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The Turn
By Dr. Todd B. Jones

FEBRUARY 26, 2012

The Turn
Genesis 17:1-8
Mark 8:31-38

There are people we know and admire because of how clearly they have understood their own calling in life. The Apostle Paul said, "Woe is me if I do not preach the Gospel!" Luther said to the entrenched powers of the Roman Catholic Church in Germany, "Here I stand. I can do no other." Vincent van Gogh had a passion to paint, and his tortured soul would not rest until he transformed the world of art. Remember the movie about him starring Kirk Douglas? It was entitled, Lust for Life. This weekend we watched the first season of Downton Abbey, the PBS series set in early twentieth-century England. The reason Lord Grantham is such an admirable figure is because of his total devotion not to himself, or even to his family, but to the family heritage that is Downton Abbey. Nelson Mandela simply had to speak out against the oppression of apartheid and spoke a word for freedom in South Africa. Over twenty years in prison did not dull his sense passion for justice. Last weekend Connie and I went to Mount Vernon to celebrate the 280th birthday of George Washington. Washington risked everything to lead the fight for liberty. He knew this was something he simply had to do, which is why he wore his military uniform to Philadelphia to attend the first Continental Congress. Martin Luther King had to share his dream of a world in which his children would not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. That it cost him his life was no reason to give up that dream.

In this morning's Gospel reading in Mark, Jesus shares with His disciples His own Divine Imperative. This is the first of three times that Jesus speaks plainly to His disciples in Mark about the necessity of His death. Up until this point in Mark's Gospel, Jesus engages in a ministry of preaching and teaching in Galilee, and Mark tells of healings, miracles, signs and wonders that point to Jesus' identity as the Son of God. When Jesus calms the sea in Mark 4 with the words, "Peace! Be still!", the disciples look at one another and say, "Who is this man, that even the winds and waves obey him?" But now in Mark's Gospel Jesus' life takes a turn. Having shown us again and again suggestive glimpses of who Jesus is, now Mark's Gospel tells us of Jesus' real purpose in life, which is necessarily the manner and purpose of His death.

Here is how Jesus puts it: "And He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days, rise again. And He said this plainly." From this point on, Jesus had His eye upon the cross. For Jesus, literally, the cross was a "must." He realized that without it He would not be faithful to His Father who called Him to this.

Just before this moment Peter answers the question they all have been asking about Jesus. Jesus asks, "Who do people say that I am?" The disciples reply, "Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah." They are looking for Jesus as the repetition of someone else they have known. But Peter sees that Jesus is something and someone altogether new: "You are the Christ," Peter says. Which means you are the Messiah, the Savior, you are the one anointed to be King.

But then Jesus makes it utterly clear that to be King, to be the Christ, He "must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed…." This is Jesus' huge "must." It is His Divine Imperative. Without this, Jesus cannot be who He was supposed to be.

And that Jesus said this and did this is why we still study, worship and seek to follow Him. This moment in Mark begins Jesus' road that leads to the Cross. Artists understand how powerful the Cross is; that is why the best of them have always painted it powerfully. The best musicians have also composed music to speak of it. They call it rightly The Passion. It is the clearest picture, the most moving image of God that Christians have to offer: Jesus hanging lifeless on the cross in an act of unbounded love for the world.

In London's British Museum I remember seeing the incredible statue of the Hindu goddess, Shiva. She is dancing, and has eight arms and hands moving in every direction. She speaks of a god in constant motion, restless, busy, ever on the move. Not Jesus. The most moving pictures of Him show Him utterly still, lifeless, bleeding, His hands and feet nailed to the cross. This is who God really is. And this is what Jesus was telling His closest followers and is still telling us. This is who Jesus simply had to be. It is what He had to do. "The Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected … and be killed…." That was who Jesus would ever be.

And who Jesus had to be creates an imperative for us. Jesus turned to face the cross. This is what all four Gospel writers tell us. He chose the way, the path that would lead to a brutal, unjust death. And He did it out of love for us and faithfulness to His Father. But Jesus calls us to turn as well. Did you hear it? "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me." Then Jesus says something that is so important that some version or variant of this saying appears six times in the Gospels. Let me offer it in the Revised Standard Version: "For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it."

This might be the most important truth Jesus ever offered. The Gospel writers surely thought so. None of them could tell the story of Jesus without including these words. To follow Jesus is to deny yourself. To follow Jesus can never mean trying to save yourself or your life. That is the surest way to lose it. No, to follow Jesus means to turn, just as He turned to face the cross. Jesus gave His life for us, which is why He lived the richest, fullest life that has ever been lived.

"For whomever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it." I will not stand here and pretend that I know completely what these words of Jesus mean. But I know that they are among the most important words He ever uttered, and learning how to live into them might be the key to discovering your own reason for being.

You will never find your life, your truest self, by seeking to save yourself. In some way, Jesus' cross must become ours. His "must" of the cross creates a different imperative for us. We learn this, of course, in everything important we are ever called to do.

We can learn it as parents. You don't have kids for all the things they can do for you. If being a parent is all about you and the satisfaction and ego gratification your kids can give to you, you are sure to end up miserable and you will be a rotten parent in the end of the day. No, parenting is about giving, giving and giving, and then giving some more, so that they grow up and leave you. It is about loving your kids enough to let them go….

We learn of it in marriage as well, or we can. Enter a marriage for all it offers to you, for how much is in it for you, and one day you will grow weary of it, because that is not at all what love is about. Love is about giving, about entering a relationship for what you can do for another. Love is all about serving another. And when you lose your life in that, you often save it and find a much richer, deeper, fuller self than you ever knew, when you were all about yourself.

It is true in the work you are called to do. I always wince when people tell me they are going into the ministry to find personal fulfillment, or to find themselves. Ministry is about dying to self, and finding a much richer life in service to Christ.

But the world is sadly full of self-serving, miserable, small parents and husbands and wives and workers who never learn what Jesus was saying.

C.S. Lewis thought long and hard about this matter. He understood this as "the central paradox of life." "The more we get what we now call 'ourselves' out of the way and let Jesus take us over, the more truly ourselves we become … our real selves are all waiting for us in Jesus." "It is when I turn to Christ, when I give up myself to His personality, that I finally begin to have a personality all of my own…."

He goes on to say in Mere Christianity, "Give up yourself and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it." "Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in."

Jesus said, "For whoever would save his life will lose it." That's the bad news. Albert Schweitzer said, "Self-serving has no centennial." Live for yourself and you will live a completely forgettable life; small, inconsequential, miserable. Jesus' Good News is this: "But whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it." I didn't say it. Jesus did. But that's how I want to live. How about you?


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