Scripture Readings: Proverbs 1:20–33 | Psalm 19 | James 3:1–12 | Mark 8:27–38
“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.” (Mark 8:31)
As a young adult, attending school in Southern Manitoba, I travelled across Northwestern Ontario a great many times… back and forth to my family’s home near Thunder Bay. Eventually, along that nearly 8 hour journey, we would pass a sign on the highway that, for some reason, stood out in my mind: it was the sign marking the watershed boundary between Lake Superior to the East, and to the West, the Hudson Bay. On one side of the crest, rain would run down to the Great Lakes, and eventually end up in the Gulf of St. Laurence, and Atlantic Canada. On the other side, the rain would flow through prairie rivers, lonely lakes, and barren tundra, emptying out into the Artic Ocean. Rain from the same cloud, even the same storm could easily end up on the other side of the world. The destination all came down to which side of the hill it landed on. A few feet to the left or right could change the story forever.
The phrase ‘watershed moment’ can conjure up this kind of decisiveness… those moments when something significant shifts, and life is never the same again. Some we deliberately choose, and others surprise us. Yesterday marked the 20th anniversary of one such moment, a day Western countries like ours woke up to both terror and tragedy… leading the world down a pain-filled path, still wreaking havoc today. More recently, the Afghan people experienced another such moment as their country was overrun in a matter of days by the Taliban. Our world has know many such moments, both of devastation, but also of joy. Just as our own lives are marked by many different kinds of watersheds as well.
One that is close to home for me was when Addie was born. When we brought her home from the hospital, our lives were never the same. This little baby brought many big changes, and like her they just keep growing. Though some were painful and hard, they have also led us into great to joy too. Like much of life, the ups and the downs are often intertwined. Whether or not we’ve had kids, whether in an instant, or subtly, over time, we’ve all had our own turning points where our stories have radically changed.
In our Scripture readings today we encounter the watershed moment in Mark’s Gospel, where the direction that Jesus is taking begins to be revealed to His disciples, challenging their vision and hopes of where their stories were headed. And it all begins with one little question: Jesus asks His disciples: “who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:29).
Obviously, by this point they had some ideas about their beloved Master. They had seen His healing touch, and His power against the forces of darkness. They had heard is His words filled with wisdom, witnessed His compassion for the hungry, the hurting, and hopeless. They had some idea that Jesus was bringing God’s good Kingdom within reach. In their minds, Jesus was on His way up, and was taking them to the top with Him.
St. Peter responds to his Master’s question: “You are the Messiah.” The Christ. The Chosen One. Anointed by God to do His will. And he was completely right. And also completely wrong. He was right about the title, but wrong about what that title entailed… about what the Living God had sent His Chosen One to do.
The bishop and scholar, N.T. Wright gives this helpful explanation of what the disciples and other Jews at the time would have thought was meant by ‘Messiah’: “Calling Jesus ‘Messiah’ doesn’t mean calling him ‘divine’, let alone ‘the second person of the Trinity’. Mark believes Jesus was and is divine, and will eventually show us why; but this moment in the gospel story is about something else. It’s about the politically dangerous and theologically risky claim that Jesus is the true King of Israel, the final heir to the throne of David, the one before whom Herod Antipas and all other would-be Jewish princelings are just shabby little impostors. The disciples weren’t expecting a divine redeemer; they were longing for a king. And they thought they’d found one.” But instead of praising St. Peter, Jesus tells them to keep this quiet… and then He completely throws off their plans and re-writes their future story.
Mark 8:31-32 “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. He said all this quite openly.” This was not what they had signed up for. How could this be the plan?
Jesus was challenging everything they thought they were a part of. Instead of leading them to the top, He was headed for destruction. Willingly moving towards His own suffering rejection, torment, and death. No wonder St. Peter tries to talk some sense into His Master. Everything that they had been working for now seemed to be needlessly threatened. He had to try to get Jesus back on the right track again. To steer Him towards the destination the disciples were eager to get to.
Do we do this too? Do we try to direct and dictate how God should be at work in our lives? Are we trying to get God to conform to the expectations that we have? Are we following Him, or are we really wanting Him to follow us?
Jesus sees right through what is going on, and abruptly exposes the dark danger lurking in St. Peter’s attempt to dissuade Jesus from His mission. Then He quickly turns to the rest of His disciples, along with the crowd, and calls them to cross over the crest of the watershed of their own hopes, visions, and plans, and instead to follow Him onto a very different road.
“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” (Mark 8:34-35).
This was not an attempt to scare them off, but to set the record straight. To clarify the costly way through which God’s Kingdom would come at last. The scholar, Walter Kaiser Jr. puts it like this: “If they believed that he was the Messiah, they must know what kind of Messiah he was; if they were still minded to follow him, they must realize clearly what kind of leader they were following, and what lay at the end of the road he was pursuing. The revelation shocked them; this was not what they expected.” They could no longer simply assume that Jesus was leading them to an easy victory. He was headed for suffering and calling them… and us… to join Him.
We know suffering is a part of life, regardless of our faith. As much as we might want to avoid it, pain plays a role in all of our stories… some, more than others. And yet, the path Christ calls us to walk involves something unique: He invites us to share in God’s suffering love, and so share in His New Life. The New Testament scholar Donald English clarifies what it means to pick up our cross: “Jesus is not using cross-bearing to describe the human experience of carrying some burden through life. It is much more comprehensive than that. ‘People carrying crosses were people going to execution.’ Cross-bearing as a follower of Jesus means nothing less than giving one’s whole life over to following him. And here comes another surprise. This is the way of total freedom. If you clutch your life wholly to yourself, protecting it against all others, asserting all your rights, needs and privileges, you lose it because it isn’t life any longer. If, however, you acknowledge that life is not yours by right, that all is privilege, and that it is to be lived in the love that the gospel story reveals, self-giving love, then you possess it wholly. There is now nothing to lose and everything to gain.”
Christ leads us to the cross because that destination does not end in death… because through His cross and resurrection, He has changed the story of our world. Christ is calling us to follow Him and carry our cross, not because He is cruel… or indifferent to our pain, but because He longs to share with us His new and everlasting Life! To share the long-suffering love of God which compels us to lay down our self-centredness, and enables us by God’s Spirit to care for one another as Christ Jesus cares for us all.
And finally, Christ calls us to follow Him and take up our cross, that we might find Him right there with us! That when we are burdened, and broken, we know He will see us through to God’s good end, trusting that the crucified and risen Christ can transform even our most tragic stories… leading us to New Life, not from far off in the distance, but bearing our sorrows, up close… that they may be one day turned to joy.
So may we be led with the Spirit’s help to answer our Saviour’s call to pick up our cross and follow Him, that He might change all our stories for good. Amen.
 Tom Wright, Mark for Everyone (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 107.
 Walter C. Kaiser Jr. et al., Hard Sayings of the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1996), 425.
 Donald English, The Message of Mark: The Mystery of Faith, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 161.