How many of you have a “bucket list?” Perhaps you know the phrase from a movie back in 2007 of the same name. Even if you don’t know the movie, you probably know the concept: “the list of things that I want to do before I die.” Experiences I want to have. Things I want to accomplish. Places I want to go. Of course, the phrase comes from the older phrase “kick the bucket.” Before we can’t do it anymore, this is what I want to experience! Now, it is unlikely that we will ever accomplish everything on our bucket list. If we do, it’s probably not long enough! But the point is that a) we should from time to time take a moment and ask what are our priorities…what do we want to achieve or experience or receive in this life b) we should see every day as a gift and understand a sense of urgency to experience that gift to the fullest!
Today begins a three-part series that I am calling “Jesus’ bucket list.” There are three times in the Gospel of Mark in which Jesus is pretty frank with his disciples that he is going to suffer and die. So for Jesus, this is his bucket list: each time he predicts his death, he accompanies that prediction with a teaching. In other words, he tells the disciples a) these are my priorities…these are the things that I want you to hear before I’m gone, and b) he wanted them to have a sense of urgency about his mission and purpose. With each prediction, we get a new teaching about what Jesus finds most critical.
So, three things reside on Jesus’ bucket list. Three urgent priorities that he wants his followers to understand.
The first one is denial.
Ewww. Who wants to talk about denial? I read this passage with the Two-Way this week and everyone just, kind of, sat there. Eventually, their basic response to the text was, “who wants to do that? That’s a bummer of a Scripture passage. It’s hard to get excited about any of that.”
And they are absolutely right. Especially for those of us living in the United States of America in 2018, there is just about nothing more depressing than denial. In our American consumer culture, denial seems a horrible thing. Why would I deny myself anything? Any carnal pleasures of food, drink, sex, entertainment, etc. etc. etc.? Denial means limitation of freedom and is therefore bad. We should never EVER be limited in our freedom! I want to choose my car, my school, my friends, and dang it, I want to choose my bag of chips. In fact, I want an entire aisle in the grocery store for chips, because I don’t just want any chips for lunch…I don’t just want any potato chips…I don’t just want any barbeque-flavored potato chips! I want to choose between Carolina Style barbeque chips, Hawaiian Luau barbeque chips, or Lay’s wavy bacon wrapped jalapeno popper barbeque chips! And it is my God-given right to have the freedom to choose. I want my Lay’s wavy bacon wrapped jalapeno popper barbeque chips. I need my Lay’s wavy bacon wrapped jalapeno popper barbeque chips. And anyone who denies me such a freedom is a godless Communist!
Maybe a little over the top. But maybe not. We don’t want to be denied anything! So, to read this passage about denial can feel pretty depressing.
But maybe it is worth a second look. There are actually several messages in here that Jesus is trying to get across to his disciples. Let’s look at each one.
First, “don’t spread bad information.”
How many of you are like me and hate to ask for directions? I hate asking for directions. Maybe it’s because I am a man and I want to do it myself. That’s the stereotype, right? Or, maybe it’s because people give horrible directions! We know how to go places, but we don’t know how to tell people to go places. If you ever have to ask for directions, you know this. Someone needs to know where the Perkins is, and we know where the Perkins is, but we are horrible at telling someone else: “Oh yeah, go down there and get on 15th…I think the sign calls it something else, but it’s 15th street. And you want to go turn at the third right, or maybe the fourth right. I’m not sure. There’s a light there. And you follow that all the way down to where the Chili’s used to be. If you hit that, you know you’ve gone too far. You want to actually turn left before that and you’ll pass a Hobby Lobby on your right and a Taco John’s on your left, and then it’s in one of those strip malls somewhere down there.” I hate asking for directions because I know that people don’t give good directions!
That’s where Jesus is in the first part of the passage. He asks the disciples who people say that he is, and gets a bunch of answers. Then he asks who they say he is and Peter speaks up and says “the Messiah.” In Matthew, Jesus pats Peter on the back for this. But in Mark, he tells them not to tell anyone. Scholars actually debate why this is, and even give this phenomenon a name: the Markan Secret. Jesus tells the disciples and people he heals not to say anything to anyone, which they usually promptly ignore and tell everyone.
But one of the reasons why Jesus seems to do this is obvious in today’s passage. Because they give bad directions! It becomes clear as the passage unfolds that they have no idea what it means to be the Messiah. So if the disciples go around telling everyone that Jesus is the Messiah, he’s sure that the truth is going to get lost in translation. He warns them sternly because he’d rather they not run their mouths and give out bad information! “Don’t spread bad information.”
Secondly, Jesus tells them, “pain is expected.”
I have to be careful with this one. Preachers have for generations used passages like this to rationalize all kinds of oppression with this concept. “If your spouse is abusing you, consider it your cross to bear. If you and your family are living in poverty conditions, then you are suffering like Jesus.” I am not saying that here. Jesus is not encouraging injustice with his words.
But he is saying that pain is expected. Again, as 21st Century Americans, we don’t like this teaching. We want to avoid pain, as a general rule, don’t we? How much of our lives do we spend avoiding pain? Once you leave the potato chip aisle at the store, walk into the pain relief aisle! There are a thousand different things that you can spend your money on to avoid pain. To numb pain. To mask pain.
