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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Lent - March 12, 2006

Satan is back this week.  He’s got new clothes, and a different form.  But he’s back in this week’s gospel lesson, still making his presence felt, still around.  To be honest though, even though I just did it, I’m always a little uncomfortable talking about Satan this way; for me it conjures up too much of the guy in the red suit with horns and a pointy tail.  I don’t know if I believe that such a being is out there. 

On the other hand, despite being the sophisticated, enlightened people that we are, personifying evil this way often seems to be the best way we have of helping us understand and deal with the forces of evil and temptation in the world which are forces I do know are out there and my guess is, so do you.  So even if it makes me uncomfortable, even if I have questions about naming those forces Satan, it is still about the best way we have of talking about those things which work contrary to God’s will and…the bottom line is, personified or not, we know evil and temptation do exist.  There isn’t much question about that. 

Another question that relates to today’s gospel text is one that biblical historians wrestle with.  It’s a question that most of us have probably thought about at least a little bit somewhere along the line.  That question is, “When Jesus was physically present on earth, how did he understand who he was and what he was doing?”  It’s another question that we can’t answer for certain and it is a question that gets muddled by our doctrinal understanding of Jesus which tells us that he is fully human and fully divine, an understanding which doesn’t make logical sense. That understanding makes us want to say, “Well, if he’s divine, he’s God; he knows everything.  Therefore, he must know he’s God.  He also must know exactly what’s going to happen to him every step along the way.”

I don’t think so.  I think part of Jesus’ gift to us is that in his humanity he has emptied himself of that kind of omniscience we associate with God so that he shares with us in the kinds of struggles we have, like the struggle to figure out who we are and who we are supposed to be.  In other words, the struggles he faced with temptation are as real as what we face.  His wasn’t just a make believe jaunt through humanity; it was the real thing.    

One of the things that seems to be clear is that Jesus did understand himself to be in conflict with the dark forces of evil and temptation.  Some of the gospel stories about him address this directly; some more indirectly.   The first Sunday in Lent is always about Jesus being tempted by Satan for forty days in the wilderness so we heard that last week, although Mark’s version of it is pretty brief.  But that story is the one in which Jesus confronts the temptation of Satan most directly. 

Today we realize that having won that battle with temptation didn’t mean that the matter was settled for Jesus or for Satan.  In today’s lesson though, the temptation faced by Jesus is less direct, more subtle as it comes from a seemingly well intentioned friend, the disciple Peter.

As the little introductory note above today’s gospel reading says, this conversation between Jesus and his disciples comes right after Peter proclaimed Jesus to be the Messiah.  What quickly becomes clear though is that while his statement is correct, Jesus is the Messiah, Peter really has no idea what that means.  He’s got his ideas of what it means, but his ideas are wrong, so he gets slapped with the sharpest rebuke Jesus ever has for anyone.  For Jesus, this temptation is as much the work of Satan as the wilderness temptations were. 

Peter wanted Jesus to be something he wasn’t supposed to be.  Now, he really might have been well intentioned, wanting to spare Jesus from suffering and rejection and death.  But it also may be that Peter didn’t want Jesus to be who Jesus was supposed to be because Peter didn’t want to be who Jesus wanted him to be.  There is temptation here for Jesus, but more relevant for us may be the temptation Peter was experiencing.  Like Peter, we hear take up your cross and follow, lose your life for the sake of the gospel and those forces working counter to God’s will tempt us to say, “No thank you.  I’d like to try Christianity another way.”  

I ran across a quote from Mark Twain where he says, “Many people are bothered by those passages of scripture that they don’t understand.  I’m troubled most by those I do understand.”   In this gospel that may be the problem.  It may not be that Peter didn’t understand what Jesus was saying; it may be that he did understand, and that becomes our problem too.

The temptation that we face and that we often succumb to is saying yes to something other that what Jesus actually puts before us.  We hear this call to take up our cross and follow, but what we say yes to is something else.  We hear about the radical demand that faith in Christ places on us but what we say yes to is what is often a pretty casual, on our terms relationship and like Mark Twain said, the problem isn’t that we don’t understand; it’s that we do understand. 

This gospel story today is paired with part of the Genesis story of the call and covenant with Abraham.  That call and covenant was largely a call to be different, to live differently in the world.  But it was a call to be different not in a morally superior, we’re better than everybody else way, the call to Abraham was a call to be different in a way that blessed other nations.  It was a call to have the interests of others in mind and not just when it was to your benefit to do so.

Jesus’ call to take up your cross and follow, to lose your life for the sake of the gospel is similar to that call to Abraham.  It’s a call to be different, there’s no doubt about that because the temptation of the world is to go for glory, to look out for number one, to make your life as easy and comfortable as possible.  If that happens to bless someone else, that’s fine but it’s not really your problem, it’s not really your issue, because people have to learn to take care of themselves after all.  That’s the way of the world.

That’s also why Peter was rebuked so sharply.  He may or may not have understood what Jesus was talking about, but either way he couldn’t see past the quest for glory.  As far as Peter was concerned, if Jesus was the messiah he had to be on the fast track to glory, not the fast track to crucifixion.  Peter just couldn’t envision this other way of Jesus, this way of the cross.

Neither can we.  We understand, at least to some extent, what Jesus was talking about; but we don’t trust it.  We get those voices of temptation that whisper to us and say, “Take up your cross?? That doesn’t sound very appealing.  Let me show you another way to be a Christian.”  Except there isn’t another way! 

All the other ways become saying yes to something other than the call of Jesus.  They call themselves Christianity, but when it calls for no sacrifice, little commitment, exclusion and condemnation of those who are different, selfishness rather than self-lessness, I don’t know what it is, but it is not what biblical faith talks about, it’s not what Jesus talked about.  But Satan, the tempter, the accuser, convinces us that it is.  He can’t tempt Jesus anymore to be something he isn’t supposed to be, but he can tempt people today to make Christianity something it isn’t supposed to be.  And again, maybe it’s because we don’t really want to be what Jesus and his version of Christianity wants us to be.

During Lent, this take up your cross passage is a good one for us as individuals and as churches to read and consider while we look in the mirror, while we look at ourselves.  I know I’m guilty of pointing my finger at churches that I think have it wrong; churches that have perverted Jesus’ message.  That’s a temptation I succumb to.  It’s fun, but it’s not really helpful.  It’s much more useful and helpful to look in the mirror and honestly ask, “What does it mean to say yes to Jesus?”  It’s more useful to look in the mirror and ask, “When and how and why do we say no?”

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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