No Easy Answers (A sermon on Mark 8:27-38)

From the Book of Proverbs, chapter 1:

20 Wisdom calls aloud in the street,
she raises her voice in the public squares;
21 at the head of the noisy streets she cries out,
in the gateways of the city she makes her speech:

Oh, if only life were that straightforward!

Now I know it’s not a great way to start off a sermon – being critical of the Biblical text, but it has to be said that (at first reading at least) this text from the Book of Proverbs comes across as somewhat glib!

“Wisdom calls aloud in the street.” She’s there to be heard by anyone who cares to listen. Yes, there’s plenty of distracting noise floating around these streets but there she stands at the head of the street, right in the gateway of the city. You can’t miss her, and her voice is unmistakable.

“For the waywardness of the simple will kill them”, she warns us, “and the complacency of fools will destroy them, but whoever listens to me will live in safety and be at ease, without fear of harm.” (vss. 32-33)

Wisdom, as we see, is depicted as a woman who stands on the street corner, passing on the good word to anybody who will take the time to listen to her.

If you’re familiar with the broader Book of Proverbs, you’ll know that she is actually one of two women depicted, the other one being ‘the harlot’ who stands on the opposite corner to Wisdom, saying to the unwary, “no, no! Come to me!”

And this in itself is a strong indication of the nature of the book. It is a book of advice for men fundamentally, and for young men most specifically who are hoping to get a good job in the public service.

There is plenty of material in the Book of Proverbs that gives advice on how to build a strong reputation and how to climb the corporate ladder, and how to find yourself a good wife!  And there is wisdom in the book that’s applicable to girls as well.  Even so, in its original context Proverbs is fundamentally a father-to-son handbook. Mothers and daughters don’t really figure particularly highly in their own right.

I guess that is what we should expect. The book was produced in an ancient and undeniably patriarchal society, and many of us may feel that we have little to learn from societies like that. Even so, it is not the patriarchal nature of the book that bothers me quite frankly, but rather the black and white outlook that’s embodied by Wisdom. ‘Do the right thing’, she says, ‘and you will live in safety and be at ease, without fear of harm’ (vs.33). You’ll have plenty of money, a solid reputation, a beautiful wife and lots of lovely children who will sit around quietly, playing with their basket of happy puppies and making strawberry jam for orphans.

Now I’m sorry if I’m starting to sound a little cynical, but I think we’ve all known people like that – good-hearted, well-meaning, solid Christian people who live peaceful lives and have perfect children and who credit their good fortune to the fact that they don’t smoke, drink or chew or go with girls who do!

Are you ever burdened with a load of care?
Does the cross seem heavy you are called to bear?
Count your many blessings, every doubt will fly,
And you will keep singing as the days go by.

I’m sorry, but I hate that hymn. And it’s not because ‘counting your blessings’ isn’t a wonderful idea and very much worth doing, but as someone who has struggled with depression at different times of my life (as have many of you, no doubt) I can assure you (rather, we can assure you) that it’s not always that simple.

The author of Proverbs chapter one though seems to think it is that simple. You do the right thing and you get rewarded. You do the wrong thing and things go bad for you. And we all know how to deal with people who keep doing the wrong thing. That’s very simple too. You put them all in prison! (that will sort them out)

Now I’m not saying that every problem is insoluble, and indeed there are times when the answer is not finding an answer but rather having the will to carry it through!

I’ve had plenty of guys in the fight club who have bemoaned their poor performance. ‘Why don’t I get any better at this?’ they moan, and I tell them ‘It’s because you’re still smoking pot’!’

You don’t have to be a genius in such cases to work out where the problem is.  ‘Sorry mate, but at some point you’re going to have to make a choice between being an athlete and being a pot-head. You can’t be both!’

Sometimes things are equally straightforward at a global level too.

I grew up being told by many people that you couldn’t possibly give black people the vote in South Africa and that it was a far more complex situation than we simpletons on the other side of the globe could comprehend. And of course it was complex (and it is complex) but we all knew what had to be done, and the real issue wasn’t lack of knowledge as to what to do, but rather having the will to do it!

