September 13, 2009

Sermon by the Rev. Amanda Currie

Proverbs 1:20-33
Psalm 19
James 3:1-12
Mark 8:27-38

As you know, the bible contains many different types of literature within its many books. And the book of Proverbs is part of the type of biblical material called “wisdom literature”. It is an amazing book full of wise sayings and advice for many people in many situations. And it begins with an image of wisdom personified.

Wisdom is out in the street, in the squares where all the people are passing by, and she’s shouting. Woman Wisdom has chosen the busiest corner at the entrance of the city gates, and she is calling “How long, O simple ones? How long will you love being simple? How long will you hate knowledge? I have called to you, and made my words known to you. I have offered to share my wisdom with you, and you have ignored me.” Wisdom is sick and tired of being ignored, and she seems to be giving up on the people who don’t have any use for her. “It’ll serve you right!” becomes her message. If you ignore wisdom, things won’t go well for you, and you’ll have to deal with it all on your own, without any knowledge or wisdom to help you.

Now it could be that the wisdom that is calling out to us today is simply the many proverbs that we find in the bible. The image of Woman Wisdom calling out is a great way to introduce these wise sayings, to get us paying attention to what we need to hear…. things like this well-known proverb: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge the Lord, and he will make straight your paths.” (Proverbs 3:5-6) Or like these lesser-known pieces of wisdom: “Fools think their own way is right, but the wise listen to advice. Fools show their anger at once, but the prudent ignore an insult.” (Proverbs 12:15-16) Woman Wisdom calls out with her warning: “If we listen to wisdom, we’ll be able to live happy, healthy, and whole lives. If we ignore wisdom, then we do so at our own peril.”

But there is a great deal more wisdom in the scriptures than is contained in the proverbs, or even in the wisdom books. Our psalm today pointed out that the laws and commandments of God are full of wisdom, making wise the simple and enlightening the eyes. The commandments serve as a warning for those who care to pay attention, and there is great reward in following them. And though the Hebrew Scriptures are full of wisdom for how to live righteous and good lives in relationship with God and with one another, we still look to the second testament for further insight. Jesus himself, seems to have been a great teacher of wisdom.

Though the documents we have today about Jesus’ life and ministry are mostly in the form of narratives, they do contain great long sections of his teachings and wisdom sayings — very similar to the proverbs in some ways. In fact, biblical scholars have a theory that the earliest document about Jesus to be written and distributed was probably a collection of his wise teachings. It would have contained sayings like…

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21)

“Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing.” (Matthew 6:25)

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” (Matthew 5:43-44)

“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14)

So, Jesus is, among other things, a teacher of wisdom. He has been teaching and preaching, inviting people to follow him and learn from him along the way. But in today’s reading, we see Jesus kind of “checking in” with his disciples to see if they are “getting it”, to see if they’ve been paying attention to him, to see if they understand what he’s been trying to teach them.

So he asks them a question. But it’s not like a typical “pop quiz” that a teacher might give. He doesn’t ask them whether they have learned the commandments. (They probably already knew those before they met Jesus anyway!) And he doesn’t ask them to repeat back the things he’s been teaching, or even to interpret some of his parables.

You see, I think it all comes down to whether or not they are “getting” the bigger picture. It doesn’t matter whether or not they can quote scripture, or follow someone’s rules, or even understand the deeper meaning of a story. Jesus wants to know whether they understand what his presence and his leadership is all about. And so he asks, “Who do people say that I am?”

Well, some say you’re John the Baptist, or Elijah, or another one of the prophets returned. Those are the kinds of things that people are saying about Jesus as he travels through the towns and villages proclaiming the coming kingdom and helping and healing people along the way. You see, they get that Jesus is someone important. He has the power to help them, and he has lots of interesting things to teach them. They may even see that God has a special mission for him.

But the crowds don’t get it completely. And it seems, at first, that Jesus’ disciple Peter knows what the crowds, what the regular people out there have missed. When Jesus asks, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter boldly declares: “You are the Messiah!” Of course!

And Peter is right. Jesus orders his disciples not to tell anyone about his true identity. Perhaps because if the wrong people found out what he was claiming, he would quickly be in trouble. You see, Jesus had no illusions about people accepting him and his message and his identity as the one sent from God. Though in Mark’s account of the Jesus story, Jesus is not rushing to make his true identity known, he does know that it’s eventually going to come out, and he’s not going to be well received.

The author of Mark’s Gospel has Jesus very accurately predicting what his fate will eventually be. He says, “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.”

I don’t know whether the historical Jesus would have articulated his fate in such detail, but the Gospel writer is putting it together for us. He’s telling us that Jesus knew what he was getting into. He knew that his mission was to be more than a wise teacher, more than a prophet. He knew that what God was calling him to be and to do was going to lead to his execution, and he was bold enough to talk about it.

