Sunday, August 28, 2005

Fifteenth Sunday in Pentecost
Jeremiah 15:15-21
Psalm 26:1-8
Romans 12:9-21
Matthew 16:21-28

For what shall a man be profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and forfeit his life? or what shall a man give in exchange for his life?

Imagine the scene. Peter is standing face to face with his Lord Jesus and he has just proclaimed Him the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. How might have Peter felt at that moment. Did he foresee the fame and possible riches of being in the inner circle of the King of Israel? Did he think about the power and prestige that was about to come his way? Perhaps he thought about the fact that he was the one to make the confession – all the disciples were making the same realization at that moment, but Peter was the first one to say it out loud.

Jesus may have used parables and figures of speech to point toward his impending death, but he had never said it outright, at least not in Matthew's Gospel. This was a turning point in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. His disciples knew who He was, but they did not entirely understand what He was to do. Certainly His work in those first few years was amazing. He spoke with authority, He healed with power and He changed lives. He was gaining a following and it would have been so easy to take it to the next step. I can see the thoughts going through Peter's head about all they would accomplish and all the people they would save.

Jesus ruined it all. Just as they were coming to the realization of Jesus' true identity, He told them He was about to die. He told them He would suffer and be killed. Peter missed the promise in this statement, "and on the third day…" What Peter heard was Jesus telling them that the mission would be stopped and that the future was limited. He jumped in and said, "Be it far from thee, Lord: this shall never be unto thee." How could Jesus accomplish the work of the Messiah if He was dead? Jesus told him how. He told Peter that on the third day he would be raised from the dead. Just as Jonah was resurrected in a sense from the belly of that whale, Jesus would no know death for long. He would be raised to live anew and in His resurrection the promise of eternal life will be assured. We live in that hope. We live in the assurance that we will one day share in the glory that Jesus knew ever since that first Easter Day. It is so easy to live in that glory and ignore the cross.

Take, for instance, the gospel that is preached in many churches today. It is a gospel that focuses on the accomplishments of ministry or ministers. It is a gospel that claims we can expect great things to happen. If only we have enough faith, we will succeed. If only we ask, God will give us everything we want. If only we take hold of the promise, we will be given more than a kingdom. It is a gospel that is preached in many congregations. There is no room for the cross. Sin and death have been defeated. Pain and suffering need not be part of a Christian's existence. The kingdom is available today and it is available in the form of fame and riches, power and prestige. All this can be yours if only you have enough faith. If you are poor or sick, unhappy and lonely, then you aren't living in faith. Jesus will transform your life and you will be as a witness to the blessings of God.

This is a theology of glory. It is a theology that focuses on the person and what they can do with their faith. It puts the power in the hands of the believer; it puts the kingdom under the control of the one who confesses rightly. I have no doubt that Peter truly believed what he was saying to Jesus, for the words came from God himself. However, it did not take very long for Peter's perspective to be turned from God's grace to his ability to control God. He answered Jesus' truth with a rebuke. "No way. You won't die."

Some of the people following Jesus thought He might have been a resurrection of one of the prophets. It was even suggested that Jesus might be Jeremiah. There is much in the book of Jeremiah that still speaks to our generations, so perhaps it made sense to them in that time too. Jeremiah was appointed by God to speak out against false prophets, to call attention to the sins of the nation of Israel. Jeremiah believed God was ultimate. He was the Creator of all, omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent. He was not just Israel's God, but the God of everything.

Jeremiah had a difficult time being a prophet. He was persecuted, threatened and even called a traitor. He understood that the Babylonian exile was established by God as just punishment for the rebellion of God's people and he encouraged the survivors to submit. Acceptance of such a heavy burden was deemed unfaithful, only success, wealth and freedom from foreign oppression could be truly a blessing from God. Jeremiah knew that repentance was needed, along with submission and humility.

Sound familiar? In Jesus' day, the Jews were certain the Messiah would come to set them free from the Romans, to restore the nation of Israel as they were in the days of David. Jesus was not alone in preaching the coming kingdom. There were others claiming to be the Messiah, attempting to lead violent rebellions against Rome to take back the throne of Israel. Barabbas, whose name means "son of the father," was reported by Matthew to be a criminal released by Pilate as a gift to the Jews during the Passover celebration. It is suspected that this same Barabbas may have been one of those false messiahs, a murderer who may have been trying to gain military control of the city. These false messiahs saw victory as the only way to make God's will happen.

Jeremiah's attitude brought him persecution and it led him to despair. In the Old Testament lesson for today, he cried out to God in the midst of his pain. He begged God for retribution against his enemies. He laid out his own virtues as the reason why God should respond. He complained to the Lord about his pain and even blamed God for his troubles. "Why is my pain perpetual, and my wound incurable, which refuseth to be healed? wilt thou indeed be unto me as a deceitful brook, as waters that fail?" I can almost imagine Jeremiah in this passage praying the prayer found in today's psalm. The writer tells of his great faith and righteousness. It is all about the psalmist. Jeremiah, too, has a self centered attitude. "Woe is me, I'm such a good believer, why is this happening to me?"

