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The Second Sunday in Lent – February 28, 2021

Mark 8:31-38 – Finally, Onside

My first non-agricultural job after high school was at the planer mill of Riverside Forest Products in Lumby BC. I was first assigned to “picking strips.” You see, the rough lumber came stacked in piles (or “lifts”) with thin strips of wood inserted between the layers. This was to facilitate drying in the kiln: the strips of wood created space between the layers (or “tiers”) so that hot air could circulate through the pile. 

A lift of dried rough lumber would be delivered by fork lift onto elevated rollers at the front end of the mill, which we then rolled forward to the feed table. The Feeder would then reach for the boards and feed them one-by-one onto the table as efficiently as possible so as to maximize production without jamming the machine. It was my job to push the boards closer to him and at the same time pick the strips off the pile as he depleted each tier. 

So it went, board after board, tier after tier, lift after lift.

Every now and again we had to plane boards with “sniped” ends. These were boards that did not maintain their dimensions throughout their length, but terminated with the taper and the bark of the log. This lumber still had value – it could be trimmed to create a shorter board, or it might keep some of its bark and be down-graded to “utility.” In any case, it had to be planed, too.

But it was tricky stuff to work with. The sniped end of one board could ride up onto the board preceding it as they were fed consecutively through the planer, and then the machine would jam up. When that happened, we had to stop and clear the jam, which caused expensive delays.

So we young guys who picked the strips had extra duties when we planed boards with sniped ends: we also had to trim sniped ends with a circular saw and, further, assist the Feeder in getting the shortened boards onto the feed table. It could be frantic work. I would find myself puffing for breath as I hurried to perform my tasks. But with the guidance of the Feeder on my shift, we got the job done. 

Or so I thought.

One day, near the end of a shift of planing lift after lift of sniped ends, I was so busy with my duties that I didn’t notice that some of the men who worked on the next shift had arrived. So when the horn sounded to end our shift and so, I turned away from the planer only to run into the big, beefy face of Tiny Tim. Now, that wasn’t his real name (which, I confess, I no longer remember). But he was by no means Tiny. He was the Feeder on the other shift.

With his face just a few inches from my sweaty features, Tiny said to me, “You’re not helping.” I backed up a step and he followed me. He continued: “You’re running from here to there, and you’re puffing and sweating, but you’re not helping.” I don’t think he was angry or trying to put me down. He was just trying to impress upon me that I wasting a lot of energy, and that I wasn’t really assisting the Feeder on my shift. In some ways, he insisted, I was actually creating more work for him.

His criticism really shook me. Here I was, for the first time in my young life, doing a man’s job in a big-time industry. I felt important. I felt that I was part of a team, that I was contributing to the economy of the greater society. But Tiny Tim said, “You’re not helping.” 

Later that evening, I talked with my Dad about it. He said that I should not take it too hard, but that I should still try to learn from those who had the benefit of experience. When I went back to the mill the next day, I discussed it with the Feeder on our shift. He was kind, and said that maybe he and I had a system that was different from the system on the other shift; but he also said that we could work on improving, too.

Well, I wanted to improve. I wanted to help. I wanted to contribute. I didn’t want to be in the way. I wanted to be onside with the rest of the crew.

How about Peter and the other disciples? Were they onside with Jesus? 

Prayer of the Day: O God, by the passion of your blessed Son you made an instrument of shameful death to be for us the means of life. Grant us so to glory in the cross of Christ that we may gladly suffer shame and loss for the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Saviour and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

I feel for Simon Peter. I believe he genuinely was trying to help. When Jesus started teaching the disciples about his rejection by the religious leaders, his death, and his resurrection, Peter protested. He did so in the form of a rebuke. 

You hear people doing that everyday. So keenly do they feel something that they speak with great intensity. Sometimes it comes out with extra emotion. Peter’s expression of protest was so intense that it sounded just like the kind of rebuke that Jesus reserved for the demons. 

In response, Jesus rebuked Peter … and with the same spiritual intensity.“Get behind me, Satan! You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things!” 

I cannot imagine a harsher reprimand from the Son of God. Get behind me, Satan! 

Peter is in the way – and not just casually. He has switched sides. When Jesus called him and his brother, Andrew – and according to St. Mark, they were the first ones Jesus called – when Jesus called the two fishermen, they immediately dropped their nets and followed. Jesus had called them to his team. He had called them onto his side of the spiritual conflict between God-in-heaven and Satan, the prince of evil. 

This comes as a great and horrible surprise in the gospel story, for up to this point we’re wondering just what the fuss is all about. It looks like the conflict is already over. The demons are no match for Jesus! He speaks a simple word and they’re defeated. In fact, after Satan’s testing of Jesus in the wilderness near the beginning of the story, Satan disappears from view. 

But here, Jesus calls Peter “Satan.” He does so not because Peter has committed murder or perpetrated some other horrendous transgression. Rather, Jesus calls Peter “Satan” because Peter resists Jesus’ intentions to go the way of the cross. 

And lest the other disciples think that they’re off the hook, Jesus looks at them while he’s actually speaking to Peter, just so that they understand that he knows what they’re thinking, and that they, too, might well be on the wrong team.

We don’t want to be on the wrong team. We want to be onside with Jesus.

“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. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?”

Well, what do you say: What can you give in return for your life? I think Peter was ready to give everything. In fact, he will say as much in the Garden of Gethsemane. Even though others would desert Jesus, Peter insisted that he would never do so. And yet, when Jesus undergoes his trial before the religious and political powers, Peter will deny knowing him or having anything to do with him.

Peter had been prepared to give even his life for Jesus. He spoke with such loyalty and such high zeal. I understand that. I want to be onside with Jesus, too. I want to follow through on my commitment to the most important thing in life. 

But what Peter and I must learn – what all of us must learn! – is that God-in-Christ must do it all! This is the cross that Jesus calls us to take up when we follow him. We, the very ones who follow, have the potential to be Jesus’ worst enemies. Instead of being onside with Jesus, we may be on Satan’s side. 

And we will indeed end up on Satan’s side when we deny the necessity of Jesus’ death. Such death is inevitable when God comes among us on God’s terms of tender love and mercy, instead of on our terms of virtuous performance and divine reward. 

The cross that we take up when we follow Jesus is the cross of faith in him as the Saviour – not faith in our own abilities, or our intellectual consent to propositions of belief, or our commitment and zeal in following – but faith in Jesus and his righteousness. It’s the faith that says, “God must do it all,” even as we utilize every gift and talent that we have in God’s service. Such faith is costly – more costly than perhaps we realize. It’s the unique kind of faith by which we hear God’s promise in Christ and simply take up life trusting in that word. 

Its nature is that it springs into new life precisely when God brings us to the end of our own resources, so that all that is left is God’s promise in Christ.

The kingdom is not in our hands. God’s reign over all is in God’s hands. God must do it all. It costs God far more than it will ever cost us – and that is the cross that Jesus bears. And the cross that we bear is simply knowing that and trusting God for that. We rely on God to do it all.

And then, finally, no longer are we in Jesus’ way. No longer does he find us on the enemy’s team. Finally, by the grace of God, we are onside.