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You’re Not Listening

Date: February 24, 2020/Speaker: Sharla Hulsey
Jesus transfigures into dazzling white clothes in front Peter, James, and John.

Mark 8:27–9:8

Good old Peter. How can somebody be so smart and so stupid at the same time?

First he says, “You are the Christ”—showing insight that, in other Gospels, Jesus say has to have come from the Holy Spirit. Then when Jesus says, well, the Messiah—the Christ—is going to be rejected and killed, then rise again on the third day, Peter can’t get his mind around that. He pulls Jesus aside and says, “Teacher, don’t you know your Bible? The Scriptures are clear that the Messiah is going to overthrow the Romans and bring the kingdom of God fully into power on this earth. Messiah’s reign is to be eternal—if you’re the Messiah, you’re certainly not going to die!”

Then they go up the mountain, and Jesus is transfigured, and Moses and Elijah—who represent the Law and the Prophets, but are also both figures whose deaths were mysterious—appear to talk to him. And again Peter’s mouth starts running before his brain is engaged, and he starts babbling something about building booths, so Jesus, Moses, and Elijah can get some shelter from the hot sun, maybe?

But I doubt I’d have made any more sense if I’d been in that situation.

Honestly, I think I have a lot in common with Peter. Maybe we all do.

If I’m really paying attention to Jesus, to what he taught and what he did, and I am genuinely and prayerfully trying to figure out how to follow him here and now, I may well say and do smart things. But as soon as I set my mind on the things of the earth, I’m not so smart. I get to thinking that following Jesus just means being a nice person. (Obviously we want to be decent and kind people, but is that all Jesus has in mind for us?) Or maybe I find myself convinced that following Jesus means obeying a bunch of rules and enforcing others’ obedience to them, forgetting that Jesus said the most important rules were simply to love God and one another. Or I decide that Jesus would support one political party or candidate (most likely the party or candidate I prefer) over another, forgetting that when Jesus was tempted with the chance to exert political power, he said no. Or maybe I baptize my own desires and preferences, and assume that Jesus only wants me to be happy, live a financially comfortable life and drive a fancy new car—ignoring, as Peter wanted to do, the reality that Jesus was rejected, arrested, tortured, and crucified, and told us that if we wanted to follow him we need to be prepared to pick up our own crosses. Or maybe—and Peter did this, too—when the going gets tough I say, No, of course I don’t belong to Jesus; I’ve never even heard of him!

I’m a lot like Peter in a lot of ways. Are you?

Peter knew Jesus was the Messiah. But when Jesus started talking about what that was going to mean—arrest, torture, death—Peter couldn’t hear it.

Have you ever had an experience where you have said something over and over until you’re blue in the face, but the person you’re talking to just plain isn’t listening, or they can’t hear you, or they won’t hear you? A few days ago I e-mailed someone to get some information that I needed to pass along. I thought I was being pretty clear what it was I needed. But when the person responded, I got a whole lot of stuff—and none of it was the thing I had asked for. I sent back a reply and said, “Thanks, but what I need is this…” And then I got a whole bunch more stuff—by the time all was said and done I had received everything except the one bit of information I needed. I thought I was being clear, but either I wasn’t, or the person I was talking to just plain wasn’t listening.

Jesus had to have felt like that with the disciples—three times he tries to warn them about what was coming up when they got to Jerusalem, and three times it sailed right over their heads. Or maybe they heard it, but they didn’t want to hear it…if you know what I mean.

Peter says, “You are the Christ,” and then Jesus says, “Well, the Christ is going to have to go through some horrible things soon.”

And Peter, certain that he knew what it meant that Jesus was the Christ, took it upon himself to set Jesus straight. It says, “Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.”

It’s important to know just exactly what that means. The word here that means “rebuke” is the same word—the very same word—for what Jesus does to demons when he casts them out. It’s a strong word, a powerful word. This isn’t just a friendly disagreement.

Peter, the disciple, bull-in-a-china-shop, [1] frequently clueless, Peter, presumes to correct the Messiah’s theology? Presumes to chew the Messiah out? Presumes he knows more about God’s will than Jesus does?

But we don’t really have any call to laugh at Peter, to act like he’s so stupid and we’ve got it all together. For one thing, we have two millennia of hindsight that he didn’t have. We know what happened on Easter morning; Peter couldn’t know at this point in the story.

And how many times have we prayed like Jesus taught us, “Thy will be done…” assuming we knew what God’s will was, assuming that God’s will was pretty much the same as our own will, and then resisted it when we began to see that God’s will was something completely different, something we weren’t comfortable with?

Jesus turns around and responds to Peter in the same tone of voice that Peter used with him. Only Peter had taken Jesus aside and rebuked him privately; Jesus chews Peter out in front of all the disciples. I doubt Jesus was just trying to embarrass Peter. Peter was, a lot of times, the spokesman for the twelve disciples, the one who went to Jesus to tell him what all of them were thinking.

Jesus’ response is harsh! He calls Peter, the one who’s just given the right answer to the question, “Who do you say that I am?” Satan! Get behind me, Satan! Why Satan? Why not just, Peter, you don’t know what you’re talking about?

