“Don’t Tell Anyone”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
September 13, 2015
Isaiah 50:4-9 & Mark 8:27-38
Mark’s gospel has always been my favorite. For those of us with short attention spans, Mark’s story of the life of Jesus is a cool, refreshing drink of water. It is the shortest of the four gospels, it is quick and to the point, and it starts and ends with a bang. While the other gospels start with long genealogies and achingly-beautiful stories of Jesus’ birth, Mark charges the starting line with, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” It doesn’t appear that Mark has time for shepherds or angels, or for trying to link Jesus to the prophets of Israel; Mark gets right down to the point, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”. The ending of Mark’s gospel is equally quick and without flourish: there we are in the garden and Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome are seized with fear because an angel has just told them that the crucified body they had come to anoint is not there…He has risen just as he said. The three women run from the empty tomb afraid and silent.
In the sixteen chapters that stand between this quick start and eerily silent end, Mark’s Jesus is constantly on the move. From the moment Jesus comes up from the waters of the Jordan, until the moment he dies on the cross, his life is one long sweep of healing, teaching, preaching, and prayer. Yet the Jesus of Mark’s gospel does something strange whenever he heals, teaches, or preaches—he says to the disciples and crowds, “Don’t tell anyone”. He did it today in the reading we just heard. Did you catch it? It was quick. Jesus and the disciples are humming along with a conversation about identity, about who Jesus is and what the disciples and people think about him. Suddenly, Peter blurts out, “You are the Messiah”. Yes! That is exactly what Jesus is! Finally, someone gets it! But Jesus responds, no, sternly orders them not to tell anyone.
Strange, right? Peter finally gets Jesus and Jesus tells him to keep his mouth shut about it—Jesus tells the rest of the disciples to do the same. Reading the gospel of Mark up to this point has been like watching a movie where we know something the main characters don’t—we want them to figure it out and we worry what will happen if they don’t. Mark told us at the very beginning about Jesus: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”. We know about Jesus; he is the Christ, the anointed one of God. And so we almost breathe a sigh of relief when Peter, in a flash of insight, is no longer in the dark. Peter knows that Jesus is not John the Baptist, or Elijah, or any of the other prophets of the Old Testament. Peter knows that Jesus is the Christ—something we’ve known from the start—God’s Messiah, the one chosen and anointed to deliver Israel from oppression. Peter is all puffed up and proud of his new-found insight, probably floating just a little above the rest of the disciples.
Then Jesus swoops in and pops Peter’s balloon by sternly ordering all of them, “Don’t tell anyone”. Why, Jesus? Why can’t we tell anyone?
The answer comes a little further in the passage when Peter and Jesus have a little dust-up. The gospel says that Jesus began to teach them 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. And Peter takes Jesus aside and rebukes him, which in the original Greek of the New Testament is the same way Jesus was speaks when he says, “Don’t tell anyone”. Peter just can’t imagine it, that the Messiah will undergo great suffering and rejection. Sure, Peter gets the title right, but he doesn’t seem to understand what that title means. When Jesus begins to talk not about the road to glory, but instead talks about the road to the cross, Peter rebukes him…disciplines him, tries to correct him. Then, Jesus rebukes Peter right back.
This dust-up calls into question Peter’s understanding of Jesus because, as Jesus says, Peter’s mind is not set on divine things but on human things. It also calls into question our own understanding of Jesus. I think that just like Peter we cling to a Messiah that is strong, one who will heal our illnesses, provide ample prosperity, guarantee our security, and urge our military and sports teams on to victory—not a messiah who will suffer and die. We cling to an of understanding of God as one who keeps us happy, healthy, and wise. There is nothing wrong with this…thinking of God in these ways is Biblical. The psalmist likens God to a rock, a mighty storm, the crashing waves against the beach. God took on the form of a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night while leading the Israelites out of Egypt—that’s a powerful God! When Moses and Joshua were edging into the promised land, God defeated army after army that stood in their way—that’s a powerful God! The image of God in the book of Job is of a God who heals, watches over the personal well-being of each creature—that’s a God who wants us to be happy and healthy.
Understanding God in these ways is not wrong; its not right either. The most robust and full expression of God came to life for us in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ offers a strong and powerful God, one of healing and joy, but also one who meets us in vulnerability, suffering and loss. Jesus Christ offers us a God who meets us in those moments when we really need God, when all we had worked for, hoped for, and struggled for falls apart and we realize that we are, after all, mortal and incapable of saving ourselves. Jesus offers us a God who meets us where we are in our desperate need for God. The conquering hero and messiah, the one with a sword and shield, that clouds Peter’s mind and our own is just one slight nuance of the God who created the heavens and the earth. The mission and work of Jesus proves that the God of our faith was willing to get deep down into the messy parts of human life, endure the worst it could offer, then triumph over it all—not for crowns or riches, for glory or power, but so that God could meet each one of us when we find ourselves in those same deep, messy places. This means that we don’t get the God we want, but instead the God we need.
