Seward United Methodist Church
Monday, December 17, 2018
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Gaining What We Can't Lose

Mark 8:31-38

 Every time I read this passage, I’m reminded of the words of Jim Elliott.  Elliott was a young man from Portland, Oregon, who after studying at Wheaton College, went to Ecuador as a missionary to the Huaoroni Indians.  He and several other young missionaries were murdered by the very people to whom they were ministering.  In the minds of some, the deaths of several young, intelligent men might seem a complete waste.  The world might call his life a dismal failure.  But Elliott would not have thought in those terms.  As he said, “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”   

 I don’t think that God considered his life to be a waste.  Especially not when we consider that through their testimony, that tribe did turn to Christ and accepted the gospel, including the very same men who had murdered them.  Their momentary suffering produced an eternal glory for Christ.

 But the world doesn’t see much value in suffering.  The world’s idea of success is defined by words like strength, victory, wealth, and achievement.  There is little or no place in the world’s values for weakness or defeat or poverty or failure.  

 Recently, I came across a story about British actor and comedian Stephen Fry.  Fry is a staunch atheist.  He was on television, and the interviewer asked him, “Well, what if you’re wrong.  What if you die and you come into the presence of God.  What would you say?”  Fry’s answer was basically, “How dare you?  How dare you create a world of suffering, evil, injustice, and pain?  This world you have created is simply not acceptable.”  And he went on to describe how God is a stupid, evil, selfish, maniac for creating a world with cancer and childhood illnesses and all the other examples of suffering.  And he concluded by saying, “I wouldn’t want to get into heaven on God’s terms.  I wouldn’t want anything to do with a God who creates such a world and then expects us to spend our lives thanking him for it.”  

 I think his basic point was that there is no benefit, no value, nothing at all redeeming about suffering.  And it seems to me that he also really didn’t leave any place for anything beyond this world or beyond this life.  If things are a mess here, then God is a “maniac.”  There’s no option for a future redemption.

 The vision we find in Scripture is quite different, of course.  Scripture tells us of God creating a world of goodness, but the goodness of the world being lost through our

rebellion against God and choosing our ways over his ways.  Scripture also promises that one day the corrupted world in which we now live will be replaced by a renewed world.  But so far I haven’t had the chance to sit down and talk with him about his cosmology or theology, so….

 But I think that some of that same kind of thinking is to be found here in the words of Peter, and probably also in the minds of the other disciples.  Not that they were atheists or thought God was a “maniac” for making a world with suffering in it.  But I think they were still thinking in these worldly terms of success.  

 Jesus has finally confirmed what they had been hoping all along, that he is the Messiah.  But Jesus always shied away from that title.  The reason is that it had become too politically charged, too associated with worldly ideals.  To the average first century Jew, the Messiah was a figure of strength, power, and victory, who would succeed in everything he did.  

 Jesus chose the title “Son of Man.”  In the Old Testament, son of man usually just meant “man.”  But there was one passage, Daniel 7, which used it in a different way.  Daniel 7 describes a vision of one “like a son of man” who would be given authority over all the nations of the world and who would have a glorious, eternal reign.  But Jesus also filled up that title Son of Man with the language of suffering.  There were a few first century Jews who read the Old Testament images of the Messiah and saw and understood that there were images of suffering in them.  But most simply ignored the prophecies of a suffering Messiah or said that “those passages are about someone else.”  Most only had room for a “worldly Messiah” in their hopes and expectations.  

 So when Jesus speaks of suffering, Peter pulls him aside to set him straight.  I can see him grabbing Jesus by the shoulders to tell him the way things really are.  It’s not the place for a disciple.  A disciple is supposed to be behind the leader, following, learning, not in front of him, correcting.  

 Jesus calls Peter “Satan,” meaning that he is speaking like Satan would speak.  Satan is, after all, the god of this world, the embodiment of this world’s values.  And Peter is thinking in very worldly terms.  

 Jesus says, “If you want to follow me, you must deny yourself, take up the cross, and follow me.”  The cross is an instrument of death.  To carry the cross is to accept the

death penalty, the death of self.  To follow Christ means to cease to make yourself center of your life.  

 Here is the great paradox:  If we cling to our lives, we lose them.  We can’t “save” our lives.  We can’t even save one minute of our lives.  No matter what we do, our life is ebbing away, moment by moment.  But if we willingly lay down our lives, then we keep them for all eternity.  If we lay down our lives for the sake of Christ and for the sake of his message, then we keep them for all eternity.  If rather than trying to save our lives, we spend our lives on the things of God, then we keep them forevermore.  

 The most valuable thing we have is our eternal soul.  It is the only thing we can keep.  Whatever things we have, we lose when we die.  Our physical bodies are doomed to die.  Even if somehow we were to gain the whole world, it wouldn’t be worth clinging to.  

 Psalm 49 says this:  “Those who trust in wealth and boast of riches cannot redeem themselves from death.  No one can ever pay enough to live forever.  All will die and leave their wealth behind.  But as for me, God will redeem my life.  He will snatch me from the power of death.”  

 It is a wise choice to exchange our current life for the life to come, even if doing so means we will suffer.  Mark was writing to a persecuted church, a church that was likely to suffer for clinging to Christ, and likely to escape suffering if they denied him.  But Jesus warns this church of the cost of denying him.  Deny him now, and he will deny you later, when he returns in glory.  

 We may be comfortable in the thought that we are unlikely to face martyrdom for our faith.  But that doesn’t mean that we don’t have to worry about the temptation to deny Christ.  The world will give us many opportunities to deny Christ.  Maybe not in big ways, but often in very small ways:  Our silence or our compliance in the face of injustice, our attempts to “get along” in a world that doesn’t want to live by the values of the Kingdom of God.  Those are just small ways in which we can deny Christ.

 But as Jim Elliott reminded us:  We are not foolish to give up something we can’t keep, the things of this world, for the sake of something that we can’t lose, an eternity with Christ.  

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