Sunday, August 24, 2014

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

For who hath known the mind of the Lord? or who hath been his counsellor?

As we’ve talked about the Gospel of Matthew over the past few weeks, we’ve seen that Matthew was a brilliant rabbi who did not just report the events surrounding Jesus’ life and ministry; he wove a story that pointed toward one thing. In the first part, Matthew introduced us to Jesus. He told us about the birth and about His preparation, including his relationship with John the Baptist. In the second part, Matthew shows Jesus proclaiming the message of His life, He is followed by the crowds and they see the parables in action. The second part ends with today’s Gospel passage: the confession of Peter.

This is a turning point for Jesus. Everything He has said and done was for one purpose: to prove that He is the Messiah. His sermons showed the people that He had the authority. His miracles showed them He had the power. His conversations with the religious leaders showed how He was different than all those who came before Him. At this point the people believed, they were following Jesus and looking to Him for their salvation. Of course, they did not truly understand what God intended for His Messiah.

Peter’s confession is only the second time since the birth story in Matthew that Jesus was referred to as the Christ. The first time was when John was in prison; he sent his followers to Jesus to ask if He was the Messiah. Jesus told them to report to John what they had seen and heard. His identity as the Christ, the Messiah, was wrapped up in His ministry. It was the proof John needed. It was all any of them needed, although many were concerned that Jesus would unravel their world. The Pharisees and Sadducees recognized that there was something different about Jesus, but they were afraid. They didn’t want a king who would take away their power and authority. Early in chapter sixteen they demanded a sign from heaven. Jesus told them that the only sign they would see is the sign of Jonah.

Jesus was already pointing toward the purpose of His life. We like to think that Jesus was a good guy, a healer, teacher and prophet. We like to see His radical hospitality and His generosity. Many Christians today like to stop there. Just like Peter. They don’t like to think that the whole reason Jesus came was to die.

Now, we won’t see Peter’s rebuke until next week’s Gospel lesson, but it is important to see today’s story in the context of what comes next. Peter confessed his faith that Jesus is Lord, but Jesus’ relationship with the people will go downhill from here. He is of one mind now; He is moving toward the cross. The sermons and miracles will continue, but they will be more pointed. Jesus is not telling us that God has sent an earthly king to meet their physical needs. He is the Promised One who would fulfill all God’s promises.

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. Jesus Christ the Messiah was sent to reconcile God with His people, not only of one nation, but all nations through the forgiveness of sin.

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, patiently waiting for that eternity He earned for us at the cross.

There are several abandoned quarries in and around San Antonio, Texas, as there are in many other places. These quarries are often seen as the unfortunate and ugly consequence of digging stone out of the earth. The stones might be beautiful, but the removal of that stone leaves a huge hole in the landscape. We want the stone, but we are disturbed by the eyesore left behind. How could anything beautiful come out of that? Fortunately, many cities have found ways of using these abandoned quarries, such as transforming them into theme parks and sports stadiums. In these places, the quarry actually becomes a beautiful backdrop.

Isaiah tells us that those who pursue righteousness are like stones hewn from a quarry. Sadly, we don’t look much like beautiful stone, do we? As a matter of fact, we don’t always seem like we are really children of Abraham. We are sinners; we make mistakes. Israel turned from God and worshipped false gods over and over again. They did not do justice in the world. They were unable to keep the Law. We are exactly the same, cut from the same quarry. However, God’s promise still stands, as much for us as for them.

Even father Abraham was not perfect; his righteousness was not based on his goodness, but simply on his God-given faith. God says, “Listen to me, you who seek the Lord. Look to your history, your father Abraham and your mother Sarah.” God’s people have always been cut from the same quarry; the stories of Abraham and Sarah have been irrevocably woven into our lives. God promised that Abraham would be the father of many nations, but that seemed like an empty promise given to a man who had no hope. Yet, Abraham believed, and he became the father of not just one son, but of all the people of faith.

