March 1, 2015

The Right Answer for the Wrong Reason

Passage: Mark 8:27–38

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’  —Mark 8:34


Everybody knows it’s not enough to get the right answer. You have to get the right answer for the right reason. “Show your work,” says the seventh-grade math teacher.   “If a train leaves Chicago at 6 a.m. and another leaves New York at 8 a.m. and both are going 50 miles an hour, what time will they pass each other?” Some 12-year-olds have the processing power of a NASA computer and can grab the answer instantly out of thin air like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man.

But the math teacher is not interested in the right answer; she wants to see you get the right answer for the right reason in the right way.

The right answer for the wrong reason can get you into a pile of trouble. When your wife asks you “Honey, do you think I’m still pretty?” you don’t answer “Yes, of course, dear. I love the way time has etched the years upon your face.” That’s the right answer for the wrong reason.

You can also get the wrong answer for the right reason, of course. A father was helping his seven-year-old daughter learn about email; he watched over her shoulder as she typed in her password, which was mickeyminniegoofypluto: all one word. When he asked her why she had such a long password, she responded, rationally, “Because, Daddy, Google says the password has to have at least four characters.” Right reason, wrong answer.

One day Peter got the right answer for the wrong reason to one of Jesus’ baffling questions. “Who do people say that I am?” he asks his disciples. The disciples respond, “Some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” Jesus presses the point: “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter instantly, eagerly pipes up with the right answer. “You are the Messiah,” he says. You are the Christ. You are God’s Anointed. You are God’s earthly representative who will win God’s kingdom back for God in this sorry old world. You are the knight whose shoulder the queen taps with her sword. You are the General the President appoints to wage the fierce battle.

But Peter gets the right answer for the wrong reason. For Peter, the Messiah means the restoration of Israel’s crushed hopes and trampled dreams and humiliated spirit. For Peter, the Christ means ridding Jerusalem of the haughty Roman soldiers prowling every street corner in the city. For Peter, the Messiah means storming the imperial palace in Rome and throwing Caesar from his throne. For Peter, the Christ means Sherman’s March to the Sea. “Forage liberally,” Sherman told his Union troops.

That’s what Peter thinks the Messiah is. For months now Jesus has been preaching catchy slogans of vast wisdom and hurling demons into the sea like swine and making lame men walk and blind men see and silencing the raging winds and waves as if they were unruly school children and mobilizing the rabble for action. He has unearthly powers. They’ve never seen anyone like him. There hasn’t been anyone like him in Israel for generations. “It begins,” thinks Peter. “The longed-for restoration of Israel is at hand.”

Peter gets the right answer. “You are the Christ!” he proudly exclaims. Don’t miss a small detail in this story. This story does not happen in Galilee, the Jewish territory of Jesus’ Nazareth home. This story does not happen in Jerusalem, the Jewish capital and home to God’s Holy Temple. This all happens in Caesarea Philippi, forty miles northeast of his home in Nazareth. Jesus is deep in enemy territory.

As you can plainly tell, Caesarea Philippi is named for two great world leaders—Caesarea for Caesar Augustus, perhaps the single most powerful man the world has ever seen, and Philippi for Philip, the son of Herod the Great. It was built to honor Caesar and rebuilt by one of the Herods. People worshiped Caesar as a god in a temple at Caesarea Philippi. It is named for a powerful regional governor and an omnipotent global emperor.

“You are the Christ!” Peter brashly exclaims deep in enemy territory. This is like wearing maize and blue with a big ‘M’ on your shirt in Columbus, Ohio. This is like wearing green and gold at Soldier Field. This is like wearing a Red Sox hat at Yankee Stadium. You’re going to get beer dumped all over you.

This is insolent. This will get you thrown into whatever passed for Guantanamo in Caesarea Philippi. Perhaps that is why Jesus instantly tells his disciples not to say that again.

Peter gets the right answer, but for the wrong reason. Jesus begins to explain what it really means to be the Christ. “The Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the chief priests, and be killed.” That’s what it means to be the Christ.

Peter is furious. Mark tells us that “Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him.” Peter took Jesus aside: isn’t that a great way of painting the picture of Peter’s condescending attitude? Peter takes Jesus by the hand and leads him to a private place out of earshot like a mother with her ill-behaved child: “We don’t talk like that in polite company, youngster. Use your pretty voice.”

To change the metaphor, Peter acts like the Communications Director of a political campaign. “That’s a negative message. No negativity,” he will always tell his candidate. “Our poll numbers will plummet. Talk like Ronald Reagan. Not like Jimmy Carter.” Peter ‘rebukes’ Jesus. That’s what your English Bibles say, but the Greek verb translated into ‘rebuke’ is actually blunter and ruder than ‘rebuke.’ Literally it means “Shut up and sit down.” Shut up and sit down, says the fisherman to the Christ, the Son of the Living God.

But Jesus rebukes right back. “Get thee behind me, Satan,” Jesus hollers at Peter. Wow, that’s harsh. But you see why, yes? Jesus means to exemplify what it really means to be the Christ of God, and Peter is getting in his way, lying down in front of Jesus on the sorrowful road to Jerusalem like a fallen tree so that Jesus can’t pass by, so Peter has to be harshly rebuked. “Get thee behind me, Satan. Get thee behind me, Peter. Don’t order me around like my momma. Don’t try to tell me what to do. Don’t get out in front. Get in back where you belong. Follow me.”

It’s not enough to get the right answer. You have to get the right answer for the right reason. Jesus means to show Peter and the disciples, and all of us, that being the Christ doesn’t mean killing, but dying. It doesn’t mean winning, but losing. It doesn’t mean storming the imperial palace in Rome and throwing Caesar from his throne, but carrying your cross to a skull-shaped heap of rocks called Golgotha. Being the Christ means the cross, not the sword.

