Sermon Ideas For Mark 8:31-38 Part 1
The texts vividly remind us how radically different are God's ways from our own ways. They reveal how entrenched we are in the value systems in which our culture has trained us from birth, and how offended and frightened we are by plain reminders of God's values. We, like Peter, "are not on the side of God, but of men," (Mk 8:33) or as the KJV renders it, we "savorest not the things that be of God, but the things that be of men." Peter wants his Christ to be triumphant, not rejected and suffering. And so do we!
We have been shaped by a culture which values self-made people, Yankee ingenuity, self-reliance, scoring, Horatio Alger know-how, wealth, success; which celebrates conquerors of the frontier, space, disease, dictators; which places high premium on defending ourselves and our way of life--literally saving our lives--by military power, by immigration restrictions and zoning laws, by private arms and neighborhoods watches, by constant vigilance. Number one is the place to be, and number one is the one to look out for. We want our Christ to be a winner. So we are taught, and so we are. With enough virtue and vigor and vigilance, we can triumph over any problem. It is up to us. "God helps those who help themselves" is the text we want to think is in the Bible somewhere. To such values, Jesus says "Get behind me, Satan!" Make way for God's ways, which are just the opposite of these.
Consider what may be closest at hand, how it is in the life of a minister: A committed minister has the best reasons in the world for wanting to be an effective minister, for making a difference, for being (in the best sense of the word) "successful." This readily translates into mastering the arts of persuasive sermons, into planning church programs, into managing people and committees, into directing people visibly into growth in Christian life and faith. We develop check-lists by which to measure our ministry at the end of a day, the end of a year, the end of a career. yet all these efforts to make and measure ministry--to "save" one's life--to live by the law--prove their own futility, as we all know. Success, struggled for, ever recedes. To abandon these efforts to manufacture one's own ministry, to "let go and let God," to step aside and leave room for people to grow in their own relationship with God, to discover moments of ministry in unexpected and bleak crannies of the day--this is wrenching, for it means abandoning what one has supposed to be the very mark of identity--loosing one's life. But it is also freeing, and opens the way to depths and heights of ministry unforeseen.
So it is with us who aspire to be "successful" parents, "successful" spouses, "successful" citizens, "successful" teachers, "successful" in any role or relationship: The more controlling we are, the more guarded, defensive, invulnerable, the more we lose it. The more vulnerable and trusting we can let ourselves be, the more we risk losing the badges and plaudits the world bestows, the more we risk seeming to become non-parents, non-citizens, non-teachers in the eyes of the world, the more we find ourselves gifted with intimacies and energies that enlarge our aspirations.
Sometimes we devote so much energy to protecting ourselves--to washing our hands constantly, to wearing heavy rubber gloves, to searching for the very best gasoline prices, to equipping our houses with burglar alarms, to monitoring the stock markets and interest rates--that we hobble ourselves; our protection buries the very self we wanted to protect. And sometimes we ease our own protective efforts, trust that God is God and is on our side, and discover that with energies thus released and in the open space thus created, there is amazing chance for new growth.
Abram's encounter with the difference between God's ways and human ways is told in almost ribald terms. He is promised fatherhood, of a son, of a nation. So long as he feels this destiny is up to his own potency--in the way most of us take on the burden for our destiny--he is only dismayed and amazed, for he feels, as we all do, impotent. "Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old?" (Gen 17:17). He had not yet heeded God's offer of covenant that would transcend Abram's reliance on his own potency; he had not yet understood the symbol of that covenant which God proposed. It is important here not to mince words about circumcision. In the context of these texts, it is important to recognize that putting the penis to the knife must be the most vulnerable posture a man can experience of fantasy. Asking for that vulnerability is God's rejoinder--a promising rejoinder--to Abram's preoccupation with his own impotence. Inviting our vulnerability is God's response to our gnawing preoccupations with our own impotence, for it is in our vulnerability--even though that often means dying in the eyes of the world--that we become open to realism of trust and faith and power that are part of God's kingdom, followers of a Christ whose own ultimate vulnerability--in God's way--unleashed immense redemptive powers.
James E. Dittes