That’s when we realize that Peter’s not much farther along than the crowds in his understanding of who Jesus is. Peter gets angry when he hears Jesus talking like that. Like the family or friends of a critically ill person, who won’t let their loved one talk about the fact that they’re going to die… Perhaps Peter didn’t want to acknowledge that the authorities did have the power to put Jesus to death. Maybe he wanted everyone to stay “optimistic”. Or maybe he truly believed that Jesus would become the kind of Messiah who would take religious and political power by force, who would rise up and triumph over those who opposed him.

I wonder if Jesus was disappointed when it became clear that even Peter didn’t really understand him. His angry response seems to indicate that he was frustrated, or at least caught off guard, by the fact that Peter had so completely missed the point. “Get behind me, Satan!” Jesus yelled, “For you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.”

Jesus has been teaching them, as they go along, about divine things… about God’s kingdom here on earth, about God’s love and God’s desire for us to live according to God’s standards of love, and grace, and generosity. And Jesus has been teaching them (and showing them!) what it looks like to leave human concerns behind and to live the life that God is calling them to. They leave behind fishing nets and families. They give up money and possessions and security. And they relinquish a whole set of old ideas about who is important and who is not, about who is in and who is out.

But how easy it is to slip back into old patterns! How easy it is to return to those old cultural assumptions and values! I can imagine Peter rebuking Jesus: “No, Jesus! You can’t be put to death! Don’t talk like that! You’ve got to win! You’ve got to overpower your enemies! We’ll rise up! We can do it together! Just don’t talk like that any more.” And in just a moment, his tongue has turned from the faithful, trusting, “You are the Messiah!” to a terrible rebuke.

It’s not that Peter was a bad disciple. He had his moments of failure like all the others, but he was the one that Jesus later nick-named Rock — the rock on which the church would be built. But Peter didn’t yet understand Jesus’ “upside-down and backwards” kind of wisdom. He had certainly heard the teachings… things like “blessed are the poor” and he had lived according to them in so many ways as he travelled along with Jesus. But he hadn’t taken that wisdom to its logical conclusion. He still wanted Jesus to be successful and victorious in terms of human standards.

It’s a hard teaching. “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.” In the midst of an angry moment, when I’m railing against someone’s stupidity or some injustice against me, or when I’m complaining that something simply isn’t fair… I realize that I’m a lot like Peter. I don’t completely “get” Jesus’ upside-down and backwards wisdom. Well, I “get” it intellectually. But I realize that it still hasn’t seeped down into the core of my being to guide and direct my choices and my reactions to the things in my life.

Too much of the time, my mind is set on human things. I want success. I want recognition. I want to accomplish some stuff. I want to be comfortable. I want to have some things. It’s not that I’m a bad disciple. I love Jesus, and I’m ready to work for his kingdom, and I want to follow him and to be more like him. But when I think of being more like Jesus, I’m usually thinking of being more loving and kind and committed. I’m not usually thinking of the suffering that he experienced… of the things that he gave up, and the betrayal and abandonment and rejection that he endured when he took up his cross.

I can’t help but think of the martyrs of the early Christian church — those Christians who were so committed to their faith in Jesus that they were willing to die rather than deny that they were Christians. Many of them went willingly to their deaths, believing without a doubt that their “losing their lives for the sake of Christ and the gospel” would result in them being saved. They would have a new life in heaven with God. That would be their reward.

But I don’t think that Jesus’ saying is just about suffering and dying now so that we’ll be able to go to heaven later. I think it’s about something much more immediate, and perhaps much less dramatic most of the time. Maybe it’s about giving up some of our personal rest time in order to come to church and worship God. Maybe it’s about giving up some of our financial resources in order to carry out the work of the church. Maybe it’s about giving up the quest for personal success and recognition in order give more time and talent towards mission work in the church and the community. Maybe it’s about resisting our society’s constant message that becoming whole and well means acquiring more and more things. Maybe it’s about learning to be content with less, simplifying our lives, and finding our true peace and contentment in the love of God through Jesus Christ.

Remember Woman Wisdom, God’s wisdom personified, calling out in the streets, calling out to the people passing by and inviting them to listen and learn and become wise like her? The great story of our faith reminds us that God has been faithfully trying to get humans paying attention to wisdom for a long time. God gave us the commandments to show us how to live. And when we kept ignoring them and ignoring God, God sent prophets to challenge us and turn us back to God’s wisdom and God’s way. And though some lived in relationship with God, at least some of the time, God eventually decided that words were not enough. Proverbs were fine, but in order for humans to truly understand, we needed that wisdom to become flesh. And so God sent a son. God came in Jesus to live among us. God’s Word made flesh. God’s wisdom in human form.

Jesus lived among us as Emmanuel (God with us). And though he was a teacher and preacher with many wise things to say, he was so much more than that. He said, “Those who lose their life for the sake of the gospel will save it”. But he didn’t just say it. He lived by it. He showed us what it looks like to live for others, to give up personal comforts, concerns, and desires in order to care for people in need. And he did it all the way to the cross.

May God help us as we seek to live in his way, as we grow into his wisdom. God, help us to be willing to give something up, to give ourselves up, for the sake of Christ and the gospel. And let us find our true lives in you. Amen.