Difficult Paths -- A Sermon for Lent 4

Mark 10:32-34

Jesus took the lead on their journey toward Jerusalem.  Perhaps he was in a hurry to get there, but the disciples lag behind.  They seem to be caught up in the moment.  It could be that this was their first visit to Jerusalem.  There in front of them was the big city and the Temple.  They’d heard about this Temple many times, and when they saw it in real life, it seemed even grander than they had ever imagined.  Remember they didn’t have cameras back then.  But it wasn’t just the grandeur of the Temple that grabbed them.  There were also the rumors that a violent fate awaited Jesus in Jerusalem.  Jesus had even brought up the subject himself.  So, it’s no wonder that they wanted to take their time getting to Jerusalem.  Because they didn’t know what lay ahead of them, they were filled with mixed emotions – both amazement and fear. 

When Jesus realizes that a gap was beginning to form, he stops and takes the twelve off to the side.  Then, for the third time, Jesus explains to them that path before them would be difficult.  He doesn’t pull any punches.  Yes, “the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit on him, and flog him, and kill him.”  If you were a disciple and you heard that message – how would you respond? Would you stay with Jesus or would you walk away?  Amazingly they stay with him.  

Perhaps it’s the glimmer of a promise of resurrection that emboldens them to continue, or it may be that they took comfort in their earlier hopes that Jesus would take power in Jerusalem.  

As Mark tells the story, it didn’t take long before the disciples began to dream big dreams.  Remember what James and John asked Jesus for?  They asked Jesus to appoint them to leading posts in his new administration.  “When you take over in Jerusalem could you put us in charge of the Departments of State and Defense?  We don’t want to be the one who gets left back at the office when you go down to the Capitol to deliver the state of the realm address.”  Of course, when the others hear of their audacity, they want to get into the act also.  After all, no one wants to be the last one picked! (Mark 10:35-45).  Yes, they quickly forget Jesus’ warning – after all who is going to sign up for a mission is sure to fail?  And so they clung to their vision of  God’s realm – one in which they got to have the seats of honor.

As I pondered this text and its message for us as a congregation,  I thought about the many difficult paths that members of this congregation have taken in recent months and years.  

Some of you have experienced a death in the family:  A child, a sibling, a spouse, or a parent.  Whether expected or not, death can be a wrenching experience for us.  

For others of you, this difficult path involves a battle with cancer.  Others of you are undergoing tests to see if cancer is present, and if it is then what treatments can be prescribed.  Then there are the chronic illnesses, like Parkinsons.

Others deal with mental health issues, something that we find difficult to talk about openly.   

For others it’s the daily challenge posed by the aging process – including dealing with chronic pain.  

There are others who have found that reaching mid-life has been difficult.  A rough economy has led to job losses, the difficulties finding a new job, and the fear that retirement will bring unforeseen financial challenges.  Besides these challenges, many “middle-aged” folks live sandwiched between concerns about both parents and children.  

Many young adults have found themselves saddled with student debt and a difficulty launching into their careers.  They have their degrees, but jobs are scarce in an age of economic stagnation. 

I think I’ve covered most everyone in this church.  The challenges may differ from person to person, family to family, but as a community of faith, we have faced housing crises, job crises, health crises, and relationship crises.  Some of our families have dealt with multiple issues.  As a pastor, I often stand in awe of the resilience I see in some of your lives.  The answer you all give is that it’s prayer and the support of the community of faith that keeps you going. 

It is in the context of these difficult pathways that are common to us all that I chose to view Jesus’ own path to the cross.  To put it in the words of a Robert Johns hymn: 

In suff’ring love the thread of life is woven through our care, 
for God is with us:  Not alone our pain and toil we bear.

And then in the final verse of the hymn:

In suff’ring love our God comes now, hopes vision born in gloom; 
with tears and laughter shared and blessed the desert yet will bloom.

In suffering love, God comes to us, bringing hope in the midst of gloom. [Chalice Hymnal, p. 212].

The message that I hear from Mark’s text is that God in Christ understands the challenges we face.  In his own experiences of suffering, Jesus brings healing to our souls.  From the earliest of times the church has interpreted Jesus’ journey to the cross through the lens of Isaiah 53, one of the Suffering Servant songs.

  4 Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted.
5 But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. 
                                                                                          (Isaiah 53:4- 5).

In embracing the way of the cross, this servant of servants shares in our experiences of suffering.  He bears the effects of our transgressions and our iniquities.  And as he does so, he brings us healing and makes us whole.  

As we read the New Testament, it is clear that the early Christians connected the cross to our salvation.  This has led some to believe that God punishes Jesus instead of us – sort of like kicking the dog instead of the child when the child misbehaves.  As I read these texts, I see something different.  I see in Jesus, God working to bring healing to our brokenness.  I see humanity throwing everything it can at Jesus, and Jesus overcoming our resistance to his offer of reconciliation. The key to this interpretation is the message of Easter.  Good Friday will have its say, but it won’t have the last word.   

Yes, there are different ways of understanding the message of the cross.  We find one interpretation here in Mark 10, where Jesus speaks of himself as the ransom.  In traditional ransom theologies, Jesus gives his life to the devil in exchange for our lives.  He does this because we sold our souls to the devil. There is something of this theory in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.   Aslan gives himself up to the White Witch in exchange for the life of Edmund.  As you might remember, death cannot contain Aslan, who experiences resurrection. There was magic far deeper than the White Witch knew of.  

It’s interesting that in Mark 10, Jesus doesn’t name a recipient of this ransom payment.  Instead, we’re simply told that Jesus has given his life “to liberate many people” (Mark 10:45 CEB).  

There’s another atonement theory that I think fits our conversation this morning.  Back in the second century, Irenaeus developed what has come to be known as the recapitulation theory. In this theory of the atonement, as Jesus goes through life – from birth to death – he undoes the damage we create in the course of our lives.  In other words, by living faithfully in relationship with God, Jesus overcomes our resistance to God’s promises and expectations.  In his life, as well as his death, Jesus perfects our imperfections – bringing us to maturity of faith.  This is a difficult journey, because it will involve a violent death, but death is part of our journey toward God.  It is the last enemy that must be overcome.  So, in Irenaeus’ vision, by dying on a tree, Jesus reverses the disobedience of Adam who ate from the forbidden tree. [In Cyril C. Richardson, Early Christian Fathers, Macmillan Pub., 1970, p. 389].    

As we make our way down the path of life, we will experience times of great difficulty.  But the good news is that Jesus has walked this path before.  He understands our situation. He knows our suffering, and therefore God knows our suffering.  

But the key to this journey is found in the last half of verse 34: “after three days he will rise again.”  It is this promise of the resurrection that gives us hope.  In the resurrection death has lost its sting.  In the resurrection every tear is wiped away and death will be no more (Revelation 21:4).    This is the promise that sustains us in season and out of season.

Note:  The text for this sermon comes from David Ackerman's Beyond the Lectionary
Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Fourth Sunday of Lent
March 30, 2014


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