Mark 8:31-38 "The Lenten Fork"
According to that great font of wisdom, Yogi Berra, "If you come to a fork in the road, take it." Mark 8 is a kind of theological fork in the road. This chapter is the hinge of Mark's gospel. Not only is this the exact middle of Mark in terms of chapters and verses, it is also theologically the centerpoint at which the ministry of Jesus takes a decisive turn toward the cross. Jesus seems to know what he is doing and also where he is going (or, better said, where he must go whether he wants to go that direction or not). For the disciples, however, Mark 8 does present a kind of fork in the road. And like Yogi Berra, as they look at the fork in the road, they want to take it. They want it both ways. They want to stick with Jesus and be his followers while at the same time insisting that Jesus follow them down the path they want to take.
Among other things, Mark 8 is a classic text that reveals to us something we already know but don't like to admit: it is difficult to be a follower. It's tough because somewhere in the recesses of our hearts there is a prima donna-like desire to be a leader. I visited the Amazon.com website last week and asked for a list of all books currently in print that have to do with being a leader and exercising leadership. I was given a massive list of over 12,600 books that teach you how to be an effective leader. So then I asked for books that had something to do with following and was given a vastly shorter list of about 600 titles. But do you know what most of those books are about? They give advice on how to follow your dreams. And do you know what most people dream about? Becoming a leader!
Of course, this does not mean that we are never content to be followers. Most of us, if we feel inspired by a leader, are happy to be associated with him or her and to go where this person directs us. We know that we cannot all be the governor of the state or the president of the nation and so we willingly accept our role as followers. If we respect a given leader, we are proud to have some kind of association with this person.
That is why, at the state capitol in Lansing, at the Congress in Washington, and also at the White House there are people whose full-time job is nothing other than taking photographs of leaders standing next to visitors. In fact, you can almost measure a person's political power by checking how many framed photos there are on his or her office wall. The less power you have, the more pictures you display of your standing next to people higher up on the political ladder. And so a local politician may have lots of pictures on the wall. A congressional representative in Washington will have fewer such photos, a senator may have just the one picture of him standing next to the president, and by the time you get to the Oval Office the only photos you find are family pictures on the credenza. The president doesn't need to display himself in the company of leaders higher-up--there is no one higher up and that's why the president is the one the rest of us want to be seen with!
We all do our fair share of following in life but it's a lot easier to do if the leader we follow inspires us with the promise that the road we are traveling together is leading somewhere good. But what if the person behind whom you want to fall in line is very up front about saying that the path he must take (and so the path you must take if you're going to stick with him) is going nowhere? That is the fork in the road the disciples encountered in Mark 8. They want to follow Jesus, they really do. Suddenly, however, it looks like Jesus is intent on taking the proverbial "road less traveled," a path that was going the opposite direction of where the disciples wanted to go. Wasn't there some way to encounter this fork in the road and just take it? Couldn't they be disciples, followers, of Jesus and still arrive at the place toward which they thought they had been heading all along?
To understand this conundrum better, we need to back up a little bit in this passage. As most of us may already know, in the verses just prior to this morning's passage, Jesus climaxes the first half of Mark's gospel with the famous question, "Who do people say that I am? Who do you say that I am?" Peter gave an answer that was at once right and wrong. It was right in the sense that he correctly identified Jesus as God's Son, the Messiah sent to save the world. But that same answer was wrong in the sense that Peter's definition of the Messiah was incorrect. Peter thought the Christ would be an earthly king with political clout. The disciples wanted to follow Jesus all right, but they were hoping that the path would lead to a throne in a palace somewhere. They wanted jobs in the West Wing, not a seat in the bloody muck at the foot of a cross.
You see, this entire episode took place in the region of Caesarea, "Caesarville." The very name reminded the Jews of their status as an occupied land. The Romans were everywhere as were reminders that the Jews ultimately lived in the shadow of the Caesar. Once upon a time, Caesarville had been called the region of Naphtali near the city of Dan in the foothills of Mount Hermon--names that pointed back to the glory days of freedom under Kings David and Solomon. But now the disciples believed God's Christ was on the scene and so maybe the day was not far off when the Hebrew names could make a comeback, the way Leningrad got changed back to St. Petersburg after the Soviet Union collapsed. Out with the godless secular names, in with the godly, sacred names. Adieu "Caesarville!" Welcome back, "Naphtali!"