We make our plans. We plan to win. We plan to march to Rome to unseat the powers. But God has other plans for his Christ, and God sometimes has other plans for us.

I’m going to tell you a story. Only a couple of you will know why I’m telling you this story, but it will become clear in a minute, so stick with me. On November 13, 1861, President Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward called on George B. McClellan at the General’s home in Washington.

Two weeks before, President Lincoln had appointed General McClellan as Commander-in-Chief of the entire Union Army, and President Lincoln felt fortunate to have General McClellan as his top soldier.

George McClellan was a wunderkind: he hailed from a prominent Philadelphia family, he was second in his class at West Point even though he was two years younger than his classmates, he was President of a railroad at the age of 30, and now the youngest General among the Union Troops. He was famous and beloved throughout the Northern States; Americans called him Young Napoleon.

But all of this privilege and talent and opportunity went to his head and gave him an insufferable superiority complex. To his subordinates and in letters to his wife, he repeatedly disparaged the President’s intelligence; at various occasions, he called the President an idiot, a baboon, and a gorilla.

So on November 13, 1861, President Lincoln and Secretary Seward call on General McClellan to ask him why he is not using one of the largest and best-equipped armies in the world to chase down a Confederate force that is perhaps half as big as his own.

When the President and the Secretary get to the General’s House, a servant tells them that the General is at a wedding and might not be home for some time, but they are welcome to wait. So there are the President and the Secretary of State waiting in the parlor at the General’s house.

An hour goes by. Finally President Lincoln asks a servant if the General will be home soon, and the servant replies, “Oh, the General has been home for some time now; he was not feeling well and went straight to bed.”

William Seward is just apoplectic. He wants to demote the General on the spot to cavalry stable boy, but the President says, “Let it pass, Mr. Seward. I will hold the General’s horse for him if he will bring me victory.”[1] Abraham Lincoln might have been one of the most egoless Americans who ever lived.

Fast forward three years to the summer of 1864. General McClellan is long gone from his command, fired for failing to use a splendid Army to win a brutal war.   The War is going horribly for the Union. Their huge and bristling armies keep getting demolished by smaller, underfed, undergunned, unshod Confederate forces. In the summer of 1864, Abraham Lincoln is the most loathed person on the planet. No American President before or since has been as unpopular as President Lincoln in the summer of 1864.

The Presidential Election of 1864 is fast approaching in the fall. Many of you will know who his Democratic opponent will be in the general election: General George B. McClellan. The Democratic Convention that year was–where? —in Chicago, in the President’s home state, where the Democrats were calling the war a total failure, and preparing to negotiate with the Confederacy, which would have meant, of course, a perpetuation of slavery.

The President is all but certain that his old Democratic nemesis will win. Barack Obama had a better chance of winning Alabama in the last Presidential election than President Lincoln had of beating George McClellan in the 1864 election. In August of 1864, Abe and Mary start packing boxes for an early exit from the White House in March of 1865.

And then a remarkable thing happens. On September 1, 69 days before the Presidential election, General Sherman runs an American flag up the flagpole at City Hall in Atlanta, Georgia, and you cannot exaggerate the impact of this victory. The war will last for seven more months, but the fat lady has just sung, and it’s all over. President Lincoln wins the 1864 election in a landslide.

And so by the skin of his teeth, Abraham Lincoln gets the opportunity to deliver a Second Inaugural Address. And finally you see where I am going with this: Abraham Lincoln delivered his Second Inaugural Address 150 years ago this coming Wednesday, March 4, 1865.

We take Second Inaugural Addresses for granted these days; we’ve reelected our last three Presidents, which means that Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama have all had a chance to give a Second Inaugural Address, but it’s actually not all that common. Forty-three men have served as President of the United States, but only 17 of them have given a Second Inaugural Address.

President Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address has been called Lincoln’s Greatest Speech.[2] I don’t know if it’s his greatest—Gettysburg is pretty good, and the First Inaugural is nothing to be ashamed of—but it certainly is his most scriptural and theological. It’s essentially a gloss on our Gospel Lesson for this morning. The President wants to say that God uses cruel Calvaries to accomplish God’s purposes. Sometimes divine justice is achieved only by bloodshed.

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’

On the cusp of a great Union victory—the war will be over in exactly 35 days—on the cusp of a great Union victory, President Lincoln redefines the meaning of the war. As he speaks—as he speaks—William Tecumseh Sherman is laying waste to Georgia and South Carolina on his horrifying March to the Sea. He is draping every tree in the Southern Forest with “Sherman’s neckties”—train rails twisted like ribbons around tree trunks. But President Lincoln wants to say that this is not triumph but punishment, on North and South alike, for the ancient scourge of slavery.

The President’s egolessness, his humility, his astute theological reading of history, is the reason Alabama and Massachusetts are still in the same country.

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

At the White House after the speech, President Lincoln asked his friend Frederick Douglass what he thought about the speech, and Mr. Douglass responded, “Mr. President, that was a sacred effort.” Mr. Douglass always said it sounded more like a sermon than a speech. And I guess it was.

“Take up your cross,” says Jesus to Peter after Peter gets the right answer for the wrong reason. “If any want to follow me, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the gospel, will save it.


[1]James M. McPerson, Battlecry of Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 364; and Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005), p. 383

[2]Ronald C. White, Jr., my church history professor from seminary, wrote a wonderful book with this title: Lincoln’s Greatest Speech (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002).