This isn’t the way it was supposed to be. After nearly 550 days of online church, outdoor church, and masked and physically distanced church, today was to be the day when we were finally able to gather and share hugs and have everything back to normal. With the vaccine coursing through our bodies, we were supposed to be able to get back to the way things were. We’d be having a huge welcome back brunch during coffee hour, and the kids—hopped up on ice cream—would be running down the halls upstairs sounding like dinosaurs to those of us below them. We’d be catching up with friends old and new, and we’d give thanks to God for bringing us through such a difficult time.
A sermon based on Mark 8:27-38.
And yet, here we are. Our younger kids are still not able to get vaccinated, a variant of the virus is wreaking havoc and causing breakthrough cases. The death toll is still climbing. Over 677,000 people dead in the US alone—more than any other mass event in the history of our nation—and over 4.6 million people worldwide. Those numbers are too big to totally comprehend, but the deaths here in the US are now greater than the entire population of Vermont, and over the past 10 days there were some 11,000 more—surpassing the population of Southborough. After the first 100,000 US deaths or so, we seem to have grown callous. We just can’t understand; we can’t take it in. Certainly, we expected things to be different. This is not the way it was supposed to be.
Which is exactly what Peter is experiencing in our lesson from Mark this morning. As Jesus and his disciples come to Caesarea Philippi, he asks them what the people are saying about him. Who do they think he is? “John the Baptist,” one offers up, and another says, “Elijah or one of the prophets of old.” “But you,” Jesus responds, “who do you say that I am?”
And Peter drives it out of the ballpark. “You are the Messiah,” he says. And in his head, Peter thought, “The one promised by those prophets who would reestablish the kingdom of Israel and help us throw off the crushing rule of the invading empire of Rome.”
Jesus, however, explains what it actually means for him to be the Messiah. That he would undergo great suffering, be rejected by the political and religious leaders, and killed, and after three days rise again. “He said all of this quite openly,” Mark writes, and Peter is gobsmacked. This isn’t the way it is supposed to be. So he takes Jesus aside and tries to set him straight. And, friends, here’s a tip: mansplaining to God is not a good idea.
Jesus looks over his shoulder, and sees the rest of the disciples staring at them. And he does something that I think breaks his heart; he looks at Peter and says, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Peter’s ego certainly stings from Jesus’ slap. Just moments before Peter had gotten it completely right, and now he had gotten it achingly wrong. This clearly was not the way Peter thought it was supposed to be.
The problem rests in our expectations. When what we expect to happen goes awry, emotions run high. We get angry or hurt or become forlorn. I mention this to every couple I counsel before they get married. Parents have expectations because of how things have always been, but things are different now. If you always go to Aunt Mary’s house for Christmas Eve, and your fiancee always goes to Grandma’s, you’d better figure out how you’ll navigate that and let people know weeks in advance. But sometimes we can’t know about how things will turn out, we make plans in uncertain times, and we get our hopes up.
In her book When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, Pema Chödrön helps us think about the impact of our expectations. She writes, “When we think that something is going to bring us pleasure, we don’t know what’s really going to happen. When we think something is going to give us misery, we don’t know [either].” And then she hits on her important advice, “Letting there be room for not knowing is the most important thing of all. We try to do what we think is going to help. But we don’t know. We never know if we’re going to fall flat or sit up tall. When there’s a big disappointment, we don’t know if that’s the end of the story. It may be just the beginning of a great adventure.”
We don’t like letting there be room for not knowing. We generally do not thrive on dealing with things are outside of our control. And then the Delta Variant entered the chat. But when there’s a big disappointment, we don’t really know if it’s the end of the story. It might just be the beginning of a grand adventure.
When Jesus heard Peter start explaining what he envisioned the Messiah doing—crushing the evil Roman overlords and restoring what had once been—he knew it was the wrong story. The Messiah didn’t come just to set up one more earthly kingdom and then hand things over to his closest allies only to watch someone get too power hungry and have the whole thing come crashing down again. Jesus knew that he had come to establish a completely different sort of kingdom, one founded on love rather than on power. Focused on self-giving rather than on accumulating resources. Built on humility instead of ego. He looked tenderly at his disciples who don’t get it—whose expectations about what he would do were misplaced—and he explained it to them. “If any want to become my followers, 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.For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?”
Jesus mentions the cross because he knows as well as the others what Rome does to people who live in a counter-cultural way: they execute them. But, Jesus makes clear, if you want to be a part of his kingdom, you need to be willing to die to self, and in that way find life. If you want to truly follow him, you must at least be aware that there will be a cost. That he will ask you to lay aside expectations and embrace a seemingly non-sensical way. It will go contrary to everything you have come to know, but it may just lead to something more.
Friends, this is hard. I liked it better when I knew what to expect. I enjoyed it more when I didn’t have to spend time imagining every aspect of our worship together: where people sat, or what to include in the bulletin, or what happens when we sing, or how to get people in and out. I don’t like feeling that the plans I put together may likely all get tossed out next week or next month. Or that we might have another Christmas that looks nothing like the ones I cherish. I want things to be as they have been. I want my expectations met.
And then Jesus gently reminds me that when things do not go as I expect I might just be looking at earthly things rather than divine. That maybe our overly-filled lives needed a check on them so that we could make more space for God and others. That perhaps I had been trying to gain the whole world in how I lived my life, thinking that maybe I could get both that and keep my life intact too. That possibly Jesus didn’t really mean it when he said that things needed to fall apart in order to find life.
But then I watch as he makes his way to his Passion. I see him take up his own very real cross and walk to Golgotha. I stand by the others as he breathes his last. And I too am astonished when I encounter him on the road, only recognizing him in the breaking of the bread. It is not what we had expected at all. But who knows if it is merely the beginning of a grand adventure as we journey with the Risen One?