As you know, I feel exactly the same about Israel/Palestine. There are plenty of people who will say that it’s all too complex and try to obfuscate the way forward so that nobody can make any progress.

Sometimes things are simpler than we make out to be, but a lot of the time (perhaps most of the time) the opposite is true. Things are not simple. There are no easy answers. The old truisms just don’t hold true!

Whenever someone’s child dies there’s always some well-meaning friend or relative who can’t wait to help mum or dad see God’s good plan in it all. In truth, now is not their time!

Whenever some young person is struggling with depression or struggling with sexual identity issues, there’s always some wise uncle who wants to read his story into the situation, believing that everybody else’s struggles are just a slight variation on his. He is not the person we need.

Whenever relationships are breaking down there are always multiple well-wishers who are keen to pass on their tried and true methods for re-invigorating your love-life, but sometimes relationships just cannot be saved!

As I push on in life I find myself increasingly taking issue with Wisdom who stands at the street corner, offering me straightforward answers to complex problems.  And as I push my way through the Bible I find that the Scriptures themselves take issue with Wisdom, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the Gospel reading we had today from Mark chapter 8, where Jesus talks about what it means to be God’s Messiah.

You are familiar with the scene, I am sure. Jesus has been asking his disciples what the crowds are saying about him.

“Some say [you are] John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets”, they reply. “But what about you?”, Jesus asks. “Who do you say I am?” And Peter answers, “You are the Christ.” (Mark 8:28-29)

And it’s a very intense and significant moment in the relationship between Peter and Jesus and, by extension, between Jesus and all His disciples, as it seems that here at last Jesus’ secret identity (so to speak) is going to be revealed, and the team is finally going to get some clarity over exactly what Jesus is on about.

And it’s hard to know exactly what Peter meant by the term ‘Christ’ when he used it of Jesus (or its Hebrew equivalent ‘Messiah’ if, in fact, he used that) but it is clear that Peter here has recognised Jesus as the key player in the divine drama.

Jesus is not someone who has simply come to play a minor part in some first century soap opera. He is the lead role in God’s great production that spans the entirety of human history! And Peter sees this, and he thinks he understands it, and no doubt to some extent Peter did understand it, but as Jesus goes on and speaks to Peter and the other disciples, it becomes increasingly clear that they are not on the same page!

31 [Jesus] then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. 32 He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.”

And it’s hard to blame Peter. He doesn’t just have in mind the ‘things of men’. He has been tutored in the things of wise men!

Peter believes that if you are God’s chosen one, living under God’s favour, and embodying something of the power and splendour and holiness of the Almighty then it is likely that life is going to go pretty smoothly for you! It makes sense!

If you live a life of sinless integrity, doing what is wise, and abiding constantly in the will of the Almighty then, at the very least, you would expect to ‘live in safety and be at ease, without fear of harm’. (Proverbs 1:33)

And yet Jesus, who accepts the title of ‘Christ’, defines it for Peter and the other disciples in terms of suffering and rejection and death, and we can appreciate, surely, that the whole thing just doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense!

If you do the right thing you get rewarded by God, not crucified! It’s the person who is foolish and who does the wrong thing that runs the risk of capital punishment!  That’s the way God made the world to work. If in doubt, just read the Book of Proverbs!

We forget the scandal of the cross of course. We forget just how offensive is the idea that the Christ of God could somehow be tortured to death!

Lenny Bruce used to say that if Jesus had been alive in the 20th century we’d all be wearing electric chairs around our necks, or if he’d been born a century before that we might all be wearing little guillotines!  In truth, the cross is a macabre image, despite the fact that it has been so consistently and so ornately gilded.

