By The Very Rev. Sherry Crompton
March 8, 2009
Read: Mark 8:31-38
Early in Jesus ministry, he chose 12 people to go with him into the future together. They were going to be leaders, proclaiming good news and preaching in front of throngs of people. And the early days of ministry were wildly successful. Together, they helped Jesus feed the 5000. They were there for the healing of sick people, the winning of debates against critics. They were learning from Jesus how to calm the angry seas by a simple word. It was all very, very cool.
And then one day, Jesus made a sharp right turn. He asked the disciples if they had figured out who he was. After a few guesses, Peter identified Jesus as the Son of God. It was a powerful, holy moment. But in his very next words, Jesus told them that he was on his way to Jerusalem to die. “Die?” Peter says. “Die? You’re not going to die! The party’s just getting started!”
And it was then that Jesus offered them a three-fold standard for leadership. “If you are going to be leaders” Jesus tells them, “then you must deny yourself, take up the cross, and follow.” It all seemed so backwards to them, that they should have to deny themselves (whatever that meant), and take up a cross (they knew exactly what that meant!), and to be followers. And yet, this is precisely what Jesus expected of them — that they would deny themselves — that they would set aside their own selfish wants and wishes, and pursue what was best for the group. And when Jesus spoke of the cross, they learned that being a disciple would mean hardship, and sacrifice, and possibly even death. And finally, the disciples learned that Jesus wanted them to follow him…to imitate him…to love the people that he loved, and to trust the God that he trusted.
The disciples didn’t really get it until after the Resurrection. Finally then, they understood what Jesus was saying — that to be in his company, he required people to set aside their personal agendas, and to be willing to suffer, and to live life like him, because this life is not the end. When Jesus rose from the dead, it all made sense to the disciples. In fact, that three-fold standard — self-denial, taking up a cross, and following Jesus — became the way they lived…and the way they died. Every one of them.
A number of years ago, a friend of mine was during youth ministry and attended a conference at a Christian camp in North Carolina, with some of the top youth leaders in the country. It was a beautiful place, nestled in the Smokey Mountains and surrounded by trees. After dinner one evening, the people who were leading the program suggested that all of us youth leaders – all 200 of us – hike to the mountaintop overlooking the camp. It was a warm summer evening, and since they were in charge of the program and not us, we readily agreed to take that hike.
The journey up was relaxed. A narrow dirt path wound its way, probably two miles to the top of the mountain. But when we arrived, it was all worth it! You could see for miles, the sun had painted the sky a thousand colors, and the view of the camp down below was spectacular. We sang songs and hymns and had a sort of impromptu worship service on the top of the mountain. When the lights came on down in the camp, it appeared as though we were looking down at a constellation of stars. And then it occurred to someone to say out loud “You know, it’s gotten dark, and we’ve got a two mile hike down to base camp.” Hmmm, that same thought occurred to our program leaders at just about the same time! 200 people making their way down the mountain in pitch dark wasn’t what they had planned.
Fortunate for us, one guy discovered a flashlight in his backpack. One flashlight – 400 broken ankles waiting to happen! Another person said she was very familiar with the trail back to camp. These were now our leaders, and we were the timid followers. It was a slow and humbling experience; 200 bold and gifted leaders having to follow one flashlight and one college co-ed in the darkness.
He’s thought about that scene countless times over the years, because it was that night that he realized that he’s not a very good follower. And we live in a culture of others who are not very good at following. That’s somewhat odd, because the first thing we teach our children at a very young age is to follow. “Follow daddy down to the basement.” “Follow Mommy out to the garden.” We teach them games like “Follow the leader” and “Simon Says” and “Captain May I?” And we are pleased when they follow well. (Steven Molin)
The story is told of a man living in London during the Second World War. Every night German planes appeared overhead dropping countless bombs on the city below. Buildings burst into flames, sirens wailed incessantly, entire blocks were reduced to rubble. One day this Londoner was sitting in the wreckage of his home. The walls remained, but the roof was gone.
The man himself was near despair. His home ruined, his city devastated, his country under attack. These thoughts were interrupted by a knock on the door.
The man opened the door and was shocked to see a small regal figure. It was the king! King George VI! He was touring the war-damaged neighborhood and had stopped at that particular house. The startled man welcomed the King of England into what was left of his home.
Jesus is a king like that. He comes, of his own accord, to the ruin that I am, and knocks firmly on the door of my heart. He comes not once, but often, always knocking on that door. This king comes to me in time of crisis, across the devastated landscape.
We say that a king must be wealthy, having for his own gold and jewels, castles and palaces, fine horses and elegant clothing. But this King Jesus I know to be the prince who has become a pauper. His birthplace is a stable. His palace is a hillside. If I am to catch a glimpse of him today, then I must look in the right place: among the poor, the disinherited, the powerless. It is there that the king will be found. He is there today as he was two thousand years ago.
Perhaps my greatest temptation is not that I will insult him, reject him, blaspheme him to his face, but that I will simply overlook him. For no longer is his uniform a robe, sandals, long hair. Now he appears as a weary woman raising her kids alone on a back street not far from here. He appears as an old man dying slowly and alone at the city hospital. He even appears as someone who commutes daily to work, suffocated by success, numb to inner emptiness. In each of these disguises King Jesus appears to me. He’s a prince who’s become a pauper. Pray that I may recognize him and kiss his hand.
A king must be powerful, we say. He must sit secure upon his throne and wield his scepter well, and remain confident in who he is. But Jesus is a king of a different kind. He lays aside the stunning mantle of his omnipotence, and drains the cup of human experience, human limitation, even down to the dregs of our suffering, sorrow, and death. There’s no calamity I have known or can ever experience which remains unknown to him. All my dark rooms are places he has walked before.
Strange to say, it is by letting go of all power that all power comes to him. The king dies a disgraceful death. He is an outcast, a failure, abandoned and forsaken. No royal sepulcher awaits where his body can rest in peace. Instead, there is begging for the corpse by a friend, a borrowed tomb, hasty burial. But it is through this death and this one alone that the world is reborn. Through his new and unconquerable life the gates of eternity are thrown open.
Is this Jesus a king? Yes, a king like no other. His relinquishment of control tells me that I do more good when I give than when I grasp, when I allow myself to be a deep river of peace rather than a blowtorch of misbegotten anger. His relinquishment of control tells me that the only game that matters is won already, and when the results are tallied, the winning team will be The Holy Fools and not The Wise of This World. One after another rulers die and are replaced. The crown is handed down from each one to the next. Royal houses are proficient at filling graves. Today a king, tomorrow a corpse!
But Jesus reverses this saying. Once a corpse, now he is a king forever! And his resurrection holds for me the hope that the absurdities of my life will not have the final say, but that his unconquerable life may be mine forever, and that the city where he rules unquestioned may become my permanent address. (The Rev. Charles Hoffacker)
Sometimes, I remember that there is a Leader out in front of me. He doesn’t have a flashlight, he IS the Light. Amen.
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