Does that sound familiar? For many, persecution is a sign of their righteousness. They believe they are doing everything so rightly that Satan has to stop them somehow. So, they suffer at the hands of people and receive such suffering as a red badge of courage. It is, to them, the proof of their faith. Yet, it does not take long for despair to set in as a ministry is adversely affected by the difficulty. Instead of seeking God in the midst of such pain, they turn to their own strength. They boast of their rightness instead of turning to God.

God answers Jeremiah's complaint. "If thou return, then will I bring thee again, that thou mayest stand before me; and if thou take forth the precious from the vile, thou shalt be as my mouth: they shall return unto thee, but thou shalt not return unto them." He does not promise to avenge Jeremiah or destroy the enemy. He calls Jeremiah to humble himself, to stand before God and trust. He rebuke's Jeremiah for his worthless chatter. He calls Jeremiah to speak precious words, and in those words Jeremiah will be speaking as God's mouth to His people. Those precious words will turn people to God, not complaints or declarations of righteousness.

All too many people in the church today think that the way to make Christians is to promise them health, wealth and prosperity. This is why they teach the gospel of glory, promoting the promise that faith will bring only good things. Any deviation from such a gospel is seen as treason. This is what Peter must have been thinking when he rebuked Jesus. Jesus' words of suffering and death did not fit into the future Peter expected. Jesus was too powerful, had too much authority. It could not be God's plan to allow the Messiah to suffer at the hands of weak and imperfect men.

Jesus' answer seems so harsh. "Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art a stumbling-block unto me: for thou mindest not the things of God, but the things of men." Satan? Is Jesus calling Peter Satan? Of course not. However, Peter's perspective was not from God. He was thinking only of the glory and not of the sacrifice that was necessary for God's redemption of the world to be complete. God's purpose for Jesus was not to be a great teacher or a great politician or a great prophet. The Father sent the Son to die for the sake of sinful human flesh. He sent Jesus to die for you and for me. While we live in the hope of the glory to come, we can not ignore the cross through which Jesus passed for our salvation.

Jesus' words in today's passage do not get any easier. He told the disciples that they weren't there to be rich and famous, powerful and successful. To follow Jesus would not mean rising up the corporate ladder or taking a position of authority in some earthly kingdom. No, discipleship means death.

Do we have to die on a cross to follow Jesus? No. We have to die to ourselves, our selfishness and our self-righteousness. We have to set aside that theology of glory and stop expecting God to give us the good things because we have enough faith. We have to stop looking at the world through our lenses of self importance and see the world through God's eyes. Through the revelation of God's word both written and flesh, we can see that we are unable to live according to the psalmist's prayer because we fail miserably at being faithful to God. We try to take control, to wield the power and we end up boasting. When things go wrong we complain of the persecution that we are forced to suffer for the sake of God and miss out on the blessings to be found in obedience to God's purpose.

The Gospel message, the message that salvation comes from spilled blood, is a hard one to take. We would rather our God restore the world by grasping onto the power that we want to give to Him through our works and our faith. We are like Peter, wishing God would do our bidding, provide for our every desire and ensure that we will never feel pain. However Jesus never promises them a life free of pain. As a matter of fact, Jesus tells His disciples that seeking after the glory will cause them to lose their life. Yet, if we lose our life for the sake of Christ, we will find true life.

What does it mean to take up our cross? Is Jesus referring to the pain of sickness or the persecution of our enemies? Is my cross my ailing father or my busy schedule? We often consider the suffering we do in this world the cross we have to bear for the sake of the Gospel, and yet this is little more than a reverse theology of glory. We magnify our suffering and boast of it as if it is our endurance that brings us salvation in the end.

Paul tells us what it means to take up our cross. It means to love genuinely. The cross calls us to do what is right not for the reward it will bring but rather because love demands it. Love often demands what is hard. We are to rejoice in hope – not hope in the glory but rather the hope that comes from the cross. How many of us really want to be patient in suffering or persevere in prayer when it appears God is unwilling to answer our way? Paul's words get even harder. How do we bless our enemy? Is it really possible to be humble in this world of ours? What if, like Jonah, we know God will not avenge us but will seek our enemy's repentance? How can we let go and treat our persecutors as if they deserved our compassion and mercy? How can we let Christ die for the sake of all human flesh when most people will never deserve His grace?

We do so by picking up our cross and following Jesus. We do so by laying down our lives for the sake of His Gospel and speaking God's Word into the lives of all whether we want them to be saved or not. We trust in God by humbling ourselves before His throne of grace realizing that we ourselves have no reason to expect His incredible blessings on our lives. Sometimes the blessings will come through pain. Sometimes they will come in joy. Through it all, we are called to speak what is precious, the message of the cross that brings true life to those who believe. We will not see the glory in this flesh, but we will live in the assurance that God is always faithful to His promise and we walk in the hope that eternal life is ours today even while today might seem out of control. Thanks be to God.

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