Cross Agnosticism

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Cross Agnosticism


Peter Hubbard


May 30, 2021


Mark, Mark 9:30-50


Thank you, Andrew. As you could tell as he was reading that, there is a ton in this passage. Are you ready to work? All I got was a laugh and one “yes.” The plane is already going down. If you’re not there, turn to Mark 9. Before we start there, I want to ask two favors.

One, would you be willing to email me (here’s my email) if the Lord has spoken to you in some way throughout our Mark series? We’re about to take a break. June 20 will be our last Mark message, then we’ll take for a break for Wisdomfest. We’ll take off five weeks for Wisdomfest. So, we will have covered a good part of the Gospel of Mark with the goal of standing in awe of Jesus. Remember, we’re detoxing after a crazy year and a half of pandemic and politics and everything else, just to gaze in the face of Jesus. And if the Lord has spoken to you in some way or even if it’s something that seems small — I see this about Jesus that I previously didn’t see. I love this about Jesus. Or I’m terrified about this regarding Jesus, and I want to know him more. Or he’s transformed my life in this way. I’m living differently because of that. Just a little paragraph. We’re not even sure exactly what we’re going to do. Maybe we’ll ask a couple of people to share. Maybe I’ll just quote some of these. Maybe we’ll worship him in a different way to edify God’s people. We do have a paragraph we’re going to be covering on June 20, but it’s going to be really short, so that we have time to give thanks. So, are you willing to do that? Take some time over the next couple of weeks. Review — if you take notes, that pile of notes that getting covered with dust. Use it as a time to say, “Lord, what are you saying?” There’s so much in Mark, but if you can boil it down to who is Jesus, what is he doing in your life, and if you feel comfortable with sharing an example or two in a paragraph.

Second request, would you pray for our upcoming Wisdomfest, June 27 – July 25? If you’re new, let me just explain that each summer we take five weeks for what we call Wisdomfest, which is just an opportunity to address a key counseling or cultural issue, something we normally might not go into any kind of depth as we move expositionally through the Bible. This is an opportunity to dive deep. And this Wisdom Fest (I know it sounds crazy) is called, “Jesus and Politics.” I know you’re excited. Actually, when I think about it, I feel a little sick. And I think that’s why we want to do it, right? Because politics for many of us have become so hellish, pagan, toxic, just discouraging. So, Christians tend to do one of a couple of things. One, we avoid them, avoid politics completely, and just ignore, pretend it doesn’t happen or exist. Or we compartmentalize. I have my political views and my political life and then I have my Jesus life/my church life, and the two will never come in contact with one another. And that is very dangerous, is that not?

So, what we want to do is talk about … Our goal, of course, is not … This isn’t partisanship. We’re not trying to convince you of a particular political party. Our goal is discipleship. How do we follow Jesus politically? There’s no such thing as a nonpolitical Christian. It’s impossible. Jesus is King. Hello? That’s political. It’s impossible not to do politics. The question is, are we doing them well? Are we doing them in a way that truly reflects who Jesus is and what he’s called us to do and be in this country at this time with all that’s going on? So, would you pray for our hearts? I mean, churches are being ripped apart by this in a way that I haven’t seen in my short life. So, we really need to address this, and we really need to pray. Let’s do that now.

Father, thank you for this Memorial Day weekend to remember the sacrifices so many have made for us to live free in this nation. We don’t ever want to take that for granted. It is a gift that we don’t deserve and we can easily forfeit. And we don’t want to misuse it, misuse this gift, as an excuse to live a self-indulgent life. We want to use the freedom as an opportunity to serve. And so, we need your help, and we pray your blessing on us, on our nation. And we ask that you would speak to us now through your Word. There’s just so much in this passage. It’s going to be so easy for us to let our minds wander. And we just pray, Lord, that you would just tune us in to what your Spirit wants to say to us now. In Jesus’ name, amen.

