Genesis 17:1-7; 15-16
At Friday prayers in Fawley churchyard this week, we were reminded of the Lent watchwords: discipline, repentance and growth. These are some of the keys to holy living. Underpinning these three activities is practice. The season of Lent echoes the 40 days of Christ in the wilderness, preparing for this ministry.
Jesus had been practicing – directly after his baptism, Jesus is flung into the wilderness to face the temptations of Satan. Jesus rebuffs and refuses Satan’s offerings by using the teachings of scripture. In doing this, Jesus demonstrates for us what it is to live a life of discipline that has come through practice.
In this passage of Mark, we get a number of Jesus’ more quotable lines, ‘Get behind me Satan!’; ‘Take up your cross and follow me’; ‘What is it to gain the whole world and lose your soul?’. There is often great temptation to take these verses out of context and apply them to just about any situation. Much like taking Churchill quotes or lines of Shakespeare and reducing them to coffee mugs and tea towels.
Similarly, we can lose the meaning of what Jesus is saying if we lift these verses out of their context too. The context that Jesus is teaching into was his death; this is the first time that Jesus predicts his death. “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering,” Jesus tells his disciples quite plainly. He must “be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”
Standing on this side of resurrection history, we easily miss the bombshell effect these words must have had on Jesus’s disciples. Their great hope, cultivated over the three years they had followed Jesus, was that he would lead them in a military revolution and overthrow their Roman oppressors.
What then could be more disorienting, more ludicrous, than the news that their would-be champion was determined to walk straight into a death trap? To surrender without a fight to a common criminal’s death.
Peter, in a moment of confusion and shock, scolds Jesus for his dire prediction. And Jesus, in what might be the sharpest and most surprising rebuke in all of Scripture, puts Peter in his place with one swift stroke: “Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
You can hardly blame Peter, how often are our minds on human things rather than the divine? Holy living requires higher thoughts, and this takes some practice. It is easier to think holy thoughts when all is well. Much more difficult to do when faced with death, threats to security and uncertainty.
Then Jesus turns to the crowds and captures the essence of his message in two sentences: “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.
Even now, centuries removed from the context in which Jesus lived and taught, what exactly is Jesus saying? That he wants us to pursue suffering and death? That a holy life is not about living at all, but about dying? About martyrdom?
What does a holy life look like in 21st century England?
Where does our discipline come from? How repentant are we? Are there any signs of growth? What does it mean to deny myself? Living, as we do, in a culture that does not imprison, torture, or kill Christians for our faith, how shall I deny myself so that the gospel might thrive, here and now? How shall I save my life by losing it for Jesus’s sake in the leafy Hambleden Valley? How shall I die?
‘If any want to become my followers’ – would imply there is a choice to be made. Jesus is speaking to a crowd, lots of people watching and listening. I would suggest that not all of them decided then and there to deny themselves and pick up their cross. There are always lots of people to stand and watch others do the heavy lifting. These are the ones who think they are saving their lives by not getting involved, or staying quiet or think that all religions, God, etc. are the same and get you there in the end, just be good or a nice person. The reality is though that lives will be lost.
‘Let them deny themselves’ – This is not the body and I am not living the life of a person who denies herself very much! I am not always good at living beyond my own convenience. What would it look like to deny ourselves those things that prevent us from living a life that follows totally after Jesus?
‘And take up their cross and follow me.’ We use it as a throw-away sometimes. ‘We all have our crosses to bear’ to explain or give meaning to the circumstances of another. We all have situations, issues, stuff going on that needs bearing up; we can’t ignore, dismiss or wish it away. Pick it up!
If we pick our crosses up to follow Jesus we are not going to have to carry it by ourselves. In Matthew 11 Jesus says, ‘Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Who can we look to for a holy life? We see an example in Abraham. All that Abraham was promised came through his righteousness and God’s faithfulness. Abraham’s great age is not to be overlooked! It took a lifetime of practice, of discipline, repentance and growth. It was certainly not an easy life, but it was worth it in the end.
I think that one of the best examples in recent history is Billy Graham. Billy Graham died in February 2018, at the grand age of 99 and in his own home. He is a shining example of what it is to live a holy life of faithful service Jesus until the end. Carrying your cross daily and faithfully. Giving up your life, your convenience for others. We probably will not influence millions of people around the world – that’s okay. How about we influence those around us – in our homes, families, villages, our workplaces, schools, the stranger on the train or in the coffee shop.
Billy Graham lived a scandal free life – both financially and sexually. Is that not refreshing given what is being reported in the news almost daily? Money, sex, pride and power have a death grip on so many people. Mark is presenting us with Jesus’ idea of what real life looks like; a ‘real life’, a holy life that does not have space for the misuse and abuse of money, sex, pride and power. This real life includes death – death to these things and to ourselves.
Mark ends this passage by making it clear that following Jesus seems the only way to go. There is some good news: the crosses that we must bear are so much lighter than the cross that Jesus had to bear
What is the reward? From Billy Graham: “Someday you will read or hear that Billy Graham is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it. I shall be more alive than I am now. I will just have changed my address. I will have gone into the presence of God.”
In the presence of God who loves us deeply, gave up everything so we can be with him, who repays us with a life spent in eternity. By losing and denying – we gain much more.
Blessed are those who carry
for they shall be lifted.