Afraid and Silent
Anyone who has ever been a teacher or a parent or a leader or an instructor of any kind knows the truth of something I read a while back. The author was a teacher and said, “Sometimes a student will come to you and say ‘I didn’t understand that one point in class today.’ And so as the teacher you say, “Well, let me explain it to you this other way then.’ And the student responds, ‘I don’t understand.’ ‘OK, well, then think about it this way’ you say again. And yet the student says, ‘I don’t understand.’ This may go on for a bit but eventually you have to say, ‘You know what, you’re right: you don’t understand.’” Or as a friend of mine likes to say, “Look, I can explain it for you but I can’t understand it for you!”
Still, it is the quality of student questions—and the seriousness with which a teacher takes such questions—that are the hallmarks of good education. Good teachers are never annoyed by questions. Bad teachers are. They listen semi-patiently to the question, dismiss it as quickly as possible, and then return to what they had been saying before being so rudely interrupted mid-lecture. This is probably why C.S. Lewis once noted that the best professors at the university tend to be also the busiest professors and yet they always have more time to meet with students than do their less talented colleagues.
Jesus was perhaps the best teacher ever. But how slow the disciples were to catch on to this wonderful fact. Our passage this morning shows this with startling clarity in a narrative snippet that is as funny as it is sad. The irony of it all begins in verses 30 and 31: Jesus is passing through Galilee but wants to remain anonymous. He doesn’t want others glomming on just then because, Mark tells us, Jesus was intent on teaching only the disciples. He wanted to teach the disciples. That’s the little theme of the passage we just read, and yet thanks to the disciples, the teaching doesn’t go well at all.
Not for the first time in Mark Jesus needs to help the disciples understand what is going to happen to him. “The Son of Man will be betrayed, arrested, killed, but in three days will rise again.” Now there is a line that you would expect to garner some reaction. “Really, Lord? When? How?” “Master, this killed and rise again business—um, why?” “Jesus, we believe you speak the truth and so please elaborate on this. Is this the plan of your Father? What good will come of your being killed?”
That’s what you’d expect. But no. Oh no. Instead Jesus sees a dozen blank faces staring up at him. There were no follow-up questions. No requests for more information. The disciples stayed as silent as silent can be because, Mark very tellingly reports, they were afraid to say anything at all. Maybe they were recalling the time recently when Peter got called “Satan” when he suggested to Jesus not to talk this way. Maybe they had heard Jesus say grim things like this just often enough that they concluded it was just a kind of verbal equivalent of a bad burp, something that just belched out of Jesus now and then after having a bad piece of fish for lunch or something.
No one said a word to Jesus. And so they trudge on through Galilee and on to the town where it had all begun for Jesus, Capernaum. They walk on, saying nothing . . . to Jesus. Ah, but they were not walking in silence, were they? There was conversation. There was talking going on as Jesus led the way a few yards ahead of the rest of them. “Looks like it’s coming down to the wire, gentlemen,” Peter declares. “Passover is coming soon and I think that is when we will be making our move against Rome. Just so you know, I will be Jesus’ right-hand man when he brings in the New Israel. I am the one he nicknamed ‘Rocky’ after all so just get used to the idea of taking orders from me.” “Yeah right,” John and James said very nearly in unison. “We’re the Sons of Thunder, Simon. You want to play rock-hammer-scissors, you might win. But Thunder beats Rocky, pal, so you can expect to see us at Jesus’ right hand and his left hand!”
Jesus is like the wise bus driver who may be sitting way up front but who knows exactly what’s going on in the back of the bus. So they arrive in Capernaum, go into the place where they will spend the night, and Jesus says, “Sooooo . . . what was the rumpus on the road all about, friends? I heard you bickering, what was it about? Maybe I can help.” And for the second time on the day when Jesus wanted to be alone with only his disciples so as to teach them, Jesus is met with twelve blank faces, twelve silent men, twelve people too afraid to say anything. Once again they were afraid, this time more out of embarrassment than confusion. Either way and both ways, they were silent again.
So Jesus produces his favorite visual aid. He finds a child, sets the kid in front of them and says, “Be like this! Humility, gentlemen, service, seizing the bottom rung of the ladder—that’s what I am all about.” More silence. No reply at all. Again. Finally John clears his throat to change the subject. “Um, Master. We saw this guy casting out demons in your name and, well, you’ll be happy to know we stopped this little copyright infringement because he was not one of us—you know, of us, your favorite people.”
