Saturday, March 07, 2009

They Called Me Bruce (Mark 8:31-39)

Back in the early and mid 1980s, a pop singer named Rick Springfield was pretty well-known and sold a lot of albums. But earlier in his career, when he wasn’t as well-known, he found he was sometimes being mistaken for another musician with a similar name. So he wrote a witty little song about it, which he never intended to release. The music company that owned the rights to his songs, however, decided to update the instrumentation and release the song without Rick’s cooperation, so in 1984 we got to hear Rick Springfield sing about how people he met often called him “Bruce” because they thought he was Bruce Springsteen.

Everyone from fans to his own mom to the young ladies that flocked to singers they thought were famous called him “Bruce,” and it was very upsetting for him.

I sometimes wonder if Jesus had some of the same feelings during the incident Mark writes about here. It follows just on the heels of Peter’s declaration, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” At last, Jesus might have thought. At last they really get it! Now I can tell them about how things will play out so they can be ready for it.

But they don’t get it, and that shows up quickly when Peter decides to tell Jesus what he can and can’t say as the Messiah.

On the one hand, Peter’s words make some sense. Jesus has reached a high point in his earthly ministry. He draws crowds. People want to hear him and they want to follow him. At last his very important messages about God and what God wants people to know can get out to a large number of people! Who knows what kind of change this might bring about? Might the people return to their original, Moses-and-Joshua era faith? Might they find themselves strong enough to tell toga-boy Pilate and his miniskirt-wearing soldiers to take a hike?

Well maybe they will and maybe they won’t, but it’s darn certain that nothing good can come of Jesus saying that when he finally does confront the religious leadership, he’ll lose and get himself killed. Who’s going to follow a guy who walks into a fight thinking he’s going to lose?

We know Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine, and so I imagine he must have felt some disappointment when he realized that even his closest followers didn’t understand one of the most fundamental elements of his Messiah-ship.

At one level, there’s the problem of the different understanding of what the Messiah is to do. Most of the Jewish people in Jesus’ day saw the Messiah as both a religious and political leader. They believed he was to re-establish the Kingdom of Israel in the most literal sense. He would re-create the independent Jewish nation that had existed during the time of Samuel, Saul, David and Solomon. He would restore Temple worship and an independent priesthood. Although Peter had seen enough that he probably understood things wouldn’t be exactly like that, it seems he and the others still held some of those ideas.

But there’s an even deeper problem. After all, if misunderstanding Jesus was all it took to be equated with Satan, then each of us would probably have that as our middle names. Peter’s admonitions, though, strike at the very root of who God is and who Jesus is as his son. When Peter says, “You can’t say stuff like that,” he is actually trying to limit both Jesus and God. He questions one of God’s most foundational statements and attributes.

Remember when Moses asked God what his name was, and God said, “I am that I am?” In Hebrew, that can translate “I will be who I will be,” or other phrases close to the one we’re more familiar with. In all of these different meanings, we find God saying that God alone will determine who God is. And God will determine what he does. No one has the standing to suggest a different way to be God.

In Jesus, God has decided to reconcile humanity to himself through a sacrifice on the cross. By doing so, both his perfect justice and his perfect mercy can be satisfied. Peter’s rebuke is an attempt to tell Jesus how to be the savior that God has already told him how to be. And as we remember, the other time someone tried that was Satan tempting Jesus in the desert.

We may follow in Peter’s footsteps more often than we think we do. I am certain there have been times I would have advised God on how he should act in this or that situation or against this or that person. But to do so is to set myself up as someone who knows better than God what God should be doing. I’m trying to assert myself as someone who could be like God, knowing good from evil, and I’m sure we remember where we’ve heard that before, too.

When we try to set ourselves up as those who know better than God how God should do things, we take on one of two roles. We’re someone who thinks we can lead God where he should go, or we’re obstacles in his path on the work he wishes to do. In such cases, “Get behind me” is not only a rebuke. It’s a good reminder of how we are designed to follow God, not lead him, and it’s pretty good advice to keep from being run over.

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