With all that running through their minds, it was confusing to hear Jesus go on to say that soon he'd be rejected, scorned, and killed. He also said that after three days he would rise again from the dead, but by the time he got to that part, the disciples were hardly even hearing Jesus anymore. This prediction of suffering and death sent the disciples into a tizzy. Suddenly there was a kind of roaring in their ears as their hearts and minds rebelled against what Jesus was saying. Since Peter was a kind of leader among the disciples--and since he had just been the one to peg Jesus' identity--he quite naturally intervened.
Peter drapes his arm around Jesus' shoulders and pulls him aside, the way a parent might treat a child. Peter the follower was getting out ahead of Jesus and so assumed a posture of superiority. Mark does not tell us what Peter said but it looks as though Peter began to wave a bony finger in Jesus' face, shaking his head and as much as saying, "Let's have no more of that kind of defeatist talk, Master! You have to believe in yourself, Jesus, if you ever expect to have other folks believe in you!" Verse 33 tells us that Jesus rebukes Peter harshly. But did you notice one little detail? Before he tells Peter how wrong he is, Jesus first turns around and looks back at the other disciples. Peter had pulled Jesus away from the rest of them but before answering Peter, Jesus turns and looks back.
Why did he do that? What did he see when he looked at the disciples? At the very least he probably saw approval in their eyes for what Peter had just said. They agreed. This was no way to talk. But for a fleeting moment did Jesus see something else? Was he tempted to see in this band of disciples the possibility of his going another way? After all, Jesus had something going here. He had attracted a following. His ministry had been very popular. At the beginning of this chapter Jesus fed 4,000 people. That is quite a crowd. When Calvin College invites someone to come to the campus to speak, they assign a venue based on what kind of a draw they believe a given speaker will have. And so one speaker might get assigned to the Commons Lecture Hall, which seats a modest number of folks. Someone a bit more famous, but still not hugely popular, can make do with the Gezon Auditorium. Is someone even better known? Then the Fine Arts Center is tapped. Is this person really, really famous--the kind of person who might garner a crowd of 4,000 or 5,000 people? Then the Fieldhouse is used.
Mark 8 tells us that Jesus had become so well-known in such a short period of time that he was now drawing out thousands. He needed ever bigger venues. When the gospel began, Jesus could not fill up even a modest synagogue, but now . . . well, Jesus looked for all the world like a man who was going places. When in verse 27 Jesus asked, "Who do people say that I am?" he needed to ask that question because he now had so many folks who knew his name that he was no longer able to keep up with what was being said about him. Had he asked this same question in Mark 1, it would have been easy to answer. Since only about a dozen folks had ever heard of him at that time, finding out what people were saying about Jesus could have been accomplished in five minutes. But now Jesus was big-time.
And so suppose that after hearing Peter's rebuke, suppose Jesus turned and looked back at his eager disciples only to see the temptation to go Peter's way after all. Isn't it often true that when we feel tempted by something, we give it a second look? You're sitting at the table in the restaurant and the waiter is holding the dessert tray. You glanced at that piece of baklava cheesecake but decided to resist the temptation. "You sure?" the waiter says, even as he moves the tray just a wee bit in your direction. And so you give it another look. Or, you see a really attractive person and you sense a desire and a lust in your heart that you're pretty sure isn't terribly pure but you look over at her again anyway. If you yield to temptation at all, it usually comes after not the first glance but the second.
Peter tells Jesus there is another way to go that won't involve all that rejection, suffering, and death stuff. And maybe Jesus considered it for a moment. He looked at the disciples as a kind of second glance. Maybe Peter was right. These people would surely follow Jesus if, at this theological fork in the road, he decided to march to Rome and lead a rebellion. Recently I heard an eyewitness describe the day that General Douglas MacArthur came to Washington to address Congress not long after President Harry Truman had fired MacArthur. The adulation that surrounded the General was palpable and powerful. The crowds that surged around MacArthur were fervent and huge and also filled with hatred for Harry Truman. And this eyewitness said that this was the only time he has ever feared that our government could be toppled because had MacArthur pointed to the White House and said to that crowd, "Boys, let's take it!" the crowds would have followed their General.
