Sunday, August 23, 2020

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
Isaiah 51:1-6
Psalm 138
Romans 11:33-12:8
Matthew 16:13-20

Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

I heard on the radio the other day that someone has decided to do a remake of a movie that was popular decades ago. This is common these days, and I always think to myself, “I guess we’ve run out of stories.” I say that, but I confess that I have been doing reruns, too. I have been writing “A Word for Today” for over twenty-one years, and there are some mornings when I have a very difficult time finding something new to say. So, I dig into my archives and find a relevant devotional, edit and post it as new. I’ve done reruns of my favorites since the beginning, but it is becoming more common these days. My life just hasn’t been that interesting (especially the past five months!) and God’s Word is timeless, so it works.

The interesting thing about this process, though, is the memories of the stories I’ve related in the past. Sometimes I remember the events, sometimes they are like they are the stories of strangers. I try to remember the friend with whom I’ve had the conversation, or the place where the event happened. After twenty years, it is hard to remember those details. This devotional has been like a journal, but the memories have not always been worth remembering.

There are lots of reasons why we don’t remember. I’ve had visits with my siblings and they have told me things that haven’t been part of my personal story as I tell it. They are significantly older than me, so they recall interesting bits of my early years that I don’t remember. Apparently we had a pony for a few months and went on vacations I will never remember. I had a broken leg when I was just a baby, having fallen down the stairs under my brother’s watchful eye. These stories will only be part of my memory because they have told them to me. Although I will never remember those events or many of the people involved, they are a part of my history and I am who I am because of them.

In the passage from Isaiah, God is speaking to His people through the prophet Isaiah. He says, “Listen to me you who seek the Lord. Look to your history, your father Abraham and your mother Sarah.” None of them would have known Abraham personally; they would not have known about Abraham and Sarah’s everyday life. Yet, the story of Abraham and Sarah are irrevocably woven into their lives. They believed promise given to Abraham that He would be the father of many nations, despite being a man with no hope for a future. They were the fulfillment of that promise: they were the children of Abraham.

We are also the fulfillment of that promise. We are of those many nations that came from the bosom of Abraham and from Sarah his wife. Because the promise was fulfilled, we can rest in all God’s promises, including those found in this passage. We will be comforted. God will look upon His children with compassion. He will restore His people and they will rejoice. We will become the light that shines to the world, manifesting God’s justice and peace. God will grant us His righteousness and His salvation. The promise is ours and we are called to live in hope, waiting patiently for eternity.

It is also up to us to tell the story.

That’s why it surprises us that Jesus says, “Don’t tell anyone” in today’s Gospel lesson. After all, it was not much later that Jesus commanded the Church to tell the world. Why the silence in this passage? 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. Wouldn’t He want committed followers right from the beginning?

The point of Jesus’ call to silence is that it wasn’t the right time. Peter and the disciples had not yet seen the whole story. They thought they understood, but until the resurrection and Pentecost, they would not fully understand what God was doing in and through Jesus. Jesus’ authority was not built solely on His life and actions during His ministry with the disciples. 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 story was complete. A detail still needed to be revealed. A light still needed to shine. Then, and only then, could Peter and the Church which he represents in this story, fully live God’s calling in this world.

To reach this moment, Jesus asked, “Who do the people say that I am?” The disciples gave Him a list of interesting choices. They thought Jesus might be John the Baptist, Elijah, or a prophet like Moses or Jeremiah. They were looking for God’s voice in their world, for someone that would give them hope for their future. They wanted deliverance. They wanted freedom. They wanted to be the great and golden nation they had once been, and they were looking for God’s representative to tell them how to make it happen.

Jesus then asked another question, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” By God’s grace Peter recognized that Jesus was the Messiah. There was still work to do, but the disciples were on the right track. Though Jesus silenced them at this moment, they would eventually be sent into the world to tell the story. We still hear it today through their words in the scriptures. Just as we benefit from the promise to Abraham though we barely know him, we also benefit from the lessons Jesus taught the disciples so long ago even though we only have a part of the story. We have enough to hear and believe.

He still asks us, “Who does the world say that I am?” We can see a thousand different answers to this question today. To the world He was a teacher, a rabbi, a miracle worker and a good man. He was a radical willing to stand up against the injustice of His day. He’s a friend, a comforter, a guide whose example we would do well to follow. These are good answers, but they by no means reach the depth of the truth of Jesus’ identity.

It doesn’t matter what the world thinks anyway, because Jesus asks each of us the next question. “Who do you say that I am?” We spend our lives pondering the answer to this question, as we grow in faith and understanding about God’s grace in our lives.

Jesus answered Peter’s confession, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, 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.

The image of rocks from Isaiah reminds me of the many historical ruins we visited while living in England. We also visited buildings that were still standing, some a thousand years old. Yet, there was something particularly poignant about the sites that were left bare from years of destruction, neglect and theft.

The abbey in Bury St. Edmunds was one of the most popular pilgrimage sites for many years. Edmund was a hero of the British people because in the middle of the ninth century he stood up against the Danes to save his throne and the Christian faith. The Danes viciously tortured and killed him, then went on to ravage the land. The abbey built in Edmund’s honor was a grand complex with a magnificent church more than five hundred feet long and two hundred feet wide. There were also many other buildings used for the business of the abbey. Today there is little more than foundational footprints left behind. My visit to those ruins helped me understand the methods the medieval builders used to create the abbeys and churches we still visit today.

