Sermon - 21st July 2019
Wow! and Meh!
Scripture - Mark 8:27-38
I have called this sermon “wow” and “meh”.
What wows you? What is it that makes you stop for a moment and go “wow!”? What about the humankind’s successful Moon landing? 50 years ago, everyone who had a TV would have been glued to watch Armstrong and Aldrin set foot on the moon at 3am UK time on 21 July 1969.
The “wow” factor did not last long. By 1972 and Apollo 17, the public had lost interest in the Moon and TV-ratings had plummeted, as did the momentary sense of humankind’s shared success. While space exploration has continued, that palpable global excitement has gone. Meh!
In a different type of “wow”, the world continues to be shocked by plastic pollution, brought to our attention by Sir David Attenborough in 2017 in the series Blue Planet. There are 41,500 endangered plant and animal species, including 1 in 4 mammals, 1 in 8 birds, and 1 in 3 amphibians. June 2019 was the warmest June on record. Humankind’s attitude to the environment is changing, but is it too little too late? Meh!
There will be other things that make us stop and go “wow”… things that are personal to us and our lives and of those whom we love. But the things which change the world are those when people come together, recognise something and respond with a collective “wow”.
I am going to show you a short clip from a film. It’s an old film, made in 1934. Then, very few people had ever flown in an aeroplane, so for cinema audiences, being able to see for the first time what it was like above the clouds was something which caused considerable amazement and awe. To us, our response in seeing this is more likely to be “meh”. It’s an old black-and-white film; most of us will have seen above the clouds for ourselves during a flight.
The wow-factor at the start of this film was merely a propaganda device. The film is, in fact, the opening scene to the Nazi propaganda film “Triumph of the Will”, designed to trick the German people into the hope of a high-flying future.
Even though the Moon landing was a great achievement for humankind, let us not forget that this endeavour was the outworking of the rival political ideologies of Capitalism and Communism: the USA was determined to beat the Soviet Union in the so-called “Space Race”.
You may be wondering why I am talking about propaganda and political ideologies: surely, this is a sermon? OK, let us take a step back to the time of Jesus, in Roman-occupied Judea. The Jews were an oppressed people with a long history of oppression. Firstly, they were enslaved in Egypt; God through Moses freed them, but even when they had reached the Promised Land, they were beset with constant war from neighbouring nations, eventually defeated and exiled. And not long after the return from exile came the Roman invasion.
The Jews of Jesus’ time were desperate for release from their continual strife: they were looking for a Messiah, a Saviour, who would bring them freedom from the Roman occupation, so that they might live in peace. We know from Roman and Jewish historical records that a number of people had tried to bring about insurrection against the occupying forces, and the question surrounding each of them was: is this the promised Messiah, the Saviour?
Monty Python, in their film “Life of Brian”, recent re-released in cinemas, parodied the passionate fervour of the Jews in their search for a Messiah, a Saviour.
And so, to introduce our reading today from Mark’s Gospel. The first eight chapters of this Gospel introduce Jesus, narrating the miracles He performed and some of His core teaching. The reading we are about to hear marks a new, second section to the Gospel.
Whether it’s seeing above the clouds for the first time, or being amazed by the Moon landing, or anything else that makes us go “wow”, that which we are about to hear is the most amazing thing ever.
Prepare to be amazed! Prepared to be wowed!
Jesus asks the Disciples: “Who do people say I am?”
Peter answered, “You are the Messiah!” and in Matthew’s Gospel, Peter’s words are expanded: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God!”
Wow! This is the most amazing truth! But are we amazed, wowed by these words? Or do we just go “meh”?
In 2019, in truth, we are unenthused by ideologies… we have seen political ideologies and key leaders such as in Communism, Socialism, Fascism and even Capitalism rise and fall. We are largely unimpressed by the onward march of technology, and we accept it readily, maybe even expect it. Thanks to medical advancements, we are living a lot longer, and our fear of death is far less than say 150 years ago, when infant mortality was high, and plagues and epidemics were common-place. We are sometimes shocked by terrible events in the world and closer to home, but by and large, we live our lives separated from the power of this central message.
