Reflection: "Take Up Your Cross and Follow Me"
As we think of Christ's act of salvation on the cross of Calvary, we’re called to do a reality check on our Christian lives and be challenged to look at our lives through the lens of God's values.
We pause & reflect on God's will for our lives.
Mark 8:31-38 tells us that Jesus was teaching his disciples about a Messiah who had to suffer and understandably, the disciples thought that Jesus had lost his mind.
Peter's protest expressed the sentiments and hopes not only of the disciples, but of the entire nation of Israel. "Come on, Jesus, you've got all the power in the world. What do you mean.......suffer!?"
When Jesus spoke of the suffering and death of the Messiah, his disciples couldn’t believe what they were hearing.
During their lives they had connected the Messiah with a power-figure who would save God's people from their oppressors, therefore, the idea of a suffering Messiah just didn’t make any sense to them.
Jesus became rather abrupt when Peter tried to “talk some sense" into him, as Jesus recognized the voice of the tempter, Satan, who had come to him in the dessert.
Jesus obviously didn’t want to have to suffer and die and he knew that he possessed the strength and power from God to bring down the angelic hosts and destroy Israel's enemies once for all, if he chose to.
But in the concerned words of his friend Peter, Jesus recognized the devil’s temptations and he refused to give in.
Isn't it interesting how the devil tries to persuade us through the words of a well-meaning friend to “play it safe.”
Sometimes, an opportunity for Christian service, or an opportunity to stand up for justice and peace, comes our way.
In our hearts we’re absolutely convinced that this is from God and he’s calling us to obey his will.
We know that it may cost us a lot in terms of "losing" some of the comforts that we’ve grown used to, however, we’re at peace with our decision, knowing that it is God's will.
But as we share our decision with family and friends, they seem to raise one red flag after another.
Satan is very clever and without our knowledge, he uses the people who are closest to us to break our spirits and our obedience to God.
In our "clean and neat" westernized Christian culture it almost sounds like an oxymoron to listen to Jesus say that we must give up everything to follow him.
Our culture screams at us:
"You must promote yourself and push aside as many as you can on your way up the success ladder”.
The apostle Paul, however, says
"It is no longer I that lives, but Christ who lives in me."
Self-denial doesn't imply a poor self-image that says,
"Poor me - I'm a nobody."
Self-denial, in the Christian sense, implies knowing exactly who we are in relationship to God - the King of the universe and we are his servants, the children of God.
We have everything to gain by denying ourselves.
Christ's challenge goes on: "Take up your cross."
Now in Jesus' day, to carry a cross was more than just a personal hardship, or some aches and pains that the chiropractor can't help you with.
The cross was the method of executing criminals - and so Christ is saying that his followers must be willing to suffer as criminals - for his name's sake.
How does that sound for an incentive to follow Jesus, in a day and age where we work as hard as we can in our early years, just so that we can kick up our legs and relax in our retirement years?
Jesus promises no instant gratification, but rather long-term hardship – all in the hope of eternal salvation.
We may ask why?
Why does Jesus make things so hard and complicated for us?
We find the answer in verse 36 where Jesus says,
“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?
Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
Or, in other words, spend your life for God and you will live.
We’re often tempted to fall down and worship the deceiver for a little bit of instant gratification.
Sometimes we may be tempted to sacrifice our honour for personal gain and profit, putting a higher value on material things, rather than spiritual growth and integrity, or even be tempted to sacrifice our moral principles in exchange for popularity.
We can save ourselves a lot of trouble if we always agree with everyone on controversial issues.
But let’s keep in mind that the question should not be:
"What are the people going to think of me?"
"What does God think of me?"
It’s not the verdict of public opinion, but the verdict of God, that will determine our final destiny.
We may be tempted to lower our standards and to settle for cheap rewards as long as we don't have to work too hard to earn them.
We find it too time-consuming and too much of a hassle to get involved in social, political, and even congregational matters.
It's easier to keep our noses out of it and live with the decisions that others make for us - so we sacrifice the best that could be, for a cheap substitute.We’re also often tempted to sacrifice eternity for the moment.
There are many things in life that offer pleasure and success instantly, but that ruin our vision for eternity.
Our real test in life is to seek the things that are from God.
Our greatest mission in life is to have God's things in mind. ...to check ourselves against the life of the suffering Christ and measure our lives according to God's will.
