Crows Nest Uniting Church
Lent 2 • 1 Mar 2015


Genesis 17:1-10,15-19
Romans 4:16-25
Mark 8:31-38


Rev. Chris Udy



Last week we read about
Jesus in the wilderness,
driven there by the Spirit
after he was baptised.
In his baptism he had heard a voice from heaven
saying that he was beloved to God -
and hearing that arresting declaration
drove him into strangeness and confusion.
He was no longer
who he’d been before -
he was no longer Jesus, Joseph’s son -
now he was someone different,
and the wilderness he had to engage,
was that difference, that newness.
 
Jesus emerged from his wilderness
with a new identity.
He was loved by God -
he was pleasing to God:
that was his core and foundation.
But his limits had also
been tested in the desert.
He’d been with wild animals and angels -
friends and strangers had helped to define him -
and he’d had his boundaries pushed
by Satan.
Satan’s job in Scripture
is to put God’s people through
the tests that will reveal who they really are.
The man with the pitchfork and pointy tale
doesn’t appear in the Bible -
he’s a construction of ‘fundy’ preachers and the movies.
Satan is mentioned in just three passages
in the Bible Jesus knew.
He’s the one who visits disaster on Job -
with God’s permission;
he incites King David
to conduct the very first census of Israel -
something that apparently
earns him God’s displeasure (1 Chronicles 21:1),
and Satan is the accuser - the prosecutor -
who attempts - and fails -
to have God’s priest condemned
in the book of Zechariah (Zachariah 3:1) -
so, no red skin, no sulphur, and no horns.
Timothy Radcliffe is a teacher at Oxford University,
and was at one time the master general
of the Order of Preachers -
the Dominican Order in the Catholic Church.
He has written an article called
“The Crisis of Truth-telling in our society”,
and in that article
he does a little research on Satan,
who is also often called ‘The Father of Lies”.
Timothy Radcliffe concludes
that Satan’s method of testing -
his strategy of accusation -
is to make us doubt that we are loved,
because it’s when we fear that we’re not loved
that we do dangerous things
to ourselves and others.
So in Matthew and Luke,
when Satan comes to test Jesus in the desert
his temptations begin:
“If you are the Son of God ...”
if you really are beloved,
if you’re not just living in delusion ...
then turn this stone to bread,
or jump from the Temple’s tower,
or bow down to worship me.
And with every test Jesus reaffirms
that he is secure in God’s love,
that his foundation and core is strong,
and that his limits are clear.
 
We give in to temptation -
we break our boundaries
and we trespass over our limits
when we’re looking beyond ourselves
for something to fill up the desert within.
We lie because we don’t believe
that who we are and what we’ve done
is good enough.
We betray and fail those who depend on us
because we fear
that we’re too weak to make a difference -
we’re afraid we’ll buckle under pressure
and be revealed as hollow men and women.
 
Identity is formed in wilderness.
We discover who we are,
and we find our limits,
when we risk time in the desert:
when we take a chance with strangeness;
when we explore newness;
when we trust that we are also
daughters and sons of God;
when God’s assurance of love
is our foundation and our core.
 
That’s identity -
next comes character.
 
Last week we read
from the opening of Mark’s Gospel,
this week we read
from its tipping point - its centre.
Up until now, Jesus had been at work in Galilee -
the area up to the north
and away from Jerusalem.
He’d been travelling to villages and towns
around the sea of Galilee,
announcing to the people of the land -
the people who’d been crushed and dispossessed
by Roman occupation
and the corruption and collusion
of Jerusalem and the Temple -
announcing that God’s kingdom was at hand,
and that God’s justice and truth
would soon be revealed.
He’d gathered around himself
an inner circle of three - Peter, James and John;
among a class of 12 trainees - the 12 disciples.
He’d sent his disciples out
to take his message further,
and they’d returned with thousands more -
people who were hungry,
not only for something to eat,
but for someone they could trust -
and something they could believe.
Jesus had fed and filled them -
not only with food,
but with the promise and assurance
that was his foundation and core:
he told them they were loved by God -
not the insignificant rejects, slaves and failures
their priests and rulers
had been told they were -
but daughters and sons of God,
God’s family, and God’s delight.
 
Just before the passage we read today
Jesus had asked his disciples
who the people were saying he was.
They told him people said he was John the Baptist,
or Elijah, or one of the other prophets:
people believed he was speaking and acting
in the power and with the spirit of God.
Then he asked his friends
who they believed he was -
and Peter, leader among the disciples, replied:
“You are the messiah.”
 
