The Twist in the Tale

St Barnabas, 20th September 09

Readings – James 2:14-26; Mark 9:30-37

How many people here enjoy a good read? One of the many good things about being married to a librarian is that she comes home with all kinds of interesting books, and in the past few years DW has introduced to me to authors such as Nicola Upson, Jacqueline Winspear, Qiao Xiaolong and many others I would not have discovered on my own. And although I often look at a book by a writer I’ve never heard of, and am not sure whether I’ll really enjoy it, 9 times out of 10 I find it’s something I just can’t put down.

But just occasionally DW or I will start a new book and decide within a few pages that it’s not something we want to carry on with. One or both of us will try it, and within a couple of days it is back in the return pile by the front door, ready for us to trip over the next time we go back to the library. And of course this raises an interesting question – what is it exactly that makes for a good (or for that matter a bad) read?

Here are a few suggestions:

First of all, it has to be well written. A book that is full of long sentences or lots of clichés rarely attracts a lot of readers – unless you happen to be Dan Brown or Ian Fleming.

Secondly, it has to have at least some action. Not necessarily lots of action, but at least a book where something real and something important happens. I have in my life been forced to read novels where the characters seem to spend most of their time talking, and it’s only been the thought of the coming exam that’s kept me going.

Thirdly, it needs to have characters you can relate to. It’s all very well having a heroine who solves murder mysteries while performing brain surgery and goes home each evening to be the perfect wife and mother, but life, on the whole, is not like that, and we tend to find such literary creations intensely annoying.

And fourthly, and I hope you will see where I am going with this in a moment, it has to have an unexpected twist. There is nothing worse than where two characters obviously fall in love on page one, but take another 200 pages to realise that fact. Within a couple of chapters you’re wishing they could just get on with it, so you can finish the book there and then.

Obviously, there are other things I could mention, but I want to turn our attention now to our reading from Mark’s gospel. Over the past few months we have been slowly going through the book chapter by chapter, verse by verse, and it’s right that we have done so. But I do hope, if you haven’t done so already, that one day you find about half an hour or so to read it all the way through in one sitting. Because if you do, I think you will find it is a cracking good read. Is it well written? Well, yes. It is full of unexpected eye witness details, like the fact Jesus fell asleep on a cushion in the boat, or the 5000 sit down on green grass. Does it have lots of action? Yes. There are none of the long genealogies we find in Matthew or Luke, or a long prologue like we find in John. Mark dives straight in, and he simply piles one event on top of another. Is it full of characters we can relate to? Yes, I think, for example, there’s a bit of Peter in all of us and we can certainly sympathise with the men and women who approach Jesus for help.

And what about the unexpected twist? Well, after 8 chapters of non-stop action it seems to be pretty clear who Jesus is. He has preached the word. He has healed the sick and driven out demons. He has calmed storms and raised the dead. He has fed crowds of 5000 and 4000, and He has opened the eyes of the blind. All the evidence is clearly pointing to Jesus being the Messiah, the chosen one of Israel, who has come to set His people free. So when Jesus asks the disciples Who do you say I am? and Peter replies You are the Christ you almost half expect Jesus to congratulate him and say that he ain’t seen nothing yet.

Except he doesn’t. Mark 8:31 He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. And just in case we haven’t got what He is saying, He repeats it again here in today’s reading: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him and after three days he will rise. This after he Has been miraculously transfigured as the Son of God, and driven out a destructive demon from a boy with convulsions.

Now I guess these are very familiar words to most of us because we know the end of the story and we know what happens to Jesus. But try to imagine what it must have been like for those first disciples. They had left everything to follow Jesus, families, homes, good, steady jobs. They really believed Jesus was the promised one who would set up God’s kingdom here on earth and, as far as they were concerned, they had backed a winner. The idea that their leader, their Messiah could and would be killed just simply wasn’t on their horizon. And as for rising again, they could have little or no understanding what Jesus was really referring to. This was not so much a twist in the tale, as a complete reversal of all they had been hoping and longing for.

And maybe, just maybe, there are some people here this morning at St Barnabas who need to regain the shock and the mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection. I know that whenever I stand up to preach I am speaking mostly to Christians who have been faithfully walking with the Lord for many years, and it is a great privilege to do so. But sometimes we need to turn aside, to remind ourselves exactly the cross is all about and recapture the awe and wonder of Jesus’ death for us. Because unless we are passionate about the cross, unless we are thrilled by the good news of Christ, it is less likely that we will be passionate about living for Christ, serving Christ, making Christ our all in all.

