Second Sunday in the Midst of Lent

TEXT: Mark 8:27-38

… turning and seeing his disciples, [Jesus] rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” (Mark 8:33)

Jesus is being kind of blunt, isn’t he? I would hate to have been Peter when those words were uttered. Just a few verses earlier in Mark’s Gospel, Peter was the disciple who knew the right answer when Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I am?”

“You are the Christ,” Peter responded. You’re the Messiah. You’re the one God sent.

Mark—being Mark—rolls right on to the next part of the story, where Peter gets slammed for not understanding the meaning of what he has just said. But in Matthew’s reporting of this event, we hear that Jesus’ immediate reaction to Peter’s declaration was one of high praise, not condemnation:

Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matt. 16:16-19)

Quite a comedown—from “I’ll give you the keys of the kingdom” to “Get behind me, Satan!”  But I guess Jesus was disappointed—and surprised. I mean, it must have been frustrating, after all. “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Wow! He gets it. Peter understands. But, then … he doesn’t. When Jesus begins to teach them what being the Christ means—that he’s going to have to suffer, and be rejected, and be killed—Peter is horrified. He pulls Jesus aside and tells him that he’s got it all wrong.

Once again, it’s Matthew who gives us the details: “… Peter … began to rebuke him, saying, ‘Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you’” (Matt. 16:22).

No. He doesn’t get it. Even though he seemed to be the brightest student in the class, Peter simply does not understand the kind of Messiah Jesus has chosen to be. So the Lord lets him have it: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”

Yeah. It does seem kind of harsh. But you know, sometimes people have to be hit over the head before they can think straight.

We all know people like this, don’t we? And sometimes we are people like this. We insist on running things our own way. We hear only what we want to hear. We don’t pay attention to what others are trying desperately to tell us. And it’s not that we’re stupid, necessarily. Maybe, we’re just pig-headed. Or deluded.

Or in denial, like a man I know who would not seriously deal with his alcoholism until his wife told him, “Look—either you go to rehab, and go today, or I’m leaving you!”

Or like a woman I know, who refused to seek treatment for her depression until her husband did leave her.

Sometimes, we need to be hit over the head. Maybe it’s a health crisis that demands a lifestyle change. Maybe it’s an extended period of unemployment—or illness, or incarceration—that forces us to examine our lives, our priorities, and our goals.

Or maybe it’s 40 days in the desert. Like Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell us Jesus spent. That’s what we’re supposed to be remembering, during this Lenten season. Even Jesus needed preparation. Even he required a training period, so to speak.

First there was the moment of glorious revelation, at his baptism, after he emerged from the chilly waters of the Jordan River, when the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him like a dove, and God spoke from heaven, saying, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11 and Luke 3:22).

Christian tradition tells us that’s what happens when each one of us is baptized, whether we hear it, or not. God calls our name, calls us his beloved child, and says, “I am pleased with you.” But sooner or later—whenever we decide to get serious about discipleship—something else happens: we get hit over the head with a cross. We find out that following Jesus isn’t all about glory. It isn’t all about ecstatic prayer, or feeling close to God, or enthusiastically singing songs of praise on a Sunday morning. All of that is part of the story, but it isn’t the whole story. Sooner or later, it’s going to be about feeling the nails. And that comes as a shock to all of us, I think. It’s the part of the story we don’t want to hear. It’s the chapter we don’t want to live out.

But it’s a part of the story we cannot avoid. There’s a cross waiting for each one of us, and what we do with it will write the defining chapter of our lives. Will we pick it up and follow Jesus in his way, or will we allow its weight to crush us? Will we trust God for strength to carry it, or will we leave it—and our discipleship—face down in the dust?

Those are important questions, and we have to confront them, for ourselves, before we can truly give our lives over to the will of God. The trouble is, at the beginning of our faith journey, most of us aren’t even aware of them. We don’t know our issues. We don’t know our strengths, or our weaknesses. We do not know—or do not want to face—the things that are really going to tempt us, or test us. We need to be shown. We need to know what the deal is.

I think that’s why the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness. If the Son of God was truly human—if Jesus was really human the way we are human—then I think he needed to be hit over the head with the cross.

What was that about? Listen to the way Luke describes it, in his gospel:

… Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing during those days. And when they were ended, he was hungry. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” And Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone.’”  And the devil took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” And Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.’”

And [the devil] took him to Jerusalem and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”

And Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him … (Luke 4:1-13)

Notice what’s going on here? In Jesus, at the end of his 40-day sojourn in the desert, what we see is a person who has come to terms with his destiny, who has embraced completely the mission that God has laid out before him.

In the wilderness—in that desolate place, empty of everything except God, and the devil, and his own immortal soul—the carpenter’s son from Nazareth has been shown his cross, and he has made the hard decision to pick it up, trusting his heavenly Father to help him carry it. There will be no short cuts to glory. No easy way out.

No wonder, later on, he reacted so strongly to Peter’s well-meaning advice: “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” To Jesus, it must have felt like Satan was speaking to him again: trying, one more time, to turn him away from the plan God had laid out for him—tempting him, one more time, to take the easier, softer way … thereby becoming something less than the Saviour we all need.

Peter did not know it at the time, but when he said those words—when he said, in effect: “Don’t do it, Lord! Choose another way!”—he was hitting Jesus over the head, just like the devil had done, again and again, in the wilderness. And so Jesus hit back: “Get behind me, Satan!”

There’s a lot going on in today’s gospel story, and it all relates to those 40 desert days … those 40 desert nights … when the Son of God wrestled with what it meant to be the Son of Man, and found a measure of peace—and a firm resolution.

That’s what the season of Lent is supposed to be about for us, I think. Whether or not we have an actual desert handy, the 40 days of Lent call us, every year, into a period of reflection and honest self-examination, under the guidance of the Spirit of God. It’s kind of like what 12-Step programs call “taking a personal inventory.” We need to do this again and again, because—spiritually—we’re all kind of thick-skulled, and we need to be hit over the head from time to time.

That’s why it’s a good thing Lent comes round every year. If you sincerely embrace the discipline of this season, you won’t be able to avoid asking yourself questions like:

  • What is my greatest fear?
  • What are the biggest obstacles to my discipleship? and
  • Am I really willing to do what God is calling me to do?

During Lent, what you’re really called to give up is complacency. During Lent—every year—you’re hit over the head with the question: “Are you ‘all in’?”

Will you actually follow where Jesus leads—no matter what? Maybe it is the devil asking the question. Or maybe it’s God. Probably, it’s both of them. But, here’s the thing: When Satan asks the question, he follows up with an easy alternative. When God asks the question, He follows up with a promise: “My grace is sufficient for you” (2 Cor. 12:9).

The Lord may not offer a comfortable way out, but He does promise to help you, to support you, to add his strong shoulder to yours as you bear whatever cross you’re given.

And that, my friends, is why the Good News is good news. Amen.


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