The last place we look

Lent  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented   •  26:22
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How can we experience God?
Is it possible for modern people like us to experience him? We have scientific explanations for everything. When we get sick, we go to the doctor, not the exocist. We don’t act like, demons may posses us. Our whole modern way of thinking essentially protects us from ever experiencing the guenuinely new and incomprehensible.
Even when we have uncanny experiences, we immediately doubt them. We think, maybe it was my imagination. Maybe I was sleep deprived. Or really stressed. We’re so confident that we won’t be threatened by demons or magic or the supernatural that we pay good money to have the experience simulated by the entertainment industry!
So what would it take for us to experience God? Today is the first Sunday in Lent, and for the next 8 weeks we will be working our way through the second half of Mark’s gospel, the part that focuses on Jesus approach to the cross.
And Mark’s gospel was first written to people who just accepted the existence of demons and spiritual powers. They took it for granted that the world was enchanted. But as we’ll see Jesus explain, they were no better at finding God than we are.
No, as we’ll see, Jesus is going to tell us how to know God, to experience his presence, and even see his power at work.
But it all means going to the last place we’d ever think to look for him.

1. We will only know God if we walk towards death

We will only know God if we walk towards death
Mark 8:27–30 NRSV
Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
Everyone in his Jesus’ day was waiting for the Messiah. There had been many claim the title but each of them had turned out to be a failure. And while Jesus had been going about for 8 chapters in Mark doing amazing things, so far, no one had dared to say that maybe Jesus was the Messiah.
See, people knew that something was up. God had promised that he would send a prophet and that prophet would prepare the way for this return. And plenty of people were wondering, perhaps Jesus is this prophet - this ‘Elijah’ figure.
But that raises the question, why would God need to return? Wasn’t he always there?
To cut a long story very short, everyone believed that God had abandoned Israel, and the Temple, at the time of the exile in Babylon, six centuries earlier. They had come back; they had rebuilt the Temple; but at no point did they have a sense that God had returned to live in it. (For a start, if he had, why were pagans still ruling over them?)
So the great promises of God’s return remained unfulfilled. And so people wondered, is Jesus the promised forerunner?
But finally, as we get to Mark chapter 8, Peter says it, no your not the forerunner, your the main event!
It’s a huge statement, and Peter doesn’t fully realise it but he’s just announced the return of God!
But what Jesus, this God returned to his people says is shocking.
Mark 8:31–32 NRSV
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. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.
Jesus is saying that God had indeed returned, as promised. Elijah had gone before him, John the Baptist did his job, and now God has returned. But he is here walking the road to death, and that is a challenge to all human religion, not just Peter’s.
Martin Luther, the great Protestant Reformer was especially brilliant on this point. He talked of how human beings naturally tend to think about God in a way that makes him just a bigger version of ourselves. Just a stronger, more powerful, more impressive human - all of the Greek and Roman gods were like that us, turned up to 11.
But, Luther pointed out, if God reveals himself definitively in Jesus and Jesus went to the cross - all of our old assumptions about who God is, how to know him, must go out the window.
The cross is the contradiction of everything we might have expected God to do.
The cross is death, we think God is life. The cross is weak, we think God is strong. The cross is shameful, we think God is glorious.
That’s why Jesus says to Peter in verse 33, you’re thinking human thoughts, not God’s thoughts.
Jesus says if we want to know God, to think his thoughts, we must give up all of our assumptions about where we would find him.
Illustrate - Rwandans let go of their self-righteousness and found life
In 1994, the world was shocked as Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda began killing one another on a massive scale. It was appalling, and everything about it looked like it would become an entrenched and endless conflict. When the killing finally stopped, Rwandans faced a choice. They could blame one another, they could blame their former colonial overlords, they could blame everyone else. Or they could do the unthinkable - they could choose forgiveness.
Bishop John Ruchyana said Rwanda chose the the path of letting go of all of the self-protective measures human beings hold onto - excuses, blame, resentments - and it led them to amazing acts of repentance and forgiveness. Bishop John is quite clear, this was a supernatural event. He said, “As a human being, to be able to repent of such demonic cruelty requires the cross of Jesus right in the middle of it.”
This is not Rwanda in 1994, thank God. But all of us face the choice of whether or not we will walk the path of Jesus. Will we continue to hold on tightly to our lives, hold onto the things that make us feel safe - our egos, our possessions, our comfort, our reputations, our distractions...or will we let go of our lives, our comfort, our self-righteousness, our safety and find God.
If you want to know what it looks like for you, ask yourself, what am I avoiding like the plague? What could I not bare to acknowledge?
Perhaps in that argument I had with a friend, or my spouse or my parents. What if I am not just the one being wronged? What if I am also at fault? What if the truth is that I am both a victim and perpetrator. What if the line between good and evil runs through every human heart? Not just between the good people like me, and the evil people like them? Could we admit that? Jesus says if we are going to know God, and find real life, we must!
We take those steps that feel like dying, trusting that Jesus will bring life out of it.
If we want to know God, the only way is to walk towards the cross.

