Lectionary for Feb. 25, 2024
Second Sunday in Lent
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Psalm 22:23-31;
Romans 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-38

I’ve never heard the word “victory” used so much in one talk. Recently I visited a megachurch near my home to refresh my ecclesial palette after serving in Lutheran, Presbyterian and Episcopal congregations. The repeated emphasis in the sermon that God would give those several hundred of us at the service “victory over our circumstances” stuck with me. I don’t usually think of my life in terms of victory or defeat. I just try to keep growing and learning how to love my kids, my spouse and my neighbors better. Are victory and triumph foreign to the Christian walk? By no means! The authors of Scripture insist that we think about victory in a strange—and holy—way.

In this week’s Gospel reading, Peter and Jesus have different ideas about what success means. Jesus, ever faithful to his calling, spoke to his disciples about how he must suffer, be rejected by the religious elite and then murdered. Even the assurance that after three days he would rise again wasn’t sufficient comfort to prevent Peter from taking Jesus aside to talk sense into him. The Messiah is supposed to win! How could God’s chosen one suffer? How could he fail to win acclaim from the leaders of God’s people? Surely Jesus would eventually be welcomed into the temple as he had been welcomed into the synagogues of Galilee! He would sign a multi-scroll-deal and become the biggest religious influencer ever, right?

Well, partly … but first Jesus was mocked and rejected. He refused to fight against those who wanted to kill him—and who would eventually kill his disciples and their families. That doesn’t look or feel like victory.

We don’t have to win any kind of victory, because all who know the Lord will proclaim that he has already done it.

Throughout the centuries since, some Christians have looked to the cross of Christ and heard “in this sign, conquer.” I don’t think it works that way at all. After conquering sin and death, Jesus doesn’t turn around and authorize his followers to wield sin and death to behave like those who killed his friends. Conquering humans is categorically off the menu for those who would follow Jesus. And we know that because of how Jesus continued:

“If any wish to come after me, 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? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (Mark 8:34-38).

Gaining the world necessarily leads to losing one’s soul. If we are ashamed of Jesus’ self-giving life, shameful death and victory over death, which didn’t save his followers and friends from being murdered as he was, then Jesus says he will be ashamed of us. That is the gospel, believe it or not. We don’t have to gain victory over empires. We don’t have to convince religious elites to agree with us. We don’t have to live a life free from suffering. In fact, when we suffer, Jesus draws close to us and says, “I’ve been there too.”

This may not feel like the human kind of victory that Peter wanted, but it’s exactly the kind that Jesus has worked. Jesus frees us from the rat race, from the pressure to acquire or win, to simply be enough, to be a loved and accepted heir of the Great King who has achieved the only victory that matters: the victory over sin and death that separates us from God and each other.

The psalmist proclaims that God doesn’t despise the afflicted nor scorn the suffering. God does not hide the divine face from those who need help. Those who die and decompose to dust will yet kneel before God. And those who can’t keep themselves alive—those who cannot gain victory over death—will yet eat and worship. We don’t have to win any kind of victory, because all who know the Lord will proclaim that he has already done it (Psalm 22:31).

That gifted preacher was right—God wants victory for us. But God isn’t interested in the kind of victory that is celebrated by the world: a military victory over enemies, a financial victory over a rival, or a popular victory over a competitor. Jesus’ ministry would have looked a lot different if those victories were how God measured success. Instead, the kind of victory that God wants is righteous lives of loving-kindness that testify to the triumph that Jesus has won over the forces of sin and death.

Cory Driver
Cory Driver is the director of L.I.F.E. (Leading the Integration of Faith and Entrepreneurship) at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. His book on wilderness spirituality, Life Unsettled, is available from Fortress Press.

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