September 16th, 2018 “Divine Wisdom” Rev. Heather Jepsen
Mark 8:27-38 with Proverbs 1:20-38
This morning we continue our readings in the Gospel of Mark. As we have seen in our previous readings, the Jesus of Mark’s gospel is quick witted and doesn’t hesitate to say what he thinks or offer a difficult teaching. This morning’s reading is no exception.
Jesus has been busy teaching, healing, and generally mixing it up with Pharisees and the like and today he is on the road with his disciples to a prominent Roman city. Jesus asks about what the word on the street is regarding him and in general the view seems to be that he is some sort of prophet brought back from the dead. Peter though, has a different idea as he states that Jesus is the Messiah.
One would imagine that this would be a time of great celebration but Jesus immediately rains on everyone’s parade as he starts talking about all the suffering that is on the horizon. Yes, he may be the Messiah, but the Son of Man will have to undergo great suffering including rejection by the church, and death. Peter is having none of this and tells Jesus so, only to get the biggest smackdown in Biblical history, “Get behind me Satan!”
Jesus accuses Peter of setting his mind on human things and not divine things and then launches into a lecture about how everyone following him better be ready to be crucified because only those that are willing to die for the cause will gain their own lives. And if anyone has a problem with this, well they can just “Get behind me Satan!”
Many of us have heard this story hundreds of times before, so when we read this story in our modern context it can be really hard to get the original feeling of shock that the first hearers, or even Peter, would have felt. At this point, 2000 years later, we all know that Jesus was the suffering Messiah. Jesus came to die on the cross . . . yawn . . . I’ve heard that one before.
We think we know what we are talking about when we talk about the Messiah. But of course, Peter thought he knew what he was talking about when he was talking about the Messiah too. How can we be so sure we aren’t making the same mistakes Peter did? How can we know if we have set our minds on human things or divine things? Do you catch my drift? Peter thought he had the right answer, but he didn’t. How can we be so sure that we have the right answer in our understanding of Jesus today??
Peter was of course thinking about the traditional Messiah, the one who was to come and overthrow the Roman Empire. This Messiah was supposed to save the Jewish nation, this Messiah was supposed to be a hero for the people; this is the Messiah the Jews are still waiting for. Even after Jesus speaks about his upcoming death, more than once, his disciples are arguing about which seat they will get in his earthly kingdom. They don’t understand this divine Messiah; they are too busy looking for the human Messiah.
If we look at this text in a historical context, that might help us understand a bit of what is going on. If Mark is an author writing at the earliest 30 years after Jesus death, then his community needs to make sense of this suffering. It is highly likely that the disciples never expected Jesus to die, or expected him to immediately rise again in glory and conquer the Roman Empire. So if it’s been 30 years since our hero died, then we need to reframe the story so that the dying was the point. We need to tell a story where the hero knows that he is going to die and is prepared for it. Then he can still be the hero.
And so Jesus says he “must” undergo great suffering, he must be rejected, he must die, and he must rise again. Now we are wading into the theological weeds and brambles as we get into atonement theory and debate all the different ways humans understand Jesus’ suffering. Because we have to make meaning out of suffering, it’s what we do. When we suffer, we always look for meaning, for purpose, in our pain. So too, we must find meaning and purpose in Jesus’ suffering. Like maybe he came and suffered on the cross to conquer Satan, or maybe he did it to pay a blood debt we owed to God, or maybe he did it to teach us what love is, or maybe he did it to bear the fullness of the human experience. All of these are correct answers by the church’s thinking, and all of these are ways of finding meaning in the suffering of Christ on the cross.
But what if that is setting our minds on human things and not divine things? What if the divine wisdom is simply embracing suffering in and of itself? Peter is thinking about the Messiah in human terms, as one who conquers suffering. And when we break down our atonement theories, a lot of them would fit into that category. Jesus is conquering something (like sin, Satan, or death) with his suffering. But in our reading for today Jesus isn’t talking about conquering. No, he is talking about the Messiah in divine terms, as one who embraces suffering. We have nowhere to go with that, because we don’t like that. But isn’t that what Jesus is saying “take up your cross and follow”. Deny yourself, lose your life, take up the instrument of suffering, and follow. It’s really hard to make sense of that.
I know it may feel like I am taking you way down the rabbit hole today, this is definitely more of a theological than a pastoral sermon, but I just want to get us in a space where we begin to question our certainty. Peter was certain he was right, and Jesus made it clear he was wrong. We too, are in danger of making this mistake. We too are in danger of setting our minds on human things and not divine things, of trusting in our own certainty when maybe we shouldn’t. Maybe we should be leaving more space so we can learn new things from our God.
In the reading that Henry shared this morning, the personification of Wisdom is found crying in the streets. She laments that the people have chosen to wallow in ignorance and that they refuse to learn. In the NRSV it says “How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge?” Wisdom suggests that she is available, she has tried to teach the people, but everyone has ignored her. This text is nearly 3000 years old and yet it sounds like it could have been written yesterday. Wisdom is ignored and people settle for lies and foolishness? Fake news!
In Proverbs lady Wisdom talks about the fear of the Lord as part of the basis for knowledge. I have always struggled with that phrase because I don’t like the idea of fearing our God. Respect yes, humbleness yes, bow-down yes, but fear always sounds bad to me, it’s off-putting. I don’t want to be scared of God, although I am glad God has relaxed a bit from the Old Testament days when everyone that upset God needed to die by the sword! I am scared of that God because that dude will strike you down!
But if fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom then maybe it is about something else. Maybe fear of the Lord is about giving up control and about admitting we might not understand. I am thinking of those moments in my life where I brush up against a power greater than myself and realize that I don’t know everything and I am not in control. That is a humility and reverence that I can relate to, knowing that God is greater than I, and knowing that I am wrong or confused. Not in a sinful way, just in an uneducated way. Like Peter being wrong about the Messiah. The fear of the Lord, the willingness to step aside and let God take the lead, is the beginning of wisdom. To admit that I don’t know everything, that is the beginning of wisdom.
And so we are back to Jesus, asking us to let go of everything. Jesus is asking us to let go of the wisdom we think we might have in order to better understand who he is and who he is calling us to be. Jesus is asking us to let go of the lives the world is calling us to lead, in order to follow him into some other space where dying is living and losing is winning. Jesus is asking us to trust him, to trust God, and to make space for the fear of the Lord in our lives, to make space for divine Wisdom.
As you go out into the world this week I encourage you to look up, to pay attention, and to listen. There is a lot of noise out there and as Eugene Peterson reminds us in his translation of Proverbs, there are a lot of idiots out there wallowing in their ignorance. But Wisdom is out there too, calling us to follow her and to seek truth. And Jesus reminds us that even if we don’t understand why the Messiah must suffer, we do understand our call to follow.
May we be willing this morning to be corrected, to learn, and to embrace a fear of the Lord. And may we follow the path of divine Wisdom, taking up our crosses, and embracing our suffering Messiah. Maybe even embracing our own suffering along the way. Amen.