That’s why Jesus is keen on the disciples keeping their mouths shut. Jesus rebukes them with, “Don’t tell anyone,” because far too often his followers speak about God and Jesus in ways that are terribly inauthentic—they speak about the God they want, not about the true God of all, the God we all need. When our minds are wrapped up in human things, we speak of a God who wants me to be happy, wants me to be wealthy, wants me to be victorious, even though God’s concern is for all of humanity. When our minds are wrapped up in human things, we speak of a God who is on our side, which means God approves of whatever action we take against real or perceived enemies, even though Jesus teaches us to love each other and turn the other cheek in peace. When our minds are wrapped up in human things, we speak of a faith and a church that is a museum for saints and not a hospital for sinners, even though Jesus, the Messiah, did all of his work among the folks who were most in need. “Don’t tell anyone,” Jesus says, because your words are inauthentic, wrong, they are wrapped up in human things.
“Don’t tell anyone” Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me”. In other words, if we want to follow Jesus, to show his love and compassion to the world, and show to that same world the tremendous God in whom we believe, we’ve got to stop talking and start doing.
Let me ask you three questions, and I’ll give you some time to think of answers. First, what gives you the greatest joy in life? Second, what creates for you the deepest sense of purpose? And third, when do you feel most alive, most true to the person you believe God created you to be?
I bet none of you answered those questions with ‘taking up your cross and following Jesus’. I don’t blame you for that because I didn’t answer that way either. When we hear Jesus issue the invitation to take up our cross and follow him, our thoughts go dark, to walking a lonely road that leads to a hill far away. For too long we’ve been sold this idea that bearing a cross in Jesus’ name is like some type of existential Weight Watchers. You know, have a little less of the things you like, don’t over-indulge in the things that make you happy, cut enjoyment calories whenever possible because they’re not Christian. But that’s not what Jesus is talking about here at all. Instead, I think he’s suggesting that the “life” that has been packaged and sold to us isn’t real life and we need to die to those illusions to be born into the abundant life God wants for us. That’s what it means to take up a cross and follow him.
Isn’t it true that we tend to think of life as something you go out and get, or earn, or buy, or win. It turns out, according to Jesus, life is like love—it can’t be won or earned or bought, only given away. And the more you give it away, the more you have. In fact, only when you love others do you most understand what love really is. Likewise, only when you give away your life for the sake of others do you discover the beauty of your own. Somehow, in thinking about how to fulfill the needs of others your own deepest needs are met. Some might call this the mystery of life—our faith, and Jesus, calls it the Kingdom of God.
Let’s go back think about how you answered those three questions a moment ago. What did you say gives you the great joy in life? What creates for you the deepest sense of purpose? And when do you feel most alive, most true to the person you believe God created you to be? My guess is that it wasn’t something you bought, or even earned. It was not something you said to someone else, or probably even anything that has been said to you. My guess is that your answers are rooted in relationships, real relationships that are built on mutual love and understanding. My guess is that your answers are embedded in acts of service, service that is offered to the world because you recognize the abundance of your blessings. My guess is that your answers are not words but acts, acts of what the world might call ‘sacrifice’ or what Jesus calls taking up a cross and following him.
“Don’t tell anyone,” Jesus says, “show them.” The calling of Christian faith is do away with words about faith and live faith in tangible and visible ways. This is what Jesus did according to the witness of Scripture. He spoke about his mission, but he exhibited that mission in ways that spoke louder that his words. He did not simply tell us that God is love, he showed us God’s love by breaking the bread of his body and pouring out the cup of his blood. He did not simply tell us that peacemakers are blessed, he acted in ways that peacefully tore down the violence all around. He did not simply tell us to take up our cross and follow him, he took up his own cross and put his feet in the same places he wants us to put ours. The Messiah that we get in Jesus is not always the Messiah we want, but he is always the Messiah we need.
The good news of the gospel today is that we can stop racking our brains for new and more attractive ways of speaking about Jesus; we can stop trying to tell an old story in new ways that will get people’s attention. The good news is that when we take up our cross and follow Jesus, the abundant life that it brings will naturally attract attention to Jesus and his radical way of life. The good news is that we don’t have to exhaust ourselves with words about Jesus, because we can show Jesus by getting into deep relationship with one another, by serving, by sacrificing for the needs of each other. The good news is that we can give up our preconceived notions about God and Jesus and allow the indescribable and unfathomable nature of God break open our hearts and minds. The good news is that we don’t have to tell anyone, we can simply show them with the good and holy bodies God has so graciously given to us all.
So be challenged by Jesus’ rebuke today: “Don’t tell anyone”. Show everyone you meet, with the very living of your life, the One in whom you believe and follow. When you give up your life and follow Jesus, you will find true life; when you take up your cross, the other burdens of life will slip away. And of you, before God and the holy angels, Jesus will never be ashamed. Amen.
In gratitude I wish to acknowledge Dr. David Lose, President at Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, whose blog on Mark 8:27-38 heavily guided and populated my sermon. His original post can be read here: http://www.davidlose.net/2015/09/pentecost-16-b-intriguing-elusive-captivating-and-crucial/, of which I quote and paraphrase throughout this sermon.