Second Sunday in Lent 2018 — Preaching Notes
Intervention | REHAB WORSHIP SERIES
As we talked about last week, lots of times people do not go to rehab willingly. Although there are exceptions, most of the time intervention is required.
Perhaps, as in the case of my colleague, Taylor, intervention came in the form of a health crisis. Taylor had a heart attack. He was very fortunate that he sought medical attention. He was fortunate that the attack was not worse. He was fortunate that his wife knew his family history and intervened.
Intervention may come in the form of a relationship crisis or an act of tough love. A family decides they can no longer tolerate the drinking, or the gambling, or the hoarding. The person involved in the struggle is causing harm to the people he loves. Life has spun out of control so much that others are forced to confront the person about his or her problem.
Intervention may come as an unwanted surprise: your company downsizes, and you are forced to change jobs, or you become unemployed. A loved one is diagnosed with a major illness, and others have to adjust their lives in order to provide care. Retirement finally comes, but even a lifetime of working has not earned enough to provide full financial freedom. Your tour of duty comes to an end and you return home, not the same person as you were before because of what you experienced or witnessed.
In the case of the opioid crisis, part of the problem is that people don’t know what to do to intervene. Addiction to painkillers, be they prescription or street drugs, is physical. Most people struggling with this problem cannot simply choose to stop using. Stopping the drugs causes extreme physical illness. Other drugs are needed to get through the wilderness of opioid addiction. Maintenance medication may need to be part of the permanent solution. Because this particular crisis knows no social, cultural, or economic boundaries, many people who have a child or parent or grandparent who is addicted feel ashamed and isolated, and they may be reluctant to seek support from friends, neighbors, and brothers and sisters in Christ.
But then, nobody said it was going to be easy.
In this harsh exchange between Jesus and Peter, it’s almost as if Jesus is saying, “Dude, you need rehab!” This is an act of intervention, and it’s not pretty.
What had Peter done that required intervention?
In the verses that immediately precede Jesus’ rebuke of him, Peter has proclaimed his belief that Jesus is the promised Messiah, the one sent from God to save God’s people. Jesus then goes on to teach his disciples, and everyone present in the crowd, what this means.
It means he will die, and then three days later, God will raise him from the dead.
In other words, Jesus teaches that not only he, but anyone who wants to follow him, must understand where the path leads. It leads to and through sacrificial living. It leads to suffering. It leads to the cross. And let us be clear that Jesus isn’t the only one who will be required to make a sacrifice. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 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, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?” (Mark 8:35-37, NRSV).
Rehab is a journey into a very hard place. It is about taking up the cross. It is about denying yourself. It is about following a leader or a program or a Savior into the hard place of suffering, rejection, and even death. Rehab requires that we give up control for the time being and let someone else tell us what to do.
Intervention is a hard step for people to take. Jesus comes across here like a teacher humiliating a student. While Peter spoke privately to Jesus when he rebuked him, Jesus publically puts Peter behind him and speaks to the crowd, using him as his example. It’s humiliating.
Likewise, it may be publically humiliating to have to go to rehab. It may be hard to confess your sin and ask for help. It is humbling to admit that you can’t fix it on your own, that the disease or the evil has gained control over you, and that you need intervention to get out from underneath the weight of your problem. But no matter what difficulties we face, after taking the first step—admitting we have a problem—we have to take the second step of entering into a time of pain and suffering. The only way to survive is to take a deep breath, trust in the people who love us and in the healing power of grace, and walk bravely into the depths of despair, whatever it may be.
If we try to preserve ourselves, by ignoring or denying that we have a problem, be it with our heart, or with drugs, or with alcohol, or with sex, or food, or PTSD, or whatever it is from which we need to recover, then we risk death. We risk not just physical death, but spiritual death as well.
Being a follower of Jesus means that we bravely head into the storms that life sends our way. It means we walk into the suffering that life brings, not just to us, but to others. And if we aren’t following Jesus into the path that leads to suffering, then we are heading in the wrong direction.