Peter rebuked his Master and pointed to that other path that led to power and away from the cross. And Jesus glanced over at the other disciples almost as though he was considering Peter's proposal. It was very tempting, but where temptation lurks, the devil is at work and so as Jesus snaps out of this trap, it is no surprise to hear him utter the name of Satan. Peter's suggestion, and the support it was getting from the other disciples, was the devil's work for certain! And so Jesus wakes up, sees the truth, tells Satan to get behind him even as he brings back into the forefront the things of God.
Having cleared his head, Jesus then invites all the crowds to listen in on what he has to say next. But the irony is that what Jesus now has to say to those crowds will have the effect of whittling away at the throng currently surrounding Jesus. What Jesus conveys in verses 34-38 is not the kind of thing you say if you're looking to whip up some enthusiasm in people. Quite the opposite: Jesus begins to speak unpopular words about cross-bearing, losing of life, turning away from the world in order to embrace something that is going to involve lots of sacrifice, hard work, and also death.
To follow Jesus involves this choice as we stand at the Mark 8 fork in the road. As we noted together a couple of years ago when looking at this passage, there are two ways to get behind Jesus. In verse 33 Jesus calls Peter Satan and orders him to get opiso mou, the Greek phrase for "behind me." But although you cannot detect it in the English translation, Jesus repeats this same phrase in 34 when he says that if anyone wants to come opiso mou, then he has to take up his cross. In back-to-back verses Jesus uses the exact same phrase, signaling something significant. In fact, in verse 34 the phrase opiso mou is not needed. Technically it's redundant, a kind of tautology, rather like saying, "If you want to look me in the eye you need to look at me." After all, following someone automatically implies being behind them. Yet in verse 34 Jesus is careful to say, "If you want to stand opiso mou, behind me, then you have to take up your cross and then follow me."
It seems that there are two ways to get behind Jesus: you can get behind Jesus as a kind of Satan who clutches tightly to worldly glitz, power, and fame, or you can get behind Jesus as a cross-bearing disciple. One way or another, we all end up behind Jesus because he is the cosmic Christ. No one can ever get out ahead of Jesus. In the end, his power will be too vast and all-encompassing. Jesus is going to be out front with the rest of creation being somewhere behind him. The only question is what your status back there will be.
During Lent we are reminded in a poignant manner that the whole of the Christian life is an encounter with a fork in the road. The world is always luring us down various paths and avenues that promise all kinds of sunny things. And for anyone with enough ambition, willpower, gumption, guts, and sheer determination, there are many goodies in the world that can be snagged. Of course, garnering such treasures requires very often a lot. A person cannot say "Yes" to new business opportunities, to this or that chance to climb up the next rung on the corporate ladder, without simultaneously having to say "No" to any number of other things. Family time gets sacrificed, involvement in church gets cut back, problem areas in a marriage go unattended because, after all, as we say to ourselves, "I just don't have time for everything." True enough. No one has time for everything. Life is all about making choices, and we each of us sooner or later reveal ourselves as the sum of our choices.
In Lent we ponder the choice Jesus made. He gave the world a second glance in Mark 8. In the ears of most people then and now, Peter's suggestion that Jesus steer clear of sacrifice would make eminent sense. Jesus' brief glance back at the other disciples may well mean he felt the allure and the tug of the path Peter was steering Jesus toward. But we know what Jesus chose instead. If we want to get behind Jesus as a disciple, then we need to be quite intentional in traveling the path he marks out for us. Are we?
Probably some of us have given far more thought to our spring break travel plans than we ever devote to contemplating our Lenten travel plans toward the cross. But to state the merely obvious (and to put it mildly) we would do well now and always to ponder what it means to be a people who live under the sign of the cross. "Bearing your cross" does not refer to putting up with arthritis, tolerating that annoying relative of yours, or most any of the other things people refer to when saying, "Well, that's just my cross to bear in life." We do not have individual, customized crosses to bear but instead we all bear the same cross: Jesus' cross. And Jesus' cross is this: dying to self so that we can live life with a fundamental orientation toward others, toward service, toward living out and proclaiming the better path of the gospel in any and every way we can.
And so the gospel message to us this morning is the same as every Sunday morning and at all other times too. If you come to a cross in the road, take it. Amen.