Harsh Words (Second Sunday in Lent)

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Periodically, I have conversations with people who are new to Prince of Peace.  I want them to feel welcomed. I want them to feel included.  And I want them to know that this is a community in which they can grow spiritually with Jesus and with the Christian community.

And so, I usually tell them things like:

  • People here are always excited to welcome new people;
  • We have really great worship opportunities and a variety of great music;
  • We have great programs for kids;

All of those things are (in my opinion!) true things about our congregation.  And so I feel good about telling people those things.

Plus, it’s good marketing.  If you want people to get involved, you point out all the good things that come with being involved.

And so I confess that I don’t think I have EVER said things like, “If any want to become [Jesus’] followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross”; or “those who want to save their life will lose it.”  I mean, these are harsh words.  And they’re not the kind of sunny, positive things that usually draw people together.

So why would Jesus say these things?  And why would Mark, and the other evangelists, write these words down?  After all, writing things down in the ancient world was expensive even on papyrus, and the evangelists had a very limited amount of space to work with.  In the process of editing, why not just skip these few words?

Didn’t Jesus – or the evangelists – know about marketing or good church growth strategies?

Well, clearly they did.  And it’s recorded in other places that sometimes when Jesus said things like this, some of the people who were following him around left and went home.

So why?  Why would Jesus say this and why would his disciples write it down?

Perhaps it’s because Jesus and his message were about:

  • Truth and honesty – part of what we all hate about marketing (and political spin) is the possibility that we may be lied to outright, or at least mislead about the real cost; and in that sense, Jesus is totally NOT into marketing.  Jesus has come to be the truth, to tell the truth, and to call his followers to live the truth, even when it’s hard or inconvenient …
  • Mission beyond personal fulfillment – if Jesus’ mission were about his own personal comfort or personal fulfillment, he wouldn’t be heading to the cross.  And Jesus makes it clear that while he brings good news for everybody, it’s good news that transcends personal happiness.  That is, the good news of God is bigger than how it affects me right now.  Jesus lives a life – and he calls his followers to live lives – that show that what God is doing is bigger and more important than just personal happiness and fulfillment…
  • God’s presence in the hard and difficult times, not just the happy and easy ones – and the hard and difficult times are really when we need God most.  Even today, so much of religious “marketing” is about how you can be happier and wealthier if you have God in your life.  But that was never the message of Jesus.  Jesus DID promise eternal life and the peace of God’s presence right now, but he did that precisely because he was present with people who were going through really hard times.  And people remembered Jesus because they remember a God who walks with them when times are tough…

And so I suspect Jesus’ first followers remembered these words and wrote them down, even though they may not have liked them.  They remembered them and wrote them down because they knew that their call to follow Jesus – and our call to follow Jesus – is also about:

  • Being people who tell the truth and live the truth – we live in a world which is filled with fake news and half-truths.  It may be that it’s always been that way, but technology makes it easier to notice.  Jesus never tells his followers that they can fix the problem of fake news, but he does call us to be people who reflect the truth of God by the way we live.  And often, that simply means admitting when things are hard, even and especially when people want easy answers; it means admitting that we don’t have all the answers, even about God.  And it means living in such a way that shows we believe what we say about Jesus, even if others think we’re weird for believing it…
  • Mission beyond ourselves – so much of what passes for Christianity today seems to be focused entirely on whether Christians themselves are happy and successful.  But Jesus’ mission for his disciples was always focused on the wider world, and not just themselves.  And that’s the way it still is.  And while there’s nothing inherently wrong with being happy and secure, if we stop there, we’re not doing what Jesus asks us to do.  And that’s why these words need to be remembered by us as well…
  • Being present in the hard and difficult moments – and especially in hard and difficult times like we’ve been going through, it’s easier for us to appreciate why we need a God who walks with us through the hard times.  But it’s also important to remember that Jesus calls us to be his presence in the lives of others who are going through hard and difficult times.  After all, that’s what Jesus did.  It’s what Jesus has already done for us. And it’s who Jesus calls us to be in the life of the world around us …

So, it’s Lent and we remember a lot of the hard words of Jesus, and a lot of the hard things Jesus calls us to do. But paradoxically, these hard words remind us of some really good news. 

For it’s through these hard words that we’re reminded of the truth of God’s love and commitment to us and to the whole world.  It’s through these hard words that we’re called to something bigger and more important than ourselves.  And it’s through these hard words that we’re promised that Jesus will always walk with us, giving us strength to endure every hard and difficult time.