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Tempted to Choose Our Own Ways

Old Testament Reading – Isaiah 55:6-9

Seek the Lord while he may be found,
call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake their way,
and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.

Gospel Reading – Mark 8:31-38

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

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. 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,[i] will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words[j] 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.”

“Tempted to Choose Our Ways”

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.”

Lent is a great season for us to consider these words delivered by God through the prophet Isaiah. God’s thought and ways are not our thoughts and ways. After all, this season is all about us considering the ways we CHOOSE something different from God and, in theory anyway, try to turn back toward God and choose God anew.

As I thought about God’s words through Isaiah this week, I had a crazy thought: “what if God’s ways WERE my ways?” It was a pretty scary picture:

  • There would be something “special” in store for people who fail to fully stop at stop signs, especially the stop sign over by my house that so many people roll through one right after the other so that it can take me what feels like forever sometimes to back out of my driveway. There would be something SPECIAL for them, like, I don’t know, maybe the tires would fall off their cars or their cars would suddenly break down…so those people couldn’t get wherever they’re in such a hurry to get in time.
  • And there would be something REALLY special for people who gossip and spread rumors about other people. They would probably hear the voice of the person they were gossiping about laugh right before a trap door opened below them they fell into a room where speakers blared non-stop with all kinds of untrue things that other people could say about THEM.
  • And all the people out there who use hate speech so often to denigrate people who are different from them – a different race, a different gender, a different way of thinking or believing – THEY would fall victim to a trap door as well, one that would lead to a room where they hear nothing about hate speech from others about THEM.
  • And then there’s the people who are inclined to kill. I would find a way to stop them before they act on it. I’m not sure you could call it a punishment, but in some ways it would be…because these destructive individuals would have to be isolated from contact with people they could kill – permanently.

The more I thought about it, the more I began to realize a couple of things. The first thing I began to realize is that it is so wonderful that God’s ways are not my ways because my ways sound more than a little bit vengeful. In fact, if God’s ways were my ways, I’m sure we’d ALL be experiencing the result of some kind of vengeance or another. I’m SO glad God is somehow above all that. And the second thing I began to realize is that it must be really difficult for God to allow us, people, to have and to continue to exercise free will. I don’t think I could give up the power to make people do what is RIGHT – and then watch them so often go out and do what is WRONG. It would rive me NUTS!

God’s ways are NOT our ways…and that’s something that was quite evident in Jesus’ life and that is reflected in the gospels. After all, how many times do you remember Jesus going around and zapping people for doing stupid things, for doing evil tings, for doing things that go against God’s will? Instead, Jesus tried to persuade people, which is about all you can do when it comes to beings with free will.

So, you might wonder, how is this reality that God’s ways are not our ways so evident in the gospels? Well, take a look at our gospel reading as an example.

I’m not sure whether or not you knew when you heard this text read a few minutes ago, but this is the FIRST instance in Jesus’ ministry that Jesus even HINTS to his disciples that Jesus’ ministry is going to culminate in his death. It’s the first time Jesus reveals that God’s way is to lead Jesus to the cross. (PAUSE) There has been all manner of speculation about what the DISCIPLES’ way would have been, about where the disciples thought Jesus’ ministry was going to lead. It’s not like the disciples just came out and TOLD us in the gospels, but they did drop some pretty big hints. They dropped big hints by arguing about who was the greatest. They dropped big hints by asking Jesus who WOULD be the greatest in God’s kingdom, the kingdom Jesus said he was ushering in. They dropped big hints by asking to sit at Jesus’ right hand in God’s kingdom.

I’m guessing when you hear these kinds of thoughts and questions from the disciples, you imagine they were talking about who would be the greatest or sit at Jesus’ right hand in some heavenly realm, up there, out there, with God in the life that follows this one. BUT, I’m pretty sure that’s NOT the case. Remember, the Holy Spirit had not yet come upon the disciples and they were almost always portrayed as not really GETTING what Jesus was talking about when he talked about God’s kingdom. However, their arguments and the words in them WERE consistent with some very worldly things. In worldly kingdoms of that time, the person who was considered greatest (apart from the king, of course), sat at the king’s right hand and acted with the authority of the king. In my estimation, the disciples weren’t arguing about, asking about, or debating some theoretical notion about “who Jesus liked the most”. No they were asking who was going to hold a very specific POSITION that was held in most, if not all, earthly kingdoms at the time. Because they thought Jesus was going to do something very specific: namely, take down the oppressive Roman Empire that was the center of their known world, take down the kingdom of Rome and replace it with the kingdom of Jesus…so that Jesus would become the center of the known world. And while they knew they were not Jesus, they were vying for a different position, the most important and powerful position that was available: sitting at Jesus’ right hand.

So…the disciples seemed to have been expecting Jesus to take down the Roman Empire, something that would have required Jesus to STAY alive…maybe FIGHT some battles, and BECOME the ruler…the center of the world. And THEY, Jesus’ disciples, would occupy various positions of power and authority. They envisioned going from being powerless nobodies to being power-wielding members of Jesus’ ruling elite. THAT’s what they envisioned.

And then, Jesus drops the absolute BOMB on them that everything they were hoping for, everything they envisioned about their future, was NOT going to happen. Instead of defeating Rome, Jesus was going to die. Instead of creating a new kingdom of Jesus in place to replace Rome, instead of putting the disciples in positions of great power, Jesus was going to die. That must have been a mind-blowing thing for the disciple to hear.

