Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look on the earth beneath; for the heavens will vanish away like smoke, and the earth will wear out like a garment; and its inhabitants will die in the same way:but my salvation will be forever, and my righteousness will not be abolished.
Today’s Gospel text is a turning point in Jesus’ ministry. Matthew was a brilliant rabbi who did not just report the events surrounding Jesus’ life and ministry; he wove a story that pointed toward the purpose of Jesus’ life. In the first part, Matthew introduces us to Jesus. He tells us about His nativity and youth, as well as 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. Jesus teaches and then gives the people a very real example of the lesson. The second part ends with today’s Gospel passage: the confession of Peter. From this point forward in Matthew’s story, Jesus will set His feet toward Jerusalem and the cross.
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. The healings and the stories revealed to the world that Jesus was the One for whom they waited. That was all any of them needed
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. They demanded a sign from heaven, yet they had been given multiple signs. They didn’t want to see the truth because it would turn their world upside down.
Jesus’ question is one we still ask. “Who do you say that Jesus is?” We like to define Jesus as a good guy, a healer, teacher and prophet. We like to see His radical hospitality and His generosity. He is friend, brother, wonderworker. My Sunday school class has been looking at the many characteristics of Jesus, a study that lasted months because there is so much we can say about Him. 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. We love to hear the stories and to study the lessons that have been recorded in the scriptures. Yet, no matter how much we believe and love Jesus, we all struggle with the reality that Jesus came to die. The signs may have revealed Jesus as the Messiah, but faith in His ministry would never have been enough to save us. Jesus Christ had to complete the work He was sent to do.
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 gaining the attention of the temple leaders. He had a following. 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 Christ, the Son of the living God.” For just one moment, Peter saw Jesus clearly and confessed faith in the Savior of the world. It wasn’t of his own doing.
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.
Note that Jesus addresses Peter as Simon Bar Jonah in His answer. Peter is the son of a man named John; Jonah as a variant of that name. By using this formal title, Jesus accentuates the truth of Peter’s confession. Jesus is the Son of God, the Christ who came to dwell among for a purpose.
In today’s Old Testament passage, God says, “Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look on the earth beneath; for the heavens will vanish away like smoke, and the earth will wear out like a garment; and its inhabitants will die in the same way: but my salvation will be forever, and my righteousness will not be abolished.” We don’t need another earthly king; we need a Savior.
Peter confessed his faith that Jesus is Lord, but Jesus’ relationship with the people went downhill from that moment. They want something different than what He is willing to give. The miracles and stories continue, but they are more pointed as Jesus moves toward the cross. Jesus refuses to be what they want: an earthly king that meets their physical needs. He is the Anointed One who will fulfill all God’s promises.
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 people went to see his relics. The Danes viciously tortured and killed him, then went on to ravage the land.
The abbey built in his 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. All this cost money and though the abbey had great wealth they did not limit their desires to what they could afford. They were no different than us 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 was too great to make the entire building out of the best stone, so instead of making walls solid with hewn stone, 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 layers a mixture of mortar and discarded stone. Though the walls were several feet thick, only a foot or so of expensive stone was used to create the beautiful face. 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 statues of 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 left behind 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 therein, 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. We might appear to be nothing more than the garbage the builders used to make the walls of those ancient cathedrals look bigger, 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.
Peter seems to stand alone as he makes his confession of faith, but while he was the first, Peter is also standing in for the whole body of Christ. The other disciples may have come to the realization at a later time, but all but Judas eventually came to understand Jesus and His purpose. The disciples 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.
God covers all our garbage by clothing us with Christ, but this is not just attributed to the individual. 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.
Paul reminds us not to think too highly of ourselves. Paul 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. What would we be without one another?
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 the other gods are brought low as the Mighty One is raised high.
The psalmist speaks about God’s name because He is where His name is spoken. 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 are reminded in today’s passage that God’s glory is different from that of the world. It is a spectacular glory 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 because Jesus finished the work He was sent to do. By the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ has been revealed to us and we can know who Jesus is and understand what He means to us today. He still asks us the two questions. He asks, “Who does the world say that I am.” There are a thousand different answers to this question. 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.
We can never 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. It 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 will fail miserably, but he was given a measure of faith that did not fail in the end. The disciples joined in the chorus of praise to God, “Though I walk in the middle of trouble, you will revive me. You will stretch out your hand against the wrath of my enemies. Your right hand will save me.” We can rest in this promise, too, for God is faithful.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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