The builders wanted to create thick walls that would survive weather, enemies and time. They also wanted the buildings to be impressive, with the most beautiful stone, carvings and towers. The cost was extraordinary and though the abbey was extremely wealthy, they wanted to reach for the stars. They didn’t limit their desires by a budget. They were no different than we are today. It seems to be human nature to always reach just beyond our resources so that we can have bigger and better things.

The cost to build the grand cathedrals was too much to use hewn stone for the entire building. Though the walls were several feet thick, only a foot or so of expensive stone was used to create the beautiful face. They couldn’t use the best stone, so they laid a foundation, built a layer of the fine crafted stone on the outside and inside of the wall and then filled between these stones a mixture of mortar and discarded stone. The garbage in the middle was never seen until the abbey fell. The abbey was eventually left to the ravages of weather, enemies and time. The beautiful stone was stolen to be used in other buildings and the mortared garbage was left behind. No one wanted the junk, they just wanted to beautiful stone. They walls now look like cobblestone towers.

Isaiah uses the image of God’s people being stone, like rocks hewn from a quarry. He reminds the people to look to the foundation of their faith, to their father Abraham and mother Sarah. God’s people were founded in the promises given to them. Though Abraham was old, God provided him with a son that would become the father of many. Those promises were given to us, too; the foundation of our faith was started with our father Abraham.

None of us look like stones hewn from a quarry or the beautiful buildings that were built with that stone. We are far more like the mortar and discarded stone, the garbage left behind. We look like the cobblestone towers in the ruins of the abbey. We are sinners and no matter how good we seem to look, we can’t hide from our Father what is our hearts. 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 left them in ruins, the beautiful facade stolen away over time.

The passage from Isaiah offers a promise, not only to the people in his day, but to us even today. Isaiah writes, “For Yahweh has comforted Zion. He has comforted all her waste places, and has made her wilderness like Eden, and her desert like the garden of Yahweh. Joy and gladness will be found in them, thanksgiving, and the voice of melody.” The passage points to a future promise that was fulfilled in Jesus. “My righteousness is near. My salvation has gone out, and my arms will judge the peoples. The islands will wait for me, and they will trust my arm.” We are called to look toward the heavens and rest in the promise that God’s answer to our worries and fears is eternal. The world may thing we are nothing more than the garbage the builders used in the walls of those ancient cathedrals, but we are stones hewn by God Himself. He has given us what we need to inherit His Kingdom forever. He has revealed Jesus as the Christ to us so that we will believe.

Jesus would be worth following if He were just a prophet, teacher, rabbi, miracle worker, radical, friend, comforter, or guide whose example we would do well to follow, because He is a man of authority. But Jesus is so much more. He is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. This is reason to worship Him.

The psalmist sings, “I will bow down toward your holy temple, and give thanks to your Name for your loving kindness and for your truth; for you have exalted your Name and your Word above all.” We praise His name because He has fulfilled His promises. Singing a song of praise brought the singer into the presence of God. He dwells where His name dwells. He dwells in the hearts and on the lips of the faithful who sing about His goodness. As they sing, they not only show their praise to God, but they reveal His wondrous goodness to the world. Thus, God is made known to those who have not believed through the praise and thanksgiving of God’s people, and with our voices we remind the world that all other gods are lowly while the Mighty One is raised high.

There may have been a time when Jesus commanded silence, but He has given us a new command. We are Easter people, living after the story has been completed. By the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ has been revealed to us and we can know who Jesus is and understand what the Gospel means. We are called to sing His praise before the world, to shine His light into the darkness, to tell our neighbors His story by telling them about our faith, so that others will benefit from all His promises.

Peter seems to stand alone as he makes his confession of faith, but while he was the first, Peter also represents the whole body of Christ. He was the first, and then after Pentecost the disciples came to understand Jesus and His purpose. They saw Jesus as the revealed Word of God in flesh, the Savior, the Son. They became sons of God by faith, hewn by God's own hand. And they were called to tell the story. Their witness led to our faith; our witness leads to the faith of others.

Paul reminds us not to think too highly of ourselves, though, to consider our lives 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. What would we be without one another?

We are like that garbage that filled the walls of those ancient churches, but God covers us by clothing us with Christ. Paul reminds us that our faith brings us into relationship with Christ and also with others who are in Christ. We are made into one body. On the foundation of the promises of God, the hewn stone of Jesus Christ is laid and we are poured into the walls, coming together as one Church through one faith and one baptism.

Just like Peter, we can never come to a bold confession of faith without God’s grace. He puts the Word in our hearts and the words in our mouths that Jesus is Lord. Our life of faith begins with the humble realization that we are little more than the garbage that filled the walls of the abbey church, sinners in desperate need of a Savior. Believing in Him also means that we are covered with His righteousness, the beautiful hewn stones from the quarry. Our faith is built on the foundation which Jesus laid; we are blessed with the salvation that comes through Jesus Christ our Lord. It is there we find the strength to live and love and rejoice. Our earthly troubles, whatever they may be, are temporary because God has promised that His salvation is eternal.

God revealed to those first disciples that Jesus was the Word which was exalted above all else. They might have wondered about Jesus, His identity and purpose, but everything changed once He was revealed as the Christ. They began a new journey that would lead them into danger. Despite his confession Peter failed miserably but God gave him a measure of faith that did not fail in the end.

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 His 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 Jesus as He truly is. He is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, the One who brings God’s eternal salvation to the world.

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