May the grace, mercy and peace of God our Father be with us in the name of his son, our risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; Amen.
Last week we heard the story of Jesus asking his disciples who people say that he is and who they say that he is while they were in the area known as Caesarea-Philippi. Jesus warned them that he was going to be handed over to the religious authorities, killed, and on the third day be raised again. He told them that to follow him they must take up their cross and lose their lives. So it puzzles me why, after once more foretelling of his betrayal, death and resurrection, that we are told in verse 32 of our reading, “But they did not understand what he was saying and they were afraid to ask.” It could not have been too long since he already told them about his fate once. Sure, since that episode they witness the Transfiguration in the beginning of Mark 9, followed quickly by his teachings about the coming of Elijah, and in a dramatic scene he encounters a boy who is possessed by a spirit which the disciples try to drive out unsuccessfully; it convulses him into death until Jesus takes him by the hand and lifts him up to new life.
A lot has happened in a short time, and some pretty spectacular things, including Jesus shining whiter than anything anyone has ever witnessed in the presence of Moses and Elijah. I guess it is understandable why the disciples don't remember when Jesus first foretold his death and resurrection…or maybe even thought that he was mistaken in his prediction since they saw him transfigured and witnessed him raising a young man from the dead. Surely someone that great and godly would never be defeated, let alone killed, by the religious authorities of his day!
But the key to their silence, I think, is found in that same 32nd verse that I quoted before: “But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.” Fear is a powerful motivation. In Mark's Gospel fear stands as the opposite of faith, yet it is present with everyone Jesus comes across. When Jesus calms the storm he says to the disciples, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” When he raises Jairus' daughter he first says, “Do not fear; have faith.” For Jesus in Mark, faith does not equal an intellectual assent to ideas or articles that must be believed; faith is about guts and fortitude – about trusting deep within yourself that you are doing the right thing.
I suspect that there are a couple of reasons that Jesus' disciples are afraid to ask him questions. If they ask questions, they might be exposed as weak, unbelieving or even worse, not truly understanding what he is saying. We have heard presenters say it before, “There are no stupid questions!” And yet how many of us are afraid to ask something of someone for fear of looking stupid?!?
Besides that, the disciples may be afraid of the answer they might get. What if Jesus tells us one of those strange parables that confuse us, or even worse, what if he is perfectly clear about it and we don't like what he says….let's say it is something like, “the son of man will be betrayed into human hands, killed and after three days be raised from the dead.” Have you been afraid to ask questions because you are afraid of what the answer will be? Does the spouse not ask the other if they love them because they might get the answer, “no?” Do the parents not ask if the children have ever done drugs or had intercourse because they are afraid they will tell them, “Yes I have?” Is the woman afraid to have the mammogram because she is afraid of what will be found? Is the pastor afraid to ask tough questions of his congregation because he is afraid of the responses that might be given.
I will be honest with you – I am a person of faith, but I am also a person who lives in the midst of fears, both in my personal life and my professional, pastoral life. Chief among these, as I am sure it is for you, is the fear of death. I have faith that leads me to believe in my gut that death is not the final word, but it is the unknown that goes along with it that causes fear. My favorite quote to describe how I feel about this is by Woody Allen who said, “I am not afraid of my death; I just don't want to be there when it happens!” But it is not only the end of my physical life that is involved here – deaths of loved ones, relationships, the existence of this congregation – all of these and others are involved in my fear of death, loss, and failure.
I also have this fear of being exposed for not being the kind of perfect pastor, husband, father, friend, brother, etc. that I am supposed to be. I don't want you to know that I don't have all of the answers! I don't want my family to know that I sometimes put myself ahead of them…although they could probably tell you that themselves! Having our shortcomings exposed, that is what many people and I have as a fear.
What I am doing today with this message is what I think we all are called to do in our lives – lift up our fears to God. Own up to them, name them either out loud like I have done, or silently in prayer. We all have them – as I said before, fear and faith are at opposite ends of the Christian spectrum, but they are both present in all of us at once. But when we lift and name our fears before God, we entrust them into God's hands. We admit that we are powerless in the face of our fears, and we ask God to take them away, to plant within us the seeds of faith to take the place of these dark, debilitating fears.
I truly believe that when we do this – own up to the fears that we have, lift them to God and pray for God to create faith where those fears once resided – that we can indeed ask the questions, engage in the conversations and get active with the discipleship that Jesus is calling us all to as servants of God and children of God. I think that we will all agree that many times the questions I mentioned before between spouses, parents and children, and women and their mammography tech usually lead to healing, whether it be through honest conversation or medical or professional intervention on some level.
For the better part of the last 11 years as pastor here, I have been afraid of asking some questions of the leadership here – partly because of a prevailing attitude that I should know the answers, partly because of denial for what I think the answers to the questions will inevitably be. As I work with my pastoral ministry coach, I am moving beyond those fears into doing what it takes to try to get everyone thinking about the vision of our congregation's future. As a result, I recently sent the Long Range Planning committee a list of some questions for us to consider. The Long Range Planning committee is a real asset in this congregation that has been severely underused! It consists of the most recent six past presidents of our congregation and council. These are the folks who have been leading us; the ones who have been closest to the heart of the ministries here.
I have asked them questions about worship – such as, “Why do people come to worship? How often does the average person come per month? Should we have gone to one worship service per week, and if not, when and what kind of worship would we add – weekend? week day? evening? afternoon? With changes in staff, where do we see our music and educational ministries going? Is the fact that we have no debt a strength or a drawback? What are we most afraid of? I am looking forward to our next meeting, which is a week from tomorrow, to start to honestly and FAITHFULLY vision for our future – admittedly with some fear and trepidation, but always lifting those things to God, trusting that God will take them and plant faith where they once were.
Doesn't that sound like something exciting for our congregation? Doesn't that sound like something exciting your own family could do as you dream about where you will be in the next 5, 10, 20 or more years? I hope that you will join me in being honest with God about what you are afraid of – and sharing those things with someone close. Lift these things in prayer and allow God to plant faith. I also ask you to keep me in your prayers as well as the leaders of our congregation. Finally, if my questions have inspired some ideas for you, please call me, text me, email or message me to share your thoughts!
The good news today is that in the midst of our fears, Jesus is present to strengthen, guide and inspire us as students, employees, parents, children and disciples. May it be so, in the name of Christ our Lord! Amen.