When we look out for “number one” (ourselves), we risk leaving God out of our lives, to the point of cutting ourselves off entirely from the grace of God.
Jesus spells out the full extent of the price that we have to pay if we want to be his disciples.
Jesus came, not to offer us an easy life, but to teach us the way to God and in so doing, he never expects anything from his followers that he isn't willing to do himself.
He took up his cross and was crucified as a criminal.
Therefore, if we choose to follow Jesus in our lives, we must forever deny the pressures of the outside world and ask him to rule our every thought and action.
God gave us LIFE in and through Jesus Christ, so that we may offer it up to him as a living sacrifice.
The question that each one of us has to answer before God is:
Whose values are we representing?
God's or our own?
Whose agenda are we following in our lives?
What matters the most to us?
The Lent season is a time in which we’re encouraged to evaluate our lives in light of God's reconciling love for us. Jesus Christ spent his life so that we may live.
God's intervention in our lives requires a response from each of us.
We must consider what God has done for us, the cost of discipleship - and we must decide how we should live.
Lent is a good time to bring your life back in order with God, and to ask him to renew your life for him.
If you hear God’s voice (maybe when you’re in prayer), don’t harden your heart, but consider what Christ has done for you and make the decision to give your life wholly to him.
That’s the Lent way of living.
REFLECTION: "LENT - A TIME OF PREPARATION"
Mark reminds us of the Good News - brought to us in the life and baptism of Jesus.
Peter, in his first epistle, brings these thoughts together, reminding us that water has been a common element in many of the covenants with God and that Christ’s baptism was the culmination of these.
I trust that some of us may have been able to attend an observance of the beginning of Lent on Wednesday evening.
A key theme at this service was that we are called to stop and repent, as a preparation for Easter.
Mark 9:15 says: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news."
It's a humble journey, the one we begin today, this first week of Lent.
It begins so unremarkably, unlike other journeys in our lives, which probably start off with the excited packing of suitcases full of clothes that we might need on a holiday.
But it's actually a quite humble journey we begin this week.
Do you think that the journey Jesus took was a humble one?
The scripture we read in Mark’s gospel actually sounds pretty sensational.
It starts with a baptism - featuring an outer-worldly voice - that of God.
And then there's a trek through the wilderness, littered by Satan and wild beasts, then "cleaned up" by angels.
And if that's not enough, the passage ends with a powerful message booming out from Jesus, who strides into Galilee to change the world.
Mark's terse account of these awesome things certainly isn't all that spectacular.
In actual fact, his telling of the beginning of Jesus' ministry is remarkably understated, quite unlike the writings of Matthew and Luke.
And how about some of the gorgeous paintings we’ve seen, or the silver screen renderings by overzealous film makers?
They are certainly quite spectacular.
Take the baptism of Jesus.
He rose, dripping wet from the nondescript River Jordan, saw the heavens torn apart when he rose up from under the water and felt the Spirit soar into his life.
Then he heard the voice that reverberated in his ears and heart, a voice that boomed out:
"You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased."
Pretty spectacular, I think you’ll have to agree.
Jesus sees and hears his father, but us 20th century people are usually absorbed in conversations with our neighbours or intrigued by the text messages we're sending and receiving on our mobile phones, so we don't notice anything unusual going on.
And how about his wilderness wandering over 40 days and nights?
That's pretty dramatic, isn't it?
But Mark records none of the arguments with Satan in his gospel, although Matthew and Luke do in theirs.Mark gives us no details about his hungers for food that would undoubtedly make our stomachs growl.
There is no overblown description of angels standing by their Lord.
He simply writes, "He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan, and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him."
So, it's a humble journey with Jesus that we begin in Mark's Gospel today, this first week in Lent.
At the same time, it's an amazing, remarkable, life-changing journey for us Jesus-people, for us Easter people, because we peek out of his empty tomb to watch it begin.
We know that this journey is filled with God's voice ringing in our ears and hearts, however, Satan's temptations and wild beasts are often lurking in the shadows of our lives.
On the other side, there can also be supporting angels, when we’re witnessing to others about how we follow Jesus.
Our Lenten journey begins with an undignified smudge of ash on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday.
Foreheads that may have been splashed with baptismal waters years earlier and a voice which said: "Child of God, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit, and marked with the cross of Christ forever."
"Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."
Our travels are marked by a trail of muddy footprints, as we make our way through a wilderness littered by the issues of home, school and work, stress, sickness and sadness, confusion, chaos and violence.
