Way back when I used to work in an auto shop in my hometown, we would have a handful of guys who would bounce from shop to shop, working a few months here, maybe a year or two there, but never anywhere too terribly long. There were different reasons they didn’t stay put. Some of them could just never catch on to the whole come-to-work-on-time idea. Some of them would work just enough to get caught up on whatever bills they had and then quit, believing they could skate by without working for a while. Some of them would drink, smoke, or fight too much, and then…well, there was Joey.

Joey’s problem was a bit more…let’s say, psychological. Joey came to work in the shop after I had been there for a while, but I knew Joey. I had seen him at other shops (even at a dealership once) when I was a parts runner; I knew he had a real nice, expensive toolbox he bought from the “tool truck” on credit, and he often needed help moving it from shop to shop. Joey had a reputation around the shops in town of being slow, which is not a desirable, nor profitable quality in a mechanic. He complained a lot, was less than reliable, but when help is hard to find, you’ll take whatever help you can get. So, Joey worked a few weeks with the rest of us in this little shop, where folks would bring their rusted out Oldsmobiles, their overloaded F-100s, their ragged out late-eighties Hondas, then he quit, which surprised, literally, no one. As he was pushing his tool box up the ramp of a borrowed trailer, we heard him yell at the shop manager, “I’m tired of getting my hands covered in grease having to work on all this old, nasty junk!”

I distinctly remember thinking, “What did you expect?! Folks aren’t rolling in here with their late-model Rolls-Royce or Mercedes – fresh from the car wash – needing windshield wipers replaced for a few hundred dollars! This is how we earn our living, getting our hands dirty, working on junk!” Joey’s primary problem was his expectations of what he thought he ought to be doing just didn’t line up with reality, a rather obvious reality to the rest of us, I suppose.

I suppose I shouldn’t be too hard on Joey, though. After all, don’t we all sometimes get our expectations out ahead of reality, even plain, clearly obvious reality? We can allow our expectations at times to even overshadow what matters the most. You know, I kind of think that’s what’s going on in our text today.

Mark tells us that Jesus “began to teach them that the Son of man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” Now, this isn’t Jesus teaching in parables. This message about suffering, rejection, death, and resurrection isn’t another riddle to leave his followers scratching their heads and asking, “What does this mean?” No, Mark says Jesus said all this quite openly, which is way different from what Mark says back in chapter 4, verse 34, where he tells us that Jesus “did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.” This sudden frankness on the part of Jesus signals a shift in the narrative, and what’s more, that shift comes with what is the first of three of Jesus’ predictions about his death. Jesus said all this quite openly – without sugar-coating, without flowery language, without parabolic twists, and without cloudy riddles. In other words, this is reality. This, in all of Jesus’ teachings, may just be what matters the most: “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”

But then there’s Peter. Peter’s expectations are different, and, if we’re honest, ours are too. Because, to tell the truth - to be really honest with you - I don’t really like what Jesus says. I don’t like this reality. No, I don’t want a savior, a Messiah, a God who suffers. The sort of savior I want is supposed to be on the other end of that suffering – on the giving end of it, causing suffering to evil-doers, reprobates, fornicators, sinners, all the others who reject him and his way, for their wickedness and insubordination. Isn’t that what a savior, a hero, a messiah, a Son of God does? A savior doesn’t get rejected and killed. Are you kidding me?! A savior doesn’t die. He saves! He saves the day, rides in on a white horse, with guns blazing, sword in hand, kicking tail and taking names! A savior doesn’t die, so it only goes without saying a savior who doesn’t die doesn’t resurrect. No, I want a savior who does away with suffering, a savior who saves me from the pain of rejection, a savior who has avoided death, so I can too!

Peter, in the words right before our passage this morning, identifies Jesus as the Messiah, but then, Jesus, as he so often does, shatters our self-centered ambitions and expectations with what he says in the text before us. “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected…killed, and after three days rise again.” It’s no wonder Peter tries to set him straight! Mark says, “Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.” Well of course he did! He just declared him the Messiah, the one they’d been waiting for, the one to deliver them from Roman oppression, the Promised One of God, and now – now he’s going to tell them he must suffer, be rejected, and die – he has to, like it’s necessary, like it’s part of what really matters in this whole wild way of God – that’s crazy! The disciples, they didn’t sign up for this! Of course, if I’m honest, I didn’t sign up for this either.