We could not have done it ourselves. Unfortunately, we like to try. We like to seek our own righteousness, that’s why Jesus is more palatable as the kind of Messiah who offers a tangible salvation from our physical problems. We prefer the Jesus we see in the first half of Matthew. It becomes very uncomfortable when Jesus begins talking about death. Even the idea that Jesus is the Son of the Living God is too difficult for us to comprehend.

That’s why the words that came out of Peter’s mouth were not his own. Peter made the great confession, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus was overjoyed that Peter answered His question with those words. They had been discussing what the people thought about Jesus. There were rumors and guesses, but Peter gave the true answer. Peter gave the only answer. Only the Christ, the Son of the Living God would be able to accomplish the work of God in this world. Only He could fulfill God’s promises and restore God’s people.

Jesus told Peter that He would build His church on that rock. We often debate over the meaning of this promise. Is Peter the rock? Is the confession the rock? I think the answer might be a little bit of both. Peter is the first to make that confession of faith, to declare the truth of who Jesus Christ really is. And yet, Peter isn’t much better than the jumble of rocks left behind after the quarry is abandoned. He isn’t really all that beautiful. He continues to fail. He continues to misunderstand Jesus. We’ll see his greatest failure next week.

But there is great comfort in knowing that Peter is just like you and I.

Jesus’ question is something that we must answer, too. Who do you say that Jesus is? There are a million words that we can use to answer. He is a friend, teacher, rabbi. He is our brother. He is the living water, the bread of life, the gate. He is the great high priest and the lamb of God. He is all these things and more. Peter was inspired to answer the question, “Who do you say that I am?” with the truth that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. This is a revelation that God makes to each believer; He fills our mouths with the words.

Here’s the strange part of today’s passage. Jesus tells the disciples to keep the confession a secret. “Don’t tell anyone,” He says. Why would He do such a thing? After all, in a short time Jesus would command the Church to be His witnesses. Why 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.

That’s exactly the point of Jesus’ call to silence. Jesus is not King because of what He did during His life or ministry. The authority He has over life and death was established 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.

It is this act that was the answer to the prayer in today’s Psalm; 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.

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. 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. Blessing comes, not only for ourselves but for the whole world, when we glorify God.

Paul reminds us not to think too highly of ourselves. The God we worship is beyond our reach. We may try to search His wisdom and knowledge, but it is well beyond our human capability to fully and completely know Him. When I first began writing this devotional, I did a series on scuba diving. One day I used the text from Romans.

In that devotional I talked about the Mariana Trench in the Western Pacific Ocean, which is the deepest discovered submarine trench in the world. It is 1500 miles long, averages over 40 miles in width, and has a maximum known depth of 36, 201 feet. That is seven thousand feet deeper than Mount Everest is tall. Obviously, we have very little information about this wonder. Man is not able to scuba dive at those depths, even with the best equipment. Recent technology has made it possible for robotics to explore the bottom, but the vastness of area makes it impossible to study every inch. There are mysteries under the sea which will go unanswered.

The Bible clearly teaches that we are to seek God. The word ‘seek’ is used over 200 times and 2/3 of the instances of that word are in reference to seeking the things of God. Bible studies and prayer are necessary for us to know God as He is. There are certain things that are easy to explain and understand. Yet, there remain mysteries too far beyond our comprehension. We try to put God into a box, but God is bigger than we can grasp. It is good that there is mystery to God; after all, would a god that is knowable be able to do what our Lord God Almighty was able to do?

Paul writes, “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service. And be not fashioned according to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, and ye may prove what is the good and acceptable and perfect will of God.” We may not ever fully understand God, but that does not mean we are to stop seeking. Our work in this world is to continually discern God’s will, to constantly be transformed by the renewing of our mind. It isn’t a once and done thing; our faith takes work. It takes commitment. It takes prayer and study and fellowship with other Christians.

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 two questions: “Who does the world say that I am?” and “Who do you say that I am?” We can see a thousand different answers to the first question. 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 answer to the second question is the one that truly matters. Our answer, and how we live out that answer in this world, is all that really matters.

We believe that He is the Christ, the Son of the Living God when we see ourselves as little more than ugly rocks. However, believing in Him also means that we are covered with His righteousness. We look to the rock from which we have been hewn 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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