On August 5, 1949, fifteen smokejumpers parachuted from a plane to meet a fireguard ahead of a raging forest fire in Helena National Forest in Montana. High winds, dry conditions caused the blaze to unexpectedly shift and leap across the Mann Gulch, this ravine, toward the team. The flames were burning up the slope that they were on at about 30 miles per hour. So, Wag, they called him, the foreman, Wagner Dodge, told his men, drop your tools, run for your lives. And they ran up the slope as fast as they could, but the flames were gaining on them.

Quickly, Wag realized there was no way they were going to outrun the flames. They would consume them pretty quickly, within less than minutes. And so, he pulls out a box of matches and starts lighting fires in the dry grass, high winds, quickly burns everything in front of them. And his men are looking at him like he’s insane. And then he calls to the men, “Follow me.” This was in none of their training at the time. None of them had ever heard of this, Wag hadn’t even heard of it. And he starts running into the flames he just created. The men, every one of them, looked at him like he was insane. Some of them cussed him out, and they just kept running up the slope. Two of the men were fortunate enough to see this crevice in a rock wall and slip in and barely survived. All the other men were consumed by the flames. Thirteen men died on that slope that day.

Wag Dodge spent fifteen minutes with his face to the ground, his mouth in a soaking wet handkerchief, the flames all around him but they didn’t consume him. He popped back up after fifteen minutes and was fine. Why? Why did he survive and the other men didn’t? Why wouldn’t they follow him in that moment of instantaneous decision?

Well, one reason you could say is, what we know can keep us from understanding what we don’t know. What we know … Remember, these are trained firefighters. They go through drill after drill. They’re trained what to do. What do you do? You use specific strategies; you use specific tools. But when these strategies and tools are not working, Wag had the ability to set aside his assumptions and realized there’s something unique about this situation, and we need a different solution. We need to head in a different direction. We need to flee the flames by diving into them. And he walked right into the burned area he had just created, but that had eaten up the fuel for the flames that were coming, which saved his life. The other men couldn’t do that. They wouldn’t set aside their assumptions and pursue a way of safety from fire through fire.

Well, look at Mark 9:30. Mark 9:30,

“They [Jesus and his disciples] went on from there [that is near Caesarea Philippi, where they’ve been] and passed through Galilee. And he [Jesus] did not want anyone to know, for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, ‘The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.’ But they did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him.”

So, here Jesus is spending some concentrated team time with his disciples. He is evading the crowds. Perhaps you can imagine some of the disciples asking him, “Hey, Jesus, could you walk through your ministry objectives — 1-year, 3-year, 5-year plan, your life plan? Are we going to keep spending our time wandering around helping messed up people?” Is this going somewhere? If you’re the Messiah, when are we stepping out in Jerusalem, and when are we taking over Rome? What’s the plan? And so, Jesus spells it out really clearly. Verse 31,

“The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him.”

And at this point, Jesus’ voice might have trailed off into a slow, garbled mumble in the disciples’ ears. Kill him? You can imagine them later talking among themselves. “I was tracking with him up to the ‘kill him’ part.” How do you have a Messiah who is killed? How can a dead Messiah do what a Messiah needs to do? This doesn’t make any sense. How can death be your life plan? And Mark, no doubt with Peter’s first-hand clarifying insight — I think we’ve covered that, right? The Gospel of Mark, inspired by the Spirit. Mark wrote it, but with Peter’s oversight — explains in verse 32, “They did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him.” Jesus’ words here are not hard to understand. What part of “they will kill him” is confusing? He’s not speaking in parabolic language here. It’s not a mystery what he’s saying. Here’s the ministry plan. They’re going to kill me, and I’m going to rise.

But it says here that the disciples were agnostic. That word in verse 32, “they didn’t understand,” is where we get our word “agnosticism.” Regarding the cross, the disciples were a bunch of agnostics. They were spiritually blind, experiencing an intellectual traffic jam. It’s like the firefighters on the slope trying to flee the flame and their leader is starting flames. It didn’t make sense. It was confusing and paralyzing. And so, they decided to do the only thing they knew what to do — run to their deaths. And the disciples are experiencing something like that here. How can you have a non-saved Savior? How can you have a rescuer who isn’t rescued?

