A Sermon on Mark 8:31-38 for the 2nd Sunday in Lent, Year B; preached March 1, 2015, by the Rev. Matthew Emery, Senior Minister
“He said all this quite openly.” He said all this quite openly. In the version of Jesus’ story that the gospel of Mark tells, Jesus is often a bit quiet and guarded, even secretive. “And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him,” is a common refrain from the very beginning. Over and over again we hear it, up to and including the very last verse right before our passage for this morning begins.
But this, this, “he said all this quite openly.”
As middle-class white people from the northeast, most of us, we’re perfectly comfortable with the Jesus who doesn’t want anybody to say anything about him. People like us are not exactly known—at least nowadays—for being forthcoming with faith-talk. I mean, sure, New Englanders have that general reputation for being a bit less warm and engaging than others in our country, but when it comes to faith-talk, we take it to a whole other level. Truth is, our hush-hush seems to match our overall rate of church attendance: in data that just came out from Gallup in the last couple of weeks, it was revealed that New England had the lowest rates of weekly religious attendance of any region in the country. Northern New England and Massachusetts took the lowest 4 slots, with only Oregon and Washington State coming in tied for 5th-lowest before getting to us here in Connecticut. Now, I can’t say for sure whether there’s a connection between the low attendance rates and our seeming laryngitis about faith. But whatever the cause (or causes) may be for our silence, we definitely are pretty good at it, even right here within the church, where we’re often far more comfortable talking about the running of the church than we are about our relationship with God.
Here in this passage from Mark, Jesus breaks the secrecy and silence, though. “He said all this quite openly,” we are told. But what was “this”? What was it that he was willing to be so brazen and bold about?
“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.” That’s what Jesus said “quite openly.”
For any of you, any of us, who have been around church or Christianity or the Bible for long enough, I think we’ve probably grown a little numb to how shocking Jesus was in saying this. The disciples had been following him around Galilee as he healed and taught and performed some miracles. Finally, Jesus asks them who people are saying he is, and then put it to them—and who do you say I am? Peter, the one often looked to as chief among the disciples, testifies “You are the Messiah.”
For Peter and the others, being the Messiah meant certain things. Among other things, it meant being the one who would restore the royal line of the nation and liberate Israel from the control of outsiders, of the Roman Empire. Hope for the coming Messiah had been nestled in the collective heart of the people not just for decades, but for some four to five hundred years.
Peter—and, I would imagine, at least some of the others agreed—Peter believes he’s found this long-promised one, that Jesus is in fact that one. And just as soon as he said that, Jesus starts in on all this suffering and rejection and getting killed business. It would be almost as if at the next presidential election the Republican candidate wins, and then when the inauguration day speech comes around, she or he announces their backing of a new push to introduce government-funded single-payer socialized health care. That’s the level of expectation-breaking we’re talking here.
So why does Jesus say all this, and why is it this part that he’s so keen on saying “quite openly”…?
Really it all comes down to this: you see, God is in the business of changing destinies. With God on the scene, no fate is so certain that it cannot be revised, redirected, transformed, or transcended by the power and will of God at work. God changes destinies.
Here at this place in the gospel’s story, Jesus begins laying out how the destiny even of the Messiah faced transformation. The Messiah was not to be the warrior-king, coming with triumph and military might. The Messiah, rather, was coming as the suffering servant, the one who would be despised and rejected, the “man of sorrows … acquainted with grief.” The Messiah was not here to gather an army that would take up the sword to slash away the nation’s enemies. The Messiah comes to gather a cohort willing to take up a cross, and thereby call into question the way the whole system works in the first place.
God changes destinies. The Messiah’s destiny had to be transformed from people’s expectations because ultimately the Messiah’s destiny is to change our destiny. One who comes simply to do better at the systems of the world the way they are—to fight with more force, to win with more triumph, to possess people and property with more power and pizazz—in such a one there really is no hope, no real way to truly change our destiny, as individuals and as a world.
But Jesus as Messiah came not as such a one. He came rather as the one who would suffer and die even though he was innocent, and thus call into question the very systems that claim to enforce justice and peace. He came as one willingly ceding power, and thus challenging those who claim power over all. And by the power of God, he came into a world that dealt him death and yet brought life, pushing back even the reality of death as our final destiny.
Jesus still comes, this very day, seeking to change our destiny. That’s what I think denying ourselves and losing our lives has to do with: Jesus comes giving us the power to deny the “self” that the world has imposed on us—the destinies we have taken for granted, the judgments to which we have acquiesced too easily, the limits of what is possible for us and through us that have boxed us in too tightly.
Jesus invites us again and ever again to push aside all these false selves, and all the false schemes of the world, and in so doing find our true destiny—our destiny from God and our destiny in God.
He says find your destiny when he himself endures the cross that he bids us to take up. He says find your destiny when he is raised to new life by the power of God, even when the world had destined him dead. He says it when he offers his presence to us again and again—in the place where two or three are gathered, in the words that proclaim his Word, in the waters that claim us, and here at this table where he feeds us. Bread is broken for us and the Spirit says “See what you are”. Bread is broken for us and the Spirit says “Be what you see.”
And thankfully, he says all this quite openly.
Blessing and honor, glory and power be unto God, now and forever. Amen.
 Frank Newport, “Frequent Church Attendance Highest in Utah, Lowest in Vermont,” gallup.com, 17 February 2015, accessed 28 February 2015 at http://www.gallup.com/poll/181601/frequent-church-attendance-highest-utah-lowest-vermont.aspx.
 Thanks for this organizing theme goes to Sally A. Brown and Cynthia A. Rigby in their commentary for the 2nd Sunday in Lent in Abingdon Theological Companion to the Lectionary: Preaching Year B, ed. Paul Scott Wilson (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2014), 95.
 Allusion to Isaiah 53:3, which is quoted in the well-known alto aria “He Was Despiséd” from Handel’s Messiah.