2. We will only hear God if we walk towards death

It’d be possible for us to hear Jesus call us to take up our cross and think, this is about just gritting our teeth in the face of the inevitable suffering of life. Some people have acted as if Jesus just tells us to suck it up!
But no sooner does Jesus has begin his journey to the cross, the long path that will be full of shame, and rejection, and mocking and betrayal, then we get this quintessential mountain top experience.
Mark 9:2–3 BE:NT
A week later, Jesus took Peter, James and John away by themselves, and went up a high mountain. There he was transformed before their eyes. His clothes shone with a whiteness that no laundry on earth could match.
This incident with the inner sanctum of disciples, and Moses and Elijah there. Most scholars agree that Mark relies on Peter as the main eyewitness for his gospel and Peter describes what happens in ways that make it clear, this was one of those moments he would remember for the rest of his life.
When I did physics in high school I remember learning about the testing of the Atomic bombs. Everyone was instructed to lie down, facing away from the blast and preferably to close their eyes. Even in this position, people reported being able to see the blast through their eyelids.
That’s the kind of glorious brightness that Jesus has. Which is terrifying, and Peter blurts out suggestion about putting up some tents. The word is tabernacles, and when the Israelites encountered God in the wildnerness of Sinai, they set up tabernacles. God’s presence on mount sinai was so bright that in the days after Moses met with him, he had to put a cloth over his face because even the reflected remnants of his glory were too bright for the other Israelites to handle.
As Tim Keller puts it, it’s as if Peter is saying, “we need a tabernacle, like the Israelites did!” Jesus you’re too much!
But then we’re told that no sooner does Peter say that, then a cloud comes and a voice comes from the cloud. Again, the cloud recalls the cloud that fills the temple of Solomon, signalling that God’s presence has come to rest with his people.
The point of all this is to say, Peter, James and John are not just experiencing a spiritual high. No, God of the Old Testament, Yahweh, the great I am, has shown up again in the wildnerness. And God the Father says of Jesus, “this is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him”
Jesus has just told his disciples that unless they are willing to let go of everything, of their pride, their egos, their self-deceptions, their self-righteousness, their possessions, their comfort, their reputations, and yes, even literally be crucified, they will not find life or know God.
And no sooner does he start demonstrating it for them, then the Father affirms him, glorifies him, and declares his love. It’s as if God is saying, walk this road and you’ll hear me! You’ll hear me tell you I love you. More than that, you’ll know it!
Illustrate - MLK’s kitchen table [Get picture of him]
I shared this story a few months ago but it’s just too good so apologies, you’re going to hear it again.
Not many people know that Martin Luther King Jr struggled a lot with the feeling that God was absent. He was not someone who had these mountaintop experiences of God’s presence.
One night, when the Montgomery bus boycott had gotten started, he received a phone call. It was about 3am and it was a threat from someone who said that he was going to be killed, his family was going to be killed, his house was going to be bombed. Here was the choice, in the starkest terms. Self-protection, or self-sacrifice. The way of safety, or the way of the cross.
He knew there was no going back to sleep, so he just sat down at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee and said a prayer, which basically was, “Lord, I’m down here trying to do good, but I’m losing my courage”. Here he was, broken, overcome with fear and anxiety. Standing at the crossroads.
And that was the moment when he said he heard a voice speaking to him, saying, “Martin Luther King, stand up for what’s right, stand up for justice, and I will never abandon you, I will never leave you. I’ll never leave you alone. I’ll never leave you alone.”
The paradox of the gospel is that God meets with us at the very last place we would expect - the godforsaken wilderness. As he does for Moses, and Elijah, and Jesus, and Martin Luther King Jr. The paradox of the gospel is that God speaks from the very last place we would think he would be - the place of death.
And he speaks to reassure us of his love and affirmation. He speaks to say yes, you’re walking the way of my Son, you’re walking towards what looks like a dead end, yes you’re walking towards what looks like it will cost you everything. But don’t for a moment think that I will leave you, or that I will stop loving you, or that you are mistaken.
When we take those steps on the way of the cross, we will face those moments when we wonder if this is really the right path.
But it’s in those moments when God will make himself known to us. He will speak to us in those wilderness moments. He will give us the reassurance that he gave Jesus. He’s doing that now. I know some of us feel like we’re in the wilderness right now. Following Jesus has cost us. It’s cost us friendships. It’s cost us our reputation. It’s cost us financially.
We can point to things that we’ve lost because we accepted Jesus words that we cannot hold on to our lives and follow him at the same time.
Here’s the beauty of the gospel. If we are following Jesus, if we are united to him, those words the Father speaks to him, he speaks to us.
You are my son, you are my daughter. My beloved. My precious one.
These words are ours, if we are his.
These compassionate, loving, approving and encouraging words of the Father are ours.
And just as they enabled Jesus to lay down his life in love for this dark world, couldn’t they enable us to do that as well?
-----Finish here at 8am----------
Jesus promises us that if we are prepared to walk with him towards death, we will hear God. We will experience him.
We’ll even see his power at work, but only if we stick with the way of the cross