What happens next gives us a beautiful window into who Jesus is and how he unclogs the disciples’ understanding. What I love is he doesn’t just mock them. You bunch of stupid idiots. How many times do I need to say this? He brings it right down. You don’t understand the cross. Let me help. So, we’re going to see how he helps unclog their clogged understanding in three ways.

First of all, we have to understand what they did know so we could see why they don’t know what they need to know. So, number 1, they were craving status. They were craving status. What helped make them agnostics, one of the ingredients was they were craving status. Could being greedy for greatness disable or clog their understanding of Jesus’ mission? Look at verse 33.

“And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you discussing on the way?’ But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who is the greatest. And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, ‘If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.’ And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me, but him who sent me.’”

Notice the link between their agnosticism and their ambition. Their inability to comprehend the cross was linked to their desire to be the greatest. The two had created a traffic jam. Jesus is going down, they’re fighting to get up, and they wonder why there’s no understanding, why the two clog, stop each other.

It’s like when you’re traveling, and a group of people are determined to get on the airplane before the passengers who are currently on the airplane are fully off the airplane. So, at the gate, just bodies and luggage just (clunk). That’s what’s happening here. Jesus is heading one direction. The disciples are confused, “Why can’t we understand?” And he’s saying, “Well, let me let me explain why it’s so hard for you to understand, is you’re going in a different direction from the direction I’m going.” And he gets real specific in verse 35.

“If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.”

Jesus is saying, it’s not a problem to want to go up. As a matter of fact, God has wired us to want to go up. But he’s saying, the only way you’re going to go up is if you go down. The only way you’re going to be first is if you’re last. And by the way, he’s not talking about going limp here or being passively willing to be manipulated and coerced by a controlling person. It’s not the kind of service he’s talking about. In the ancient world, service was viewed as demeaning. Look at what Plato said:

“How can a man be happy when he has to serve someone?”

And our mindset today is not that far from there. I want to be my own boss. You know, I’m realizing I think about others too much. I’m just way too selfless, that’s my problem.  I need to start taking care of myself first and second and third. And then Jesus uses a very visible, concrete example so that we’ll understand.  I’m tired of doing things that really don’t matter. I’m tired of caring for kids or serving Alzheimer’s patients or needy people. That’s not for me. And look what Jesus says. Verse 36, he uses children as examples, because in most ancient cultures, kids were viewed as the bottom of the food chain. Children were viewed as a choice, not a person. And you could actually choose to keep, kill, sell, work kids in some cultures up to age 12, do anything you want with that kid.

And Jesus turns the ladder upside down. High status is lowered, humble service is elevated. And here’s the statement that brings it all together: You will not understand my cross if you do not embrace my course. What do I mean by course? Direction, path, trajectory. I’m going down to go up. And if you try to understand my cross by thinking I’m going up, which was the heart of the disciples, the cross is not going to make any sense.

And brothers and sisters, this is really important for us right now. Because there are many people, especially if you’ve been around Christianity or “churchianity,” it’s very easy to feel like, when I see the cross — it’s pretty, it’s not pretty, it’s a symbol of death, Christians wear them and put them up places. But it just seems so remote to me. Even the gospel as a whole, it seems far away. It seems disconnected from my life. Jesus is saying, “Do you want to know how to see it connected to your life? Do I feel far away from you? Maybe we’re going in two different directions. You’re fighting to go up. I’m going down. Join me, and you’ll feel close. Come where I am. Travel where I’m traveling.” It’s a different course, a different path. They were craving status, which clogged their understanding, so they couldn’t comprehend the mission of Jesus.

Second thing, they were devaluing strangers. In verse 38,

“John said to him, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’ But Jesus said, ‘Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. For the one who is not against us is for us. For truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will by no means lose his reward.’”

