"From the Pinnacle to the Pit"
by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts March 28, 2004
Preached at Irvine Presbyterian Church
Copyright © 2004 by Mark D. Roberts
Scripture Reading: Mark 8:27-38
27 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?" 28 And they answered him, "John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets." 29 He asked them, "But who do you say that I am?" Peter answered him, "You are the Messiah." 30 And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
31 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. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, "Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things."
34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 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. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 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."
From the Pinnacle to the Pit
I want to begin today with a little quiz. Who in our time of history has fallen the fastest and the farthest from glory to shame? Who has gone from the pinnacle to the pit in record time?
Certain examples come quickly to mind. Martha Stewart has certainly plummeted from a pinnacle of fame into a pit of shame. She joins an elite circle of "the fallen," which includes the likes of O.J. Simpson, Pete Rose, Newt Gingrich, and Michael Jackson. Of course if he were still alive, Richard Nixon could be the president of this club, having gone from winning the U.S. presidency in a landslide in 1972 to a humiliating resignation in 1974. But all of these cases took several months or even years to unfold. I wonder if we can come up with a much speedier fall from the heights to the depths.
Do you recall the sad case of Robert Livingston? After the dismal performance of the Republicans in the election of 1998, Newt Gingrich announced his resignation as Speaker of the House. Days later Robert Livingston was hailed as the Speaker-elect, a great honor for this man who had served in Congress for almost twenty years with relative anonymity. All of a sudden Livingston was in the national spotlight. But within weeks of his nomination, Livingston shocked the Congress - and the country - by stepping down as the Speaker-elect, admitting that he had been unfaithful to his wife on numerous occasions. One moment he's in the limelight as a national leader. The next moment his worst sins are paraded in front of the world as he abandons his bright political future.
Robert Livingston . . . from the pinnacle to the pit, in a flash. But even he didn’t fall quite so far and quite so quickly as Peter the disciple of Jesus. We'll examine his inglorious tumble in just a few moments, but first I want to set up the scene.
Who Do You Say that I Am?
The first eight chapters of the Gospel of Mark move speedily to the apex of the story: Peter's confession in Mark 8:29. The healings, exorcisms, parables, and controversies in the opening chapters prepare us for the watershed answer to the crucial question: Who is Jesus?
Finally, as Jesus and his disciples are walking along in northern Galilee, he pops the question. At first Jesus asks a safe, general question: "Who do people say that I am?" (8:28). The disciples report what they have heard. Some say Jesus is John the Baptist brought back to life. Others say he is Elijah returned to earth, the one who will announce the kingdom of God. Others identify Jesus as one of the prophets, a most sensible identification and one that Jesus himself accepts (see Mark 6:4; Luke 4:24; 13:33).
After warming up the disciples with a non-threatening, intellectual question - who do other people say that I am - Jesus gets to the punch line: "But who do you say that I am?" The Greek of this verse emphasizes the word "you." The question could well be translated, "But you, who do you say that I am?" Now that's cutting right to the chase. No safe speculation here. No room for generalities. This is a most direct and personal question. And it's the most important question in life.
Friends, I want to step back from this story for just a moment and reflect on its implications for our lives. Most people I know like talking about religion. We enjoy speculating on the beliefs of others, what they happen to affirm or not. This is even true when it comes to Christians. How many of us, in the last month, have talked about what Mel Gibson believes about Jesus? Hypothesizing about his faith has become a national pastime. And there's nothing wrong with such banter . . . as a first step.
But there comes a time in our lives when Jesus cuts through the façade of intellectual speculation. There comes a time when, through the Spirit, Jesus confronts us with a very direct, personal, inescapable question: But you, who do you say that I am? Jesus isn't satisfied only with your interest in him. He doesn't want to be merely fascinating. He seeks far more than your curiosity. Indeed, he seeks your trust, your commitment, your love, even your soul. And so the time comes when you realize Jesus is asking you through his Spirit: Now, who do you say that I am?
Forty years ago I on the field of the Los Angeles Coliseum I first answered life's most important question as it was put to me by Billy Graham. At that moment I said that Jesus is my Savior and Lord. I gave my life to him. That was the watershed moment of my life. But throughout the last forty years I've had to answer that question again and again, not in the ultimate sense, but in very practical ways as I face the challenges and opportunities of each day. And so it is for you too if you're a Christian.