So, what are we going to learn during Lent about the paths of righteousness in our own personal wilderness?
Well, first off, we can expect to learn something about enemies.
Perhaps they’ll be like the beasts of Jesus' experience in the wilderness.
Our temptations can be found all around us, but also there are real dangers lurking within us.
And even when we are able to identify our enemies, they can still tempt us to forget who we are, covenanted as beloved creatures of God.
I like to think that during Lent, we’re taking on the shadows, sparring with the more shadowy side of our lives, those areas of our individual lives and our common life crying out for light.
Where can that be truer than when our inner enemies make us feel less than what we were created to be.
Enemies that compromise our freedom, impair or impede our being in right relation with God and our neighbour?
Penitence is what happens when we pay attention to what’s going on in our hearts.
We don’t always aim for it, but we can achieve it through prayer.
I like to think that it’s in the act of praying that we remember once again that, although we have been made in God’s image, we aren’t God.
And then we become aware of the apparent absurdity, that we could even imagine that we could actually demand anything from the Lord of the universe.
And so, we assume an attitude of humility, metaphorically, or in some congregations quite literally, falling to our knees as we confess that to him.
From there, we’re raised to the new life of grace, expressed as forgiveness, perhaps marked by some sign of peace and a foretaste of the heavenly banquet found in the sacrament of holy communion.
There’s a final clue for what we can expect in the weeks to come - and that’s in the reminder that the wilderness is a time of preparation.
We sometimes sing the song that tells us that the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness and it’s those paths that lead us to righteousness, right relationships and to the fulfilling of our covenants with God.
The people of Israel were made ready during their time the wilderness, on their way to the Promised Land and Jesus was prepared, during his time in the wilderness, for his public ministry of proclamation of the Kingdom of God.
Similarly, we’re being prepared for the renewal of our right relationship and the promise of peace on earth, that will be proclaimed by the risen Christ on Easter Sunday.
His death, burial, resurrection and ascension remind us of our eternal covenant with God.
I pray that you’ll be granted a blessed and holy time during Lent - a wilderness time long known by the psalmists.
I pray that you may remember who you are, a beloved child of God, and that you find the renewal of righteousness or right relationship in your life.
Finally, I pray that this time will be preparation for a truly joyful celebration of God's unspeakable grace and mercy this Easter. Amen
Reflection: "Seeing the Great Glory of God"
Have you ever been to the top of a mountain where it seems like you can see forever?
You stand there, slowly rotating through 360 degrees and all you see is pure beauty.
If you’ve ever watched the Winter Olympics, you’ll know that on top of a snow-capped mountain you will see sweeping, blinding white, panoramic magnificence from the top of the runs.
There are certain places in this world where it seems as if you can see forever, but you’ll probably also know that mist and fog can descend on a mountain, making it impossible to see past the hand in front of you.
There are not only mountaintop experiences that happen on actual mountains; but there are what are called “mountaintop religious experiences.”
These are those special times when you see with utmost clarity who God is.
When there is no fog, no haze, no trees, no obstructions, and there, for a moment, in that mountaintop religious experience, you see with utter clarity a vision of who God really is.
On the mountaintop, Moses saw this clear revelation of God, even though there were ominous black clouds swirling, with flashing lightening and the thunder growling.
In the lightning and the thundering, Moses was talking with God.
When Moses came down from the mountain, his face was shining like the sun.
He had a mountaintop experience.
He walked down the mountain with the Ten Commandments, the moral law for the human race.
Moses saw with utter clarity, the moral law for the earth.
So, Moses was on the mountain in the Old Testament, but the New Testament also has a similar story of a mountaintop experience and it’s called “the Transfiguration”.
In this story we can see with utter clarity the truth about God.
Peter, James and John were on the mountaintop with Jesus and their eyes were dazzled with visionary ecstasy.Jesus was transfigured before them.
He was utterly changed before their eyes.
This was where the human, Jesus of Nazareth, was transfigured into this divine Christ of glory.
At children’s birthday parties, we often light sparklers and let the children wave them around.
The sparkler itself is a bland piece of grey wire with some material coating around it.
The sparkler is dormant, apparently dead, before heat is applied, usually with a match or lighter.
And then, suddenly, the sparkler comes alive and sparkles intensely.
The sparkles are so alive and bright, compared to the bland piece of grey wire.
Thus it was with Jesus, on the Mount of Transfiguration.
