16 September 2012
9.30 Mattins in Biddenden
James 3:1-12, Mark 8:27-end
Heavenly Father, may these my spoken words open to us something of your written word and so lead us to your living Word, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
A couple of years ago the family and I we spent part of our summer holiday near Charmouth in Dorset. The coast there is full of fossils so we thought we would have a go at fossil hunting. No jokes about Deanery Synod please.
Despite having no real idea of what we were looking for within about 20 minutes we had found some small Ammonites and it turns out that they are about 160 million years old. It struck me how old that really is when I remembered that the dinosaurs became extinct approximately 60 million years ago and these fossils had already been in the ground for 100 million years before that!
Looking at those fossils really got me thinking about geological time here on earth and the way in which it puts our time into a different perspective.
For me, at least, to see God at work in the fossils is to be reminded that God actually works on a very different scale from us.
In my experience there are two common ways that one can react to all this: The first is to go:
“Wow, creation is really amazing, God is even more awesome than I ever imagined.’
The second reaction, which often follows hot on the heels of the first, is to say:
“Gosh, compared to the age of the world and compared to the size of the universe I am really small and insignificant and God can’t really care about little old me’.
In my view to be overwhelmed with awe at the inconceivable scale of God and the scale of creation is absolutely right and can be a very useful corrective to a view of God that can sometimes be just too parochial.
But the second reaction, of feeling that we are too small and too fleeting to be of real interest to such an awesome God, whilst totally natural is, I am pleased to say, not correct.
How do we know that the Ancient of Days who bestrides the whole of time and space is interested in us humans who have been around for such a short time when compared to Ammonites?
For two reasons: Firstly because human kind was created in the image and likeness of God: we are the only known creatures in the universe to possess self-consciousness, a conscience, free-will, creativity and the capacity for altruistic love which all seem to me to be part of what it means to be made in the image of God. And secondly, having created man in the image of God, God choose to create himself in the image of man in the person of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.
Today’s gospel reading is, however, a useful reminder that although God did become human and dwelt amongst us in the person of Jesus that God does not always work in the way that we may expect him to – God’s ways are not our ways – and that there is a cost in being a follower of Christ that we in this part of the world and in this point in time often seem to forget.
At the beginning of the gospel Jesus asked his disciples:
“Who do people say I am?”
And they respond not by giving their own response but by saying what others think
“Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah and still others one of the prophets.”
But Jesus was not going to let them get away with equivocation – he gave them the full Jeremy Paxman treatment:
“But what about you? Who do you say I am?”
Peter answered, “You are the Christ”.
Now, 2000 years after the events of the new testament we think that we understand what is meant by the term “Christ” and it will often include images of Jesus on the cross. But then, before the events of the first Easter, the term Christ or Messiah (which both mean God’s Anointed) was understood quite differently. The Jewish people, who obviously included Peter and all the other disciples, expected God’s Anointed to be a great military leader, like King David of old, who would redeem the people of Israel by making them a great nation again and throwing off the yoke of Roman oppression.
But God had other ideas about how Israel, and indeed the rest of creation, was to be redeemed:
“He [Jesus] began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again.”
Hang on a moment – Peter has just stuck his neck out to say that he believes Jesus is God’s Anointed sent to restore Israel and Jesus then says that he will be killed by his own people before getting anywhere near overthrowing the Romans. This is too much for Peter and he takes Jesus aside to rebuke him. This is a very strong word and is often used in the bible in the context of exorcisms in which unclean spirits are rebuked. In turn Jesus rebukes Peter and, after saying “Get behind me, Satan!” which reinforces the exorcism tone he says:
“You do not have in mind the things of God but the things of men.”
And then, from a purely human perspective, things get worse, for not only is Jesus going to be killed but anyone who wants to be a follower of Jesus has to be prepared to give up their life too:
‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it’
This is strong stuff and, in that time and place, taking up your cross to follow Jesus did not mean having to bear a slight inconvenience or metaphorical burden it could mean having to bear a literal cross and be executed in the same manner as Jesus – let’s not forget that that is exactly what happened to Peter and to many other Christians in the Roman persecutions. And we should not imagine that persecutions of Christians was limited to the First and Second Century Roman Empire. As I am sure many of you know there were more people killed solely on the grounds of their Christian faith in the 20th Century than in the whole of history prior to that time. And in the current century I was moved by a story told by Canon Andrew White (no relation) who is known as the Vicar of Baghdad. Evidently he baptized 97 adults last year and, of those, over 90 had been murdered as a result of their baptism within a year. And yet people still come forward for baptism. That is a testament of being prepared to bear one’s cross for Jesus.
How often, I wonder, do we rebuke Jesus and rebuke God for not doing what we expect but, instead for taking a harder path, an inglorious path, a path that in purely human terms seems to be about loss and failure rather than success, as we conceive it? In a sense we should not overly criticise either ourselves or the apostle Peter for getting it wrong and having in mind human things rather than the things of God because, after all, both he and we are human and are not God!
But when God doesn’t do exactly what we want or expect him to do and when we rebuke him or threaten to disbelieve in him for daring to disobey our carefully laid plans it is useful to be reminded not only that the very first disciples have been there before us but, most importantly, we know that Christ also has been there before us and will be ahead to welcome those who follow. What he asks of us is to pick up our crosses and to leave behind our preconceptions of what the journey will be like.
And for those who are feeling weary and who actually cannot bear the thought of picking up a cross we should remember too that God will not give us more than we can bear provided we follow with faith. Although the crosses look heavy Christ will be there to help shoulder the burden if we let him. As it says in Matthew 11: 28-30
28“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”