By now Jesus had to be wondering why he had opted to stay alone with just these fellows that day. Maybe a bigger crowd all day long would have been a good thing after all! With a weariness borne of exasperation in his voice, Jesus says, “Don’t stop him! If people aren’t against us, they are for us, OK. It doesn’t matter who it is, if they bring you a cup of water, God will approve of that person always.”
Afraid and silent. Afraid to ask Jesus for the truth. Afraid to confess to Jesus their own errors. Afraid and silent. And every time, fear and silence leave the disciples ignorant, clueless, and trapped in a vicious cycle of ego and one-upmanship that very simply worked at cross purposes with the Gospel Jesus had come to embody and proclaim.
What a blessing it is to live a couple millennia later so that we never do anything like this in the church today, right? When Jesus speaks to us, we listen. We ask follow up questions. We figure out what the Spirit has to teach us and we follow every time. And when we mess up, when we focus more on our own prestige or power than on being humble like a child, we fess up right away. We don’t hold back.
Perhaps. Then again, perhaps not. I wish I could say it were true of me and I wish I could say it has always been true of people with whom I have talked about the Bible or people before whom I have preached sermons but the fact is that sometimes when we hear Jesus and the Spirit suggesting something difficult to us in this or that passage of the Bible, we don’t always ask good follow up questions. We sense that something in this verse might challenge some long-held belief or some longstanding practice in our lives. And when that happens, we don’t always dive in feet first to ask Jesus to clarify. We don’t always go up to the preacher at the narthex door after church to say, “Thank you, pastor, for bringing my ignorance to light—I really appreciate this chance to reorient my thinking!”
Some while ago while sitting by a bonfire at my parents’ trailer at Glen Lake one fine August evening, another man from the park came to me to ask a theological question: why did Jesus choose Judas as a disciple if he knew Judas would betray him? I did my best to muster good biblical and theological grounds for my answer and I came up with something I think is biblically warranted to ponder. I mentioned among other things that Jesus did give up certain divine perks in order to be fully human (Jesus was not omnipresent, for instance, while on earth and certainly was able to be injured and finally killed).
Similarly, sometimes Jesus seemed genuinely surprised and when he went to school to learn math and Hebrew, we assume he was not faking it but really learned as the real human boy he was. So, I said at the bonfire, it is hard to know what all Jesus knew at any given moment. Well, that wasn’t what this man came to hear and so after a few minutes he cut me off and tersely said, “Well, just gotta disagree with you there, pestur” and he went back to his own trailer never to ask me anything ever again. Some who ask questions already have their own answers.
But others seek and then find truly surprising answers to the questions they ask of Jesus, though that doesn’t always go over real big either. A few years ago the late Rev. Ed Dobson spent a year living as much like Jesus as he could. Part of his regimen for that year was reading and re-reading and reading again the four gospels every day. It happened to be an election year and so when Election Day came, Rev. Dobson voted for a different party for the first time because he felt convicted by the Jesus he met day after day in the Gospels that for this election anyway, it was what he had to do. And, of course, everyone who knew Ed Dobson or who knew of him praised him for the courage of his convictions and for trying to listen to Jesus . . . Except that of course the opposite is what actually happened: Rev. Dobson was attacked and pilloried often viciously by former colleagues who assured him that they had Jesus cased and so Ed had best go back and try again.
Also, today more than ever we face the temptation of John either actively to stop or at least passively to dismiss the work of God in other people in case they are not one of us. How easy to bracket out what the Pentecostals are doing, what the Catholics are doing, what God’s Spirit might be doing through . . . well, through fill-in-the-denominational blank. And so maybe, just maybe, this curious little narrative snippet from Mark 9 is calling us to listen closely, to ask questions, to confess our failures, and to respond with joy to the working of God wherever and whenever we see it. Being afraid and silent got the disciples nowhere. It doesn’t do us any good today either.
Of course, the good news is that Jesus was endlessly patient with his disciples. He will keep telling them the truth until they get it. He will keep plopping little children in front of them as role models until they get it. And at the very end of our passage today Jesus says something amazingly gracious and loving. After chiding John and the others for stopping people from doing works in Jesus’ name, Jesus talks about bringing a cup of water. Often when we think of this verse we think of it in terms of OUR need to bring water to others. But that is not what Jesus says. No, he says that if one of those “other” people whom John tried to stop brings a cup of water to the disciples, that person will be favored of God.