Well, it’s because what Peter was doing was tempting Jesus, just like the devil did in the wilderness at the beginning of the story.

Jesus had gone out into the wilderness for a very long time, to wrestle with what God wanted him to do, with what his ministry was going to look like, all of that. After the temptations, he came back and began teaching and proclaiming and healing. He’d figured out what God’s will was, and was prepared to do it, whatever the cost.

But Peter, rebuking him, reminded him of the very tempting, traditional understanding of the Messiah. Jesus could have thought about it and said, you know, maybe you’re right—that understanding comes from a long tradition, a lot of thinking, good scholarship—maybe I heard God wrong.

This wouldn’t have been a trivial little temptation; it could have led Jesus to decide to step away from the path God had laid out for him—a path that would lead to the cross. Could have derailed the whole thing, led Jesus and his followers into a rebellion or uprising that might not have—probably wouldn’t have—succeeded.

So Jesus tells Peter, “Get away from me, Satan!” Get away from me; in trying to do this, you’ve become my adversary, my tempter.

Then Jesus gets his disciples and a whole crowd together and he tells them a few more things they don’t want to hear. You’re following me because you believe I’m the Messiah. But I’m telling you this isn’t an easy road to glory, the glory of the revolution, the glory of dying for the revolution, [2] the glory of routing the Roman oppressors, getting them out of our promised land once and for all.

If you’re going to follow me, it means carrying a cross. It means putting your life on the line. It means going into dangerous places, saying and doing dangerous things. You could die. If you’re going to follow me, you need to be prepared for your own execution.

He says, my way is a difficult one, and you have to make a choice. You can play it safe, keep yourself out of danger—but if you do, you’re going to lose it all. When the judgment comes, I’ll be as ashamed of you there as you are of me here.

So are you going to follow me or not?

I think that, in a way, it’s been too easy for us here. Being a Christian in this country, for a long time, has meant being a good person, a nice person, a respectable person. It hasn’t, for the most part, meant taking risks. And sometimes, if we wonder if we might be called to take risks, we back away, we take the easy way, we rationalize—it can’t really be God’s will for me to put myself or my family in danger; surely it isn’t really God’s will for me to say or do something that will get me ridiculed or my children ostracized at school.

But if it doesn’t cost something, is it really worth it?

We are at the start of an election year. Soon we will have decisions to make about the direction we want our community, our state, our country to go over the next few years, and who can best lead us in that direction.

For the last several election seasons, people have emitted quite a lot of hot air telling us that this election, this year, is the most important one ever in the history of our country. Is this more the case this year than in the past? It’s not really for me to say in this sermon, and we probably aren’t all going to agree about it, or about whom we should elect to lead us.

I hope that we will all be praying, and studying, and trying to listen to God’s will, as we prepare to go into the voting booth [3] or make our voices heard in other ways. The answers to the questions we are asking aren’t entirely knowable: Will such-and-such candidate or “x” position on “y” issue make things better, or worse? What if we go in one direction and find that damage is done? What if we go in some other direction and find that the benefits we expected are outweighed by the unforeseen consequences? Sometimes just living with these questions feels like carrying a cross.

I don’t think we have the luxury to pretend our faith can stay in the church on a Sunday morning, and not have any bearing on the rest of our lives, on the decisions we make, the way we live as citizens of this community, this state, and this nation. That’s too easy in a time like this—in any time, to be honest. We are going to have to pick up our crosses and carry them right out of the church building, right into a violent, broken, scared, angry world.

[1] The image that comes to our mind when we hear the expression “bull in a china shop” isn’t an accurate one.  The MythBusters at one point tested it, and found that when a bull was released into a simulated china shop, the bull was actually quite careful navigating through the aisles and did not knock over a single piece of china!

[2] This language comes from a rant by Bono in the middle of U2’s live performance of their song “Sunday Bloody Sunday” in Denver in November 1987, which appeared in the 1988 movie Rattle and Hum.  The performance took place on the same day as a deadly bombing in Enniskillen, Co. Fermanagh, Northern Ireland.  The full quote (with profanity deleted) is:  “And let me tell you somethin’. I’ve had enough of Irish Americans who haven’t been back to their country in twenty or thirty years come up to me and talk about the resistance, the revolution back home…and the glory of the revolution…and the glory of dying for the revolution. **** the revolution! They don’t talk about the glory of killing for the revolution. What’s the glory in taking a man from his bed and gunning him down in front of his wife and his children? Where’s the glory in that? Where’s the glory in bombing a Remembrance Day parade of old age pensioners, their medals taken out and polished up for the day. Where’s the glory in that? To leave them dying or crippled for life or dead under the rubble of a revolution that the majority of the people in my country don’t want. No more!”  The quote is found, courtesy of Rattle and Hum director Phil Joanou, in the Wikipedia entry for “Sunday Bloody Sunday,”

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sunday_Bloody_Sunday.  The video is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uMFzYhCtZaY. [3] We have a primary election before us on March 10.