We will only be faithful to God if we walk towards death

In this final secion in verses 14-29, Jesus shows us that to know God, to really encounter him and to join in his work of healing this world we can’t just take a few steps along the road. Jesus insists that to be faithful to God and find our lives, we must walk the way of the cross in every moment.
In verse 14, it seems that the disciples have come away from that mountain top experience full of confidence. Perhaps like Moses, they are even still a bit shiny themselves. And so they set about trying to cast out some demons. But they can’t.
But instead of seeing the kingdom of God come with power as Jesus promised back at the base of the mountain, they do something that risks plunging the whole crowd into despair. Their failure leads Jesus to label the whole generation ‘faithless’ in verse 19.
But what is the problem? What’s their mistake? Does Jesus rebuke them trying to do something only God can do? Is it because they were trying to help suffering people when they should’ve been getting on with saving souls?
Look at verse 29
Mark 9:29 NRSV
He said to them, “This kind can come out only through prayer.”
They failed to pray! They arrogantly thought they could deal with the evil in this world without reference to God. They’d taken a few steps along the way of the cross with Jesus, had that mountaintop experience of his affirmation and thought that was it. Now we can get back to the path of glory. Casting out demons. Demonstrating power. Denouncing evil. It’s easy when you’re on the side of the angels!
Jesus in his kindness to them and us, warns us - if we choose to walk the path of glory, the path that makes us feel confident, the path that feels safe and familiar, then we won’t find him.
Jesus in his kindness says, that road does not lead to God. He’s not there. Come back to the way of the cross. Come back to road that leads to death. Come back to the road that makes you feel like you need God every step of the way, because that’s where he is.


How could Rwanda go from mass genocide to Hutu and Tutsi forgiving one another, embracing one another, soul searching with each other, if it weren’t for the power of the cross? How could it be possible for the two sides to let go of their reasonable demands for vengence? How could they offer grace to one another were it not for the fact that God’s kingdom comes with power at the cross? How could the United States avoid a race war except for Martin Luther King Jr preaching self-sacrificial, nonviolence and forgiveness of Jesus that was borne out of his encounter at the kitchen table?
God in his kindness is telling us, there is no other way than the way of the cross. There is no other way to know him, experience him. There is no other way to see his kingdom come and cast out the evil in this world than the way fo the cross. Whether the evil we are encountering is demon possession, or systemic racism, government overreach or corporate greed, whether it’s drug addiction or workplace bullying.
This Lent, Jesus calls us to come find life. Come find God. Come see his kingdom on the way that leads to death.
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