So three very basic questions I want to examine this morning:

  • Why did the Son of Man have to be killed?
  • Why do most people not understand the message of the cross?
  • What does it mean for us to have faith?

So first of all, why did the Son of Man have to be killed?

Well, on a human level it is clear that Jesus was attracting more and more opposition the longer He went on in His ministry. The Jewish teachers of the law saw Him as threat to their position. There were bound to be clashes with the Roman authorities once Jesus entered Jerusalem. And what about the crowds? True, they enjoyed watching Jesus perform miracle after miracle, but maybe one day they would get tired of Jesus and want something more. And even today there are many people who see Jesus’ death as simply the inevitable outworking of the message He was preaching. It was the fate of a misguided revolutionary, or just another martyrdom of a good, wise teacher.

But human reasons alone do not explain why Jesus was so clear right from the beginning that He had to be arrested, betrayed and killed. If He was just another revolutionary or teacher, He would surely have done everything possible to extend His life for as long as possible, or at least until there was some evidence He had really achieved what He had set out to do. Three years of powerful preaching and miracles wasn’t really that much of a legacy, after all.

No, there has to be some deeper, more profound reason why Jesus was so clear He had to suffer death in Jerusalem. And maybe the way to think about it is to think about those miracles He had performed over the previous chapters. Those sick persons whom He had healed would one day fall sick again and die. The people He had fed with the bread and fish would soon become hungry again. The storm He had calmed over lake Galilee would once more brew up again. If Jesus really was going to have a permanent, positive impact on the broken, fallen world He had come to inhabit, He needed to do something that would radically change hearts and minds, that would do a work on the inside which would restore men and women to true wholeness. In short, He had to deal with the problem of sin.

Now sin is a word that is often misunderstood even by believers. It is not a particular type of wrongdoing that only some commit, and not others. It is not trivial little deeds that we remember each Sunday morning as we make our confession. It is the pervasive, universal and total failure of all of us to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength and, following on from that, as James keeps reminding us in his letter, to love your neighbour as yourself. You see, God has made us in His image. He has created us so that we have a relationship with Him and walk in His ways. But we have turned away from Him. We have rejected His offer of love, and we ignored His righteous and holy commands. Instead of loving God we put ourselves, our families, our work, our pleasures first. Maybe not all the time, maybe not all in areas. But God expects and demands from us 100% unconditional love and obedience, and as James reminded us last week …whoever keeps the law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it (James 2:10).

And why does this matter? Because, and this is a point we all too often forget, God has the right to judge each and every one of us. He made us. He is our Heavenly Father. Yet we have time after time ignored what He has said to us, and the result has been a broken relationship, with Him and with others. And the ultimate expression of that broken relationship is death. Not just physical death, but dying without being certain of the Father’s love, without knowing His mercy and forgiveness, yet all too aware of being unable to make amends for the wrong things we have done. That is the stark, horrible reality of life without Christ, and one that all too many people around us face today.

So what difference does it make that 2000 years ago in fulfilment of Jesus own words the Son of Man was betrayed, killed and three days later rose again? Whenever I am asked this question (and this is something that happens, I find, all too rarely) I turn to 2 Corinthians 5:21, God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. You see, right from the very beginning Jesus knew that His mission was die alone, rejected and in agony on a hill outside Jerusalem. It was His mission to take upon Himself our failure to love God as we ought. Our sin and our rebellion against our Maker was to be placed on His shoulders. That death that we should have died He took upon Himself. In three brutal and literally excruciating hours all that we have ever done to offend and to deny our loving Heavenly Father was placed upon Jesus, the Son of God and Son of Man. With what result? That we might become the righteousness of God. In other words, that because Jesus died in our place and took the punishment that should be ours, we might be counted right and free before God. Just think about that for a moment.

Was there ever any event in human history that was more unfair or more unjust? That someone without sin, someone so totally blameless and pure that no-one could accuse Him of wrong should bear my sin, my wrongdoing, my rebellion, so that I could be – in the words of the old hymn – ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven. No wonder people talk about the death of Jesus as the great exchange. It was an outrageous, extravagant work of grace that not a single one of us deserved. But Jesus did it nonetheless because of His great love for us. And how do we know this is true? Because three days later Jesus rose again, victorious, triumphant and confirmed indeed as the Son of God who has conquered sin and death and evil.

