We now come to a major transitional section in the middle of the Gospel of Mark. The threefold passion prediction of Jesus, today, next week in chapter nine, and again in chapter ten, provides the steady rhythm line. Jesus activity in Galilee—his rapid fire activity in chapter one, his healings and teachings, on two sides of the Sea of Galilee and beginning to broaden out into gentile regions, his being dogged by Jewish officials come up from Jerusalem—all this is giving way now, driven by his announcement openly that he is to go up to Jerusalem and, as he tells his disciples three times, there be beaten, killed and on the third day be raised. Openly, plainly, boldly.
This openness and boldness on his side is however not reciprocated and is even rebuffed, today by Peter, and later with fear of further asking; and silence.
It has been noted that the entire section we are entering, running to the end of chapter ten and the actual events of Passover and death here being foretold—which unfold in the Gospel’s final 4 chapters—are framed by two healing stories, both of them involving blindness. This is a fitting frame. The disciples will struggle to understand, like the man who, at Jesus’ touch, first sees only people who like trees and, with a second laying on of hands, sees things clearly. The gentile mission has continued with the feeding of the four thousand, which is the final episode preceding this frame.
Jesus announces his time has come. The son of man will be delivered up – a theme rooted in Daniel and Isaiah and in its own way in the Psalms and other Prophets – and by this means the struggle with demonic forces will end in victory. Not avoiding death but meeting it head on, bearing its assaults, conquering it. The new exodus to the promised land, mapped out by Isaiah, via this judgment, entails all of Israel, the holy ones who follow in his wake, and it will affect all creation, as Isaiah and Daniel had made clear.
But this path was not the one Peter or the disciples had foremost in their minds or had yet contemplated with eyes fully cleared, for a horrible death as a means of salvation comes naturally to no one, even with the aid of the scriptures. And nothing in the first half of the Gospel had prepared them for this: this juxtaposition of divine insight into who Jesus is, given all he has done, “you are God’s anointed one” Peter declares; followed by the immediate declaration of his coming mistreatment and death. All but obliterating the final triumphant “and rise on the third day” – an incomprehensible adjustment of hopes associated with the final judgment to be wrought at the coming of God’s anointed, moved instead into the middle of time, and placing them behind the one who would accomplish this and also demand their own following cross. Their sight, such as it is, is like seeing trees instead of men, even as they do follow, as we shall see.
Jesus is heading into Gentile territory again, toward the villages of the Caesarea which lies north of Galilee. In response to his question about how they hear the crowds wrestling with just who he is, given all his dramatic and successful work on their behalf, the answers rising up have all to do with a powerful OT saint alive and at work in him. (The Transfiguration account repeats this idea in its own way; Herod had also worried about John raised in Jesus). Jesus belongs to a category that has to do with more than meets the eye in just this human frame. Inspired beyond his human frame, Peter answers the question, “you are the Christ.” Jesus’ vehement admonition to tell no one anything is surely linked to the term “Christ” – a term requiring careful and difficult calibration if Christ is properly to be understood as this man Jesus standing before them and speaking of his destiny. Peter’s rebuke of Jesus makes it clear that for him it is a satanically inspired mis-calibration. We have seen this misstep before. Jesus rounds on Peter and makes it clear his announcement of his identity and mission are divine; Peter’s bold rebuttal is satanic.
Jesus’ words are then to the disciples and crowds both. Is there any way to get and then give something that would have the value of one’s own life, and capable of redeeming it from death? The answer is obvious enough, No. But deep inside Jesus’ rebuke to the Peter and the disciples lies an answer difficult to see and accept. His cross does have that power. His cross is the only thing given capable of gaining our life. Losing our life into that life and death is the means by which God is redeeming the world and giving us new life, eternal life.
The servant of Isaiah had mapped this all out in the providence of God’s actions in Israel, though the road there is also obscure and hard to follow. The lone servant is the embodiment of faithful Israel. The servant is beaten and afflicted, yet stands fast in faith. The servant dies and by that means recognition comes to the nations of the earth, and Israel confesses it was a death capable of bearing sins and bringing new life for generations to come. “The Lord God helps me, therefore I have not been disgraced. It is the Lord God who helps me.” The servant walks his path and prepares it for the one to come in the fullness of time.
And this is no isolated walk, but one the psalmist declares in his own manner. The cords of death and grip of the grave are overcome by the God who hears the cries of the faithful. The path Jesus lays out and declares we are to follow him in, is a path of victory through death and sin, fragile and short-sighted though we be. The psalmist tells us our destiny in him, and also our confidence in spite of all we can see now but dimly. “You have rescued my life from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling” following in Jesus strong steps.
The Track One reading is taken from the opening chapter of Proverbs. Wisdom speaks in personified form in Proverbs and is introduced in that role in the very start of the collection. Wisdom is the teacher who sets out the way of wisdom and warns of the dangers of following an easier, seductive, yet ultimately foolish way. “Those who listen to me will be secure” is also the counsel of Jesus Christ, the wisdom of God, prefigured here in Proverbs. The disciples and all followers must take up their cross and walk in his way, his path, even as it seems hard. The way of the world does not offer the ability to save one’s life, and striving along that path paradoxically ends in loss, as Ecclesiastes reminds us in his wisdom. But the wisdom of the cross is greater than all human wisdom, and this is the path in which the wise find life. The psalmist describes this in terms of God’s law, written into creation itself, declaring his glory by doing his bidding unceasingly and effortlessly. Without speech or language yet communicating God’s glory through obedience to his created wisdom. Law derives from this same wisdom, and it is to be desired more than gold. Peter and the disciples and all who follow Jesus must pray to be delivered from presumptuous sins, and must be given clean hearts by God in Christ.
“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer” is justly the prayer of the Christian preacher, that she might open her mouth in wisdom, cleansed by God’s word.
Which brings us properly into the range of James chapter 3, our Epistle reading for today. False speaking, preemptory rebuking, path walking as the simple, orienting ourselves outside of God’s wisdom and God’s law – all of these arise naturally in us, and need no encouragement. They are defaults.
James uses the example of the tongue, which though small, steers like the tiny rudder on a mighty ship, and boasts of this great exploit. Taming this organ is harder than any taming known to man in the world of fierce and powerful animals. The challenge is clear. But the gift of correction and rebuke and proper following is before us in the Gospel, behind the Lord Christ who shows the way to life through his death, and who grants us the wisdom of the law written now in our hearts by his hand. His tongue the tongue of the servant, the tongue of wisdom, taught anew morning by morning, and ready to guide our ship along its way.