I was eighteen when I felt the waters of baptism wash over me. I had been going to church pretty regularly for a few months, listening to sermons about how much of an awful sinner I was, how hot hell was going to be for those folks who didn’t say “the sinner’s prayer” before they died. I had read the King James Bible the church gave me for high school graduation, tracks that illustrated what the “great white throne judgement” was going to be like, and most of the Left Behind books. I knew hell was a place I didn’t want to be, and heaven sounded pretty good (I mean, mansions, gold streets, crystal seas, all that…). Of course, for me, it was the love of God – a love that continues to shape me as I try to understand it, to embrace it, to enact it more each day – the love of a God who I was told loved me enough to rescue me from all of that literal damnation by sacrificing his son that sealed the deal. I was told all I would have to do is pray that “sinner’s prayer,” walk the aisle, tell the church, and get baptized, then I’d be set for heaven, no longer bound for the depths of hell. So, that’s what I did; that’s what I signed up for – get out of hell and into heaven. That’s the kind of Messiah I wanted, the kind that gets me out of hell and into the exclusive, eternal, exuberant home that is heaven.

Of course, Jesus (as he so often does) shattered my self-centered ambitions and expectations with…well, with the words he says in these verses to the crowd after calling Peter Satan for rebuking him. He said, “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.”

Wait! If I want to be a follower of Jesus, a Christian, I have to deny myself…lose my life? Does Jesus mean I’ll have to be willing to die? I thought I just had to agree to a few fundamental bullet points, pray this prayer about confessing my sins, repenting, and accepting Jesus into my heart. I thought I was supposed to get baptized (all the way under, you know, the right way), come to church most Sundays, read my Bible, drink sweet tea instead of Bud Light, and stay out of trouble. I thought all I had to do to be a Christian, to get into heaven, was simple, but now – now, Jesus tells me I have to deny myself, give up my life, all that I am, take up my cross – an instrument of death – a message that can be so troubling to folks (even and maybe especially religious folks) and follow him? Follow him…but, I’ve read the story; he’s not going to heaven – not yet. He’s going to die. I didn’t sign up for that. I signed up for the harp and a crown, the mansion over the hilltop, the sweet by and by, Beulah Land…not a cross…not death…not self-sacrifice.

Can I tell you something? It’s hard to sell that kind of gospel. Really. It’s hard to get folks to sign up to die, to give away what they have, to live their lives for others. It’s hard. It’s a whole lot easier to get folks to buy in if there’s something in it for them, some prize at the end, a reward that makes it all worth it. If you can tell them to be a good person, to love their neighbors because that’s how they’ll get jewels in their crowns in heaven, that’s how they’ll get the bigger mansion around the corner from Jesus. If you can tell them that God will bless them with material wealth here and now, that’ll get them to sign up. Promise them the world in return for their faithfulness, but what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?

Could it be that when we ask to have faith (religion, church, whatever you want to call it), when we seek to be so-called “good Christians” as a way to have more, to have a better life, that what we long for is more, what we long for is a better life, not God? Could it be that when our ultimate reason for following Jesus is to go to heaven, that what we long for is heaven and not Jesus? I know that’s a hard way to think about it. After all, I know you’re not out trying to gain the whole world. But, maybe, just maybe, you’ve got your eye on a little corner lot in heaven?

Jesus said, “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.” If a life full of good times, pleasure, and happiness is what you want, I pray you find it. If a mansion on a gold-paved street is what you want, I pray you get it. But if we want to follow Jesus, we must be ready to follow him down paths that lead in new directions, paths that may lead to suffering, roads that only bring rejection, and be ready to “walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” If we truly want to follow Jesus, then I pray we begin this day – that we all begin this day – to give up more and more of ourselves, to no longer see the world through limited lenses of self-preservation, and to take up our cross – deadly though it may be – and follow the One who calls us into the truest reality of life, a life lived for what matters most. Amen.

Let us pray.

Lord Jesus, you call us into a deeper reality, one that goes beyond our expectations. May we have strength and boldness to heed your call and to follow you. And it’s in your name we pray. Amen.