Sunday, August 28, 2011

Lectionary 22A
Jeremiah 15:15-21
Psalm 26:1-8
Romans 12:9-2
Matthew 16:21-28

Therefore thus saith Jehovah, 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.

One of the chefs on “Hell’s Kitchen,” the reality television show starring Chef Gordon Ramsey, is very good at placing the blame on everyone but herself. She’s pretty quick to take credit when she does something right, but when her work is below par, she claims it is someone else’s fault. It isn’t her attitude that is causing problems, but another person’s. It isn’t her fault that the meat isn’t cooked right, someone else distracted her or did something wrong in preparation.

On the last episode, she did very well in the first challenge, beating everyone and winning the game for her team. She spent some time rubbing it in, boasting of how good she is. She used her success to put down the other contestants, even those on her team. When her team returned to the kitchen after their prize, she noticed that something was wrong with the preparation and loudly proclaimed her discovery to the whole kitchen. Yet, she didn’t do anything about the problem. When time came to cook that food, and it failed, she took the failure to Chef Ramsey and blamed the guy who did the prep.

Quite frankly, I scream every week that she gets by. I’ve wanted her kicked off the show from the very beginning. Her attitude is terrible, and if I were Chef Ramsey I would never want her to be the executive chef of my new restaurant. She has moments of brilliance which have gotten her this far, and she has been lucky that others have failed even more miserably on the days she’s had trouble. But everyone is tired of her blame game; they are tired of her attitude. A little humility would do her well; a little confession is not only good for the soul it is also good for the relationships that surround us.

Jeremiah plays a little bit of his own blame game in today’s Old Testament lesson. He points to virtuous life, how he has suffered for God’s sake and how he has not joined in the frivolity of others. He was indignant about the circumstances of his world. Then he blames God. “Why do you make me wait?” he asks. “Why am I suffering like this if I’ve done everything I should?”

All too often, like the contestant on “Hell’s Kitchen,” we see ourselves through rose colored glasses. We rarely accept the blame for our circumstances, always looking to others as the source of our troubles. Jeremiah takes it a step further, blaming God for his difficulty. Not only does he blame God, but he also claims God is unfaithful. “Wilt thou indeed be unto me as a deceitful brook, as waters that fail?” Are we any different than Jeremiah? Don’t we, at times, wonder about whether or not God is doing what we expect Him to do? Don’t we list our virtues before God, justifying ourselves before Him as we demand His faithfulness. We think we know better than God, so we stand up to Him, courageously demanding what we want without seeing what He has already done.

God answers Jeremiah’s prayer with His own demand. “Repent,” He says. We might ask ourselves what Jeremiah has done wrong. After all, it sounds like he’s been pretty faithful to God. Yet, in the very act of doubting God’s faithfulness, Jeremiah has shown that he thinks himself greater than God. Peter does the same thing in today’s Gospel lesson.

We left Peter last week on a high note. He had made the grand confession: Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. We are told that Peter cannot make this confession on his own, that it is by the power of the Holy Spirit that he can speak the words. Yet, Peter sees himself through those rose colored glasses. He has said those words, so his other words must also be right. Yet in today’s passage we see how quickly we can fail.

Jesus chose this moment to tell His disciples of the direction they have to go. The time had come to head toward Jerusalem. The ministry to the people was coming to a close and now Jesus had to face the cross. He had to suffer. He had to die. He had to finish the work God sent Him to do.

But Peter wasn’t ready to face the cross. He was not ready to deal with the reality of what it meant for Jesus to be the Messiah. Perhaps his expectations were much different, after all the people expected the Messiah to be a worldly king. They thought he would sit on the throne of David and do great things for the nation of Israel. They thought he would fight for them, set them free from the oppression of the Romans. They thought the Messiah would bring back the glory days. Jesus’ talk of death was not happy news and it didn’t fit into the expectations of the people or the disciples. He answered Jesus’ teaching with a demand, “God forbid it! This must never happen to you!”

Now, he did call Jesus Lord, but isn’t it interesting that the honor is lost in the midst of this man’s demand from God. Do we really think Jesus is Lord when we tell Him what He should do?

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 sent 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. 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 not 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 because we see it as Easter people. We know the reality of Jesus’ promises because we see it from this point of view. We live in the assurance that we will one day share in the glory that Jesus knew ever since that first Easter Day. Peter wanted to ignore the cross. He wanted the glory without the suffering. We are much the same. It is so easy to live in the glory and ignore the cross, even now, long after Jesus was raised. We’d rather think of our God as one who ensures good things, who does not allow suffering, who rewards goodness. So when God does something we do not understand, we question His faithfulness. “God forbid it,” we say, not knowing the grace and blessing that will be found on the other end of our suffering. God tells us to repent. “Turn around and speak words that glorify God.”

Jesus’ answer to Peter seems 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 cannot ignore the cross through which Jesus passed for our salvation.

Living the life of a disciple is never going to be easy. We won’t be blessed with good times and great wealth. We might even have to suffer. We’ll carry our own cross, walk in the way of Jesus, perhaps even die for the sake of others. As Jesus says, “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?” What good is it to hold on to the mountaintop if the valley is where we’ll truly find God? It is in the valley that we discover God’s grace, and from there God will lift us into His Kingdom.

The idea that we will live a blessed and glorious life in Christ is called the theology of Glory. But what is the theology of the cross? What does it mean to take up our cross? Is Jesus referring to the pain of sickness or the persecution of our enemies? We often consider the suffering we face 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 as we expect? 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 turning toward God, picking up our cross and following Jesus. We do so by laying down our lives for the sake of His Gospel and speaking of God’s faithfulness. We trust in God by humbling ourselves before Him. 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 don’t know when or how we will experience the glory, but we can live in the reality that God is faithful even when we face suffering. When we live in that reality, we’ll do the work God has called us to do, even when it is hard. We can feed our enemy or even tolerate the bad attitude of those who cross our path.

While we all want the contestant to find some humility, I wonder what might happen if the other contestants treated her with grace? It is hard to do so in a competition like “Hell’s Kitchen,” after all they are competing for an excellent job and a lot of money. You have to have a certain amount of boldness to win such a competition. Yet, perhaps the contestant who receives grace will see in that very kindness the foolishness of her own attitudes. Instead, she has faced argumentative combatants who have given her the reason to justify her own actions. They have given her reason to play the blame game. Love might just overcome the attitude, ‘heaping burning coals’ on her head in a way that will bring forth humility and repentance.

We might just do what is right. Like Jeremiah we might have lived a life of righteousness, always doing what it good and true. We might see Jesus as Lord, speak the words the world longs to hear and do the good things to which we have been called. We might just have reason to prayer the prayer of the psalmist, seeking God’s help and His grace. Yet, the minute we blame others including God, we put ourselves first. The minute we make demands on God, telling Him what to do because we think we know better, we deny God’s faithfulness and trust in ourselves rather than Him.

We might just have reason to boast. We might be right to lay the blame elsewhere. But let’s always remember that God is faithful. He will deliver us and bless us and we will stand before Him and share in His glory as long as we keep our eyes on Him. May we remain humble, never seeking the glory but instead seeking God, seeing Him as He is and living in the reality of what comes when we travel through the cross.

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