Martin Luther was another one who recognised clearly the obscenity of the cross:

“Because men do not know the cross and hate it, they necessarily love the opposite, namely, wisdom, glory, power, and so on … Now it is not sufficient for anyone, and it does him no good to recognize God in his glory and majesty, unless he recognises him in the humility and shame of the cross.” (Luther, Heidelberg Disputation. 22, 20)

For in truth, when we think of God and suffering we like to think of a god who will lift us out of our suffering, not of a god who is trapped in it with the rest of us!

It doesn’t make a lot of sense. It doesn’t fit the traditional paradigms. It’s not something that can be contained by traditional wisdom!

Of course the critique of proverbial wisdom within the Bible itself started a long time before we reach the New Testament.

Those who are familiar with the Book of Job will recognise the central refrain of chapter 28: ‘Where is Wisdom to be found?’

“But from where will wisdom be found?
And where in the world is the place of understanding?
A human being does not know its proper value,
and it is not found in the land of the living.
The deep says, ‘It is not in me,’
and the sea says, ‘It is not with me.”
(Job 28:12-14)

In sharp contrast to the proverb-writer who sees Wisdom clearly standing at the street corner, Job speaks out of the agony of his own suffering and cries out on behalf of the suffering poor around the world: ‘where is this blessed wisdom? I cannot find it!’

Those who are familiar with the Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes will know that the question is taken up again there too. The author of Ecclesiastes says, ‘I found wisdom, and you can keep it! It didn’t do me any good!’

That’s a rather crude paraphrase, of course, but I won’t go into that right now in any more detail. The point is simply that the critique of proverbial wisdom is something that takes place within the Scriptures themselves, and it does seem to evolve, just as we persons of faith evolve as we get older, discovering that the more we go on, the more we realise we don’t know.

But this movement culminates in the cross – the ultimate gift of God and the ultimate absurdity! God suffers and dies for us in Jesus. He enters our pain. He shares it with us. He meets us in the vortex of our suffering. He survives it. He forgives it. How crazy is that!

To quote St. Paul: 18 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the intelligence of the intelligent I will confound.” 20 Where is the wise person? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through its wisdom did not know God, God was pleased through the foolishness of preaching to save those who believe. 22 For indeed, Jews ask for sign miracles and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a cause for stumbling, but to the Gentiles foolishness, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. (1 Corinthians 1:18-25)

Friends, there are so many things in life that we do not understand, and there are so many things that we will never understand. As I like to say, ‘every complex problem always has a simple answer and it’s always the wrong answer’.

Yes, there are some issue that can be dealt with in a straightforward proverbial sort of way, but there are other cases where the problems are so great and the pain is so deep that we can never hope to truly understand.

But what we do need to discover, and what Peter discovered, is that Jesus is the Christ, the Holy One of God, and that even if we’re not quite sure what that means, and even if we’re not quite clear as to what He’s up to, and even if we don’t understand why it is that He wants to drag us into places where we don’t want to be, yet we know that He can be trusted.

You are the Christ – the Son of the Living God! Take me! I am yours!

First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill on September 16, 2012.

Rev. David B. Smith

Parish priest, community worker,
martial arts master, pro boxer,
author, father of four.

About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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2 Responses to No Easy Answers (A sermon on Mark 8:27-38)

  1. Pingback: Monday Missive – September 17th, 2012 | Father Dave's Monday Missive

  2. Arlene Adamo says:

    True wisdom is a spiritual place…a ‘dom’ = domain. From this angle Proverbs Wisdom calls out the same warning that Jesus did.

    The part that can distract from the true meaning of Proverbs is the use of Middle Eastern madonna/whore imagery. (Although the Catholics perfected it, the Middle Easterners invented it.) This archaic social standard does detract from the full depth of the message.

    Wisdom says, “How long will you who are simple love your simple ways?” Wisdom is very complex…not a guide to the universe for dummies…not a simple list of rules to be followed. If this were true, Jesus would have left us with a rule book, instead of having us flounder over the meaning of His few words that managed to survive through the ages. Wisdom is a journey within. It is far too complex to be a subject that can be studied.

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