In Mark 8 Jesus finally throws down the gauntlet to his disciples: But you, who do you say that I am? How I wish Mark had given us a few more details at this point. I'd love to hear about the stunned looks on the faces of the disciples, even their sheepish awkwardness. They might have looked around at the others, implicitly saying, "You go first. No you. No you." Who's going to have the reckless boldness to say what everyone's been thinking, but nobody has had the guts to say?
Of course Peter is the one. Peter the blunt. Peter the impulsive. Peter the daredevil. You can always count on Peter to go first in such a situation. And so he does. He speaks up and answers Jesus' question: "You are the Messiah" (8:29). There, he says it. It's finally on the table. You are the Messiah. You're the one God has anointed to bring the kingdom. You're the one chosen by God to set us free. You're the one who's going to lead the Jewish victory over the Romans. You're the one who's going to reign over Israel in glory. You're the Messiah, Peter says.
Way to go, Peter! You got the right answer. And you're the first one in history to get it. You get an 'A' in Christology 101. It's no wonder that in Matthew's telling of this story, he includes Jesus' lavish praise of Peter at this point: "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it" (Matt 16:17-18). What astounding affirmation! This must have been the pinnacle of Peter's life to this point, the greatest moment of all. He's the man. He's spoken God's truth. He's the one upon whom the community of Christ will be founded. It just doesn't get much better than this.
The Ultimate Non Sequitur
But after praising Peter and telling the disciples to keep quiet about his true identity, Jesus begins to speak in a way that makes absolutely no sense to anyone. It's the ultimate non sequitur. Peter has just proclaimed Jesus as the great savior of Israel, the mighty deliverer, when Jesus begins to speak apparent nonsense: "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" (8:31). Huh? Say what?
Surely all of the disciples felt perplexed and alarmed by what Jesus had told them. After all, he'd never said anything like this before. But nobody spoke up except for, yes, dear Peter. Perhaps he felt pretty pumped up after his confession and Jesus' response. And surely he knew the prophecies of glory for the Son of Man and victory for the Messiah. But, not wanting to embarrass Jesus in front of the others, Peter "took [Jesus] aside and began to rebuke him" (8:32). We don't get to hear what Peter said, but it's pretty easy to imagine the conversation: "Now, c'mon Master. The Son of Man will bring God's judgment upon the wicked and inherit God's glorious kingdom. No suffering and dying here. And the Messiah will lead us to victory over the Romans. Don't talk about this suffering and dying stuff. It doesn't make sense."
As Jesus listened to Peter, he remembered hearing this sort of thing before, at the very start of his ministry, while he fasted in the wilderness. But the speaker then wasn't a disciple, but the devil himself. "Choose the path of glory," Satan had urged. Now, many months later, as Jesus heard Peter's words, he sensed that all-too-familiar voice once again. So he spoke apparently to Peter, with shocking bluntness: "Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things" (8:33). This isn't exactly what you'd want to hear from Jesus, if you were Peter. In fact, this is about the last thing in the world I'd like Jesus to say to me. Even if we understand Jesus as speaking both to Peter and to the Tempter who was using Peter as a mouthpiece, still this is about as bad as it gets.
So you have it, Peter’s non sequitur. He goes from the pinnacle of confession to the pit of confusion, from the pinnacle of discipleship to the pit of devilishness. All of this took no more than a minute or two. Now that's one precipitous fall, you've got to admit. Peter plummeted faster and further than Martha Stewart or O.J. Simpson, or even Robert Livingston. Peter went from the first person in history to proclaim Jesus as Messiah to the first person in history whom Jesus called Satan. Ouch! Talk about a non sequitur!
It's far too easy for us to look down on Peter, given what we know of Jesus and his ultimate fate. But we must be fair here. What Jesus said about the Son of Man was utterly unprecedented. It seemed completely backwards to Peter and the others. The glorious one to be humiliated? God's victor to be killed? The healer to undergo great suffering? The king of the Jews to be rejected by the Jewish leaders? Peter's response to Jesus wasn't foolish or narrow-minded. In fact, it's the response that I'm quite sure I would have made, if I'd had the courage to speak up at all. And, to tell you the truth, I think you'd have done the same thing too.
