Sunday, March 04, 2012

Radical Problem, Radical Therapy

[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, earlier today.]

Mark 8:31-38
Imagine a scene with me. You're in your doctor's office for a consultation. A few weeks earlier, you found something that wasn't quite right and went to see the doctor. She ordered up some tests and now you're back to see her to learn the results. She enters the office and says, "I'm sorry, but it's very serious. You have cancer and the prognosis is not good." Your heart is sinking until she offers this word of hope: "But I have a treatment regimen that's going to make everything OK." Shuddering with excitement, you listen closely as she tells you the treatment: "I'm going to give you a facelift."

You know that can't be right: When you're up against a major illness, a superficial remedy won't do. In the face of radical maladies, only radical therapies will do.

We human beings are confronted with a major malady. It's called death and it's the result of sin.

You and I were created in the image of God. That means that we are unique among all of God's creatures and creation. We are the pinnacle of God's creation. But sin has distorted our very natures. And because the human race is the pinnacle of the creation, charged with being God's good managers of all things, the Bible says that all creation groans under the weight of our sin.

The Bible uses that word, sin, in two different ways.

One way the Bible talks about sin is as a condition of our birth, what the Bible scholars and theologians call original sin. This is what David is referring to in Psalm 51:5. The psalm is a song of repentance on David's part, composed after he had committed adultery and then had his lover's husband killed. David asks for forgiveness and renewal from God, taking complete blame for his sins. Then he says this: "Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me."

I'm sorry to have to reveal this to you, but if you had human parents, you were born guilty, too.

Sin is a debt we owe to God and you and I are born with a debt so crippling we could never possibly pay it off.

But if that sounds bad, it gets worse.

Being born in sin means that we have an inborn inclination to add to our debts by sinning ourselves. (This inborn inclination to sin is what the Lutheran confessions call concupiscence, a predisposition to use God's good gifts at the wrong times, or for the wrong reasons, or with the wrong people.)

The other way the Bible talks about sin is the way you and I usually use the word: a violation of the will of God as expressed in the Ten Commandments. We fail to honor God as God. We fail to show as much concern for others as we do for ourselves.

Because of the condition of original sin, our sins are stubbornly evidenced in all our thinking, speaking, and living. In Romans 7:15, the apostle Paul writes: "I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want [anything that expresses love and regard for God and others], but I do the very thing I hate [anything that has me setting off on my own without regard to the will of God]." "I sin," Paul is saying, "and left to my own devices I cannot help myself."

Now folks, this is serious business. We are born in sin and we find ourselves incapable of refraining from sin. Paul reminds us elsewhere that there is only one outcome we can expect from the sin that, in both its forms, live within all of us: "The wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23). We sin and deserve to die,  separated from God forever.

"Wait a minute," you might say. "I know I'm not perfect. But I've never committed any of the really big sins. I've never murdered someone. I've never committed adultery. I've never embezzled thousands from my employer."

In James 2:10-11, we read: "For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For the One Who said, 'You shall not commit adultery,' also said, 'You shall not murder.' Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law."

If we violate one of God's commandments--from taking God's Name in vain to bearing false witness about a classmate, church member, or neighbor--God considers us in violation of all His commandments.

In sin, we have a major problem. The prognosis is death.

And even we who confess Jesus as our King and God need radical therapy every day.

That's what Jesus is talking about in today's Gospel lesson. Turn to Mark 8:31-38.

To understand this passage, we need to set the stage. Shortly before the incidents recounted in our lesson, Jesus had a conversation with His disciples. "Who is everybody saying that I am?" Jesus asks. The disciples report that some say He is John the Baptist returned from the dead. Others say that Jesus is actually Elijah, who had lived and been carried into heaven by a chariot of fire some nine centuries earlier. Others, the disciples reported, said that Jesus was "the prophet," a mysterious figure whose appearance many had been awaiting. "But," Jesus asked the disciples, "who do you say that I am."

In Mark 8:29, Peter says, "You are the Messiah [or, the Christ]."

The title, Christ [from Christos as it appears in the New Testament, which was written in Greek] or Messiah [from the Hebrew in which the Old Testament was written], means Anointed One.

The kings of God's people--called variously Hebrews, Israelites, Judeans, Jews--were always anointed with oil on being enthroned.

In Old Testament times, as much as eight centuries before the birth of Jesus, God had revealed through the prophets that there would one day come a special Christ--Anointed One--who would reconcile God and the human race.

Through the intervening centuries, anticipation had risen and fallen for the promised Christ. And there were certain expectations that people developed about the coming Christ or Messiah.

The people of first-century Judea, the place to which Jesus, God-in-the-flesh, came to live, thought that the Messiah would make what would amount to cosmetic changes, the moral equivalent of a facelift as a cure for cancer.

To them, the problems they faced had nothing to do with themselves or their own deficiencies. They wanted a king who would toss the Romans out of their land. They wanted an end to oppressive government regulations. They wanted the rich to pay their fair share in taxes and ease up on the poor. They wanted a king who would do their bidding, using the latest Gallup Poll as his guide for pleasing them. As is true for us today, their idea of what God should do in their lives was very different from what God had in mind.

