A CASE OF MISTAKEN IDENTITY
A sermon based on Mark 8:27-38
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
September 16, 2018
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
Throughout much of the latter part of his life, the great American humorist and man of letters, Samuel Clemens—better known as Mark Twain—was a target for imposters and doubles who played upon his well-known appearance and reputation. Sometimes this was done intentionally as a scam to enrich the con men who did it. But at other times, the confusion was purely accidental. People would simply mistake him for someone else—or the other way around. Sometimes that included well-known personalities of the day. Apparently Twain’s remarkably unruly hair and his thick moustache must have been a fashionable look for many men during his lifetime.
Once he had become famous, various lawyers, scientists, a Supreme Court justice, journalists and musicians among others were all occasionally mistaken for the famous author. Compounding the problem were people like Dr. Joseph Jay Villers. Dr. Villers was a former dentist from Brooklyn who became known as an entertainer. It is said that he made a good living by regularly giving performances as a “Mark Twain impersonator.” During a show, he would dress like Twain, read passages from Twain’s works aloud in Twain’s trademark drawl and then add some original Twain-like stories to the delight of audiences. His performances regularly drew rave reviews from the New York City newspapers during the waning years of the 19th Century.
Perhaps the most famous case of mistaken identity for Twain was when he was mistaken for the Nobel Prize winning author, historian and politician Theodore Mommsen. Twain had met Mommsen at a banquet during a European tour in 1891 and was very impressed with him. (Not an easy task to impress Mark Twain…) But for the rest of his tour, it seems that people mistook him for Mommsen. With his characteristic sense of humor, Twain recorded these words in his diary while he was in Berlin, “Been taken for Mommsen twice. We have the same hair, but upon [further] examination, it was found that our brains were different.”
In today’s gospel reading from Mark, Jesus is also the object of mistaken identity. Back on his home turf in Galilee, he posed a searching question to his disciples. He asked them, “Who do people say that I am?” The disciples responded by relating some of the different things that people were saying about him: “Some say you are John the Baptist; and others Elijah; and others one of the prophets.” Lots of guesses and conjecture from the crowd who saw Jesus as a miracle healer and rabbi of exceptional insight. Truly, the fact that Jesus was mentioned in the same breath as John the Baptist and the prophet Elijah was no small compliment to his ministry thus far, as both of those men were viewed by the people as mighty servants of God.
But then Jesus made the question personal. He asked his disciples, “But who do you say that I am?” I can imagine that the disciples kind of shuffled their feet a little bit when they heard Jesus’ question. Perhaps they diverted their eyes to escape our Lord’s piercing gaze. My guess is that none of them particularly wanted to answer the question.
All except for Simon Peter. Of course, it was Simon Peter who answered. Peter seems to have been the most caffeinated of all the twelve disciples. He is the one who would open up his mouth and say what was on his mind when no one else would—or when everybody else knew better. This time when Peter spoke up, he exclaimed “You are the Messiah.” That is, you are the Christ…You are God’s chosen One…
I find it interesting that Jesus does not commend Peter for this flash of insight. He does not respond with something like, “Well done, Peter! You are exactly right.” No—instead of congratulating him for his answer, Jesus tells all of the disciples to not tell anyone about it. He commands them to keep it quiet. Why do you suppose that was? Although the disciples recognized that Jesus was the Messiah, perhaps it was obvious to our Lord that they were still lacking understanding as to what being the Messiah truly meant. So he was going to school them on what that really meant. That is evident from the rest of the conversation…
Jesus continued his discussion with the disciples by explaining to them what his true ministry was going to look like—what was about to happen in the very near future. They were on their way to Jerusalem, and when they got there, he told them that he “must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”
Mark makes the comment in verse 32 that “[Jesus] said all these things quite openly.” As you all know, the gospels record that our Lord often spoke to the disciples and to the crowds using parables and other figurative language in his teachings. He was well-known for that. But in this instance, Mark is careful to let us know that this time, Jesus was speaking unambiguously about his upcoming rejection and crucifixion in Jerusalem. There was no mistaking these words. Our Lord’s intent was crystal clear.
