In the second grade, I wrote an award-winning story entitled “The search for the sky’s end.” It began, of course, with a princess sitting on her balcony.
Some birds flew by and, of all things, she began to wonder where the sky ended.
She called her guards who set out to find the answer.
They climbed a tree, sought out a fortune teller, went to a wiseman and even the royal ministers, but they found no answers.
By this point, the princess was very sad. She was royalty. She had given an order. Yet no one could find an answer.
In Mark 8: 31-38 we find a similarly impossible question. Why would God send a messiah, his son, only to suffer, be rejected and ultimately killed at the hands of the very oppressors he was supposed to be saving the Jewish people from?
To further capture the profound depth of this question, let us remember that the dominant religion of gospel times was Judaism. At the center of Jewish theology is a promise that God made with a 99-year old Abraham way back in Genesis 17.
“I have made you a father of many nations,” God told him. “I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you and kings shall come from you.”
Abraham would, at 99, become father to Isaac, who later conceived a number of sons whose families, the Jews, would become known as God’s chosen people. With this covenant came an understanding that, no matter what happened, God would see to it that they eventually regained possession of “all the land in which they had become a stranger.”
This covenant would evolve as it was reiterated through Moses and eventually David, from whom God promised to select a descendant to reign over this long-awaited kingdom.
The Messiah that the Jews came to imagine, however, looked quite different than the Jesus that showed up. The Messiah was supposed to be a political-military deliverer, anointed like a King and elevated in such a position that he might judge according to the commandments of Jewish law.
He was to dominate, not serve.
He was to rule, not die.
And for at least some of the disciples, that was what they thought they had signed up for—a religious movement that would ultimately overthrow an empire.
Matthew 8:31 is the first heart to heart we see on what this “messiah-ship” not only means for Jesus, but what it means for those who follow.
Suffering, rejection and death is so far from what Peter had in mind that he pulls Jesus aside for a one-on-one.
To which, Jesus pushes back, “Get behind me Satan! For you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.”
The things of men—domination, power, deliverance.
The things of God—suffering, rejection, death.
The kingdom Jesus described to his disciples is about as upside down as the elf who finally appeared in my princess story to say, “I hear you want to know where the sky ends. Follow me, and I’ll help.”
“Follow me” into the unknown of suffering, rejection and risk of death, is exactly what Jesus asks of those closest to him and all who seek a similar closeness in subsequent times.
“Whoever desires to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it,” Jesus tells the disciples in verse 34 and 35.
Leading up to that moment, the disciples had witnessed the healing of blindness, deafness and paralysis and much more.
But as much as they want desperately to be part of this story, this moment in Mark 8 is their first realization that it was not achievable without a cost.
As we know, the disciples would have great difficulty following Jesus to the cross. Yet, the hope Jesus walked them through paralleled with the process of his own suffering changed them, such that they could become the next generation in pursuit of the kingdom God described in the new covenant. They would go on to carry the message and the miracles to many nations. Some of them would be imprisoned, have moments of their own suffering or even die in pursuit of the mission.
Perhaps then, God sent a messiah, his son, to suffer, be rejected and die so that we might truly know what it was to be loved and show love for one another.
I know that in my almost 11 years of working with the street homeless in our community, the suffering of our neighbors in need has taught me more about my own humanity, that of others and the love of our creator, in spite of it. In the last month, I’ve shared some of those stories.
There’s the woman whose paranoid mind drove her away from family. It was a shared table at the community café our churches have put together that set a course for a new start.
I shared the lady whose years of homelessness and abusive relationships had left us wondering about her well-being. The opportunity to help those who found themselves where she once was brought her back into our lives as a pizza donor and employer of another homeless guest.
I talked about the man whose previously productive life was extraordinarily disrupted by a massive stroke that left him paralyzed. He found healing in those who stopped long enough to notice he existed and get him the help he needed.
I told of young man who found himself on the street after his mom passed away. After years of getting in trouble and feeling lost without a family, he rediscovered wholeness, a support system and a permanent job within the bounds of the community café’s job training program.
And then there’s the lady who pushed shopping carts around the Massaponax corridor for more than a year. With relentless efforts of the community, she was coaxed indoors, helped with an income and is gradually learning to trust people again.
Just as Jesus shared parables with his disciples and gave them opportunities to witness the miracles available to the suffering, I share these stories in pursuit of a shared hope.
The challenge is whether we see ourselves, our own times of suffering, in those stories, as well.
As for my Princess, following the elf brought her magically onto the back of a bird, the creature who most understood the composition of the sky. They flew over mountains, valleys, lakes and houses. She had to see the whole world before she finally realized that the sky, in fact, never ends.
Sometimes I think that’s how we are with Jesus. We have to see the whole world and someone has to prove it to us before we’re actually willing to pick up our cross and follow. In the process, we miss the miracles and the answers God is manifesting within our very own lives and the people he brings in our path.