Jesus came alive, as if he was shining with sparkles.
At least, that’s how it was described in Mark’s recording of the Transfiguration.
We read that Jesus went through an enormous transformation.
And on the mountaintop, the disciples saw a vision.
And in that vision, they could truly see who Jesus really was - the Son of God - the very presence of God in divine form.
A dazzling shining light - like an angel.
In this vision, we saw Moses, the lawgiver of the Old Testament, the founder of the Ten Commandments.
Also in this vision was Elijah, and he was the greatest of the Jewish prophets.
The Law and the Prophets, which were the two divisions of the Jewish Old Testament.
Peter was there, too, and he saw Jesus sparkling.
Peter was there to see it all, and we are happy that he was, for Peter often said the wrong thing at the wrong time.
Peter had “foot in mouth” disease and we like that, because we often have the same problem, too.
Peter said, “I have a good idea. Let’s build three huts. One for Jesus; one for Moses; and one for Elijah.”
He implied, “Let’s make this experience last a little bit longer.”
Suddenly, a voice thundered from heaven, saying, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.”
This is my Son who is greater than all the laws of the Old Testament.
This is my Son who is greater than all of the prophets of the Old Testament.
This is my Son, Jesus, the Son of God - listen to him.
He is the voice of God for you.
Don’t centre your attention on the laws and prophesies of the Old Testament.
Far more important than these, is the importance of God’s Son, Jesus.
Listen to him.
Suddenly, it was all gone.
The vision was all gone.
All that was left was Jesus.
Visions are those rare moments in life when there is no fog, no haze, no trees, no obstructions, where you clearly see the truth about God and the truth about Jesus Christ.
Visions aren’t hallucinations.
Hallucinations usually happen to unstable people who are going through a period of instability in their lives.
For example, an alcoholic will have the DTs (delirium tremens), after they’ve been drunk for a long time.
Or, if a person is on drugs such as LSD, that person may have hallucinations.
Visions are not hallucinations, nor are they fantasies.
Fantasies occur when you can’t deal with the real world, and so a person creates this imaginary, pretend world, as an escape from the real world.
Visions are those special moments in life when we see something with utter clarity, knowing that it’s true and so that we can understand the fact that God has put us on this earth for a reason.
We all have a purpose and perhaps you may have already realised what yours is.
Visions – the moments of truth when there’s no fog, no haze, no trees in the way and no other obstructions.
A time when you see your God-given destiny.
When we think of today’s Biblical story, with the vision on the mountaintop, we can’t help but think about Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior, who, on April 3, 1968 said,
“I have been to the mountain. I have seen the Promised Land.”
King had this vision of the Promised Land where all people, black and white, would live together in peace, where black and white would live together as family, as brothers and sisters, a vision of God’s creation between the races.”
Dr. King had a vision;
he believed the vision;
he gave his life for that vision - the very next day.
You usually need visions to see the possibilities in life, to see beyond the problems and past the haze and past the fog and past the trees and past the obstructions - past the hindrances and to the possibilities.
Visions are moments of truth, where we know for sure about God and his destiny for our life.
Have you been to the mountain?
Have you had visions…where you know for sure that you’re loved by God?
Visions of what it means to love one another.
Have you caught the vision of God’s kind of love?
Have you been to the mountain and, with Martin Luther King Jr., have you seen the Promised Land?
If you’re fortunate enough to have a mountaintop experience, you just may be able to see forever and you may even be fortunate enough to see God’s glory and have a vision of his love for you.
I pray that you do and that you can.
Reflection: "Living in the Freedom of God"
What does it feel like to be free?
You feel like you can do anything and not have others criticise you for it.
The Psalmist obviously felt free enough to cry out his love and praise for his God.
The apostle Paul, writing to the fledgling community at Corinth, felt free to let them into his secret for sharing the gospel with non-believers, when saying that he would adopt the persona of whoever he was appealing to.
In doing so, he could speak freely at their level and not appear as an outsider.
He would put himself into their position and try to understand how it would be for them to best understand the gospel news that he had come to tell them.
Have you ever noticed it’s difficult to get a group conversation started, or bring that discussion to a deeper level.
Luckily for us, there’s a game called TableTopics, that’s designed to get conversation started between two people, or a larger group.TableTopics has a clear cube, filled with cards that have one question on each card.
Each person in the group draws a card and reads their question aloud, with all people taking turns to answer it.
