn't bear to hear his Christ talk like this. Nothing Jesus said was consistent with Peter's image of Christ or his vision of Israel's salvation. Jesus was talking like a crazy man! From Peter's point of view, a bruised, battered, and dead Savior was of no help to anyone! There was no time to waste. Peter felt passionate about setting Jesus straight before it was too late!
Mark states that Peter then rebuked Jesus. "Rebuked" is the same word Mark used to describe Jesus' charge, or command, to the demons to come out of their victims and His command to the wind and waves to be quiet. In other words, Peter did not simply suggest or counsel Jesus to think more positively about His mission. Peter scolded Jesus and chewed him out!
Bold and impetuous Peter had undoubtedly gone over the top this time! He scolded the Son of God! He was so confident that he was correct and Jesus was wrong that he had no qualms telling God that he was insane! Jesus immediately responded with some scolding of His own! Jesus told His great confessor, "Get behind me, Satan!"You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men."
Jesus was not afraid to call a spade a spade. Peter's logic was wholly and purely satanic. He was not thinking of the things of God but of men. Satan and the world believe that might is right and weakness is for losers. It is sin-weakened men who avoid the cross.
On the other hand, God rejoices in His love for sinners, enduring the cross for them. It is men who prefer a theology of glory. God teaches a theology of the cross: suffering that brings glory.
Putting the best construction on Peter's response, I'm sure he meant well. He did not want Jesus to have to undergo such suffering and death. Matthew records Peter saying to Jesus, "May God be gracious to you, Lord!" "This surely shall not be!" (16:22), But as is often said, the road to hell is paved with good intentions! By Jesus' assessment, Peter's logic was satanic, that is, evil, placing him in direct opposition to God!
Some today, no doubt, believe they are doing their listeners a favor and even protecting God's honor and image by purging the gospel of its offensive bloodiness. After all, who wants to portray a suffering and bloody God to the world? Isn't it better to project an image of God in control and powerfully defeating His enemies than some innocent victim of injustice? When Mel Gibson's movie, "The Passion of the Christ," emerged almost two decades ago, it created a firestorm of protest. "It's just too graphic!" There's too much blood and gore," many insisted. Never mind that Hollywood puts out films by the dozens that depict the harsh realities of war: heads being sliced off by swords, people being blown apart by bomb blasts, or people being eaten alive by monsters. But to show an actual portrayal of the gruesome torture Jesus received, that's too gory. So, how exactly do you tone down an actual crucifixion? It was one of the most agonizing and bloody execution methods ever devised!
What do you think? Are Jesus' suffering and death on the cross too much for you and me? We live in a time when many are searching for the honest Jesus. That means they don't accept the one presented in the Bible. They are not looking for a Jesus who sacrifices Himself for sinners. They want a sanitized Jesus. One who is more politically correct accepts their lifestyle choices and is "woke!"
The central problem with this toned-down version of Christ is that it does not force anyone to confront the truth: that we all have sins that must be atoned for and that there is no forgiveness for us without the shedding of blood.
If Jesus is not allowed to shed His blood in our place, we better be prepared to receive the full, eternal punishment ourselves for our sins. God has always made it clear through His Word that "there is no forgiveness without the shedding of blood" (Lev. 17:11; Hebrews 9:22). The apostle Paul implies in our Epistle Reading this morning that there is only one blood with the quality necessary to atone for the sin of all of humanity: the blood of the God-Man Jesus Christ. He is the sacrifice of the godly for the ungodly—the righteous for the unrighteous (Ro. 5:6–7). He is the perfect sacrificial lamb. God's portrait of the Savior is not that of a conquering general on a white stallion or a handsome man wearing love beads. Quite the contrary, it is the portrait of a suffering servant: despised and forsaken of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, smitten by God, pierced and crushed for our iniquities (Isaiah 53:1–5).
God's greatest glory is that He sheds innocent blood instead of the guilty sinner. The message of God's forgiveness has always been a proclamation of the blood of the sacrifice. Look at the Old Covenant sacrificial system. Thousands of lambs and bullocks were slaughtered yearly. Their carcasses were turned to cinders and ashes on the altar of the Lord. Imagine being in the temple on the Day of Atonement when the High Priest, taking the blood of the sacrifice, would go into the Most Holy Place and sprinkle the blood on the lid of the Ark of the Covenant and then come out and sprinkle the blood on the worshipers! There is no way to sanitize that or do it an exciting and upbeat worship service like so many think they need today! The forgiveness of sins is a costly and bloody business. All those animal sacrifices kept the worshippers pointing to the sacrificial blood of the very Lamb of God, who would atone for the whole world.
