Sunday, August 24, 2008

Fifteenth Sunday in Pentecost
Isaiah 51:1-6
Psalm 138
Romans 12:1-8
Matthew 16:13-20

He saith unto them, But who say ye that I am?

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's Elijah.” “He could be Jeremiah.” “Perhaps he's 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.

Earlier in chapter sixteen of Matthew, the Pharisees and Sadducees approached Jesus and demanded that He show them a sign. Certainly they had heard of the miraculous healings and the feast of bread and fish. They may even have heard about Jesus' walking on water, but it was not enough for them to hear about the miracles. They wanted proof; they wanted to see it for themselves. Jesus was unwilling to be tested. He was not a trained monkey who would respond to the whims of the crowd. His miracles came with faith, not by command.

Instead Jesus offered them only one sign – the sign of Jonah. That comment may not have made sense to the disciples or the Pharisees in His time, but post resurrection eyes we know that Jesus was referring to His death and burial. After this conversation Jesus warned the disciples to beware of the yeast of the Pharisees. They did not understand Him at first, but they soon realized that Jesus was referring to their teaching. The Pharisees took what was beautiful and used it to their own purpose.

God's Word, His Law, is beautiful. The Law demands an impossible righteousness, but God grants those who live by faith a 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. The teachers and all those they taught were blind to the truth of Jesus’ identity. It was hidden from them.

In today's lesson Jesus asks His disciples, "So, what are they saying about me out there?" The disciples gave Him a list of interesting ideas. Some thought Jesus might be John the Baptist, Elijah, a prophet like Moses or Jeremiah. They were looking for God’s voice in their world, for a prophet 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.” For just one moment, Peter saw Jesus clearly and confessed faith in the Savior of the world. He would soon fail again, but for now we see Peter confessing true faith.

We know this is the right answer because Jesus tells Peter that he has said something only God Himself could have revealed. Peter still didn’t understand. He didn’t understand what it meant that Jesus was the Messiah. For him, the Messiah was to be a military hero, a crowned king, and earthly ruler. Yet, by God’s grace Peter at least recognized that Jesus was the Messiah. It would not be until after the crucifixion, resurrection and Pentecost that Peter and the disciples by the power of the Holy Spirit would fully understand.

Today’s Gospel passage is the source of much debate about the nature of Jesus, the nature of the church and the relationship of Peter to the church. We could spend hours discussing these questions, noting Peter’s confession of faith and how he fails to understand fully what he has said. What is important to remember is that God has revealed the truth to Peter and that there is more to come. Peter and the disciples have not seen the whole story. They may think they understand, but until the end, until the resurrection and Pentecost, they will not fully understand what God is doing in and through Jesus. Even then the disciples would continue to learn and grow as they helped to establish the Church for Christ.

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. And we live our lives continually learning and growing in faith so that we will come to know Him more and more each day.

It always surprises me that Jesus says, “Don’t tell anyone.” After all, it was not that long after that Jesus commands the Church to tell the world. Why the silence now? 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 the Church which he represented in this story, could 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.

This year’s Olympic Games offer a perfect example of this concept. Michael Phelps has won a record eight gold medals. In the past few weeks, he’s been interviewed and profiled; every aspect of his life has been reported including his eating habits. We’ve met his mother and sister and seen their faces as Michael won contest after contest. We’ve heard from his teammates, coaches and friends back home. He has been the center of attention. His accomplishment has brought attention to the sport of swimming. Reports indicate that more children and youth are signing up to be involved with the sport this fall. He has brought honor to swimming, succeeding in one of his key goals.

The attention on Michael Phelps has had its disadvantages, however. There has been little attention paid to the other astounding athletes. Natalie Coughlin, for instance, is an American woman who has dominated women’s swimming, winning six medals this year. Add those to the five medals she won four years ago in Athens, which is one medal for every Olympic event in which she has competed. This is an amazing feat, too. She is the first woman to do so. She has set her own records. But we hardly know her. Natalie is taking it in stride. When interviewed and asked how she felt about Michael Phelps getting all the attention, she said, “He deserves every ounce of respect and admiration and attention that he gets because what he's doing is incredibly phenomenal. I am not jealous one bit. Being his teammate for so many years, you get desensitized to how amazing he is. I think many years down the road, me and the other members of the team will realize what an incredible performance he put on for everybody here.”

No matter how good Michael Phelps is at his sport, he’s also humble enough to realize that he could not have done this by himself. He’s always so thankful for the support of his family, bringing up his mom at every opportunity. His coach is like a father. And his teammates are vital. At least one of his record breaking gold medals would never have been his without the incredible push during a team relay race by his friend and teammate Jason Lezak. They were in second place until Jason made an amazing comeback and won by eight hundredths of a second. That does not sound like much, but in Olympic timekeeping, eight hundredths of a second is an eternity.

Michael Phelps earned those medals through his hard work and commitment, but he is not the only one who deserves the credit. Credit also goes to his mom and family, his coach and his teammates. Together they accomplished this great feat.

The same can be said about our faith journey. 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.

Paul writes, “And having gifts differing according to the grace that was given to us, whether prophecy, let us prophesy according to the proportion of our faith; or ministry, let us give ourselves to our ministry; or he that teacheth, to his teaching; or he that exhorteth, to his exhorting: he that giveth, let him do it with liberality; he that ruleth, with diligence; he that showeth mercy, with cheerfulness.” What would we be without one another?

In today’s Old Testament passage from Isaiah, God is speaking to His people. He 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 listening were the fulfillment of that promise. They were the children of Abraham.

We now are also the fulfillment of that promise. We are of those many nations that came from the bosom of Abraham and from his wife Sarah. 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. It is ours to live in hope waiting patiently for that which will last forever.

Peter may not have understood completely what Jesus would do as the Messiah, but he knew that Jesus was the answer to their patient waiting. Through Jesus the promise of righteousness and salvation would be fulfilled. They would not understand until they saw the rest of the story, until they lived through the crucifixion, resurrection and Pentecost. But they knew God was faithful and that He would finish what He started.

Although today’s psalm has similar language to the Davidic psalms, most experts suggest that it was written after the exiles returned to Jerusalem. 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. All other ‘gods’ are brought low as the Mighty One is raised high.

The psalmist speaks about God’s name because where His name is spoken He is. God dwells amongst those who remember His goodness and pray for His continued care. He helps the poor and humble, raises the lowly and sets the prisoners free. The psalmist reminds us that God brings down those who raise themselves up and stands far off from those who are haughty. We see this in the way Jesus deals with the Pharisees and teachers of the Law.

It is interesting that we might talk about glory in this time when the Olympics are at the center of the entire world’s attention. There at the games many are being glorified for the things that they do. They are receiving magnificent medals, placed on pedestals and honored by the crowds for their gifts. Yet, we are reminded in today’s passage that there is a much different type of glory, a much more spectacular glory, which is found not in our accomplishments but in our faith. As we sing praise to God, He is glorified. He is found dwelling wherever His name is praised. Amongst His people, even in their times of trouble, His glory shines for the world to see. We are blessed and the world is blessed as we shine God’s glory into their lives.

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 it means to us today. He still asks us the two questions. He asks, “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. But the question that truly matters is the one He asks each of us, “Who do you say that I am?” Our answer, and how we live out that answer in this world, is all that really matters.

Believing that He is the Savior means seeing ourselves as little more than rocks. However, believing in Him also means that we are covered with His righteousness. We look to the rock from which we have come and see the salvation that comes through Jesus Christ our Lord. It is there we find the strength to live and love and rejoice. It is there and within the fellowship of believers, that we can shine His glory so that the world will see Him as He is and be blessed.

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