On giving the devil its due. – Sermon for March 4, 2012

Mark 8:31-38
8:31 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.

8:32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.

8:33 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.”

8:34 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.

8:35 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.

8:36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?

8:37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?

8:38 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.”

Whenever I preach on a passage that talks about satan, I get a little uneasy. I didn’t grow up in a fundamentalist church, but I grew up in an area so filled with them that what was said in the pulpits sort of spilled out into the rest of the community. My classmates went to churches that preached hellfire and brimstone. They were scared straight into faith by talk of a literal devil who wanted them to burn for all eternity.

That’s the polar opposite of the sort of church I want to be a part of. I don’t want to scare people into faith. I want to concentrate more on loving God because God loves us rather than telling people they should love God or else. So when I see passages like this I am tempted to just minimize the lines about satan and emphasize the other parts.

But today’s passage is a hard one to talk around. Because here we have Jesus with one of his favorite disciples. And Jesus starts to tell him what’s about to happen. Jesus knows he is going to be turned over to the authorities, and that he will suffer and be killed, and then resurrected.

And Peter, understandably, gets upset. He has left everything he knew behind to follow this man, and now he’s finding out his friend is going to die. Maybe he’s even realizing that if Jesus is going to be killed, there’s a good chance his future doesn’t look so great either. And he’s so afraid takes Jesus aside and begins to tell him to stop saying this stuff. Stop talking about dying and destruction.

But Jesus doesn’t just disagree with him, he yells at him, “Get behind me satan!” Get behind me because you are focusing on human things, and I am focused on the divine. On God’s will.”

You’ve got to feel a little bad for Peter. He was just trying to stop his friend from thinking he is about to die. He was scared. He was wanting to know it would turn out okay. And Jesus not only doesn’t listen to him, he calls him the worst name you could think of: satan.

It doesn’t seem quite fair, does it? You tell the Lord you don’t want him to die, and you get called the ultimate evil. It always made me feel bad for Peter.

But when you look into the text a little more, and you look into what Jesus is saying and what it really means, another meaning comes out. One that has little to do with this image we’ve created of satan, as a devil in red with a pitchfork. One that has instead to do with deciding whether you’re ready to walk with Jesus.

If you go back to the earliest uses in the Bible of the word Jesus calls Peter, you’ll find the Hebrew equivalent, “ha-satan”. And ha-satan doesn’t mean devil at all. And it’s not even a proper name, really. It simply means “the accuser” or “the adversary”.

And when you think about that meaning, when you think about someone being “the adversary”, what Jesus was calling Peter makes a little more sense. Because Jesus wasn’t calling Peter evil incarnate. Jesus was telling Peter that by attempting to stand between him and what Jesus knew had to happen, he was being an adversary. He was standing between Jesus and God’s plan. And Jesus tells him, “get behind me.” Put your protests aside, and get in line. Don’t oppose me. I have to do this.

Peter had asked Jesus to compromise what he knew God had called him to do. And Jesus said “no”. Jesus told him in that moment all he needed to know. It wasn’t going to be easy, and it wasn’t going to end well, but if Peter was going to stand between Christ and the cross, then he was an adversary. He was keeping Christ from fulfilling God’s plan.

Now in some ways, Christ isn’t so different from you and I. God has a plan for all of us. God has created each of us with purpose and mission, and God has given us potential to do great things in the world. And he tries to tell Peter that. He tells him about the life God has called him to and says if you want to be my follower, you have to take up your cross and follow me. If you try to save your life, you’ll lose it. And if you are willing to lose life as you know it for the sake of the Gospel, the good news, you’ll save it. Don’t live your life trying to gain everything, but then lose your soul. Instead take up your cross, and you will live.

Jesus is talking about being a disciple. He’s inviting Peter into being one, and he’s telling him what the stakes are. But he’s also telling him, don’t be my adversary. Don’t stand in the way of what God has called me to do. Don’t keep me from taking up my cross and following God.

We can relate to that, because almost all of us know what it’s like to have an adversary that keeps us from taking up our cross and truly being a disciple. I’m not talking about an adversary in terms of person, I’m talking about those things that are standing between you and taking up your cross. The things keeping you from doing the things God has created you and called you to do.

We’ve all had adversaries. We’ve called them by different names. Doubt, fear, pride, addiction, hatred, anger, greed, insecurity, and a million others. They may not be the devil we may hear about from the pulpit of fundamentalist churches, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have just as much potential to stand between you and what God has created you to do. What are yours? And what have they kept you from?

They can be crafty. One young professional I talked to several years ago spoke about how she felt called to devote her life to mission work. Yet she feared doing so because she had grown accustomed to a certain standard of living and feared leaving it, so she never would.

Another minister from another denomination told me she felt God was asking her to stand up for an unpopular cause in her area, but she just couldn’t work up the courage because she was afraid it would result in her congregation letting her go. She told me, “I believe in dying for a cause, just not this young.”

Or there was another man who talked about being asked to do something totally unethical in his job, and knowing it was wrong, and yet doing it anyway because he wanted that promotion.

I don’t tell you these stories because these are awful people. I tell them because they’re a lot like us. Each one of us, at some point in our lives, has been there. Each one of us has had adversaries that have kept us from taking up our cross and being disciples. I’ve had my own, and you have too. We know how hard it can be when push comes to shove. And we also know that when we let the adversary win, when we choose safety or comfort or our own gain over the path God has set for us, we rarely truly find life.

We might get the money, or the promotion, or the knowledge that our job is safe, but do we lose our soul in the process? How much more would we have gained if we had instead said, “get behind me satan”? I won’t let any adversaries stand between me and life anymore.

Peter, in his own, sometimes bumbling, way, did stop being the adversary. He eventually did get behind Jesus. He took up his own cross and followed him and in the end he lost the life he knew. And he gained the life he could have only imagined.

That’s what discipleship is about. It’s about being the person God has called you to be in every arena of your life, every day. Not just Sunday mornings. Not just when things are easy. Not just when there are no adversaries. And in the end, it’s about losing the life you thought you loved and gaining a soul in the process. And so today, tell the adversary, whatever it is keeping you from being the disciple God has called you to be, to get behind you and get ready to take up your cross. Wherever Christ leads you, that is where you will truly live. Amen.

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