Weekly Sermon (5)

Sermon – February 25, 2024

God is watching us…

February 25, 2024

Scripture: Mark 8:31-38

In today’s gospel reading we find Jesus beginning to share with his disciples that the end of his ministry among them is drawing near. He is trying to explain to them what lies ahead, how it will be different from what they have witnessed so far, and what it is, that they need to be prepared for.

And clearly we can see by the disciple’s reaction, and in particular by Peter, that this information from Jesus runs fully contrary to their expectations of the future. Mark’s gospel is filled with references to Jesus commanding his followers to keep silent regarding who he is…time and again he downplays his true identity, telling all, including demons he has cast out, not to reveal his true nature. So it is not all that surprising that at this juncture, when Jesus begins to speak about the coming trials that he and his followers will face, that the disciples are caught by surprise. For up to this moment they were pretty sure that Jesus was the fulfillment of the messianic prophecies which had inspired the hopes of all within the Jewish faith for literally centuries.

The disciple’s immediate response to Jesus’ words is to try and set him straight, to correct his understanding of his mission and of what the future had in store, in an attempt to ease their own minds back into their previous hopes and understandings. Jesus’ abrupt response, which was directed at Peter but intended for them all, made it clear however that this was no ordinary Messiah…made it clear that Jesus was indeed the Son of God, and that in fact it was their ideas regarding the justice and purposes of God which were quite far off the mark.

After rebuking Peter and calling the whole assembly together, Jesus restated his claim that a life of faith comes with very specific consequences…and very specific responsibilities.  He also made it clear that a life lived outside of active and true faith, is in fact not a life at all. In no uncertain terms, Jesus called them to follow after him, in his footsteps…promising to be there for them…but clearly stating that the journey they thought they were on, had taken a drastic turn from previous understanding. Jesus finishes up this chapter in Mark by doubling down on his call to faithfulness, telling them to follow him without condition or hesitation, even unto possible ridicule and embarrassment, and making it clear that their path forward would run contrary to social or religious norms.

‘This is how it is’, states Jesus plainly and clearly. ‘No, it is not’, the disciples counter back.  ‘Yes…it is’, he responds. ‘This is how it is’, Jesus tells us…how will we respond?

The difference between living by faith, and being good at your religious understandings is at the heart of the disciple’s struggle…and I would dare say that not much has changed in regard to this fundamental distinction even unto today. You see, Jesus’ followers had very basic, historically grounded beliefs regarding who the Messiah was to be, and what he would look like.  They were sure that they knew what he would be able to do, and what his mission would bring about…for all of it was part of their faith tradition. They were not prepared to let go of these ideas and to start back at the beginning, not ready to fully trust in Jesus, who seemed to be telling them that true faith was not a habit but rather a commitment to follow closely, and to do so ‘in the moment’ wherever the Lord might lead. All preplanning and presumption was off of the table…each day had to be discovered anew, right there in the company of their leader and Lord.

Make no mistake; there had been multiple previous and quite radical individuals who had already come claiming to be the promised ‘Messiah’. Many of these had risen up and even gained a small following, only to be snuffed out by Roman authority as rebels or insurrectionists. Time and again the Jewish people had dared to let their hopes rise, only to have them dashed to pieces before their eyes. Surely the memory of these other false messiahs was on the minds of Jesus’ followers. When he began to tell them that he was seemingly going to be beaten down and destroyed like all the rest of those before him, the disciple’s reaction was immediate and visceral. They were not able to comprehend that Jesus might in fact not be the one they thought they had finally found, and the one their tradition had led them to believe they absolutely needed. Ironically however, Jesus was in fact exactly what they needed…they just did not know it yet.

So…what does it actually mean to live by faith?  It seems like such a common religious phrase, but it never seems to go very deep for us…it is more like a phrase you would find in songs or scripture verses, but never one that is looked at and teased apart to see what it actually means. I think that often the phrase ‘living by faith’ has been more of a label…often relegated to particular times or to particular people throughout history. In times of great persecution or in desperate situations we hear of people making it through, or somehow miraculously surviving, because they ‘lived by faith’, and God honored their faithfulness. By this, it would seem that ‘living by faith’ is for those who are either quite fundamental and radical in their faith understanding, or for those who have nothing else upon which to lean…the poor, the hopeless, the lost…any who have no other place to look for support.

This notion of ‘living by faith’ for the rest of us however, seems to have a less critical or vital meaning. I think that many feel that living by faith means simply, ‘living faithfully within your own particular faith tradition’. And I think this is where many Christians find themselves. The real difference between the two however rests on the nature of the faith about which Jesus was talking.

