Sunday, August 21, 2011

Lectionary 21A
Isaiah 51:1-6
Psalm 138
Romans 12:1-8
Matthew 16:13-20

I will give thee thanks with my whole heart: Before the gods will I sing praises unto thee.

The drought in Texas is affecting many people in many ways. The cattlemen must thin their herds. Farmers are losing their crops. Wild animals are moving into cities in search of water, creating problems in suburban areas. A swarm of bees attacked our hummingbird feeder the other day, so desperate for water. We were afraid to go out our door. There’s a story on the news today that ants are invading more homes looking for coolness, water and food. Though ants are always a problem, they are worse right now than ever.

One of the major affects that homeowners are suffering, besides the dead lawn, is foundation damage. As the ground becomes drier with the lack of water, it shrinks away from the foundation. This gives the house room to settle, which leads to cracks. Cracks in the foundation lead to cracks in the wall, broken door and window frames and broken pipes. The problem won’t be obvious immediately. As a matter of fact, some of the worst damage will be done once the rain begins again, because all that water will run under the house and cause the ground to become unsettled. The foundation that once protected the house will slip and cost the homeowners thousands of dollars in repairs.

We’ve tried to protect our foundation by using a soaker hose for a few minutes several times a week. By keeping the soil moist around the house, the foundation will remain stable. The water also helped the grass near the house. But the rest of the yard is dying. I walked across some of the grass the other day and it was like straw. A little water would be a welcome relief for all of us for so many reasons. We could use the comfort offered in today’s Old Testament lesson.

God, speaking through Isaiah, says, “For Jehovah hath comforted Zion; he hath comforted all her waste places, and hath made her wilderness like Eden, and her desert like the garden of Jehovah; joy and gladness shall be found therein, thanksgiving, and the voice of melody.” Things were bad for Judah. They had rejected God by their disobedience, and God allowed the Assyrians to destroy the Northern Kingdom. The people were taken into captivity and exiled. Isaiah warns of what will happen and offers comfort in the promise that God will restore His people. The journey would be difficult, but those who would receive the promise had nothing to fear because the God of the promise would make all things right. The desert would be like a garden, the people would be joyful and thankful.

I had to laugh the day I realized the weathermen were putting a slight chance of rain on the calendar in a few days, every day. It seemed as though they wanted to give us the hope of what could be, but as each day passed and nothing changed, they had to move the chance forward. That promise is not very hopeful because we never see the fulfillment. In our minds we know that the weather will change eventually and it will rain again. But right now we laugh when we hear about the slight possibility and say, “It will never rain again.”

We are suffering just a few months of drought, but God’s people suffered years of exile. As they recalled the promises we read here, how do you think they would feel? Did they look forward to the journey through the desert, even if it was to their home? Would they experience goodness and mercy again, despite the long drought?

God says, “Listen to me you who seek the Lord. Look to your history, your father Abraham and your mother Sarah.” The stories of Abraham and Sarah were irrevocably woven into their lives. The promise on which they live was given first to Abraham, a man alone with no hope for a future to whom God fulfilled His promise of becoming the father of many nations. The people hearing these words were the fulfillment of that promise. The people remembering Isaiah’s prophecy were the fulfillment of that promise. They were all the children of Abraham. They would be comforted because of God’s promise to him; His word is forever faithful.

We are also children of the promise. We come from the same quarry. In the passage from Isaiah, we see the image of God's people being stone, rocks hewn from a quarry. Isaiah reminds the people to look to the foundation of their faith as a people, to their father and their mother: Abraham and Sarah. God's people were founded in the promises given to Abraham and manifest through Sarah. Though Abraham was old, God provided him with a son that would become the father of many. Abraham's seed would extend far beyond one man into many nations.

On the inside we don't look much like a beautiful stone. I would say that we look more like those foundations suffering from the drought. We are sinners and no matter how good we seem to look on the outside, we can't hide the cracks and broken pipes that are hidden beneath. Even God's chosen people made mistakes; they turned from God and worshipped others. They did not do justice in the world. They were unable to keep the Law. Their disobedience made their gardens into wastelands and left them in ruins. No matter how bad it seems today, however, this promise still stands, as much for us as for them: God will bring comfort to His people.

There is a future promise, a promise that was fulfilled in Jesus. “My righteousness is near, my salvation is gone forth, and mine arms shall judge the peoples; the isles shall wait for me, and on mine arm shall they trust.” We are called to look toward the heavens and rest in the promise, “But my salvation shall be for ever, and my righteousness shall not be abolished.”

God’s Word, His Law, is beautiful. The Law demands an impossible righteousness, but God grants those who live by faith righteousness like that of Abraham. We see God revealed through His Word. It is a gift that brings joy and peace to those who believe, but it has been abused and misused by every generation since the beginning of time. It has been used to oppress and manipulate. The yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees bound people and revealed to them a false understanding of God. This kind of teaching blinds God’s people to the reality that Jesus is the Messiah. The message is hidden from the teachers and all those who they teach because they cannot see past their own interpretations. They have built their faith on their own righteousness rather than the reality of God.