That's why Peter's declaration of faith in Jesus as the Messiah was so dangerous. Jesus had to make sure that Peter and the rest of the disciples received some instruction on what it means to confess Jesus as the Christ. He didn't want to feed their false expectations. Jesus had come to do more than offer facelifts to dying people!

Look at Mark 8:31: "Then He began to teach them that the Son of Man [a title Jesus often used for Himself] 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."

The therapy for our sin, Jesus is saying, begins with Him. He, Who never once sinned, undergoes the suffering and death we deserve for our sin so that the debt can be paid for all who repent and believe in Jesus.

But this was more than Peter could bear!

We have no idea how much attention, if any, he and the other disciples paid to Jesus' prediction that He would rise from the dead. But we do know that he heard Jesus loud and clear when it came to predicting that He would suffer, be rejected, and be killed.

Look at Mark 8:32: "Peter took Him [Jesus] aside and began to rebuke Him." Peter manhandled Jesus, taking Jesus off somewhere away from the rest of the group. The word rebuke, epitimao in the Greek in which Mark originally wrote, means warn, upbraid, condemn, set straight.

Imagine this! Peter has just declared Jesus to be God's Anointed King and now he has the audacity to tell Jesus how to do His job!

But if Peter thought he was sparing Jesus embarrassment by taking Jesus aside, Jesus has no intention of sparing Peter any embarrassment. Jesus knows that Peter is speaking for a lot of people when telling Jesus not to mention things like suffering, crosses, or executions.

Look now at verse 33: "But turning and looking at His disciples, [Jesus] rebuked Peter and said, 'Get behind Me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things." 

You'll remember that last Sunday, we considered Jesus' encounter with Satan in the wilderness. Satan tempted Jesus away from suffering, rejection, and the cross. But Jesus knew that He needed to stay the course, whatever pain He caused Himself. 

Now Jesus applies the name of Satan to His right hand man, Peter! Peter may have thought that He was doing a nice thing, like the church member who says, "Pastor, I know that the Bible says that Jesus is the only way to eternity with God, but you make people feel uncomfortable when you tell the truth like that." "Niceness" of the kind Peter exhibits here leads people away from God. "Niceness" like that suits Satan's purposes just fine. Jesus, in essence, is telling Peter, "I am the great Physician and My suffering, rejection by others, and death on a cross are the first part of the cure. So, get out of My way!"

Then, Jesus gives the second part of His radical therapy for our sin and death. Look at verses 34 and 35: "He called the crowd with His disciples, and said to them, 'If any want to become My followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow Me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for My sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it."

Here we see that to believe that Jesus is the Christ--the King, the Lord of all--is more than just saying the right words on Sunday mornings. 

To believe that Jesus is the Messiah is, first of all, to surrender ourselves, even to the point of discomfort and death, to God's only aim for our lives, our sole aim in life. Do you know what God's aim is for your life? Colossians 3:18 says: "And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit."

God aims to make us like Jesus! 

That means that you and I need to remain focused--day to day and moment to moment--on Jesus. 

We need to daily repent for sin and allow the Holy Spirit to renew us. 

As we stay focused on Jesus, through all of life, the Holy Spirit works a miracle: We who have been distorted by sin are made over in the image of Christ! 

It doesn't happen overnight. 

It doesn't happen within our time on this earth. 

On the way to our resurrection from the dead, we won't avoid suffering, rejection, or death any more than Jesus did. 

But we become more and more like Jesus. 

1 John 3:2 says to those who dare to follow Jesus, "Beloved, we are God's children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when [Jesus] is revealed [on His return to the earth], we will be like Him..." We will be made over into the truly human beings God intended us to be when He made the first man and the first woman.

To believe that Jesus is the Messiah is, secondly, to embrace the very life style of Jesus. When, through Jesus' death and resurrection, you understand that you are number one in God's eyes, you no longer feel the need to "look out for number one." You can start to look out for others the way Jesus looks out for us. 

Philippians 2:3-4 says: "Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others."

John Stott tells the story of a college classroom in India. The professor, a Hindu, realized that one of his students was a Christian. "If you Christians lived like Jesus Christ," the professor told the student, "India would be at your feet tomorrow." 

No Christian wants to have others at their feet. But our joy as Christians is only made complete when we share Christ with others and they too, come to believe in Jesus as the Christ.

Sin and death threaten to separate us from God for eternity.

God's cure is radical, but sure. 

It begins with the Christ, God the Son, suffering, dying, and rising for us. 

And it's fulfilled when, after confessing Jesus with our lips, we confess Him with our lives, taking up our crosses and following Him: submitting ourselves to the death of our old sinful selves, committing ourselves to letting God make us over in the image of Jesus Himself, and embracing the very life of self-sacrifice and unstinting love that Jesus lived.

May God give us the power to have a faith that's more than words, a faith that shows in our whole lives. May we submit to the radical cure that gives us life with God forever!


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