During Lent, we’ve chosen to focus on listening. The scripture passage from Mark this week shows that listening can be physically and emotionally costly. Mark didn’t want to know that the Messiah was to be mocked and killed. It can be easy to instinctively shrink away when confronted by such shock and pain. However, it is in listening, in being present with people in such difficulties, that we find deep spiritual connection.
31 Then he 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. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 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. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
In the verses immediately preceding today’s passage, Jesus asks his disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” Peter had witnessed Jesus’ mighty acts. Jesus healed the sick, did all manner of miracles, cast out demons, commanded the storm, gathered his disciples and sent them out. This was a Messiah who fit the job description. He could take on the darkest forces of the world and defeat them. Such a man must surely be the Messiah. Like Peter most of us yearn for a Messiah who will remove our pain, heal our bodies and restore our loved ones. But that was not the kind of Messiah that God offered us in Jesus.
Jesus tried to explain. He spoke ‘quite openly’ but it was impossible for the disciples to comprehend Jesus’ concept of Messiah. The entirely unexpected truth about the good (?) news is that if you are looking for relief from the hardships of life—and aren’t we all—you have the wrong religion. That was a shocker to Peter and no less so for us.
Peter was setting his mind on human things—like we all do. No matter how we try to keep faith, the human reaction is to feel lost, abandoned, despairing and outraged when someone we love is randomly gunned down. None of us want to face what the families in Parkland have to face. One day you are fixing breakfast, worrying about homework, setting curfews and the next you are attending your child’s funeral. No one should have to endure that. Yet seventeen families and their neighbors and the nation must do exactly that. We set our minds on human things. We hold onto the idea that there ‘ought’ to be someplace where we can be safe but Parkland exposes us and we cannot bear it.
We all know the world is unfair but it is different when it is personal. It is one thing to read statistics, it is another to be one of the statistics. We rarely come face to face so starkly with our helplessness. These are the times we want a Messiah that will heal our broken world—a Messiah who will protect us from evil, who will punish the evildoers. These are the ways we measure our God. These are the times we cry ‘why have you abandoned us?’ How can you allow innocents to be slaughtered? Sunday morning talk about trusting God seems impossible when our children are threatened and killed in their schools. A suffering, much less a crucified Messiah is an affront. Such a God is a defeated God and no real help. By human expectation, that is a God to be ashamed of. When our child is dead, we want our child back.
Such talk is depressing and it was certainly so in our FIRL groups. It is hard to imagine following Jesus when he leads us into helplessness rather than remedying what ails us. We are afraid of helplessness and go to great lengths to avoid it—it is the human way. But, listening to God means setting aside our human ways and setting our minds on divine things. Helplessness is part of our creation. Jesus embraced what we fear the most. Peter could not imagine such ‘divine things.’
Our Messiah faced life at its most terrible and by doing so promised that we are not alone. In the midst of uncertainty, unfairness, pain and even the death of innocents, we are not alone. That is a divine teaching and is completely counterintuitive to human desire and expectation. We yearn for comfort on our terms and sometimes we demand it. But that is not real life. One of the radical revelations of Jesus is that there is no dodging suffering and that ‘suffering with’ one another is deeply loving.
Ordinary life reflects the biblical story. ‘Suffering with’ is what comforts us and ultimately what is redemptive. Comfort is not found in advice or someone’s well intended desire to ‘fix’ us. Genuine compassion leads to places we would normally avoid and is always costly. That certainly was the case with Jesus. Though Jesus could foresee that his way would be ridiculed and rejected he kept walking toward Jerusalem. It meant surrendering his own safety. It meant seeking justice and love in the face of rejection and failure. It meant relying upon God even upon a cross. Listening to God was a tall order for Jesus and listening to Jesus is a tall order for us.
Listening to Jesus has some scary and grace filled implications. First, our goodness and obedience do not protect us. Our lives are in the hands of God–not our goodness. Every week I have at least one client who is angry and indignant at how they are being treated. Most recently a stepmother was being attacked by her husband’s ex-wife. The stepmother could not understand why she was being treated badly. She had worked hard to love and support her stepchildren. It cost her emotionally and it cost her financially. She was courteous and worked to keep the best interest of the children in the forefront. Now she was being sued by a woman who had been negligent as a mother. She was justifiably angry and indignant.
I asked her if she had a Christian background and when she said yes, I asked if she believed Jesus was a good man. She replied yes. Then I pointed out, ‘It didn’t stop him from being crucified.’ The way of love means we have no control over how we are received. The way of love means giving up coercion of any kind. And the way of Jesus is that we continue to love—knowing full well we can be and often will be injured.
A corollary is that we can offer our very best to someone and we can still be ignored or rejected. God offered his son but that did not mean people were willing to accept the gift. The way of love is often ridiculed as naive, soft hearted or weak. The way of love does not protect us from bullets or terrorists. In real life, a nonviolent person may very well die violently. Jesus foresaw that for himself. That is terrifying and the most human of responses is to recoil and attempt to protect ourselves.
We do not want to learn that cancer, the death of a child, a harsh divorce or even a mass shooting are terrible parts of life. We cannot explain them. We at best, can mitigate them. The only way we can go on is to place our despair in the hands of God. We do not want to go through this pain of suffering with another because we have to face that it could happen to us. But Jesus joined us and loved us. It is how God loves.
Suffering with can’t be faked—at least not for long. ‘Thoughts and prayers’ can be used to distance ourselves from pain or draw us into a deeper shared pain. The former is off-putting and offensive. The latter creates a space where the capacity to go on is born. As receivers, we can tell the difference.
Nor should suffering become idolatrous. There is no virtue in suffering for its own sake. Sharing the pain of another is to love them. It is to let them know they are not alone. Jesus did not like the idea of suffering but he chose to suffer to let us know he is with us always and everywhere.
Lent calls us to listen to God’s way. Lent asks us to surrender our way. Beyond all expectation, the divine is waiting. Let it be so.