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the darkness of the cross: a sermon on Mark 8:27-9:1

September 17th, 2006 by isaac · 14 Comments

Another sermon still hot from the pulpit.

Title: The Darkness of the Cross. Date: 9/17/06. Lectionary Text: Mark 8:27-38.

At this point in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is at the height of his popularity, the pinnacle of fame. He has miraculously fed thousands. He has made the blind see, and the deaf hear. Just a few chapters earlier, he brought a dead girl back to life. And his message has spread like wildfire. Multitudes of peasants meet him wherever he appears. If it was an election year, Jesus would surely steal the vote.

But on the way to Caesarea Philippi, Jesus turns to his inner circle of disciples and asks a question: “Who do the people say I am?” (Mark 8:27). He wants to know what the pollsters are saying. He wants to know what his image looks like these days. And the disciples tell him about the rumors: They answer, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets” (v28).
This should be good news for Jesus. It seems he’s created the right kind of image. He has the crowds right where he wants them. The people think he’s another powerful and popular leader like John the Baptist, Elijah, and the prophets of the Old Testament. Populist leaders. Leaders who’ve tapped into the pulse of the people; leaders who’ve taken on the cause of the common people, the oppressed, the downtrodden. These are leaders who aren’t afraid of the rulers—they aren’t afraid of those who wield the sword, those who command the armies. They speak the truth to power no matter what the consequences might be.

Jesus should be happy with himself. He’s ridding on the waves of popularity that can take him all the way to the top, all the way to Jerusalem where he can storm the throne—and then he’ll finally get rid of the Jewish puppet leaders who’ve sold out to the Roman Empire. The people are right: Jesus is going to Jerusalem, but he’s not going to storm the throne; rather, he ends up on another hill, Golgotha, on a cross, dying between two other radicals. Not a Jewish or Roman throne, but a cross.

But before all that happens, before Jesus and his multitude of supporters get to Jerusalem, Jesus asks his inner circle of followers, his disciples, those who’ve been by his side for so long—Jesus asks them if they also see what the people see when they look at him. Jesus says in verse 29, “But what about you? Who do you say I am?” Do they see a prophet, or another John the Baptist, or another Elijah? Or is Jesus something else? Something beyond all these figures. Something outside their human grasp, outside human reach; something emerging just beyond the edges of dreams—where things get hazy, fuzzy, cloudy. But we can still see something, even if not very clearly…some sort of light, dancing beyond the clouds.

Peter speaks up. He blurts out what he sees. And he sees a figure just beyond John the Baptist, Elijah, and the prophets. He sees something, not an entirely clear image, but something in the distance, just beyond those images. He sees a strange light dancing beyond the clouds; he sees the Sun.

“Peter answered, ‘You are the Christ’” (8:29). He looks at Jesus and sees the Christ, the Messiah of Israel. Peter gets it right. He catches a glimpse and names Jesus’ true form. This is the one, the Messiah, a leader like John the Baptist, Elijah, and the prophets, but he’s all that and more. Much more. The Messiah, the Christ.

And it almost seems like Peter says something true that he himself doesn’t quite understand yet. He says Jesus is the Christ—and he’s right about that. But he doesn’t quite get it even after saying it. His words reach beyond himself. His words reach through and beyond what he can see, and they pull him in a direction that he can’t quite grasp—Peter’s confession takes him down an unknown path, a path he still can’t see. It’s foggy…hazy.

I think I know a little bit of what it’s like for my spoken words to start me down an unknown path. I think that’s what happened when I got married. I made vows, spoke words that I thought I knew—things like: to love and to cherish, to be a faithful and loving husband, to share (so far that’s the hardest)—I committed to all those things, and I think I knew what they meant. But many of you have told me, before I got married, that I have no idea what I’m getting myself into.

I know some of you who’ve been married for 30, 20, 10, 5, hey, or even 2 years, probably look at me and Katie and think, “They have no clue what they’ve committed to.” And I think that’s probably right. Katie and I have entered into a relationship that is going to show us what love means as we journey down an unknown path together. We don’t know where we’re going; we don’t know what we’re doing, but we’ve committed to do it together, as long as we both shall live—that’s what we said when we were married. Our words have sent us down a path that we can’t quite see; we do not yet know the things we might see or feel as we discover life together. We don’t know what the path will look like after 10 or 30 years.