John here displays a kind of elitism. What is elitism? Pride in belonging to a favored group or class. A kind of elitism that contradicts the cross. This guy wasn’t part of our group, even though he was casting out demons in Jesus’ name. So, they tried to stop him. Jesus was pretty direct. Verse 39, “Do not stop him.” And then he gives three reasons.

Number 1, he, the exorcist, will not speak evil of the one who empowered him. He’s not going to. And the way Jesus describes that in verse 39 is very progressive in the sense of, as my work and mission unfold, you’re going to see more and more clarity as to who actually empowered him and more and more insight from the one who was empowered.

Second reason, if he is not against us, he is for us. Verse 40, he says this quite succinctly. Now, if you compare that with Matthew 12:30, it almost sounds like Jesus is contradicting himself. He says in Matthew 12:30, “Whoever is not with me is against me.” Whoever is not with me is against me. But here he says, “The one who is not against us is for us.” Sounds contradictory.

I think the key to understanding the difference is the plural and singular. When Jesus is talking about us, he is inclusive. When Jesus is talking about me, he is exclusive. There is one Savior, there are many followers, many kinds of followers, many different groups who will follow Jesus. Do you see the difference? And so, when he’s talking about us — our church, our denomination, our brand of Christianity — he’s quite inclusive. When he’s talking about him as Savior, there is one Savior, very exclusive.

One more reason not to stop the one who was casting out demons. In verse 41, no simple act of kindness toward my own will go unrewarded.

“For truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will by no means lose his reward.”

In other words, kindness replaces partisanship with kinship. Kindness replaces partisanship. Notice, it’s so simple, a cup of water. Rather than telling that guy to stop, why don’t you give him something to drink? Why don’t you replace partisanship with kinship. In other words, we’re part of the same family even if we’re not wearing the same color jersey.

We could summarize it this way: You will not understand my cross if you do not embrace the stranger. Why? Because the cross is all about reconciling strangers. Who here is naturally related to God? No one. We’re all strangers. But through the cross, Christ reconciles to himself strangers, aliens, spiritual foreigners. Look at the way he says it in Ephesians 2. He has reconciled us through the cross and then he says this in verse 18,

“For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.”

I’ve been looking forward to reading Shai Linne’s new book called “New Reformation: Finding Hope in the Fight for Ethnic Unity.” It just came out a couple of days ago. On page 189, he is talking about this miraculous transformation that occurs when we come to Christ, specifically regarding the definition of “we.” He contrasts:

“The old ‘we’ was limited to our family members, our nationality, our ethnicity, our subculture group, our political party, our gender …. But in Christ, there’s a new ‘we’ that supersedes every previous group we once identified with. And this new ‘we’ is diverse. Extraordinarily diverse. [I’m going to give you an “amen” opportunity in about 15 seconds. Be ready.] The new ‘we’ is Black and White, male and female, youthful and elderly, Republican and Democrat, metropolitan and rural. It’s scholarly, and it lacks formal education. It’s blue collar, and it’s white collar. It’s upper class, and it’s lower class. It’s international, it’s multilingual, it’s multicolored, it’s blood-bought, and it’s glorious. This is the new ‘we.’”

Whoa! You guys did well. They were devaluing strangers. If somebody didn’t fit our group, we need to stop them. And Jesus says, “No.”

One more. Remember, this is what we’re doing. We’re trying to understand what might have clogged the disciples understanding of the cross. And we’ve seen two, one more. They were minimizing sin. It isn’t stated directly, it’s implied, though, in verse 42. Some of these statements seem random, and some of them are actually used in other contexts. But here the logic is tight. Look at the three big ideas here.

First of all, we need to understand to see how serious sin is, it’s social. “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin.” Whoever causes one of these little ones… The warning is about to be given that what you do is not just about you. And it’s a scary thing if what you’re saying or doing is causing anyone else, little ones, believers, to fall, to stumble. Your pleasure isn’t more important than your neighbor. Sin is social.