I wonder if one of the first thoughts to go through the disciples’ minds was Isaiah 55: “your ways are not my ways.” You got that right! I wonder if one of the first thoughts to go through the disciples’ minds was: “we’ve given up our occupations and our families and, well, EVERYTHING for three years, and instead of rewarding us with power and riches you’re just going to let the Romans kill and defeat YOU, too?” I wonder if one of the first thoughts to go through the disciples’ minds was: “If Jesus is going to let the Romans kill him, I’m out of here.” (PAUSE) We don’t know exactly what the disciples thought, but we do know what Peter said, and it was a logical culmination of all these thoughts: “NO WAY, Jesus!” Or, as Mark tells it, “Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him.” What that means is Peter took Jesus aside and Peter criticized Jesus for this new plan. Peter expressed “sharp disapproval.” Peter took Jesus aside and said, “No way! This can’t be the right ending to this story.”

Folks, it’s the third Sunday in lent, and our lectionary texts for this Lenten season call us to consider the ways in which we are tempted and how God works to get us through the temptation. And I hope you see what’s going on in our gospel reading in terms of temptation. It’s taken an awful lot of build-up to get to the point, but the POINT is that the disciples seem to have been tempted to want their OWN way instead of God’s way. They wanted Jesus to do a certain set of things – to provide a certain kind of future for them and for the world – that just wasn’t part of God’s plan for them or the world.

“Your ways are not my ways.”

You don’t ever find yourself tempted to get your way instead of looking to and going with God’s way do you?

  • When someone does something you don’t like and you have the option to seek some kind of revenge or maybe start spreading some gossip or rumors?
  • When you have to decide between buying something for yourself or giving some of your hard-earned money to God?
  • When you want things to stay the way they have always been or the way you have always envisioned them being into the future and someone comes along and makes the suggestion of change?
  • When a group, like say – oh maybe a congregation – has a decision to make and you want the decision to go YOUR way?
  • When someone really hurts you or members of your family and feels so much easier and maybe even better (in the moment, anyway) to hate than to forgive?
  • When you have to decide what to do with your time? Should you pray or watch television? Should you read scripture or go to the baseball game? Should you go to worship or read the newspaper? Should you go to Bible Study or relax at home? Should you go out and feed the hungry or go out to eat and feed yourself?

I know you’re not all going around with visions of being the greatest or sitting at Jesus’ right hand in a Jesus’ centered nation that will replace the United States of America as the most powerful nation on earth in your lifetime. So, in that way, you can’t fully relate to what was going on inside of Peter and the other disciples in our gospel reading. But you CAN relate to them. After all, their desires for their own way, their desires for their own vision of the future, TEMPTED them to MISS what God was actually trying to do. And so often, we MISS what God is trying to do.

Fortunately, God did provide some things to help the disciples in this time when they were tempted to choose their own way, and these things can help us, as well.

The first thing God provided was a rebuke to Peter from Jesus. We don’t always think of a rebuke – a criticism of our ways and desire; words of sharp disapproval – as a good thing. Certainly we wouldn’t think of it as a good thing if Jesus called us Satan! But it IS…it CAN BE…when it comes from God. When Jesus rebuked Peter, it helped Peter get back on the right track. It kind of snapped him out of the fog of his own ways. God provides rebukes for us, as well. Sometimes it’s through the urgings of the Holy Spirit, especially when we’re in prayer. And sometimes – and this is the way I most often hear rebukes from God – it’s from the words of scripture. When I read Jesus’ words like “don’t worry about tomorrow” or “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” or even “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” – when I read these words I hear a rebuke sometimes. I hear that I am being tempted toward something else…and these words bring me back to what God wants.

The second thing God provided was the specific words of his rebuke to Peter. During Lunch with Brad this past Monday, Pastor Melanie suggested we read these words, “Get behind me Satan” as a tool, a real set of words we can use when we are tempted. I agree completely. If you happen to read Jesus’ words from scripture and experience a rebuke from God or simply discover through the urgings of the Holy Spirit that you are being tempted, use these specific words Jesus offered. Tell the tempter to get behind you. Tell the tempter to get behind Jesus, and invite God’s protection from temptation. I have tried it before, and it really works.

The third thing God provided was God’s presence. Sometimes we pass over this because the gospels are all about Jesus. But when Peter was tempted; when the disciples were tempted; when members of the crowd were tempted; God was there with them through Emmanuel, through Jesus. And when we are tempted, we have the gift of God’s Holy Spirit, still with us. You really can go to the Spirit and ask for protection against temptation. You really CAN go to the Holy Spirit and ask for guidance.

And the final thing God provided back then and still today was Jesus’ words to the crowd. There’s a REASON Jesus spoke the words he spoke to the crowd right after this encounter with the disciples and Peter…Jesus spoke words that would be relevant to THATsituation and to ANY situation. I want to focus for a second on probably the most well-remembered of these words: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” I don’t know how you hear these words. Maybe you think Jesus is telling you that you must suffer for him in order to follow him. Maybe you hear that Jesus is telling you that you must die for him in order to follow him. Let me propose an alternative. For Jesus, the cross represented something he didn’t WANT to do, something he was TEMPTED to avoid, but that God wanted him to do. Remember his prayer in the garden: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” For Jesus, taking up our cross was about obedience. Jesus was reminding us that if we want to truly BE Christians, if THAT’s our identity, we must give up our will and instead seek and do God’s. When we do THAT, we will find real life.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.”

I suppose we could all lament that God’s ways are not our ways. After all, it feels like human nature to want our way, doesn’t it? But Jesus reminds us that something else is true. Life, real life, is found not in seeking our will but in seeking God’s will, God’s ways. And if God’s words through the prophet Isaiah are true, God’s ways – for the most part – will NOT be your ways, so you’re going to have to work with the tools God has provided to resist the temptation of your own way and instead give over to God’s ways. What’s it going to be? Will you try so hard to save your life that you will lose it, or are you willing to give up your way to God – to lose your life for Jesus’ sake – so you may gain REAL life? Amen.