The “Spirit” version helps people get into deeper, spiritual, conversations, that help them explore their own personal faith, as well as getting to know their friends better.
It gives them a chance to be free in their expressions of their faith, knowing that others will be answering the same way, too.
For example, one of the questions leads to a discussion about the difference between being healed and being cured.
Do you think there’s a difference between being cured and being healed?
Can you be cured without being healed?
Can you be healed without being cured?
When we’re physically ill, we want a cure to make us feel better.
But even though we may feel better, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we are healed.
Our understanding of healing, especially in our gospel stories, means something more:
It means a restoration of wholeness, particularly when it comes to our spiritual lives.
When we’re healed, even if we’re not cured of a physical ailment, we then have the ability to re-join our community in whatever way we are able and we can be at peace on our journey.
Throughout our lives, we meet people who are burdened with spiritual illnesses.
When we’re ready to be healed, it demands action on our part.
It demands that we are ready to invite Jesus into the place that is wounded and help us.
In our reading from Mark today, you may have noticed that Jesus doesn’t just seek out people who are sick.
Rather, they come to him, either on their own, or through the disciples.
Simon’s mother-in-law is brought to his attention as soon as they arrived at her house and, as soon as Jesus heals her, she immediately goes about serving him and the others of the house.
She was restored to her community, allowing her to continue serving.
It’s interesting that the Greek word meaning to “serve” is the same one that Jesus uses to describe himself.
He calls himself the “one who comes to serve”.
This example of serving embodies the ideal of discipleship, as service to others, which was what Jesus was trying to get people to understand.
It was because of the woman’s encounter with Jesus, that she responded with immediate discipleship.
Although Jesus continues to cure many who were physically sick and casting out demons, he doesn’t allow the demons to speak, because he didn’t want people to that know he was the Messiah.
The fame of Jesus was already spreading from the time when he taught with authority in the synagogue at Capernaum - casting out an unclean spirit there, too.
But Jesus’ call was always first and foremost to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom of God;
everything else, including the miracle healings and exorcisms, was secondary.
As it often happens in human nature, people were getting caught up with the “messenger” and not the “message”.
Sometimes we get caught up in the hype of someone who’s charismatic and the next thing you know, you’re buying something, giving away your savings, donating a kidney, or whatever it is that person has seduced you into.
Jesus didn’t want to be seen as just another miracle-worker, because that was not his mission.
His mission was to proclaim that the Kingdom of God is here, through God’s authority, not human authority, so he felt free to pursue that course of action.
It’s in the third part of our gospel story today that Jesus teaches us something very important, when he gets up early one morning and goes out to a deserted place to pray.
Observing morning prayers was a regular part of Jewish religious practice, and we know that the desert and the wilderness were places where a person could feel a closer contact with God.
After all that pouring out of himself in the previous days, Jesus needed to feel free and get in touch with God again.
Being battered with the intense and desperate needs of the world can make things a little foggy.
When the needs of your boss, your spouse, your family, your school, your church, your friends, call on your time, it’s easy to forget what it is that God needs.
The way Jesus dealt with his issues was go out to pray and be reminded of who he is and what his mission is.
If Jesus had come to solve all the aches and pains of people on earth, then we’d be sitting here with a very different gospel and none of us would ever catch the flu, have arthritis, or aches and pains.
By getting free of the world’s woes, Jesus is able to get his priorities straight, talk to God and realize that it’s time to move on and to proclaim the gospel somewhere new.
There will always be more need than one person can deal with, that’s why discipleship is important.
The response to an encounter with Jesus is a converted life – a life in line with manifesting the Kingdom of God in the world, proclaiming the Good News of God in Jesus Christ.
There’s a whole world out there that hasn’t heard the Good News yet.
Isn’t it time that we committed to following the example and way of Jesus and tell them the Gospel story?
If we didn’t feel that we had been saved by our love of God, we’d have great difficulty in enthusing ourselves to follow the example of Jesus, taking the gospel message to new areas, where the people were yet to hear it.
It might not necessarily mean travelling to far away mission fields – because the needs are all around you.
I pray that you feel God’s freedom in your lives and that you take up his challenge to proclaim the gospel.
I’ll leave you with this thought:
“Preach the gospel continually, and when necessary, use words.”
“May the love of God shine light in places of darkness.
May the presence of Christ bring hope and healing in places of need.
May the transformation of the Spirit bring change to places of struggle. Amen”