Day Eighteen: Where Loyalty May Lead Us

Psalm 125
Malachi 3:16-4:6
Mark 9:9-13

Our readings from Malachi and Mark today both make mention again of the prophet Elijah:

  1. Malachi, in preparing the people for the Day of Judgement in which all evil will be destroyed while the faithful enjoy the warm sunshine of God’s deliverance,  refers to a powerful prophet (Elijah) who will come to call future generations to love and respect one another in accordance with the laws and decrees given to the nation of Israel by Moses so many years ago;
  2. while Jesus, in coming down the mountain from a miraculous moment of affirmation and transfiguration, explains to his bewildered disciples that John the Baptist had already done Elijah’s job of heralding the Messiah … and suffered for it –
    “But I tell you, Elijah has come, and they have done to him everything they wished, just as it is written about him,” (Mark 9:13).

Elijah …

… on the one hand, a powerful prophet who defied kings and foreign gods, who walked closely with God, and who was taken up into heaven …

… on the other hand, a man always on the run, reliant on God’s divine provision for water and for food in a prolonged time of scarcity and struggle; discouraged, exhausted, wanting to die ….

John the Baptist: the messenger who would prepare the way for the Lord in the spirit and the strength of Elijah (Luke 1:17), promised to be a blessing to his parents and a source of joy to many; arrested, imprisoned, beheaded for speaking truth and holding on to what was right (Matthew 14:10) ….

There are definite benefits to having our names recorded on Malachi’s scroll of remembrance as one of God’s faithful followers:
eternal life with God,
victory over sin and death,
God’s protection and provision,
the Holy Spirit as our constant companion,
true and lasting transformation – from the inside out,
a sense of purpose and significance etc.

But the choice of a Christian life and a lasting legacy is not without cost!

Just ask the bearers of the good news like Elijah and John, or the martyrs of the early church; or reflect for a moment on the piercing question that Jesus asks,

“Why then is it written that the Son of Man must suffer much and be rejected?” Mark 9:12

To share in the exaltation of Christ is to share in his suffering;
to share in his resurrection is to willingly enter into the place of death and emerge as a new creation;
to share in his message of all-embracing love is to open ourselves up to the probability of mockery, rejection, and persecution.

Today’s response is based on a poem by Herbert Brokering and Scott Noon about a people who were longing to be new and in tune with their souls so, at least once a year, they would lie down on the ground, curled up and small, and picture themselves returning to the centre of all that is God’s.

As we enter the song of the Spirit, we are challenged to do so knowing that the life we will lead will not always be an easy one; that we are, in fact, opening ourselves up to the possibility of brokenness and pain, as Christ did for our sake.

Today, I invite you to curl up on the floor in a little ball, to lie quite still, and then – as you offer to God your worries, your objections, your doubts, your questions, your surrender, your prayers for protection and guidance – to allow God to “unfurl” you into the promise and power of rebirth, of new life.       

Costly choices

A reflection based on “beyond the lectionary” readings:

The decision to follow Jesus is one often made in response to a moving, tangible experience of God’s grace – without too much thought or concern about what may follow; but, if taken seriously, it is a choice that has serious and abiding implications, and sometimes complications, for our lives.

For me, the crucial moment came one Sunday during a youth church meeting. As I watched the crucifixion of Christ being dramatised, I was struck by the enormous realisation of what God’s love for me had cost Jesus as he suffered upon the cross, and I knew that I wanted to return such love with reverence and devotion.

Truthfully though, since making that heartfelt commitment to follow Jesus at the age of thirteen, there have been plenty of painful moments in my walk with God that have made me wonder: if I had known then of the valleys of dryness, of darkness, of death through which Christ would lead me, would I have made the same choice?

I certainly have not regularly responded with the humility and obedience of Job who, after losing all that he valued most – his security, his livelihood, his family – fell to the ground in worship and proclaimed:

Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
    naked I’ll return to the womb of the earth.
God gives, God takes.
    God’s name be ever blessed.

Job 1:21-22 (The Message)

Job’s story is a constant reminder that it is easy to love God and to shun evil when all is right in the world, when we seem to be living the abundant life that Scripture promises, when the Good Shepherd leads us into green pastures and beside still waters instead of into the places of desolation and despair.

This is the very charge that Satan levelled against God; the accusation with which he mocks us this day: it is so simple, so natural to say that you love God when you’re hemmed in, protected; when the works of your hands are blessed and you lack nothing. But when things get tough, when you’ve sustained a great loss, when you don’t know how you’re going to make ends meet, you’ll turn your back on your beliefs and curse the One you claimed to love.

Jesus too, in our Gospel reading, criticises the crowd who follows him – an audience made up of those who have heard his testimony and believed that he is, indeed, the light of the world who they should follow in order to claim eternal life.

Yet even as they profess their faith in him, Jesus sees within their hearts the desire to continue living exactly as they had before. They want the benefits, the blessings, of the light of life without having to hold onto Jesus’ teachings and give up their sins or their spiritual pride. As descendants of Abraham they should be capable of great faith and obedience to God, yet ultimately they have no room for God’s word in their lives and may well end up as part of the crowd who shouts “Crucify him! Crucify him!”

In Paul’s second letter to the community in Corinth, we see a similar inconsistency between belief and action: Paul has been trying to collect money to support those Jews in Jerusalem who have been disowned by their families because of their conversion to Christianity but the Corinthians have been slow to see this matter as any concern of theirs and have not contributed meaningfully to the call.

Paul urges them to express their faith as generously as the Macedonian Christians who, in spite of a time of great trial and persecution, had exceeded all expectations and given beyond their capability because they so greatly desired to share in what it cost others to follow Christ.

Mary Flannery O’ Connor, a North American novelist, wrote:

What people don’t realise is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross.

Each one of these passages urges us today to count the cost and still choose the cross:

  • If life has been so easy for such a long time that you find yourself merely going through the motions of faith because you think that you’re actually the one who has everything under control – choose the cross.
  • If you made a commitment to God so many years ago that you’ve forgotten the reasons behind it or the devotion that you once felt – choose the cross.
  • If things are such a broken mess; so painful, so chaotic that you’re questioning whether God ever loved you – choose the cross.
  • If you’ve lost everything – home, family, employment, faith – choose the cross.

Choose the cross not because of what you might gain – future blessings or eternal life or a fresh chance to start again with all your sins washed away.

Choose the cross because God chose you and has never forgotten, never forsaken, never been unfaithful to his promises and his plans.

Choose the cross knowing full well that it comes with a cost.

For Job, the cost was being willing to hold onto God’s faithfulness even in the midst of unimaginable anguish; to declare God’s praises and God’s presence even when others suggested that God had abandoned him or was punishing him.

For Jesus, the cost of true discipleship is allowing God’s Word to take such firm root in our lives that it displaces the shame, the pride, the lust, the anger, the greed, the laziness, the hatred – all the sin in which we have indulged and to which we have been enslaved for so long.

For Paul, the cost of the cross is intentionally taking upon ourselves and sharing in the burdens of someone else – though we may have trouble enough in our own lives and our resources may seem scarce.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian who ultimately gave his life for his belief wrote:

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell that he has. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives the man the only true life.

As you choose the cross this day – and each day – in a hundred different choices and an infinite number of ways – may the true life of overflowing joy, costly grace, and rich generosity be yours.