It had been a long day. For Jesus on a purely human level, it must have been a frustrating day with these disciples. They had been afraid and silent, ignorant and confused, wrong and wrong yet again the whole day. But as the sun sets on our little story, Jesus says, “Look, you belong to me. I am the Christ, I am the Messiah, and you are my guys, my friends. Someday others will honor you, will bring cups of water to you on account of your belonging to me and that is a fine thing. Accept it, be grateful, and know that through others, God will care for you and for our whole little Gospel enterprise.”
What a kind and gracious thing for Jesus to say at the end of this particularly frustrating day! He doesn’t rebuke them harshly. He doesn’t tell them they have no part of him on account of their day-long fear and silence. He doesn’t tell them to hit the road and leave him alone. Instead Jesus is steadily trudging on toward the cross he now knows for sure is waiting for him. And as he goes, he tenderly provides love and mercy to these disciples, to these still-confused, sinful, boastful people who somehow or another will go on to change the world through their preaching, their witness, and for most of them through also their dying for Jesus’ sake.
This grace of Jesus, this kindness, is no excuse for us to revel in or to perpetuate our own times of being afraid and silent. But for me as perhaps for you, since I know I do have times when I don’t want to hear the full truth of what Jesus has to say to me, I am comforted by my Lord’s patience and grace. For me as perhaps for you, since I know I have times when I don’t confess to Jesus what I say or think or do wrong, I am comforted by Jesus’ patience and grace.
And all these centuries later, precisely because of Jesus’ patience and grace, he keeps getting through to us in the church with his truth, with his forgiveness, with his doing surprising things in surprising places. By his abiding patience and grace, we now and then wake up to celebrate the powerful working of God even among those who are “not one of us” but who we come to see may well BE one of us after all because we all belong to the Messiah, same as those bumbling disciples way back when.
If you have seen the movie Selma or read the works of civil rights historian Taylor Branch in books like Parting the Waters, then you know about Rev. James Reeb. Rev. Reeb was one of a good many white pastors who viewed what was going on with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and concluded that this was a stirring of God’s Spirit—a movement of God that they had to join. Many of their fellow white pastors in the North and in the South disagreed. King was a communist. The Bible sanctioned treating black people as second class. The church had no business marching with King in Selma or anywhere else, as the good Christian governor of Alabama, George Wallace, said again and again. But Rev. Reeb joined Dr. King in Selma along with other white clergy and on the night of March 11, 1965, after eating dinner at a rare integrated restaurant in Selma, Rev. Reeb was bludgeoned to death in the street. He had seen a working of God among people not like him but he joined their cause on account of what he saw.
Actually, when I was researching this sermon and tumbled to the idea of mentioning Rev. Reeb, I discovered something I had forgotten: although he was a pastor and had been raised as a pretty traditional Presbyterian, he later became a pastor in a very liberal church. And I almost did not use him as an example because . . . well, because my first thought was “He’s not one of us.” Oh dear.
In this sermon I have maybe been a little hard on the disciples. The truth is it’s not easy to follow Jesus, it’s not easy to walk with him to the cross, it’s not easy at all. It wasn’t easy for Peter, John, and James and it’s not easy for us. But here’s the thing: the good news is not only that Jesus seems to be endlessly patient and gracious with us, the good news is also that when you follow Jesus, you do have Jesus with you! He is there! He is here! He is available! He welcomes us. We don’t have to be afraid and silent. On that evening long ago in Capernaum, John pretty much said the wrong thing. He finally broke the fearful silence of the disciples only to say the wrong thing.
But Jesus loved him anyway. Maybe that’s why years later in what we now call the first epistle of John, John wrote that “perfect love casts out fear.” That’s what John learned about his Savior over the years—he loved his disciples. He loves us all. And his love casts out our fear and lifts our silence and gives us by God’s Spirit the chance again and again to be renewed and transformed by his love. His love welcomes our questions. His love forgives our silly arguments and our failings on the road as we follow him. And in that love and in that grace there is great joy, great peace.
What’s the line from that old familiar hymn: “Oh what peace we often forfeit, oh what needless pain we bear. All because we do not carry, everything to God in prayer.” Just so. Amen.
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