It's hard for us to grasp the radical and apparently ridiculous nature of what Jesus said about the suffering Son of Man. But let me try with a contemporary analogy. As you know, we're already in the middle of a hot and heavy presidential election. For the next seven months we'll hear two candidates flaunt their own distinctions while flogging the deficiencies of their opponent. That's what candidates do, and we all know it. But suppose, just suppose, that George W. Bush called together Karl Rove and his closest associates. And suppose he said something like this: "Friends, we're going to run a very different kind of campaign this year. Instead of blasting away at my opponent, we're going to praise him. We're going to highlight everything good about him. Moreover, we're going to admit all of my mistakes, without evasions or excuses. The best thing for the country is to do everything we can to help John Kerry get elected." Don't you think at this point Karl Rove would take the President aside and rebuke him? Maybe he’d suggest a weekend of rest or some Prozac. Electroshock therapy wouldn't be far behind. Well, that’s exactly what Peter did with Jesus. He tried to talk some sense into him.
Jewish Precedents for the Suffering Messiah
Without question, Jesus was the first one to imagine that the Messiah would suffer and die as an essential aspect of his kingdom-bringing mission. Nobody before Jesus ever thought such a thing.
It's true, however, that clues of this divine strategy had been planted in Jewish reflection before Jesus came along. One of the most striking appears in the book called 2 Maccabees. There, six Jewish brothers are tortured by the pagan king for their unwillingness to renounce their faith in God. Finally the seventh and last brother is brought before the king and ordered to abandon his Judaism. But, like his brothers, he refuses. Listen to part of what he says to the king: "I, like my brothers, give up body and life for the laws of our ancestors, appealing to God to show mercy soon to our nations and by trials and plagues to make you confess that he alone is God, and through me and my brothers to bring to an end the wrath of the Almighty that has justly fallen on our whole nation." (2 Macc 7:37-38). Here we find the idea that the suffering of a few can somehow absorb God's wrath so that the whole nation might receive mercy.
By far the most influential clue that pointed to Jesus' understanding of his mission was found in the prophecies of Isaiah, especially in chapters 52-53. I'd like to read an extended portion of this text, so listen carefully:
Notice how this passage links the coming of God's kingdom with the vicarious suffering of God's servant. The servant bears the transgressions of the nation, taking the punishment that leads to wholeness for others. As he bears their iniquities, they are made righteous. This text from Isaiah, more than any other, stands behind Jesus' understand of his messianic calling. Yes, he has been anointed by God to usher in the kingdom. Yes, he is the Son of Man who will receive the eternal kingdom promised in Daniel 7. But the path to this kingdom goes through suffering. The Messiah and Son of Man will also be the Servant of God from Isaiah. He will bear the sin of the nation - indeed, of the whole world - so that God's reign might fully come on earth.
Responding to Jesus the Suffering Messiah
Peter responded to Jesus with confusion and misunderstanding. In this we can take comfort because, in the end, Jesus didn't revoke his special calling. When the right time came, Peter received the fullness of the Spirit and preached the very first Christian sermon. And though it might be a bit too much to call Peter the first pope, he was clearly one of the chief leaders of the early church. So if there are times when you're confused by Jesus, don't despair.
Jesus wants more from us than a correct confession of who he is. He wants us, not only to acknowledge him as Messiah, not only to put our faith in him as Savior, but also to imitate his sacrificial servanthood. "If any want to become my followers," Jesus says, " 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" (8:34-35). My friends, as followers of Jesus the suffering Son of Man, we are to be like him. We are to offer up our lives as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God. We are to lay down our lives in service to others. And, together, we are to be a servant church in this world - reaching out with Christ-like love to those around us.
You can see many examples of such servanthood in our church today. You see it each Friday as a bunch of moms get together to serve pizza to a couple hundred high schoolers. You see it as so many members of IPC invest their lives and their money in the ministry of Young Life in our community. You see it when junior highers wrap Christmas presents in front of Target just to care for people. You see it when scores of IPCers go down to Mexico each year to build homes for the homeless. You see it when our folk go on mission trips throughout the world, working at camps in Eastern Europe or providing dental care for the poor in Cambodia. You see it again and again when people in this church reach out with love and care to those who are hurting. You see it as many of you use your professional positions to help reach out with the love of Jesus.
Today Jesus is asking each one of us: Who do you say that I am? And then there's the follow-up question: Who does your life say that I am? It’s eternally important to get the first one right, and then not only to believe Jesus is Messiah, Savior, and Lord, but also to live it out each day.
So, my friends: Who do you say Jesus is? And how does your life answer this question?