We’re pros at denial. (Don’t deny it.) But the elephant in the room does not go away – our God is not a God of victory as we imagine it, rather a God of the cross.
17th Sunday after Pentecost (Year B) – September 20, 2015 – Mark 9:30-37
St. Jacob’s-Spaders Lutheran Church, Harrisonburg, Virginia
The Elephant in the Room – Pastor Evan Davis
Sometimes I go to the grocery store and I look at the wonderful selection of Turkey Hill ice cream. Would I like the chocolate peanut butter or the Double Dunker?? I just want to think about the comparative depth of flavor, the richness of the chocolate, but the elephant in the room, well, in the freezer aisle is that I need that ice cream like I need a hole in my head. So I just close my eyes and cover my ears and say “la-la-la-la” while I put it in the cart and come home to dive into a bowl. The truth can be so inconvenient sometimes. I don’t want to think about the truth I don’t need it very much.
Jesus has an actually hard truth to talk about. You already know what it is. He broke the news to the disciples in last week’s reading too – Mark records Jesus laying down this truth three times – this is the second. Jesus knows that the average Galilean won’t take this news too well and so he doesn’t want anyone to know they’re there. He doesn’t want to break that ice, to bust up that blissful ignorance just yet.
But for the disciples, the elephant on the road to Capernaum is the cross – it’s the betrayal and murder that awaits Jesus in Jerusalem.
Are we surprised that the disciples are too afraid to bring it up again in the conversation? Mark is nice about it, he tells us the disciples just don’t understand. Don’t want to understand, more like it. They’re going “la-la-la-la.” They’re terrified that their Messiah is talking about the cross rather than more miracles and epic victories over the evil spirits, about betrayal and death rather than healing and life. They’re not about to ask him to explain further. Even if they asked they don’t want to hear the answer.
So they change the subject. It’s brilliant, really. The moment their Messiah, the greatest one among them, the greatest leader of the people since Elijah or Moses, the moment HE starts talking about death, the disciples start talking about which one of them is the greatest! You can’t make this stuff up. They want to know who’s the best – I say, which one of them is best at missing the point?!?!?
Changing the subject, denying the reality right in front of us, is something we’re really good at. It’s an automatic response. First, because we don’t want to upset the status quo, the basic peace in our families and workplaces. Second, we do this because in our hearts and minds we construct a way of seeing the world, a basic story about ourselves and the world that helps us make sense out of everyday life. We all do this. We have to. And for the disciples, the God in their story, the God they know, is a God who wins. A God who defeats his enemies by the sword or by parting the Red Sea or sending plagues or raising up powerful prophets. That’s who God is.
So when Jesus shows up saying that he is at the same time both the Son of Man, the Messiah of God, AND that he will be betrayed and killed, he busts up their most basic assumptions about God. He challenges the story through which they understand the world. He no longer allows them to believe what they had believed about God.
They can’t handle it. Could we? So they change the subject so they don’t have to deal…yet…with this God who can die. They can’t handle the truth. But the elephant stays in the room and they keep on denying it all the way to the end of the story, when Peter will deny he even knows this Jesus, and all the disciples will run away and leave their Lord alone on the cross. They don’t deal with it until their Lord does rise again and they finally must come to terms with the truth that the crucified Jesus was the Son of Man, the Messiah he said he was, and now is their living Lord.
Quite often we can’t handle the truth – the truth that our God too is this Jesus who finds greatness in human weakness, who teaches that the first must be last and servant of all. It means for us that God is not about success and comfort and safety as we imagine these things…. It also means that if you find yourself in failure, or without a dollar to your name or in pain and grief and suffering…it doesn’t mean God is angry with you. It doesn’t mean God has left you. Quite the contrary, those are the moments when God is closest to you, suffering with you.
But we still pretend that our God is a God who prefers the wealthy and powerful, who blesses the beautiful and successful rather than the bent over and broken down of the earth. And so we deny the plight of those who don’t measure up on our list of who’s the greatest – people like those refugees in Europe or maybe the ones crossing the Rio Grande.
Jesus, though, knows that words aren’t enough to cut through his disciples’ denial or ours. He speaks a bold prediction of his Passion, but he knows he’s speaking with children of his heavenly Father, and any good children’s sermon is an object lesson. So he finds something…someone…real to give flesh to his words about what greatness is in the eyes of his Father. He picks up a little child and holds her in his arms – a child not quite as highly valued as we value children here today – and says, this little kid, not very useful, not very glorious, another mouth to feed, a dirty, fragile little child…is as valuable as I am, for when you welcome one such child in my name you welcome me, and not just me but the One who sent me.
You can’t deny a little girl or boy right in front of you – a palpable, powerful reminder of the glory of God….of God’s birth as a little child in Bethlehem (a story Mark doesn’t tell!). The world can’t deny that little toddler who washed up on the beach in Turkey – the world can’t deny his humanity, his holiness, his value to God. You can’t deny anymore that this God has a different way of valuing people than the pecking orders of this world. You can’t deny any longer that it’s the broken, the too young, too old, too fat, too skinny, too ugly, too worthless, too stupid, too poor, and too weak, whom God consistently chooses to use as the heralds and servants of his kingdom. You can’t deny any longer that Jesus is the Crucified Lord, and the Risen Lord, not a lord by the measures of this world, but the only Lord for all who believe, now and in the world to come.
You can’t deny anymore that you also are a child of the heavenly Father, no matter what you’ve done or failed to do, no matter what else you might believe about yourself. Because it’s you too whom Jesus picks up, when you have been running and playing and scraping your knees in this world, when you’re tired and tearful and you need your heavenly Father, when you need Jesus your big brother, Jesus is the one who holds you in his arms, undeserving, and says that when you are welcomed here in the water and at the table, he himself is being welcomed, because this Crucified God lives in you too.
And not just you. He picks up and holds also those you least expect. Those who do not make your list of the greatest. And you will find that God will bless you through those people you’d like the least to show up around the Lord’s table. It’s kinda crazy ho2w it works, this gospel stuff. Life comes from death. Victory from defeat. And around this table Jesus creates new brothers and sisters from the ones who make you angry, or scared, or ashamed. There’s no denying it – nothing will ever be the same for you and all the children of the heavenly Father. Amen.