Sermon: Pentecost 12 / Proper 17 – “Scapegoat or Cross?”

cross11It has been over twenty years since the study came out, but I suspect things have not improved. They question being asked: What are you willing to do for $10,000,000? Two-thirds of Americans polled would agree to at least one, some to several of the following:

Would abandon their entire family (25%)
Would abandon their church (25%)
Would become prostitutes for a week or more (23%)
Would give up their American citizenships (16%)
Would leave their spouses (16%)
Would withhold testimony and let a murderer go free (10%)
Would kill a stranger (7%)
Would put their children up for adoption (3%)

Do you remember the temptation in the wilderness after Jesus’ baptism? Satan comes to him with three temptations. First he says, turn this stone into bread. Jesus responds, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God.'” Second, taking him to a high mountain, Satan showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and said, “If You will worship before me, all will be Yours.” Response: “Get behind Me, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only you shall serve.’” The the devil then brought Him to Jerusalem, set Him on the pinnacle of the temple and said, throw Yourself down, you won’t be hurt. A third time Jesus rebukes him, “It has been said, ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God.’” Scripture then says, “when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from Him until an opportune time.”

Fast forward to last Sunday’s Gospel, Matthew 16:16, Peter declares to Jesus, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” Everybody responds, “Hoorah!”

But now today, only seven verses later, Jesus spins around on Peter and says, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Jesus has spoken the exact same words to Peter as he did to the devil, “Get behind me, Satan.” What in the world has happened? What has Peter done?

Bottom line: someone offered Peter the $10 million jackpot and when Jesus said he was going to die, Peter saw it all disappearing. As we have said before, Peter and the gang thought that Jesus was going to be that earthly king who would establish God’s kingdom on earth, but when Jesus predicts his death that dream vanishes. Peter misunderstood Jesus’ purpose and in the process, instead of wanting to be a follower of Jesus, Peter sets himself up as a leader of Jesus. He, Peter, knew what was the best thing for God to do and he was going to make sure that God did it. Nice try. The devil tried to do this to Jesus in the wilderness, Peter makes an attempt here, and I would wager good money that everyone since then, including all of you in this room have also tried this with Jesus. I haven’t but I know all of you have.

A disciple is one who follows, but you and I quite often want to be the leader. Jesus’ response? Same one he gave to the devil and to Peter, “Get behind me. Get back in line where you belong.”

After this rather sharp rebuke of Peter, Jesus seems to change subjects on us and begins to speak about discipleship, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” We consider that cross that Jesus is speaking of to be the burdens and sins of our lives that we must carry. “Oh,” we say, “its just my cross to bear.” We load that cross up with all the troubles of our lives and carry it – often grudgingly – down the road of our existence. What if I told you that we are doing it wrong? That we are putting the wrong thing on that cross?

In the time they were still making sacrifices at the Temple, there was an interesting ritual that involved two goats. Having the two goats the priest would cast lots for which of the goats would be offered up to the Lord as a sin offering to cleanse the people. Then the priest would lay hands on the second goat to transfer all the sin to the poor animal, which was then released into the wilderness. Originally it was thought the goat was a symbol of the banishment of the sin, but more accurate translations have shown that the goat was being sent out into the wilderness to be meet its fate with Azazel, an angry demon. The people transferred all their burdens and sins onto this goat and then sent it off to be devoured by a demon. What do we call the goat today? The Scapegoat.

We are called to be disciples, followers of Christ. As such, we are called to bear our cross, yet we make that cross into some glorified scapegoat. We load it up with all the worries of this world and solemnly go trudging down the road. But here is the truth about that cross you carry: it’s not for you to load up with your burdens and sins. That cross is for you. Its for you. St. Paul writes, “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.” Not just our burdens. Not just our sins. “I am crucified…” and that “I” encompasses our entire being.

Does that make for a heavy cross? More than any of us can bear, but there is a consolation. Hans Urs von Balthasar, a Roman Catholic theologian, wrote the following with regards to the priesthood, “the weight of pastoral Office becomes heavier than any man even in official position can bear. Therefore it is no longer the man who bears the cross, but the cross which bears the man.” I believe this is true, not only for the priest, but for all of us.

The true cross that you bear is heavier than any of us can carry. I may have told you this before, but many say, “God won’t give you more than can bear, than you can handle.” We quote that like it was scripture. News flash: Its not! Nowhere does God ever promise that except with regard to temptation. Even Paul says, “We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life.” Even though its not biblical, I still don’t believe that the Lord will load us up with more than we can bear, but I guarantee you that the world and the devil are more than happy to do so. And so, it is at times like these when we no longer bear our cross, but our cross – the ultimate symbol of God’s grace – bears us.

“Why, then, do you fear to take up the cross when through it you can win a kingdom? In the cross is salvation, in the cross is life, in the cross is protection from enemies, in the cross is infusion of heavenly sweetness, in the cross is strength of mind, in the cross is joy of spirit, in the cross is highest virtue, in the cross is perfect holiness. There is no salvation of soul nor hope of everlasting life but in the cross.”

Thomas a Kempis understood the joy and love of bearing the cross. In the cross – our cross – is life, which can come only from God.

The rebuke of Peter is Christ’s way of telling us all that we must be followers and imitators of him. $10,000,000 might buy you a lifetime of fun, but it will not win for you a single moment of joy in the Kingdom of Heaven. Take up your cross and follow Jesus, be crucified with Him, and discover life to its fullest.

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