But here Jesus says that what he is here for is pain. Suffering. Punishment. Death. In fact, that is the misinformation that he wants to correct. We love it when someone tells us how to avoid pain. So does Peter. When Jesus announces that suffering is part of his process, Peter literally thinks he is possessed by a demon. The Greek word for “rebuke” – which is what Peter does to Jesus – is associated with the exorcism of demons. He tries to exorcise the demon of suffering from Jesus, and in return, Jesus rebukes him. He calls him Satan, claims that those who try and avoid pain are part of an adulterous and evil generation.
Avoiding pain misses the point. Pain is what Jesus is here for. Because Jesus knows that he is walking into a world of hurt. This is a hinge passage between his early ministry in Galilee and his move toward Jerusalem. He knows what is at the end of the road. He knows that the message that he brings will challenge the powers that be, and they won’t like it. And that the end result will be his suffering, his punishment, and his death. Jesus knows that suffering is the end result of a normal part of standing up for what you believe in. For those who are sold out to the human traditions, to the human ways, to the human expectations, Jesus will become the enemy, and he knows it. The Messiah-ship of Jesus is not about kicking butt and taking names. It is about suffering in the hands of those who kick butt and take names. Pain is going to be a part of the process.
And thirdly, Jesus tells them, “It’s conga time.”
Have you all ever done a conga line? At a wedding reception or awkward office party or school dance? The salsa music comes on, and everyone gets in a line and dances the conga? One person follows the next person, follows the next person, and so on and so forth. I know, it’s a little dated, but it helps make the point. Jesus is telling the disciples to join the line and join the party.
Again and again throughout the passage, Jesus uses the language of “following.” “If any want to become my followers…” “Take up the cross and follow me.” Actually, when Jesus tells Peter “get behind me Satan,” it is the exact same word in Greek as the next verse to follow. He is telling Peter, literally, “get behind me. Follow me. I am following the call of the Father…you need to get behind and follow me…and then others will get behind and follow you.”
Because just like the conga line, that’s where the party is. Jesus is re-framing the idea of denial for us. We think that denial is bad because it limits our freedom. But Jesus says “we are going to follow someone. We are going to be dependent on someone. So either follow our own sinful and broken ways, or the sustaining and healing ways of God. Figure out who you are going to follow, and if you want the most fulfilling life, follow God!” Jesus is reaching here that denial is a radical following of the one who knows us best and loves us best and has the best in mind for us. That doesn’t mean that we aren’t going to suffer. In fact, we are! But it means that our suffering means something. It comes in the service of following one who yearns for hope and healing for the whole world! When you lose your life, you will gain it for my sake!
So, this good news for the disciples is good news for us! We can either make ourselves into the arbiter and know-it-all sage of our lives or we can follow God’s way of life found in Jesus. For that way of life leads to true life. Denial is not about self-punishment. It is not about destroying oneself, but about finding one’s true self in the practice of following God!
It’s Conga time! If we want to join the party that is the abundant life, the eternal life that Jesus talked about, it comes not in demanding our freedom, but in giving up our freedom to God.
Richard Foster talks about this in his book on spiritual disciplines, The Celebration of Discipline. He says that when we deny ourselves, when we discipline ourselves, we actually receive more blessing than we give up. And the point that he makes about denial, or submission to others, or sacrifice is that what we gain is true freedom! He says we “lose the burden of having to get our own way.” Of having to live with the burden – he calls it – of walking through life thinking that if we don’t get exactly the potato chips we want then we are somehow victims. For Jesus, when we deny ourselves, when we take up our cross, when we lose the burden of having to get our own way, that’s when we really find our lives. And that’s when we join the party.
Easy for me to say, right? As a white, educated, heterosexual male from a stable family, I can “deny myself” everything and in the end be more or less okay. Y’all could fire me tomorrow. I could lose my job and all of my money tomorrow. And I would still have a leg up on many others to get another job, get a loan to get by, be trusted by the bank to miss a mortgage payment or two, and all the while be bankrolled by my family who would not let me or my kids go hungry. So, is it fair for me to stand up there and tell other people to sacrifice? To give everything up? To deny yourself? Isn’t it a little unrealistic for me to stand here from my place of privilege and lecture you?
You shouldn’t pay attention to me. You should look to the story of Sau Nam. We met her a few weeks ago in worship, and told a bit of her story. But it bears repeating. Here is the story someone who knows what it means to deny oneself. She felt called by God to educate women in her own country in the ministry, to teach them theology, to explain to them that the “human things,” the human theology of this world that tells them that they are not good enough, is wrong. She felt called by God to teach them “divine things.” To teach them the empowering love of God. So she has left her country, her home, her husband, her five year old son, in order to come to the United States to seminary and be equipped to share the Gospel. And she has denied herself to follow that call. When checked with her this week to make sure that I could use her story in my sermon, she gladly agreed: “I want to be a living witness as much as I can.” May we all be more like Sau Nam. May we all experience a life of following God. And may we all find ourselves, and a new freedom, in that life.
Sau Nam’s story reminds me of a hymn that teaches this idea profoundly. Her life echoes its words:
Take my life, and let it be
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee;
Take my moments and my days,
Let them flow in ceaseless praise,
Take my voice, and let me sing
Always, only, for my King;
Take my lips, and let them be
Filled with messages from Thee,
Take my will, and make it Thine;
It shall be no longer mine.
Take my heart; it is Thine own;
It shall be Thy royal throne,
May these be the words of our heart today.