So why do most people not understand the message of the cross?
Well, there are several answers to this question. We have to be honest and admit that all too often we as a church have not explained the message of the cross clearly or simply reduced it to something like, “This is how much Jesus loves you”. Of course the cross is about Jesus’ love, but there are plenty of other ways Jesus could have shown His love for us without undergoing such an awful death. We have become afraid and timid of explaining the reality of sin, and unlike Jesus we do not spend time with people explaining clearly the absolute and utter necessity of the cross. As a result people only have a very sketchy understanding of the gospel message and they struggle to see how it could possibly be relevant to them. After all, what difference could the death of one man – even if He is so good and loving and kind – possibly make to my life? We need to learn to present afresh the full meaning of the cross in ways that connect and show the necessity of making a response.

Not that even then people will automatically respond. You might have thought that as Jesus was carefully explaining to His disciples what was going to happen they would taken on board all that He was teaching them. But no, Mark tells us they did not understand what He meant. Because actually the way you take on board the message of the cross is not through your own understanding, or through your own cleverness. It is through faith, that is simply accepting and trusting in Jesus as your Lord and your Saviour. And that is something that all of us, sinners as we are, find so hard to do. Like the first disciples we are, if we’re honest, more interested in pursuing our own ambitions and our own goals and we resist giving Jesus the desires and longings of our heart. It’s little wonder, then, as Jesus discovers the disciples arguing among themselves about their status, He takes a little child in His arms. Because that is a picture of what it means to believe and trust in Jesus, to have the willingness to simply believe and trust in our Father’s goodness, and realise that we ourselves have nothing we can offer Him. And that is something that goes right against our human nature, something that acts as a stumbling block to so many people receiving the good news of Christ. How much do we need to pray for the Lord to open hearts and minds that are closed to Him, and to keep on praying! There is no more vital or important work that any of us can do.

Now to some extent I have already answered my third question: What does it mean for us to have faith? Faith, as I have said already, is about simply believing and trusting in God’s undeserved goodness to us. But there is one more extremely important aspect of faith that James alerts us to in our reading. You see, many churches are good at explaining the need to believe and trust in Jesus. But what they are less good at doing is explaining is how this faith should shape and mould every aspect of the believer’s life. With what result? That people come to faith, stay in the church for a while and then quietly drop off the radar. They have never been taught or been shown how faith should affect the way, for example, they spend their money or their leisure time and their Christian belief merely becomes another part of already busy, over-crowded lives. This is why we need to take seriously James’ message about faith and deeds. As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.

And that is why I believe all of us should come back to the cross afresh time after time. Because although it tells us about what Jesus has done for us, it also asks us what we are prepared to do in response to His death for us. For if it is true that Jesus has borne my sin, if Jesus has made it possible for me to be counted righteous in God’s sight, then my faith has to be more than a statement of belief or a creed I recite every Sunday. It has be a living, active statement that Jesus is Lord, and it needs to show forth in Spirit-filled deeds that point to His wonderful and precious saving work.

So what is your faith like at the moment? What does it mean for you to say Jesus has died and risen again for you? And what difference does your faith make to your everyday life?

Let’s take a moment thinking about those questions, realising that our answers are important not just for ourselves but for the many around us who have never taken on board the message of Christ crucified for them.

Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners–of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life. Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen.
The apostle Paul – 1st century (1 Timothy 1:15-17)

Thanks be to you, my Lord Jesus Christ
For all the benefits you have given me,
For all the pains and insults you have borne for me.
O most merciful Redeemer, friend and brother,
May I know you more clearly,
Love you more dearly,
Follow you more nearly.

Richard of Chichester, 13th Century

‘In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation: and an assurance was given me, that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.’
Charles Wesley – 18th Century

Amazing grace!
How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found,
was blind, but now I see.

’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
and grace my fears relieved.
How precious did that grace appear
the hour I first believed!
Isaac Newton, converted slave trader 18th century

Over the centuries, in many different places, in many different traditions, people have composed their own special prayers in response to Jesus and His death upon a cross. What is your special prayer today?

Rev Tim


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