“This is a profound mystery,” Paul says in Ephesians 5:32 after describing marriage, “but I’m talking about Christ and the church.” The mysteries of marriage, Paul tells us, helps us begin to see what’s going on with Christ and the church. What I said about marriage helps us understand what it means to call ourselves church. Just as marriage vows sends me down an unknown path, baptism thrusts us into a relationship with each other and Christ that we can’t control.

We make a decision; we make a commitment; we make a vow that sends us down an unknown path, a journey that we can’t control; we give up our sense of direction; we hand over the roadmap where we’ve sketched out the best route.

Sure, we have some clue, like I had some clue about what I was doing when I got married. But we also give up our vision; we give up some control of our lives; we give up some of our desires for the future, for the sake of someone else’s well-being. That’s what happened when I got married, and that’s what happened when we were baptized. And this is the sort of thing Jesus is talking about when he says,

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)

It’s a scary offer. But one that leads into mysteries beyond our imagination—dreams beyond our control, a life too wonderful for words. It’s a path that leads into the clouds, into disorientation, into loss of control, for the sake of finding the Sun.

Peter looks up; he looks through the clouds and catches a glimpse of the Sun, and says what he sees before his mind has a chance to process it. “You are the Christ.” He gets it right, but he doesn’t really know what he’s talking about. In the passage from Mark, Jesus says Peter’s right, and then unfolds what it means to be the Christ, the Son of Man. Mark 8:31—“the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and he must be killed…” But that’s not what Peter meant when he called Jesus the Christ; being killed wasn’t part of the job description. So Jesus rebukes him, and tells his followers that the path of the Messiah leads to the cross, not a glorious throne… The despair of a cross; the darkness of Golgotha; Not the sparkles of a throne.

It’s easy to see how our lives are so distant from that of Jesus and Peter and the rest of the disciples, and the decisions they faced. What does Golgotha have to do with North Carolina? And what does that bloodied cross have to do with family life, roommates, our jobs, the supermarket, your school—and all those other places that are important to our lives? The importance of Jesus is not self-evident, and I think it’s important to notice that.

It takes work, communal work, the work of the church, to figure out if Jesus makes any sense to our lives. It’s a life-long calling. It’s something that comes with years of fellowship, years of reading the Bible together, years of loving one another, years of confrontation and reconciliation. Following Christ is something we learn from each other. Trust in God is something we teach one another. Church is about learning and living into the kingdom of God.

It’s like what I was saying earlier about marriage. We are constantly learning about love as we invest in one another, and commit to walk with each other through the unknown, the cloudy mysteries of life. That’s what marriage is about, and that’s what church is about. “This is a profound mystery,” Paul says.

The Christian life is like the many other visions of a happy life we hear about everyday from the people we meet and the commercial we hear or watch. It’s about finding and living the good life. It’s about what makes for a good life. It’s about enjoying life. There are as many visions of the good life as there are movies at Blockbuster.

But following Jesus is about saying yes to a particular vision of the good life. Our baptism is about putting aside our roadmap with our route to the good life, to success, to happiness, and committing ourselves to life of constant discovery, a never-ending quest, a perpetual search that uncovers wonders beyond our imaginations—it’s about eternal life. And this eternal life is about a life that continues to beckon us into undiscovered forests, hidden places, an eternity of new life.

But where do we look? Where do we find the path? In which direction lies the good life? That’s the question that we are called to keep alive. It’s the question of Jesus and his offer of eternal life. Where do we find it and how do we start to live into it? Peter thinks he had it figured out, but Jesus pointed in another direction—into the darkness of the cross, the death of all our self-focused visions. Jesus tells us what Peter could not see: the way into the kingdom of God, into eternal life, takes us into the darkness of death that makes room for the resurrection.

That’s the difficult promise of our Scriptures. As we follow Jesus down the darkened path of the cross, we hope to find a resurrected Jesus and the subterranean movements of God’s kingdom. Something is happening on the underside, at the bottom, underneath the spectacles of society. Can we turn our gaze from the glorious sparkles of Jerusalem, and turn instead to see what’s happening at Golgotha? What’s happening at the periphery of our vision, where we don’t usually like to look, where our sight gets cloudy and we have to squint and re-focus…or maybe even cringe? What’s going on in those places of darkness that the sparkles and glories of our society distract us from? Where is Christ’s cross? Can we see it? And are we willing to take up that cross and learn how to walk down the path of eternal life? Eternal life is something we receive as we offer our lives to those who live in darkness, those who suffer, those who hurt, those who hunger.