Jesus wondered what was being said about Him around town. After all, He’d been doing some incredible things. In the past few weeks we have seen some miraculous events: Jesus fed thousands, He walked on water, He healed a Canaanite woman. Word of His works was getting around. A few weeks ago we heard that Herod suspected that He might be John the Baptist resurrected. Behind the scenes the people were whispering other possibilities. “Maybe he is Elijah.” “He could be Jeremiah.” “Perhaps he is one of the prophets.”

His actions were certainly gaining the attention of the temple leaders. He had gained a following and there was something extraordinary about this man Jesus. There had been other would-be messiahs, political and religious zealots trying to lead the people into some sort of revolt. They were easily disregarded because they had no authority. However, Jesus spoke with power that seemed to come from God Himself.

Jesus wondered about the scuttlebutt. “What are they saying out there about me?” The disciples told him about all the theories. Then Jesus asked His disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Isn’t it wonderful to finally see Peter get something right? It didn't last long because as we will hear next week, but for just one moment, Peter saw Jesus clearly and confessed faith in the Savior of the world.

Jesus answered Peter’s confession, “Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jonah: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father who is in heaven.” Peter's confession of faith was not something parroted from what other people thought about Jesus. It was not from the teachings of the Pharisees and Sadducees, it was not a fearful assumption from a king and it was not a guess from those who knew the stories of the Old Testament. It was a confession of faith hewn by God's own hands. And on that rock, Christ would build His church. Peter didn't confess faith by His own knowledge or ability. It was God Himself that revealed the truth to him. Neither can we come to such a bold profession without God granting us the faith to believe with our hearts and confess with our mouths that Jesus is Lord.

At the end of today’s passage Jesus says, “Don’t tell anyone.” Why? After all, in a short time Jesus would command the Church to be His witnesses. Why the silence at that moment? Shouldn’t they tell the world that Jesus is the Messiah? After all, it would help the crowds to know Jesus better, to follow Him with more commitment, to establish His authority in His day. That’s the point of Jesus’ call to silence. Jesus’ authority was not built solely on His life. The authority He has now, over life and death, was established in its fullness on the cross and in the empty tomb. Peter thought he understood, but he would not understand until the he heard the rest of the story. A detail still needed to be revealed. A light still needed to shine. Then, and only then, could Peter and Christ’s Church fully live God’s calling in this world.

Paul reminds us not to think too highly of ourselves. He calls us to think of ourselves with sober judgment according to the faith we have received. We are individuals, each one gifted by God according to His good and perfect will. As individuals in faith we are joined together by the Holy Spirit as one body to glorify God and build up one another as the church. No matter how good a person is at what they do, they can’t do it by themselves.

We might accomplish great things for the kingdom of God, but we can never take the credit on our own. We are part of a bigger body, a body filled with gifted and committed people who also serve the Lord our God. Together we share God’s kingdom with the world, taking His mercy and His grace to those who need to know His love. We can’t do it alone. We need one another. Most of all, we need God, for all we have comes from Him. We have been hewn, along with the whole Church, from God’s quarry, rocks from which God’s Kingdom is built on the foundation of Christ, the Messiah. We are now, along with Judah, recipients of the promises in Isaiah. We will be comforted. Our wilderness will be made to be like Eden. Our deserts will become gardens. And God’s people will sing with joy and thanksgiving.

The psalmist sings praise to God in thanksgiving for answered prayer. “I will worship toward thy holy temple, And give thanks unto thy name for thy lovingkindness and for thy truth: For thou hast magnified thy word above all thy name.” God revealed to Peter and the first disciples that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. They joined in the wonderment of the people, curious about Jesus identity and purpose, but once He was revealed to them as the Messiah, everything changed. It is at this moment that Jesus sets His feet toward the cross.

The new journey would be dangerous. The leaders did not like the lessons He was teaching or the authority He commanded. They did not like that He had gathered so many followers with His power and His compassion. The disciples would fail, including Peter, would fail, but they were given a measure of faith that would not fail in the end. When everything was complete, when the Holy Spirit rained down on their lives, they took the message of promise found in the reality of Christ the Messiah to the world.

Now, today, we join with the psalmist, the people of Judah, Paul and Peter and the other disciples, and every generation of the Church throughout time in the chorus of thanksgiving, “Though I walk in the midst of trouble, thou wilt revive me; Thou wilt stretch forth thy hand against the wrath of mine enemies, And thy right hand will save me.” We can rest in this promise, for God is faithful. We are sent forth in faith to be God’s witnesses, to tell the story of Jesus the Messiah and how He fulfills God’s every promise. In that obedience, God will fulfill purpose for our lives. Today and every day, sing praise and thanksgiving to God, for He has hewn you out of the solid rock and given you the foundation of faith to see Him as He truly is. He is the Messiah, the One who brings God’s eternal salvation to the world.

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