In the book of Hebrews, in Chapter 11 and verse 1 we hear that faith is, “The assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”.  In other words, faith is anything but certain and predictable, it is all about learning to trust that the things in which we have put our hope and belief, the paths upon which we have chosen to walk are in fact those of our Lord. And that…that may bring us to times when we may be sorely tempted like Peter to counter the Lord’s call by asking, ‘Are you sure Lord?  You know, it seems to us like that might not be the best course… you want us to follow you even there?’.  To which a closely listening ear will always hear in response, ‘Yes my dear ones, trust me, walk on ahead by faith’.

So…how might we bring this distinction between living by faith alone, and living faithfully closer in to our own understanding? How can we hear these difficult words of Jesus in such a way that they speak to us right here and now? What if we were to hear directly from Jesus today? How might he try to convey to us the same sentiments as those he shared with his disciples that day? Perhaps he might say…


My dear brothers and sisters, following after me is no easy task. There is much yet to be done to bring my love into the world, and many are those who will seek to thwart your efforts.  For the ways of the world leave very little room for my love and make little to no provision for the poor or the struggling.

As you walk on in my footsteps you will be challenged and you will be confronted…you may in fact be ridiculed or thought less of for your devotion to me and to my call. There may even be times when you will suffer loss or real pain, times when you may find yourselves wondering about the wisdom of your decisions…but fear not, I have gone before you and will continue to guide you along the proper way.


To which we would probably be tempted to respond:  ‘That all sounds good Lord…but it really is not a very comfortable place for us to consider, let alone to dwell in. We are much more comfortable with our 21st Century ‘hybrid’ faith. Meaning, we know what the scriptures tell us, but we have gotten used to interpreting them in ways that are favorable to our understanding and particular needs…in ways that make sense to us.’

Actually, we might be more comfortable saying something like: ‘We have it all figured out already Lord…we know how to do your bidding…and to the extent that the faith gives us a framework for ordering our lives in a particular ethical, moral, and ‘giving’ fashion, we are ready to build your church…that is what you want, right? For we have read, we were taught, we watched our predecessors, and now we feel that we know what to do in order to be a presence of Christianity in our communities. But, please Lord don’t talk to us of the possibility of trial and suffering, for we are in the modern age now, and we have come to a place of being strong and very carefully protected so as not to need to worry over that aspect of the faith…the times have changed you know…setting us free from that pesky problem of suffering problem.’

To which Jesus might counter…


‘My friends, set your minds on things that are holy…do not dwell solely on human thinking alone…let go of your reasoned and logical understandings, and be not afraid to trust in the promises you find in the scriptures…be not afraid to trust in the uncertainty that may often characterize a life of faith…I assure you that my ways and my answers to your needs will never fail to be sufficient, or fail to satisfy your needs fully and completely.’


To which we would then probably remark… ‘You know, we hear about this difference between the ways of humankind and the ways of God, but what is this difference between human ways of thinking and divine thoughts? Do we not have a brain? Were we not created in your image? Surely we should be able to figure it all out by ourselves…for are not humans actually capable of thinking ‘divinely’? After all, is it really the ‘how’ of the thinking, or is it ‘what we think’ that is more important? Is there really a difference between human religious thoughts and divine thoughts, and if so what are they anyway?’

To which Jesus might respond back…


‘In truth there are great differences, but the one that is most important here is the degree of openness between the call of God and the willingness of humanity to walk in it. For you see, much of humanity has preconceived notions of what God may or may not ask of them. They are willing to follow up to a point, usually until it begins to ask more than they are willing to give. Many hesitate when asked to walk in ways, or into places where they truly are forced to proceed on in faith, perhaps even absent the light and guiding assurance that they are actually on the right path. Now to be honest, following in my ways ‘by faith’, can be very difficult to do…in fact you may be injured…or worse, you may suffer greatly…but fear not, I am with you to the end. Do not be afraid of what can only hurt your body and never touch your soul.’


To which I am pretty sure we would respond… ‘Jesus, Jesus, Jesus! How can you tell us not to run far away from suffering, but rather to embrace it? Why would anyone embrace suffering? What could you possibly mean by this? Surely those were the kind of things that happened in the past, but so far they have not really been a part of our experience as Christians. We know that there are still those who suffer greatly for your sake, but they all seem to be in other places or in other countries, and it is not clear if the reasons they are suffering  are in fact really religious, or instead unfortunate consequences of bad politics.’