The lectionary cuts out the end of our passage from Mark. We read from 8:27 to verse 38. But we must continue into that strange promise in the first verse of chapter 9. That’s where our passage should end. Let me read it for us:

“And Jesus said to them, ‘I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power.”

Interesting. I’ll read it again, “I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power.”

This has to mean that the Kingdom of God has come with power. The kingdom of God is not something we wait for in heaven. Jesus said that it already came to those who walked with him down the path to the cross. But he says “some” not “all.” Only “some” will see the kingdom of God come with power. Are we part of that “some”?

We find ourselves now standing in Peter’s shoes: The Messiah is there with him, but can he learn the path of the Messiah, can he learn what it means for Jesus to be the Messiah, even though he has a different vision for what the Messiah must do. And for us, the kingdom of God has already come with power, but can we learn the ways of the kingdom when it doesn’t look like what we usually call “powerful.” The kingdom of God is here, awaiting our discovery and our participation, but to know it—to know that life—requires a journey into the darkness of the cross where all our visions of the good life, all our ideas about happiness, are shattered as we wait for something unspeakable, something too wonderful for our silly imaginations—the gift of new life, of eternal life, of kingdom life, of resurrected life.

Tags: sermons

14 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Chuck Edwards // Dec 2, 2006 at 7:30 am

    Wonderful insight for my Sunday School lesson tomorrow. Thanks and God bless you,

  • 2 isaac // Dec 2, 2006 at 7:33 am

    Thanks for visiting the blog and for reading my sermon. I hope it serves your Sunday school well. I’d love to hear about the insight you took from the sermon, and how it was received by your Sunday school. If you have a free moment (which I know don’t come very often, at least for me).

    peace and blessings.

  • 3 Steve // Jan 31, 2011 at 5:46 am

    thanks. I’m going to use this to teach a Sunday school class this coming Sunday.

  • 4 isaac // Feb 1, 2011 at 5:00 am

    Sounds great. Thanks, Steve, for using my sermon for your Sunday School class.

  • 5 DELLA MCNULTY // Feb 5, 2011 at 10:41 pm


  • 6 isaac // Feb 7, 2011 at 7:00 am

    Della, thank you for reading my sermon. I am glad that you found something here to use for your Sunday School.

    peace to you,

  • 7 Willie Ellis // Feb 8, 2011 at 2:52 pm

    I’m Blessed for the sermon , Iam teaching from Mark 8:27-9:1 on February 10, 2011 i enjoyed the word of God Thanks again God bless.

  • 8 Willie Ellis // Feb 8, 2011 at 2:56 pm

    I’m Blessed for the sermon , Iam teaching from Mark 8:27-9:1 on February
    10, 2011 i enjoyed the word of God Thanks again God bless.

  • 9 isaac // Feb 12, 2011 at 7:24 am

    I am so glad, Willie, that you found some insights from my sermon to use for your bible study.


  • 10 Albert McGinn // Mar 4, 2011 at 11:37 am

    Your sermon gives me some ideas both for my sermon Sunday at at the nursing home where I am a lay minister and for my theology class at Providence College where I am keeping a theological journal. I’m in the ministry program at age 69.

  • 11 isaac // Mar 16, 2011 at 9:51 am

    Albert, thanks for reading my sermon. I am glad that you found something here to help you in your own ministry.


  • 12 Faith // Apr 5, 2011 at 8:26 am

    Your illustrations on Mark 8 is so wonderful that I can’t wait till Sunday to pour it out to my students. Keep it up.

  • 13 Sunday, March 4, 2012: “Travelling the Way of the Cross” (Lent II) | KnoxPCOnline // Mar 6, 2012 at 7:46 am

    [...] to read is posted by a Mennonite pastor named Isaac on his personal blog entitled “The Darkness of the Cross” (preached on September 17th, 2006). Also helpful is the message “Confession, Cross and [...]

  • 14 Frans // Jun 2, 2012 at 10:29 pm

    This is one sermon which open my eyes, seemingly I was walking in the darkness all along. Just wish that I can find inner peace to do God’s wish on this earth, spreading the true gospel. God bless you. Keep me in your prayers.