Proper 19 (Sept. 11-17)
Texts: Mark 8:27-38;
Is. 50:4-9; 1 Cor. 1:18-24
SETTING OUR MINDS ON DIVINE THINGS
Then Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. (Mark 8:31)
There’s one little word I’d like to focus on today: “must.” “…that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” This lesson from Mark’s gospel is so important–maybe the most important text in all of Mark. There’s so much here that we need to know in order to understand who Jesus is. That’s what the passage is explicitly about, of course, as Jesus asks his disciples who he is. Peter gets the name right: “You are the Christ,” he says, “the Messiah.” But just getting the name right isn’t nearly enough, because Jesus will shatter the kind of Messiah that they are thinking about. As he tells Peter, they are setting their minds on human things rather than divine things. And so Jesus must also begin to teach them what kind of Messiah he will be: “Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering….” Yes, there is so much we need to learn even now from this lesson. Two thousand years later we, disciples of Jesus, still need Jesus to teach us how to set our minds on divine things. And I’d like for us to learn by focusing on this one word: “must.” Why must Jesus suffer and die and rise again?
This is such an important question because I think that we still tend to get the wrong answer. We say that it was in God’s plans that Jesus must suffer and die. And so we put most of the burden on God. And this is such an important question, too, because people continue to suffer in this world, and we tend to give the same sorts of answers as we do with Jesus. God is in control; everything is in God’s plans; so God must have some reason for human suffering, too. We even try to put a positive spin on it, don’t we? We often try to find ways of saying that there is positive gain to be had through suffering, that suffering can be a blessing. We say things like, “No pain, no gain.”
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to deny that good things can come out of suffering. As Easter people, we believe that God raised Jesus out of the throes of death. And we believe that God can help us to bring blessing out of suffering. But we need to be very careful here, that we don’t go that extra step and also believe that God brought on the suffering or the death, in the first place. Yes, God can help us to pull blessing out of suffering, but we need to ask if God brings on the suffering, too. Is there a must to our suffering like there was a must to Jesus suffering? And is God behind the must? Is it God’s plan that people suffer?
I think that the most difficult times for me as a pastor are when I listen to the story of someone who was abused as a child. There is a terrible suffering that goes on, not only during childhood, but often right on through that person’s life. Those unresolved hurts can make the person dysfunctional in their relationships, causing all kinds of turmoil in the adult life. More and more, these days, such people are finding healing. And they might even admit to finally being a stronger person, a more sensitive person, for having come through the healing. But I wouldn’t begin to tell the person that God meant for them to suffer so that they could be a stronger person for it. No, God brings the healing, God brings the strength, God brings the new life, but God doesn’t bring the suffering. As we highlighted from the epistle of James two weeks ago: (James 1:17) “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” God is all light and no darkness. Evil and suffering do not come from God. (See Proper 17B sermon on James 1:17-18.)
So where does evil and suffering come from? We ran up against this question two weeks ago, too, and I noted that the Bible doesn’t seem as interested as we are in answering that question, other than trying to make it clear that God is not the source of evil or suffering. Well, if we don’t say where it comes from, we still might want to ask: Why doesn’t God stop it? I’d like to suggest an answer today. And the best answer I’ve seen to that question did not come in some thick theology book, but in one of the Trailblazer series books that I read to my boys. It’s the story of one of those ugly times in the church’s history when it inflicted great suffering and death on people in the name of God. The church was persecuting one of the new Protestant groups in Europe, the followers of Menno Simons, the Mennonites. This book is the story of an adolescent boy, Adriaen, whose mother is being held in prison to be hanged simply for being a Mennonite. He has just visited his mother in a horrible dungeon, and he has this conversation with his friend Betty. The church was using who they thought God to be to bring suffering upon he and his mother. But listen to see if Adriaen doesn’t have his own way of blaming or using God:
“I thought God was supposed to take care of us,” Adriaen grumbled. “What have I ever done to deserve losing my mother? It’s not fair.””Adriaen, don’t confuse God with life. Life may be unfair…God is not. It wasn’t God who put your mother in prison.”
“Maybe not, but [God] didn’t stop those men from doing it.”
“And you think [God] should have? You think [God] should have stopped the authorities from arresting those believers?”
“Yeah, why not?”
“Well, God can do whatever [God] pleases, but when was the last time [God] stopped you from doing something wrong?”
“I don’t know,” Adriaen said with a shrug, not sure he liked the direction the conversation was going.
“The reason you don’t remember is because [God] very rarely does something like that,” said Betty matter-of-factly. “We’d like God to stop other people from doing bad things all the time, but when it comes to us, we want the freedom to make our own choices even if they are wrong.” (1)
When was the last time God stopped you from doing something wrong? No, like Adriaen and the apostle Peter, we all need to learn to set our minds on the divine things rather than the human things. We need to see and know that God is absolute love and gracious giving. Love cannot be forced on anyone; it must be freely accepted and returned. And grace cannot be forced on anyone; it must be given and received in freedom. So God doesn’t force us from not accepting that love and grace, either. God painfully doesn’t stop us from turning around and inflicting suffering on others, either.
That’s why Jesus must suffer and die and be rejected. The “must” lies with us; not with God. Yes, in love and grace, God did have to send the Son into this world, desperately trying to show who God is and who we are. But we wouldn’t listen. Like Peter, we have our minds set on human things and not divine things. And so the “must” of Jesus’ suffering and death and rejection lies with us. We were so trapped in our sin that it was necessary for Jesus to go to the cross.
But thank God that God did have one “must” of his own: on the third day the Son of Man would rise again. The suffering and death and rejection, that “must” was our sin. But the rising on the third day, that “must” was God’s. It is only because Jesus was raised from the dead, that Jesus was vindicated in such a dramatic way, that we can begin to set our minds finally on divine things, with the help of the Holy Spirit. We can begin to live our lives with the same kind of grace and love that Jesus did. Instead of selfishly clinging to our lives, we are able to give them up to others in love and grace. We are able give our lives to those who suffer. We are able to lose our lives in order to gain them.
Yes, in a world where many people still have their minds set on human things rather than divine things, that means we will suffer, too. But we can proclaim with the Suffering Servant in this morning’s first lesson: God who vindicates me is near! Just as God was near Jesus and wouldn’t let him go, but raised him up, so God is near to us in Christ Jesus our Lord.
And so the Suffering Servant goes on to proclaim: “Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together.” Let us stand together. That’s where we even have it better than Jesus. Jesus truly had to stand alone in his suffering. But we can stand together to face the suffering of this world. We can stand together in being the first fruits of God’s love and grace in this world, that more and more people might set their minds on the divine things. In the power of the Holy Spirit, that’s a must! Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, September 13-14, 1997