I gave my first sermon at my teaching parish congregation today, in spite of a pretty wicked head cold that struck sometime yesterday. The Gospel reading was Mark 8:31-38. Here's the sermon:
Pop quiz! Something very odd is happening at the beginning of the Gospel reading we just heard—did you catch it? Take a look at the first verse of the reading in your bulletins. Do you see it yet? “Jesus began to teach them that 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.” What’s going on here?
The thing that’s strange in this passage involves the title “Son of Man”. Now, sometimes when I read the Bible, I find myself asking dumb questions. And in this case, when I read this passage to prepare for my sermon, I asked myself a dumb question: “Who is this Son of Man Jesus is talking about, anyway?” He shows up at the end of the reading, too: “The Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” So who is this guy?
Now, of course, you can all recognize and tell me that the Son of Man is obviously a reference to Jesus himself—who, we know, is rejected by the religious authorities, killed, and rises again after three days. Jesus is talking about his own future in this passage—but then why does he not simply say, “These things will happen to me”? Why does he refer to himself in the third person? Is he trying to keep it a secret, so that only those closest to Jesus will know what he is really talking about? And why use this strange title “Son of Man”? It seems like “Son of God” would be a bit more appropriate for Jesus, don’t you think?
Those of you who really know your Bibles will be able to tell me that the title “Son of Man” is taken from the Old Testament book of Daniel, specifically from chapter 7 of that book. In Daniel 7, Daniel has a terrifying vision, and one part of his vision is described this way: “As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.” In this passage, Daniel takes the phrase “son of man” from its ordinary, expected meaning—just a human being—and turns it into a title for a glorious king who will rule forever. This Son of Man represents for Daniel the end of all oppression and pain for the people of God; finally, all the earthly kingdoms will pass away, and the one divine kingdom will take their place. The new king, the one like a son of man, will descend from heaven to take up this dominion, and will rule forever after.
Going back to our pop quiz, we still haven’t gotten to the really strange part of this Gospel reading. We’ve realized that Jesus is drawing the title “Son of Man” from Daniel and applying it to himself. The really strange part, though, is what Jesus says about the Son of Man—the way he understands that title. Listen one more time: “Jesus began to teach them that 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.” This Son of Man sounds nothing like the Son of Man in Daniel, who comes out of the clouds to begin an everlasting dominion. How could such a figure be condemned, suffer, and die? That does not fit into the idea of a heavenly king at all—or does it?
We have already noticed that Jesus is using the title “Son of Man” to refer to himself. And we know, as Christians, that the details Jesus gives about the Son of Man come from Jesus’ own story. The fact that Jesus suffered, died, and rose from the dead is the central fact about Jesus Christ. As Christians, we can’t get away from it—it defines who Jesus is for us. So I think it is easy for us to read over these words of Jesus too quickly: “Yeah, yeah, I already know about Good Friday and Easter Sunday. I've heard that story before.”
However, think for a moment about how Jesus’ disciples and the crowds who followed Jesus might have heard these words. They would be familiar with the Son of Man in Daniel, the glorious, divine king. Just a verse before our reading for today begins, the disciples identify that Jesus is the Messiah—the anointed one, a king in David’s line. These kingly ideas are all beginning to come together; it is clear that Jesus is someone truly special. Perhaps he would even be the one to overthrow the Romans, to bring an end to all the foreign rule and establish God’s rule for God’s people. Just imagine all the hopes and ideals that were centering on Jesus at this time!
And now imagine that you are one of the followers of Jesus; you think that he is the Messiah, the king of Israel. Jesus begins to talk about the Son of Man, and you get really excited. It must be true: Jesus is the king who will bring about God’s kingdom! And then you hear these words: “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.” This does not sound like the Son of Man at all! A king cannot rule if he is tortured and killed... can he?
It is no wonder that Peter rebukes Jesus. Not only is Jesus dashing their hopes of the divine kingdom; he is teaching these things openly, so that anyone could hear them. It’s a PR nightmare, we would say today. Imagine if a presidential candidate went around describing himself (or herself) as a great leader, and then said, “If you elect me, I’ll be executed!” It just doesn’t make any sense.
Jesus rebukes Peter, the other disciples, the crowd, and all of us when he says, “You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things!” Too often, we try to make God in our own image, rather than recognizing that we were made in God’s. We get too hung up on how we think the world works to allow God to work in a new way. We let ourselves be swept up in pessimism and frustration, now just as much as in Jesus’ time. If there is to be a new, divine kingdom, then the new, divine king cannot be rejected and killed—right? If God is going to make a difference in the world, God must use the strong and the powerful—right? And if the strong and the powerful reject God, reject the divine kingdom, then there’s no hope for the world—right?
Jesus gives his followers, gives all of us, another alternative. In this passage, Jesus is re-visioning the way God works in the world. The divine king becomes a suffering servant, rejected and killed. And if that is the king, what of the subjects? What of those who want to be a part of the divine kingdom? They, too, are transformed: “If any want to become my followers,” Jesus says, “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.” We see now that everything is turned on its head: when the divine king becomes a suffering servant, the whole way the world works is reversed. Now the followers, the entourage for this king, if you will, must also take up a cross and lose their lives. We might expect, given what we know about the world, that the suffering of the king and the death of his followers signaled the ultimate failure of the divine kingdom. We might be jaded, pessimistic, without hope for the world.
But as Christians, we know that the cross is not the end, that the story does not end on Good Friday, but drives onward to Easter Sunday. The Son of Man dies, yes, but rises again. The followers lose their lives—but by losing their lives, they save them. This is truly a new thing: Jesus is turning everything on its head. He is envisioning an end to the self-serving rat race that is too often the nature of the world; no longer will the strong, the rich, the powerful, rule over the weak, the poor, and the marginalized. Instead, those who willingly accept lowliness, who lose their lives for the sake of the suffering king whom they follow—they will actually save their lives.
Jesus’ words to the disciples and the crowd also speak to us here and now. As Christians, we proclaim a crucified and risen Lord; we recognize our king to be the suffering servant. However, it is not enough to just recognize the suffering of Jesus, not enough to just remember the cross. We, too, must take up our crosses and fall into our places behind Jesus. We too, must suffer and give up our lives. For to follow Jesus means to follow him all the way to the cross and the tomb.
There is a well-known hymn called “The Lord of the Dance”. In one of the verses, we hear the voice of Jesus: “I danced on a Friday when the sky turned black/ It's hard to dance with the devil on your back/ They buried my body and they thought I'd gone/ But I am the Dance and I still go on!” The chorus calls to us, “Dance then, wherever you may be/ I am the Lord of the Dance, said He!/ And I'll lead you all, wherever you may be/ And I'll lead you all in the Dance, said He!” To be followers of Jesus, we must take up our crosses and follow him into the grave; but we do so joyfully, like dancers. We know that death is not the end of the story, that there is an Easter for all of us just as there was for Jesus. We follow the suffering king, giving up our own lives in the process, and we do so like partners in a dance.