Those of us here today fall into two groups: those who identify as being Christian and accept the truth that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God; and those who are looking for God, still searching. Either way, the message is the same. I know I need to do this: we all need to return to this core message again and again.
We are seeking God in our lives. God, our Creator, longs for relationship with us, but the way in which generations of humans have chosen to live their lives has separated us from our Creator. In order to restore that relationship, God became human in Jesus.
The Jews were expecting the Messiah to be a military leader, bringing them political freedom. God, however, had a bigger plan. Many of you will have heard today’s passage read on many occasions, but the verse that sticks in my mind is when Jesus says to Peter: “You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of humankind.”
Jesus, here, is trying to point out to Peter and the other Disciples that they are setting their sights too low, that is “the things of humankind”. Jesus has something much better in mind – “the things of God”: that is, restoring each human’s relationship with God, our Creator.
Many early human religions worshipped creations: the Sun, the Moon, Mother Earth, certain animals, but the three Abrahamic faiths – Christianity, Judaism and Islam – have something in common: our understanding of God is that God is above and beyond creation.
Jesus' mission is simple, to restore our relationship with God – Wow! Our restored relationship with God means not only sating the spiritual hunger which every person has inside, but it also brings the promise of eternal life.
Can it be that easy? In the picture by Elizabeth Wang on the screen, Jesus becomes the Bridge when His arms are outstretched, as on the Cross. In today’s reading, we hear for the first time in Mark’s Gospel about what must happen to Jesus in order to make possible that which He came to do: to restore our relationship to God, He must be put to death and rise again.
How do we have to respond in order to be part of what Jesus did for us? The final part of today’s reading gives us some very radical suggestions as to how we might live.
In Verse 34, Jesus words are: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must say no to themselves. They must pick up their cross and follow me.” These words would have been horrifying to Jesus’ Disciples, as He was saying that they should be prepared to die, nailed to a cross, a punishment reserved for the worst criminals. For many Christians in our world, they do face the threat of execution, imprisonment or persecution because of their faith. We are fortunate in the UK that this does not happen, but are we proud of our faith, or are we scared of the embarrassed silence or mild discomfort we might experience with our co-workers, friends and family when the subject of religion is raised?
In Verse 38, Jesus words are: “Suppose anyone is ashamed of me and my words…” Let us be proud of our conviction that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, just as we might be proud and unashamed of who we are, proud and unashamed of our sexuality or gender identity.
And in Verse 37, Jesus says: “What good is it if someone gains the whole world but loses their soul?” That almost sounds like a bet. A 17th Century French philosopher called Blaise Pascal came up with an argument which has become known as Pascal’s Wager.
It goes like this: everyone has to bet. You can either bet that there is no God (be an atheist) and live your life accordingly, or you can bet that there is a God and live your life accordingly. And so, in this game we call life, when we come to die, there are four possible outcomes.
Pascal argued that that best way to live life is to choose the route which leads to the greatest gain, so to be a believer: that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.
Today, we have looked at the most radical, most amazing, most awesome message that we can possibly hear: that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. As a Christian of many years, our spiritual skin can become hardened to this amazing message, it has become old news – meh! - and we need to experience the message anew; or, as someone who is still seeking God, you may be wanting to know how you might begin your journey of faith.
Jesus said (Matthew 18:3), “I tell you the truth, unless you turn from your sins and become like little children, you will never get into the Kingdom of Heaven.” Children have a sense of “wow”; it is only later that we learn to say “meh” and become hardened.
Some of you will know CS Lewis’ Narnia books or films. In book 5, “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader”, a boy called Eustace is cold and hard-hearted. On the journey, he is enchanted and becomes a dragon. After a while, lonely and in pain, he encounters the lion, Aslan – a metaphor for Jesus. Aslan challenges him to tear off his cold, heartless dragon skin. Eustace tries three times and fails.
"Then the lion said, ‘You will have to let me undress you.’ I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it.
"The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart… Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off… Then he caught hold of me - I didn't like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I'd no skin on - and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone. And then I saw why. I'd turned into a boy again.”
May God graciously grant us to experience the “wow” of faith once again!