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The Popularity Trap

September 12, 2015

I was born in Yorkshire, a county famous for straight talking honesty that borders on rudeness, at least to those from elsewhere. While I agree that there is a real place for tact I also feel more comfortable with plain, honest speaking than with nice sounding lies. At least you know where you are. I’m now in Norfolk and I’ve found Norfolk folk to be not that different from those in Yorkshire. I’ve found lots of warmth, for definite. I’ve also encountered lots of real honesty, enough to make me feel right at home here.

I often think of Jesus as being from Yorkshire, or now from Norfolk. He and his disciples speak a radical honesty that is so refreshing to hear. Jesus is honest in a way that no good politician would dare to be. In Mark 8.34 he tells the crowds exactly where following him will lead, to the cross. That can’t have gone down too well with those listening, I wonder if it made some of them start to slip away.

He didn’t seem to care that his words were losing him his hard earned popularity. Now, most of us, me included, are so attracted by the thought of being popular. Being popular is not a bad thing in itself but the need for popularity can be deadly. Once, I or anyone, fall for that trap all honesty flies out of the window. Even straight talking Peter falls for this trap when he hears Jesus say,

“The nation’s leaders, the chief priests, and the teachers of the Law of Moses will make the Son of Man suffer terribly. He will be rejected and killed, but three days later he will rise to life.” (Mark 8.31 CEV)

He hears this and sees the crowds start to waver. What was Jesus doing? You don’t win recruits by telling them that their leader is going to lose, suffer, fail and die a humiliating death. He’d had them eating out of his hand now he was driving them away. Seeing Jesus making such a great ‘mistake’ Peter steps in to stop him before it’s too late – you can almost hear the panic in his voice. Maybe, the pressure of preaching and teaching and healing during the day and praying all night had finally got to Jesus. Jesus was exhausted, he’d ‘lost it’ and Peter had to act. Peter was known as the decisive one, he couldn’t trust the others to step in so in he dives. I don’t know what he was expecting as a response but I am pretty sure it wasn’t what Jesus actually said,

“Satan, get away from me! ”’

Jesus had called Peter, ‘Satan’ the personification of temptation and evil. Peter must have felt as if he’d been slapped. I’m always surprised he didn’t hit Jesus, it must have hurt that much!

This is a warning to me and to anyone who teaches or preaches. The temptation to be popular, to be the centre of attention, when it is God who should be centre stage, and only him. The temptation to sugar coat the message of Jesus and dodge the difficult challenge that life as a Christian is likely to bring. Yes, when I came to Jesus, the Spirit gave me love, joy, peace and so much more, but he also made me more and more aware of the problems around me; painfully aware. With love comes pain and peace is hard, often thankless work. When talking about my faith I am so tempted to focus on the love and joy and peace because I know that knowing Jesus is so wonderful. I want people to experience all of that wonder for themselves so I’m tempted not to put them off with the bit about picking up my cross and following Jesus.

This is a huge temptation but I must resist, otherwise the Good News is clearly wishful thinking, sweetness and light, and not for the realities of this world. The truth could not be more different.

I have found that the Spirit working in me has made me a more compassionate person. But that compassion has a cost: money to good causes, and time spent helping simply because there is a need. The Spirit brings love, but with loves comes care and pain when the object of that love is hurt and abused.

I think of Peter tricked into being Satan and I see myself in Peter’s place. There but for the grace of God go I. I read this story and pray for honesty to preach the whole of Jesus’ Good News, not just the fashionable bits. I pray it for myself and for all Christians. I pray to listen and respond to the Spirit, to value the Father’s opinion of me and no other.

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