To which Jesus might reply…


‘What I am trying to get you to understand is that if you encounter suffering in your walk in faith, it is then that you are engaged and fully active in the works of God. If you are not in a place of difficulty, then you are most likely not dealing with the very thorny and unjust issues which still plague so many of my children…if you are in the middle of a mess…you will get messy…that’s just how it is…it is only by the living out of your faith, that those in need around you will find a way forward.

Those who want to hold on to life as it is…as they now know it…those who wish only to live within a comfortable status quo, feeling secure and stable…are those who have chosen to keep issues of justice, and of the plight of much of humanity an arm’s length away…they are those who have chosen to avoid the ‘less comfortable’ way of living. Those who choose to live solely unto themselves, will someday find that such a lifestyle ultimately has no lasting effect; it will in fact cease to satisfy, and will at some point come to an end with nothing at all to show for it.

On the other hand however, those who look for and find the true life that is present within a servant lifestyle…those who choose what are often seen as ‘lesser’ paths of extending outward towards others in love, will in fact find fullness of heart and fullness of joyous life. For in truth, gaining temporary and transient comfort through the accumulation and protection of resources which are intended for future use, will fail to satisfy and surely lead to an inner lifelessness and a slow decay of purpose and meaning. My call to you all was to ‘feed the hungry and clothe the poor, to set the captives free who have been bound over into all manner of prisons…to help the blind to see and the deaf to hear of the goodness of our God’…for in this work you shall truly live…all else is mere window dressing on a life with shallow purpose.’


And so…after all is said and done…after we have heard from the Lord…some very real questions still remain…

…Are we going to be those who follow…are we going to be those who seek the will and the word of God, as offered to us by the Holy Spirit, and discerned in the practice of deeply centered prayer…or are we instead going to try and decide beforehand and all on our own, relying on experience, wisdom, and sound and proven practices  we already know, in order to chart out the way we need to go to reach the goal that we perceive to be most important for us here and now?


Are we the ones who have been charged with steering this church towards a particular goal…like the popular bumper sticker which says, ‘God my Co-pilot’? Or are we ourselves better suited for the role of second fiddle…being those who follow, letting God be our pilot?  Is God truly allowed to be Lord over our lives…to be the One we submit to and covenant to follow after?


Have we here in fact been gifted with a particular vision of where the Spirit wants to go with this little church…are we being asked to submit to the ongoing control of the Holy Spirit, and to apply our energy and enthusiasm in full to this task at hand?  I think we are indeed.


Is it possible to serve the Lord simply from a place of willingness to follow, without a solid platform or financial foundation upon which to stand? Is it at all possible that this elusive ‘stability’ we sometimes seek after is perhaps not actually a part of the Lord’s plan at all? Are we supposed to live by faith…or just live faithfully? Is the pursuit of willing obedience to the inner voice of the Holy Spirit in truth the only goal worthy of the family of God?


Alas, it is so, so tempting to try and rely upon our own devices…it is so hard to actually find our way voluntarily to a place of going forward by faith alone…for to be sure, ‘faith’ is ok for some things and to some extent, but it is almost impossible to plan for and to realize real, tangible success if we insist on including an element of faith in the mix. It is much easier if we can figure it out beforehand…if we can line up all of the elements of a plan and anticipate any problems that might present themselves.

It is so much easier that way, than to include real trusting faith…for people tend to do much better if they have deadlines and targets to reach rather than relying on the almost chronic uncertainty that is so much a part of faith. There is so much risk in putting one’s trust in something that is so untested and untried in this modern day…planning, measurable goals, and strict accountability are all time-tested keys to success, whereas suffering, rejection, and being thought a fool are not winning ways at all, and certainly seem to have no place in a well thought out plan.

And yet…that is what Jesus told his followers that day. He told them things that were absolutely and unconditionally unacceptable to them. He told them that all of their thoughts, all of their beliefs, all of the things which they had so carefully thought  out up to that point, were in fact not a part of his plan. He told them that the real plan included darkness and uncertainty, and that, quite possibly it was not safe at all, and that there surely would be suffering. He told them that if on the other hand they hung on tightly to all they had believed beforehand, then they would not succeed whatsoever, and furthermore, that life…real, alive, gritty, imaginative, and holy life…could only be found in letting go of what once was comfortable, and instead willingly dying to oneself in the sole pursuit of serving and living for others.

That is the challenge we find in our scripture today…Jesus is only asking us to follow after him…to walk in ways fully unknown and untried…to go where we have never gone before…

…Jesus told his disciples…


…he is asking us


…will we heed his call?  I pray that we will…

(Both) …amen

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