That was the tipping-point.
That’s the fulcrum of Mark’s gospel -
and from that time on
Jesus is headed away from Galilee
towards Jerusalem and the Temple.
In Jerusalem - and especially in the Temple -
Jesus had a message to deliver:
that God was on the side
of those who’d been rejected and enslaved
through the collusion and greed
of the religious and political authorities.
God was on the side
of the people who’d been forced off their land;
he was on the side of the labourers
who had no choice but to hang around the towns
waiting for a day’s work now and then;
God was on the side of the women - especially widows -
and the children,
who were overlooked and treated with contempt
by those who were meant to care for and protect them.
That was the message Jesus had to deliver -
and Jesus knew that kind of message
wouldn’t be kindly heard in Jerusalem.
Jesus knew that those in control -
the Romans, the Jewish leaders
and the Temple authorities -
wanted to believe God belonged to them -
that God had ordained and blessed
their rule and control -
so anyone who questioned them;
anyone who threatened their control;
anyone who said
that God was on the side of the weak and the poor -
and not with those who held the levers of power -
anyone like that would have to be dealt with,
and Jesus knew
that as he turned and set his face
on the road to Jerusalem
he was also putting himself in danger.
 
As we read today,
Jesus began to teach
that he - the Son of Man -
must undergo great suffering,
and be rejected by the elders,
the chief priests, and the scribes,
and be killed -
and three days later,
Jesus told his friends -
would rise again.
He said all this, Mark comments,
quite openly - out in public -
and his disciples were concerned.
 
The leader of the disciples’ inner circle - Peter -
took him by the arm and led him aside.
Peter started to rebuke Jesus, Mark writes -
obviously worried that talk like this
would lead to nothing but trouble -
probably also worried that he - Peter -
was on the road with someone -
following someone -
who was sounding suicidal!
That’s not the future Peter was hoping for!
Peter thought he was following Messiah.
He was hoping to replace the crowd in control,
preferably with people like him -
not to suffer and die in the confrontation!
 
Jesus turned back to the disciples,
and, looking at them,
but speaking to Peter, he says:
“Get behind me Satan.
You’ve set your mind on human things,
not on the things of God.”
 
Identity comes from wilderness -
character comes under pressure.
 
It doesn’t much matter who we are,
at some time we will all face opposition -
and no matter how well we are loved,
no matter how significant
our purpose or talent or wisdom,
if we wilt at the first sign of resistance,
nothing much will come.
We are disciples of Jesus;
we follow him on the road
to all the Jerusalems and all the Temples
where those who set up systems
that devalue and enslave God’s sons and daughters
live behind their walls
of lies and fear and greed.
Whether we like it or not,
when we follow Jesus
we will come under pressure
from those who want us to wink at their lies,
to pander to their fear,
and to accept their greed as ‘just the way it is’.
They’ll want us to keep quiet
while they make their dodgy deals
and build their shadowy networks
of favours and secrets and bribes.
They’ll want us to stay silent
as they undermine and steal away
the dignity and security
and hope for justice and peace
that God wants all his daughters and sons to have.
We will come under pressure,
and it’s when that pressure comes
that we need to remember who we are
and who it is we follow.
 
For Jesus it was Peter
who became, at this first point on the road,
the whispering voice of Satan -
the one who tries to make us doubt
that we are loved.
Peter was the first of his disciples -
his friend and his lieutenant -
and sometimes it can even be
those who are closest to us
who cause us to falter and question.
None of us want those we love to suffer;
nor do we want to be exposed to harm -
so most of us know
what we need to do
to plant a doubt, to weaken confidence,
to keep our own lives quiet and secure.
 
But Jesus turned away from Peter,
called the whole crowd to him -
and then to Peter, and the 12,
and all the people around him, he said:
"If any want to follow me,
let them deny themselves
and take up their cross and follow.
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.
And what does it profit someone
to gain the whole world
at the expense of their life?"
 
We are disciples of Jesus.
Our identity is founded and formed
in God’s affirmation of love -
we are daughters and sons of God,
and nothing -
no doubt, no question, no threat or fear -
nothing can take that away.
We are God’s sons and daughters,
and there’s nothing that can take us from God’s love.
So, in that confidence and peace
we follow Jesus,
not only as he announces the reign of God,
but also as he walks to Jerusalem,
there to challenge and redeem
the city and the temple.
Jesus knew he would face opposition,
he believed it would end with his own death -
but he also trusted that the God who loved him
could even work through suffering and death
to heal both city and temple
and to bring a just and peaceful reign to the earth.
Just as we are called to Christian identity -
called to know and trust that we are loved -
we are also called to Christian character,
called to live with courage, hope and patience,
integrity, forgiveness,
and the strength of grace.  Amen.