Because being a Christian is not a magic pill that we can take in order to avoid the suffering that is part of life. Following Jesus is very hard sometimes. We might want to respond like Peter and deny that the way of Jesus is the way of arrest, the way of suffering, the way of rejection, and the way of death. That’s the reality of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, and none of us will survive if we don’t first take on the reality that’s where we are going.
The good news is that we know when we are in Christ, pain and suffering, evil and death, no longer have dominion over us. We know that on the other side of the pain and the suffering of rehab is the promise of resurrection. Jesus promises that when we willingly give up our lives, do whatever it takes, even suffer and die, it is through this path that we will find eternal healing and life everlasting.
The good news is that no matter how difficult the journey gets, we do not walk into our suffering and our pain alone. By the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ goes with us. The Spirit goes with us through the hands of doctors and nurses, physical therapists, psychologists, sponsors, and family and friends. Christ goes with us. He goes ahead of us, just as he went ahead of Peter. He leads the way through the storms and through the difficult nights. He leads us like a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of cloud by day. He leads us on paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. So, though we may walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we don’t have to fear evil, because God is with us. God’s rod and staff, they comfort us on the journey. Surely goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our lives, and we will dwell in the house of the Lord forevermore (Psalm 23, author’s paraphrase).
In the second semester of seminary, I was in a Greek exegesis class in which we translated and worked through the Gospel of Mark. One of my classmates chose to present one of his papers in the form of a rap––because it was a word study of the verb “epitimao” in Mark’s Gospel, a verb typically translated “rebuke,” but which we learned referred to a literal rap, a rabbi “rapping the knuckles” of a student who was either not paying attention or getting an answer totally wrong. “Rap, rap, rap… rap on the knuckles. Rap, rap, rap… epitimao!” My classmate got all of us rapping it with him, rapping our knuckles on our desks at each refrain.
We weren’t going to forget the meaning of that verb, any more than the disciples of a rabbi would forget the meaning — and feeling — of the rabbi’s rebuke.
Like a rap on the knuckles, a rebuke catches your attention. You can’t ignore it. And the pain of it tells you, immediately, that something is wrong, something needs your fullest attention. Now. Stop what you’re doing. Quit going the direction you’re going. Focus. Get realigned. Learn now what you thought you knew, but clearly didn’t. Start again.
In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus frequently rebukes demons, and occasionally rebukes some of his disciples, most notably Peter. But it’s the demons he rebukes first. And over and over again. He rebukes them and tells them to shut up. He rebukes them and casts them out. He has no patience for their completely distorted view of reality, or of him. So when Jesus turns and rebukes Peter (after Peter rebukes Jesus!), the effect within the gospel story may be startling at first. Is Peter a demon? No, but Peter’s thinking was demonic. The course he was taking opposite of the way of Jesus, whom he had just professed to be the Messiah of God. Totally wrongheaded. Rap! Rap! Rap! Stop right there. Learn this… this! Now, start again.
The Son of man must indeed suffer, be rejected, and be killed. And you, and we all, must deny ourselves, take up the crucifix (not flee it!), and follow where Jesus is leading—straight into suffering, rejection, and execution. This is the way to life. And it is the way of life of those whom Jesus trains to be his disciples.
This may be the hardest element of Lenten rehab. Everything in us personally, much within our culture (think, white flight and suburbs!), and even some of the theology we pick up from our churches, teaches us to fulfill ourselves, stay out of harm’s way, and escape rather than walk into and among folks who are suffering. But Jesus says head straight into all of that. Because that’s where he’s going. Because that is where God’s kingdom is most manifest.
And he’s going there not to help us escape it ourselves. But rather to show us the way, so we’ll keep going and show others the way.
“I been ’buked,” the old spiritual puts it. Yes, the world is good at “buking” those who follow the way of Jesus, or don’t fit into the way the world wants to force people to go. Expect to be “’buked” by the world.
But this Lent, and especially this week, hear Jesus ’buke you, then learn how not to be ’buked by him anymore.