March 8th, 2020 “To Follow on the Way” Rev. Heather Jepsen
This morning we continue our narrative lectionary reading as we follow the story of Jesus as told in the Gospel of Mark. We are in the season of Lent and Jesus has turned his face toward Jerusalem and the suffering that awaits him there. This week he will help the disciples and us to understand what it means to follow him on this way.
We pick up right where we left off last week. Jesus has been traveling on the road to Jerusalem. Last week he was interrupted by a rich man and we had discussions and lessons about how our wealth is an obstacle to our ability to follow Jesus. This week it will be our egos.
We begin with Jesus and the disciples walking along the road to Jerusalem. On the journey Jesus pulls the disciples aside and begins to tell them about his upcoming suffering and death. This is the third and final passion prediction in Mark’s gospel. Jesus couldn’t be any clearer that they are headed to Jerusalem and once there he will be arrested and will suffer and die. He also tells his followers that after three days he will rise again. Although the language is clear, the idea behind it is not, and even though they have heard this twice already the disciples still fail to understand what Jesus is talking about.
That misunderstanding is made abundantly clear by the brothers James and John. They approach Jesus and ask if they might be granted the places of authority and honor, sitting at his right and left hand, when he comes into his glory. Duh! How thick are these guys? Jesus just told everyone they are going to Jerusalem to suffer and they are asking about an earthly kingdom. C’mon guys!
Jesus makes it clear to them that if they continue to follow him they will have their own time of suffering. But, he does not have the authority to declare who will sit at his right and left. In fact, when it comes time for Jesus’ suffering, he will have no more than a pair of robbers at his right and left hand.
Once news of James and John’s arrogance spreads to the others the disciples get riled up. They are angry at the brothers for asking for positions of honor and perhaps angry that they didn’t think to ask first. So Jesus has another teaching moment when he explains that leadership in this community doesn’t look like leadership anywhere else. The political rulers lord power over their people and act as tyrants. But within the kingdom community, Jesus reminds us the highest place is the one of service. Jesus himself is to be their example, as he has come to give his own life for this cause.
Of course, the group is interrupted again as Bartimaeus the blind beggar begins making a scene. Calling out to Jesus, and giving him the Messianic title “Son of David” he asks for Jesus to heal his sight. People try to block his way but Jesus will have none of that. Calling the man to him he offers him the gift of sight. Surprisingly, even though Jesus tells Bartimaeus to go, Bartimaeus instead decides to follow Jesus on the way. Even though he had no earthly vision, it seems that Bartimaeus saw who Jesus was better than the disciples who had the use of their eyes.
All of these stories rotate around the central idea of who we are as people of faith and what it means to follow Jesus on the way. We know that we are followers of Jesus but what does it mean to actually follow Jesus on this Lenten path to Jerusalem? Like the disciples we struggle on this journey. We hear Jesus offer the teaching about being servants and least of these but we really have a hard time putting this into practice. We don’t want to do it, and really we don’t know how. Everything we have inside us calls to us of a desire for status and recognition. We want people to know who we are and to admire us. We don’t want to be servants, we want to be leaders. It is just how we are hardwired.
We want to follow Jesus because we can feel he has something that we need. But we don’t really want to go to Jerusalem. Seriously, why would we? If I said to you, “Come on, let’s go. I’m going to Jerusalem where I will be arrested and put on death row. They will make fun of me in public and spit on me and whip me in the street. Then I will be killed. Come with me!” No one would go. No one in their right mind would go. Is it any wonder that the people who follow Jesus are amazed and afraid? We are afraid of the things Jesus says, and we are amazed that he would ask such things of us. Why would anyone ask us to go and die like this? It’s awful.
So what are we doing following this Jesus on this way? What are we chasing him for? What do we want him to do for us? Did you catch that, Jesus asks it of his followers multiple times in this passage. When James and John approach asking for a favor Jesus says “What is it you want me to do for you?” “Jesus give me status” they seem to say. And they will get it, James and John, numbered among the disciples, there is hardly any higher status in the church. And they will drink the cup of suffering following the way of their Lord.
When Bartimaeus interrupts the journey Jesus asks the same of him. “What do you want me to do for you?” “Jesus give me mercy” he seems to say. He asks for the ability to see and he gets it. Not just to see with his physical eyes but to see truly and clearly who Jesus really is. Why else would he abandon the life he knows and follow Jesus on the way? He can see what is really happening. He knows who Jesus really is and what is going on.
Lent is a season where we often set aside extra time for prayer. Perhaps you are following along in the devotional or maybe offering a prayer each morning before you start the day. As we set our hearts to follow our Lord, chasing after him in prayer, I am wondering how we would answer this question. If Jesus suddenly asked “what do you want me to do for you?” how would you respond? What is that desire deep within your heart? Jesus give me status, give me wealth, give me healing, give me mercy, give me love. Jesus give me what I need.
We are so hungry and we are always seeking. We are always trying to follow Jesus on this way and it is scary. Like the disciples we are amazed and afraid. We aren’t as clueless as James and John to ask to sit at Jesus’ right and left. We know the path is service. But still, to become the least of these is frightening. To follow our leader into suffering, into death, it is not really a place we want to go.
I think my favorite passage in this whole reading is the first one, verse 32. “They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid.” Did you notice that part about Jesus walking ahead of them? Jesus goes first into suffering. Jesus leads the way. Even though this path to Jerusalem is scary and painful, we are never alone, because Jesus is already there. Wherever we follow our Lord to, whatever suffering comes our way, Jesus is already there. Jesus is with us wherever we go, because Jesus is walking ahead.
That is what this communion table is all about. Our Lord walks ahead of us into suffering. Our Lord is one who knows the depth of human pain and sadness. There is no hurt that we can feel that our Lord hasn’t already felt. There is no place in the darkness of our lives and our world that cannot be touched by the light of God. The worst thing that we can imagine? God is there, God is with us. Our Lord knows suffering, our Lord walks with us on the paths of suffering, and our Lord will lead us back out away from suffering. Away from this table of Good Friday and into the joy of Easter morning. As Jesus tells his disciples he will be killed “and after three days he will rise again.”
To follow Jesus on the way is to have the courage to follow wherever he leads. This path of service is a path of suffering and self-denial. This is the way we take up our cross and put our own interests aside. We would be fools not to be afraid. But we know that God goes with us. And we know that no matter how low we go, no matter how deep we fall, God will always pull us back again. We follow not only the Lord who was killed; we follow the one who lives again. May we have the strength and courage to continue to follow Jesus on the way. Amen.