Secondly, sin is lethal. Now, in verses 42-48, there’s so much here. Look for three key words that you’re going to hear repeatedly: sin, hell (two words we’re not allowed to say today). Sin, hell, better. Sin, hell, better. Verse 42,

“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.”

Sin, hell, better. Now, Jesus is not advocating literal amputation, as if you can cut enough body parts off to get to heaven. Not what he’s saying. But he is talking about a radical reprioritization. And you see that here. Because sin is lethal. Hell is real. It is better for you to reprioritize your life so that you are not damaging another soul or your own soul, because so much is at stake here. Do you see what he’s saying? Sin is real. Hell is hot. There’s something much better than just satisfying your own pleasure, living your life for yourself in such a way that you’re damaging other people and your own soul.

So, this week you’ve had an exhausting day, your boss has been on you, coworkers are super frustrating, nothing’s gone well. And you’re finally at the end of the day, you get in your car, and everything inside of you is screaming, “I just want to go home, kick my feet up, crack a beer, watch TV all night. I don’t want to be bothered.” But you know, from your texts, your wife has had a really bad day. Work did not go well for her, and then when she picked up the kids, found out two of them are sick, the dishwasher is broken. At that moment, as you’re driving home, you have to decide what is better. Is your pleasure better than the value of those little souls in your care, your precious wife? You’re in the battle he’s talking about. And I’ll tell you, if you don’t understand the cross, it’s easy. Just go home and do what you do. Might not go well!

But see, when you bring in the cross you realize the seriousness of sin in your own heart. I know how quickly my heart moves toward entitlement. I worked hard. I deserve a break. I deserve to be served. It’s not my day to roll up my sleeves and do the dishes, read stories, die to self, run to the grace that Christ has for me through the cross as I’m driving home.

Second example. You’re hanging out with a friend. You found out your friend is having an affair. Your friend has really good reasons why. He’s in a bad marriage. The woman he’s having an affair with is in a bad marriage. They’re going to get divorced anyway. Come on, nobody’s perfect. Let’s be real.

And you have to decide in that moment what is better. Is maintaining that friendship at all costs better than the value of his soul or your own? Is sin real? Is hell hot? Are there things that are more important than maintaining this friendship and laughing all evening? I might have to cross that line and actually have a hard conversation and speak the truth in love, knowing I’m not perfect. He’s not perfect. Yeah, but why did Christ on the cross? So that we can live any way we want? So that we can go straight for what we want? So that we never deny ourselves in following him? Did he die on the cross that we can continue in sin? And suddenly the cross that seems so high and remote comes right in to our friendships, our families, our conversations, the battle going on in our hearts. I cannot minimize sin. It is serious. Whatever I have to cut it out in order to follow, it’s better. It’s better.

One more point he makes under the minimizing sin is, sin requires the sacrificial. And this language sounds so foreign to us. Verse 49,

“For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good, but if the salt has lost its saltiness, how will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

Well, first of all, see that he ends right where he started. We began with the disciples arguing with one another on the road while Jesus is explaining his cross. He ends here saying, “Be at peace with one another.” So, he’s still talking about the same thing. I agree with Edwards that this strange language of salt and fire has its background in the temple sacrifices which were salted and burned. Jesus is unclogging his disciples’ minds regarding his cross by revealing the nature of discipleship. Living as a sacrifice — loving, supporting, forgiving, serving the little ones, the vulnerable, the ones the world doesn’t have time for — is costly. As Edwards writes,

“This helps explain the puzzling phrase, ‘salted with fire.’ Testing by fire is not simply a painful necessity of discipleship, but [it’s actually] an offering, itself pleasing to God, a seasoning or salting with fire.”