All this talk of suffering and dying rubbed the disciples the wrong way. Peter protested and scolded Jesus. Imagine that—Peter was scolding Jesus! Wow…Peter was apparently convinced that Jesus had it all wrong. No—Jesus was not marching to his death. How could that be the end of Jesus’ journey? It did not make any sense to him or the rest of the disciples. After all, he was God’s chosen one—the Messiah. He was the one who was going to call upon the power of God so that the Roman oppressors would be destroyed. And after he had liberated the nation, he would ascend the throne and rule over Israel forever. That is what the Messiah was supposed to do. Everybody knew that…
Everybody, that is, except for the prophets of old. They are the ones who understood what the true nature and mission of the Messiah would be long before the disciples did. Earlier in our service, a passage from Isaiah 50 was read. It is certainly a graphic prophecy concerning the Messiah. It read, “I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.” A snapshot of what God’s chosen servant would have to endure…
Or a few chapters later in Isaiah 53, which says, “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with suffering…He was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our sins; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.” What Peter and the rest of the disciples failed to understand was this. And this is the main takeaway from today’s sermon: In Jesus, we do not get the God we want—instead we get the God we need…That is worth repeating, so let me say it again: In Jesus, we do not get the God we want—instead we get the God we need…
Jesus concludes this discussion by calling the crowd back in closer and inviting them to listen up. He then begins to describe to them—all of them, the disciples and the crowd—some of the practical aspects of what it means to be his follower. And what he says is counterintuitive in the extreme. When Peter had objected to Jesus’ words earlier about facing persecution and death in Jerusalem, Jesus responded to him saying that he was looking at the situation through human eyes and not through God’s eyes. And so in the rest of the passage, he continues with that same line of thought. This is what it means to be his follower using the eyes of the kingdom of God…
He says that if you want to follow him, you must deny yourself and take up your cross and follow him. After hearing Jesus’ words predicting what kind of death that he was to endure, this must have been a most shocking and unsettling statement for the disciples to hear.
I think it would be safe to say that no one who heard these words of Jesus wanted to die on a cross. No one. The cross was a method of execution. It was the way the death penalty was routinely carried out by the Roman authorities. It was an excruciatingly agonizing way to suffer and die. And it was publically humiliating to be made a spectacle for all to see. Respectable people were not crucified. Good, decent Godly people were not crucified. Only criminals met that kind of death, and of the criminals, it was only the worst of the worst who were killed in such a manner.
And then he goes further. Jesus said that those who strive to save their life will lose it, and that those who lose their life in service to the gospel will save it.
Here’s the thing about life. We tend to think that life is something that you can go out and get, or earn, or buy or win. But it is not. Many years ago, there was a series of beer commercials that played on TV that those of us of a certain age will probably remember. The advertising slogan was, “You only go around once in life, so grab for all the gusto you can get.” (Y’all remember that one?)
But here is a spiritual truth. Life is not something that you can “grab”—let alone is it to be found in a case of beer. In a lot of ways, life is like love. It is not something that can be won…or earned…or bought…or hoarded. Life, like love, can only be given away…and received.
And the ironic thing that Jesus is teaching here is that the more of your life that you give away in service to others, the more real life that you have. The truth of the matter is that it is only when you give your life away that you truly begin to understand what life is really all about. Somehow in thinking about how to fulfill the needs of others are our own deepest needs met. I do not pretend to understand how that works. I only know that it does. It is one of the mysteries of life…and of the Kingdom of God.
Cross-bearing and self-denial are not about making oneself less happy. On the contrary, cross bearing and self-denial are about discovering the real and abundant life that Jesus promises to his followers. It is a life that often finds itself at cross purposes with a world that acquiring stuff is the measure of one’s happiness. And where looking out for “Number 1” is the most prudent way to live. Jesus says “Rubbish.” Jesus says that the only things that we can hold onto are actually the things we give away—things like love…and mercy…and kindness…and compassion. And he shows himself to be the ultimate example of what that looks like for us.
In his book Genuine Christianity, author and activist Ronald J. Sider puts it this way: “Following Jesus is not some vague, abstract idea [or] lofty philosophical concept. It means living like Jesus. If the New Testament is true, then Jesus longs for us to love our neighbors the way that he did—daily, persistently, practically. Jesus modeled servanthood, self-sacrifice and special concern for the poor and neglected [while] he also cared for their spiritual needs.” It seems to me that Sider has stated the essence of what it means to lose your life for Jesus’ sake and the sake of the gospel…so that you may truly find the authentic life that we are all seeking.
Charles Everest was a 19th Century Episcopalian pastor who spent his entire ministry serving churches in Connecticut. In 1833, he wrote what is believed to be his only hymn. But it is a good one. It is a hymn that has found its way into many hymnals by Baptists over the years, though for some reason, our hymnal has omitted it. The text is based on today’s reading from Mark 8:34, and the sermon closes with its words today:
“Take up your cross,” the Savior said,
If you would My disciple be;
Deny yourself, the world forsake,
And humbly follow after Me.”
Take up your cross; let not its weight
Fill your weak spirit with alarm;
His strength shall bear your spirit up,
And brace your heart and nerve your arm.
Take up your cross, heed not the shame;
Let not your foolish pride rebel;
The Lord for us the cross endured,
To save our soul from death and hell.
Take up your cross and follow Christ;
Think not till death to lay it down;
For only those who bear the cross
May hope to wear the glorious crown.
To God alone be the glory! Amen.
Hymn #367 Wherever He leads, I’ll Go
 I am indebted to David Lose for this insight by way of the movie The Dark Knight.
 Ronald J. Sider, Genuine Christianity—Essentials for Living Your Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996), 35.
 www.hymnary.org/text/take_up_thy_cross_the_savior_said (Accessed September 13, 2018)