A Costly Lesson


 Man in scrubs praying

Dear Working Preacher,

First, as always, let me extend to you a word of thanks for what you do to preach the good news of Jesus Christ in a fallen world.

Thank you for preaching the forgiveness of sins and the free grace of Christ in an economy thinks everything is either for sale or must be stolen. Every day, Christ drowns our sins in a Niagara Falls of forgiveness, washing us clean and sending us out to follow Christ where we are.

Here we are in Lent

Well, we are back in Lent. And for me, Lent is one of the most meaningful seasons of the year. A time to renew ourselves in spiritual discipline, a time to make ourselves aware of what the cross cost Christ and what it means for us. That is what Lent is—a season, a time, a discipline.

The author of Ecclesiastes says that there is a time for every matter under heaven. Most notably, that “preacher” says there is a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to pick what was planted, a time to kill and a time to heal. For Christians, Lent is a time to die to our sins, to die to our self-centered wills, and a time to die to our very selves. And when that happens, Lent is also a time for the Holy Spirit to forgive our sins, to raise up a new creation in Christ in place of our self-centered wills, and renew ourselves with the breath of baptismal new life.

And that is exactly what the Gospel reading is about this week.

Not a prediction but a teaching about the nature of messiahship

The first part of the Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary this week (Mark 8:31-36) is almost always called a “passion prediction.” But I find that phrase simply awful and misleading. If you call something a prediction, then the thing people focus on is whether or not it happens. Just this morning on the radio I heard all sorts of predictions about the upcoming college basketball playoffs, the coming baseball season, and even the weather.

But notice the verb that the Gospel of Mark uses: “he began to teach” (Mark 8:31). The Greek phrase is ērxato didaskein, implying the start of a continuing action. Jesus began for the first time to teach this truth and he kept on teaching. The point is not so much a prediction that came true, but a teaching of a truth that was hard to understand: that when the long-expected Christ of God finally arrived, he would not reign in glory, but would “undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:31).

Jesus’ teaching is not a prediction, per se, but a theological discourse of the very nature of his messiahship. About what being the Messiah meant for him. And also what it means for us.

His messiahship was costly. It would cost him his life as he would eventually be publicly shamed and tortured to death on a Roman cross.

But that costly price would in turn lead to glory for him—“and after three days rise again”—and an eternity of blessings for us.

Just how hard was the “teaching” to understand? Well, Peter himself—the first to confess Jesus as Christ and the rock upon whom Jesus would build his church—couldn’t understand it. Peter “began to rebuke him.”

Then Jesus rebuked Peter, said, “Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (Mark 8:33).

There it is. Lent again. Peter had his imagination tightly wrapped about his own sinful will. In this case, not his sinful will for himself, but his sinful will for Jesus. Peter didn’t want his Lord to suffer. He needed his will for Jesus to die, so that God’s will for Jesus could be raised up in its place.

Our Lenten discipline

In the second half of the Gospel reading, Jesus then turned to “the crowd”—really, we can think of Jesus as primarily addressing us here—and he spoke some hard, Lenten words: “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).

There is that word again: “want.” It is again about our wants, our “wills” or “desire.” The Greek word can be translated in any of those ways. What is your will, your want, your desire? To save your life, Jesus’ life, your own hope?

And here comes God again, putting our old sinful selves, wills, and imaginations to death.

Why? So that the Holy Spirit might raise up Christ, raise up new life, give birth to a new creation in our hearts.

That is a harsh word to preach, Working Preacher, but thanks for doing so. Thanks for preaching the death of our own wills and the resurrection of Christ in their place.

Rolf