A Sermon preached on September 13th (Proper 19) at St. Augustine’s, WiesbadenProverbs 1:20-33, James 3:1-12, Mark 8:27-38
When I was looking through the readings for this week to prepare my sermon, I couldn’t help but think: Let’s hope that we are not the ones who have ignored Wisdom’s counsel … or as we heard in the reading from Proverbs, we might otherwise soon experience a storm and whirlwind – the very last things we need at an outdoor service!
But let’s stay with the reading from Proverbs for a moment. The figure of Wisdom – personified by a woman you will have noticed – issues dire warnings to those who, as she puts it, love being simple, or delight in scoffing and mocking the knowledge she brings, or who – foolishly – even hate it, although the knowledge she brings is nothing more than the knowledge and love of God. Like the ancient prophets of Israel she is out in the streets and square and the busiest corners spreading her message of warning. A warning not that God will punish them, but that their own behavior will destroy them: they will eat the fruit of their way and be sated with their own devices.
She is clearly frustrated by the people’s inability or unwillingness to hear her words and her counsel and to take her outstretched hand. Why do they not see? Why do they persist in following a way that leads to destruction? Why do they hate the knowledge she has to offer?
In the second passage we heard, from the Gospel of Mark, Jesus sounds equally frustrated! In the story immediately preceding this passage, Jesus heals a blind man. I think that’s a deliberate piece of editing on Mark’s part: first a blind man receives his sight, and then the blind disciples gain insight into who Jesus really is and why he was sent. Though as we heard, it wasn’t easy to get the message across.
As Douglas+ told and showed us last week in his sermon, the disciples, the dafties as he called them, are having trouble understanding Jesus – they have a lot to learn. Last week we heard Jesus use the example of a foreign woman to break down their prejudices. This week he tries direct teaching.
The people already have an idea that Jesus is a messenger from God: John the Baptist raised from the dead, Elijah returned from heaven – so someone special, not your common or garden prophet. So Like the blind man who first of all can only see shapes, and for whom people appear as if they were trees, at least part of the message is getting through. And then, when Jesus asks the disciples: “But who do you say that I am?" And Peter answers "You are the Messiah" (Mark 8:29) Jesus must have jumped for joy, Hallelujah, they’ve got it! Only to be frustrated and disappointed a moment later by that same Peter when he rebukes Jesus. Why?
Because they had still only got it partially right. The disciples understood that Jesus is not just a prophet, not even “just” a resurrected one, but the Messiah, the one anointed by God to bring God’s Kingdom. But they still expect him to be a powerful King, to lead Israel, to cleanse the Temple, to fight and defeat their enemies and to bring God’s justice to Israel. That’s what they expected – and not someone who says that he is going to get himself killed as part of the program! Jesus, Peter says, you can’t be the Messiah if you get killed, because then you would be a false one.
You can hear the frustration in Jesus’ answer: "Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things." (Mark 8:33)
To follow Jesus means trying to think and live from God’s point of view, it means rejecting the normal human patterns of behavior, and expectations of power and success and wealth, those patterns that, as the figure of Wisdom warned, lead to destruction. “Why is it so easy to hate, and so difficult to love?” Heidi asked this week as we listened to the news from Turkey. Because, as Jesus showed us, love is also about sacrifice and giving things up, in Jesus’ case making the ultimate sacrifice. Hate on the other hand is often a reaction to the fear of loss and an attempt to defend and protect a possession or a privilege or a position of power – or to manipulate others to defend it for you. Take refugees for example – are we prepared to help and give up a little of our prosperity to help those who are fleeing for their lives? Or do we close our borders and stop trains and build fences around our countries or ports and burn asylum centers out of fear and hate?
Why was it so difficult for the disciples, and why is it still so difficult to hear a message of love and self-sacrifice, to set our mind on divine things and not on human things?
Because God’s point of view, God’s wisdom can seem foolish at times, for as St. Paul writes in his 1st Letter to the Corinthians, Christ crucified is a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. (1 Corinthians 1:23) From God’s point of view, as experienced in and through the actions of God’s Son, the most important person is the other. The only person or group who is more important than any other, at any given time is the person or group in need. The widow, orphan, stranger, refugee, prisoner, the hungry, the thirsty …… you all know the list. And from Jesus’ point of view life is most fulfilling and most rewarding when we live it not just for ourselves but for God and for others, or in his words it is when we lose our life for Jesus’ sake, and for the sake of his gospel, that we save it.(Mark 8:35)
None of this is easy, but I’m afraid that is what being a Christian is about. It means living the message that Jesus embodies, it means, just like Wisdom and the ancient prophets of Israel going out into the streets and squares and the modern equivalents of the city gates to spread the Good News that is Christ Jesus. It means taking up whatever cross God needs us to carry. If we fear God – that is respect and love God and submit to God’s will: so try and think and live from God’s point of view – then we have nothing to fear, not even, as Wisdom says, seeming disasters, which we can approach with a sense of security and safety and ease - secure in the knowledge and love of God.