"You're Out of Control!" – Mark 8:31-38
“He then began explaining things to them: “It is necessary that the Son of Man proceed to an ordeal of suffering, be tried and found guilty by the elders, high priests, and religion scholars, be killed, and after three days rise up alive.” He said this simply and clearly so they couldn’t miss it.
But Peter grabbed him in protest. Turning and seeing his disciples wavering, wondering what to believe, Jesus confronted Peter. “Peter, get out of my way! Satan, get lost! You have no idea how God works.”
Calling the crowd to join his disciples, he said, “Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to saving yourself, your true self. What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you? What could you ever trade your soul for?
“If any of you are embarrassed over me and the way I’m leading you when you get around your fickle and unfocused friends, know that you’ll be an even greater embarrassment to the Son of Man when he arrives in all the splendor of God, his Father, with an army of the holy angels.”
Excerpt From: Eugene H. Peterson. “The Message of Easter.”
My best friend in high school was my partner for the in-car portion of our driver’s ed. class. So, for three Saturday mornings in high school, we jumped into a small red sedan with a “student driver” sign perched atop–warning the world to steer as clear as possible from the vehicle of destruction piloted by pimply teens and their hostage (I mean, instructor).
My buddy and I had the uncanny ability to make each other laugh, usually by doing nothing more than quoting lines from dumb movies. So that’s what we did those mornings in the car. One of us drove and the other sat in the back and tried to make the driver laugh. The instructor spent the time alternating between begging us to shut up and yelling at us to keep both hands on the wheel.
The last day of car time, the driver’s ed. instructor asked me to drive the 20 miles to the big city of Defiance, Ohio. Now, the thing about this big city, compared with the little village where we were from, was the number of stoplights: my hometown had three, Defiance had about a hundred more; so I didn’t have much practice with them. As I approached one of the many stoplight-guided intersections that day, no doubt laughing at something my friend had just told me, I noticed the yellow light and I sped up to make it through the intersection. But the light turned red a second before I got there, and before I knew what was happening, the car screeched to an abrupt stop in the middle of the intersection. We had not been in an accident and no one was hurt; rather, the instructor had slammed down on the brake pedal that was located at her feet on the passenger side of the car.
I remember just how incredibly jarring it felt to be in control of the car and then suddenly have no power over it. It’s quite similar to how it has occasionally felt driving in the snow this winter. I think I’m in control and then all the sudden I’m going in a direction I didn’t ask the car to go. These experiences of not being in control are frightening, confusing, and embarrassing.
Literally and figuratively, it feels like we don’t always know who’s driving the car. Which is why I appreciate this modern translation of of today’s gospel where Jesus announces to the crowd,“You’re not in the driver’s seat. I am.”
This may not strike many of us as good news. After all, we spend so much of our time and energy convincing ourselves we are in control of the vehicle of our life.
There are shelves of self-help books devoted to the idea of taking control of your life. They encourage assertiveness, demanding what you are due, and not allowing yourself to be a victim of other peoples’ successes and failures. It’s an attractive message to offer someone who feels beholden to and betrayed by the breezes of life.
A problem, however, is that our lives are not in our control. We can predict the events and outcomes of our lives tomorrow about as correctly as we can predict the weather. Or, more accurately, we can control the events and outcomes of our lives tomorrow about as well as we can control the weather. So why do we spend so much time and energy trying to convince ourselves that we could be in control, that we should be in the driver’s seat?
This is likely what motivates Jesus’ comment, “Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to saving yourself, your true self;” which is a modern translation of, “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.”
What we have here is Jesus presenting us with layer upon layer of what sounds like bad news. First he announces that he will endure suffering leading to death, then he admits those who follow him follow him into suffering and death as well. He pleads for the crowds to embrace their suffering and live sacrificially. And he concludes with the warning that anyone who is ashamed or embarrassed to follow Jesus on this path will find God ashamed and embarrassed of them.
This is the first any of Jesus’ disciples are hearing about this. Up to this point they’ve been quite impressed with Jesus and his ability to heal, teach, walk on water, still a storm, and feed the multitudes. The disciples are thinking they’ve done well to hitch their wagons to Jesus’ star. Victory over their oppressors looks imminent. And as Christ’s inner circle, they assume they are set up for life. But then Jesus sets ‘em straight and bums ‘em out.
I’m inclined to think that if I had written Mark’s gospel I would have left that little episode out of the book. But it’s there, right in the middle of a book called a gospel (or “good news”).
So, why is it good news that this Jesus who embraces suffering and sacrifice is in the driver’s seat? Probably because if Jesus is in the driver’s seat, that means I’m not. And that’s a good thing.
Left to my own devices, I don’t live sacrificially. I don’t put others needs first. I wouldn’t seek out suffering, and yes, I would be embarrassed of a God who would demand anything different from me.
We have much to learn from Jesus – the one who came not to be served but to serve. We have much to emulate from Jesus – the one who chooses self-sacrifice over self-help. But that’s not the good news. The good news, is the truth that the one who came to serve and sacrifice did so for all of us who would strive above all things to be prosperous, strong, successful and influential. We are recipients and heirs of an unearned grace. The good news is that Jesus is in the driver’s seat.
I’ve had several conversations with people who tell me when they look at the world and see the suffering, pain, and injustice in the world they doubt whether a good God is actually in control. I’ve had the same thoughts myself, to be honest. But is the suffering, pain, and injustice in the world proof that God isn’t in control, or is it proof of how much damage we can cause when we pretend that we are in control?
The lie that American Christianity believes is that God promises an easy, carefree life where everyone respects us, admires us, and trusts us to lead the world into the promised land.
The truth that American Christianity doesn’t want to hear is that “to follow Jesus is to live lives of service to others, to serve rather than to control and dominate. It means the opposite of being proud of station and status for ourselves at the expense of others.”
What would it look like for American Christians to admit we’re not in control, and that that’s a good thing? What would be possible if American Christians left our blind ambition and arrogance at the foot of the cross? What kind of relationships would be possible if American Christians truly believed we had something to learn from people who are different from us. Where might God lead us once we took our foot off the wheel?
1. Michael Rogness, Working Preacher commentary on Mark 8: 31-38 (http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2316)