So, when I take up my cross as I’m driving home and dying to what I think I deserve and feeding on the favor of God through Christ, as I’m getting my tank filled with the grace of Christ that I don’t deserve but Christ bought for me and provides for me in the most difficult of conflicts, I’m offering that up. Not just as, “Oh, we’ve got to do this as Christians, because God hates us having fun.” No, I’m offering that up as an offering. This is an act of worship. It’s just as real as when we stand with our hands raised worshiping in song. It is an offering to God. It is the sacrifice that he is well pleased with. It is going to worship every day. Salted with fire is connecting our daily mundane acts of service with a temple sacrifice which is made in Jesus’ name.

Wag Dodge knew he had to go toward the fire to escape the fire. That didn’t make sense to the other firefighters, and it cost them their lives. The disciples at this point don’t understand why Jesus is heading in the direction he’s heading in. Why do you go toward defeat? To win. And so, Jesus brings it closer with these really concrete examples. And you could summarize the last one this way: You will not understand my cross if you do not take sin seriously. Jesus is patiently tutoring us.

I’ve got a couple exercises for us to do. We can begin them now and continue throughout this week. They’re overwhelming. If you try to do all three, your breaker will probably flip. But pick one of these. These are based on the three points we just looked at: craving status, devaluing strangers, minimizing sin.

So, the first one. In what ways are you interacting with and serving those who are weaker than you? This week, ask the Spirit to lead you to people who frustrate you. Now some of you are like, “That’s a short trip.” But when you feel that frustration, let it do what the Lord wants it to do. Why am I so frustrated by people who I feel can’t get their act together? Do I really think my act is together? I don’t want to be with people who have negative energy. Imagine if Jesus said that to us. So, let that experience, which we all experience … maybe different personalities, but all of us have personalities and ways of doing things that frustrate us from others. And when we get in that moment, if we ask the Lord to make us aware of that and then let that make the cross of Christ clearer to us, more vivid to us. Lord, I can’t imagine. If I feel this way about this individual, what must you feel about me? And yet you just pour out your love, your life, everything for me. How did you do that? And what would that look like if I tap into a little of that power that you showed for me to love this difficult individual in my life? That’s one exercise.

Second is, how can you reach out to a stranger this week to pray for, to celebrate with, to serve? Now, as a pastor, this is a great exercise. When we’re praying for revival, and I hear of another church that experiences a move of God, what’s the first thought in my mind? If I understand the cross, it should be, “Yes! I’m so happy for those brothers and sisters over there.” Can we do that? When you get on Facebook, can you see what appears to be “They get everything their way. Everything.” Look for opportunities this week to see people who you might not know super well, but you see people, strangers flourishing and then celebrate with them. Celebrate because that is a micro glimpse of the cross. Because it’s this…. Paul said stuff like this all the time. If my going down can glorify God, and you’re going up, bring it. That’s beautiful. Because one day he’ll call you to go down and he’ll raise me up. That’s why Paul in Philippians 1:15-18 could say, “Hey, there are a lot of people ministering in ways that are actually making my life more difficult, but I just rejoice in the fact that Christ is being proclaimed.”

Third exercise. Will you offer up to God a sacrifice this week salted with fire (means it’s not going to be easy, maybe a little painful) that highlights the value of the soul (yours or someone else’s) over an unhelpful pleasure? Don’t be afraid to think super mundane. The way of the cross is not a way of demanding rights, but embracing sacrifice to care for your soul and someone else’s. If I need to set this aside, if I’m not going to do what I had hoped to do, but that this would help protect you or encourage you or serve you, I’m in. I’m all in.

So let’s take a minute right now, quiet before the Lord with this in front of you. I don’t know if we can put those on the screen. But let’s ask him to lead us to one of these, whatever the Spirit is speaking to you, leading you in, let’s respond now. Lord, show me more clearly the beauty of the cross. Bring it right down.

Once again, Jesus, I’m blown away at how patiently and specifically you disciple your disciples. You train them. You break down their resistance. You soften their hearts. You open their eyes in ways that are so tangible. A child, an opportunity to serve, a temptation all become pictures of the cross. Do that in us. We pray in Jesus’ name, amen.


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