The enemy, Satan's adversary, always seeks to rob God of His most faithful glory and sinners of their salvation. He wants to empty the cross of the Son of God of its glory. Even until the very last moment, Satan was taunting Jesus, through the crowd of jeers beneath Jesus' cross, to avoid the cross by coming down from the cross and demonstrating His divine power. Had Jesus done so, we would all have been lost. Denying Jesus the necessity of His cross and denying Jesus' rejection, passion, death, and resurrection from the dead are all satanic.
That means that what is popular will always be contrary to God and, therefore, evil. The things of weak-minded and sinful men are not those of a just and righteous God. The apostle Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians that "the natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God. For they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them because they are spiritually appraised" (2:14). If we find ourselves friends with the world, we are enemies of God, just like the prince of this world is an enemy of God.
What if I, as a preacher, were to fill this church by preaching a sanitized gospel—if I never mentioned the blood? I refrained from preaching the cross. I failed to mention the need for repentance. I said God's love without mentioning His great sacrifice for us. I boosted my audience's self-esteem by using positive or possibility-thinking language. They might love me, but my preaching would be satanic, giving people false hopes and causing them to lose their souls. I would be preaching out of shame for the faithful Jesus. And as Jesus says here, "The Son of Man will be ashamed of me" when He comes in His Father's glory with the holy angels.
Our world needs not woke politics or a sanitized and easy-to-swallow gospel but rather the bold proclamation of the bloody truth: The only Savior of the world is the bloody, battered God of the cross. It's a given that believing this bloody message and proclaiming it will bring opposition from God's enemies. It is, however, the only message that saves! In the blood of the real Christ, sinners will find their salvation.
But there is another cross when it comes to following the real Christ. You might be surprised to learn that Jesus' first use of the word "cross" in the Gospel of Mark is not about His own but about the scorn, shame, pain, and trouble that will accompany His followers. Jesus said, "Whoever desires to follow me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me."
Believe me, Jesus' first-century disciples had a vivid image of the suffering of the cross. They regularly witnessed their Roman captors' use of the cross to execute political enemies of the state. Josephus recounts in his Antiquities (17:10:10) how, in 2 B.C., the Roman governor Varus crucified 2000 Jews to quell a revolt. Imagine seeing a whole field of bloody corpses impaled on crosses rotting in the noonday sun!
With that image, Jesus assures those who seek to follow Him that there is no escape from, nor any avoiding, the cross—not His or one of their own. The cross of suffering comes with the territory. And that cross is about sacrifice and death.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor jailed by the Nazis, once wrote: "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die." How's that for an evangelism slogan to share with your neighbor? But it is the truth! Jesus calls upon His followers to die to worldly passions through repentance and faith in Him and His sacrifice. He bids those who follow Him "crucify" all their selfish desires by putting God's will above their own and by serving the needs of others before their own. He bids all sinners submit in faith to His sacrifice to atone for their sins.
Unfortunately, we often want our "religion" to be simple and our discipleship life hassle-free. We get put out with God when He allows disease or trouble to come into our lives. We want our worship services to be as comfortable and fun as possible. That means no sermons that make us squirm in our guilt, no hymns that take special effort to sing, and no services that last over an hour. And, of course, services that are held at the most convenient time for our busy schedules.
We also tend to want the freedom and ease to turn off our Christianity at times to better "fit in" with the world around us. We want to know the extraordinary truth about Christ, but we don't want to be afraid to tell others about it for fear of rejection or mockery.
The cross of the disciple is Christ's way. To oppose it is to resist God. There can be no glory without suffering. The greatest treasure of Jesus is His cross, which He bore for us. We can claim to be His disciples only by bearing our crosses for His sake. (Ro. 8:17)
Jesus' cross also sanctifies the crosses of His followers. When we suffer for the sake of following Jesus, it's not just that we know we are in good company. Jesus' cross assures us that our cross is not punishment but a means of sharing in His suffering so that we might also share in His glory. We can bear our crosses by remembering the one He bore for us. As Peter himself would write: "Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you that comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing; so that also at the revelation of His glory, you may rejoice with exultation." If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed because the Spirit of glory and God rests upon you (I Pet. 4:12-14).
A story that I always tell concerns Alexander the Great. In his remarkable conquest of much of the civilized world of the 4th century, he led his army through a desert in Persia. It was an arduous campaign. At one point, his troops suffered greatly from a lack of water. Some found a little water and proudly presented it to him in a helmet. But seeing how his warriors gazed longingly at the refreshing drink, he refused, saying, "If I alone drank this, my men would lose heart!" With that, they shouted and gladly continued to follow their thirsty king.
We follow the One who thirsted for us, and was tortured and bloodied for us. When we take our cross and follow Him in repentant, confident faith, we reject what is satanic and follow His lead to true and eternal glory!