Sunday, August 30, 2020

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Jeremiah 15:15-21
Psalm 26
Romans 12:9-21
Matthew 16:21-28

I will deliver you out of the hand of the wicked, and I will redeem you out of the hand of the terrible.

We are all “but people.” We are willing to make bold statements, but they are often accompanied by a “but.” This happens regularly on the court shows. The judge will ask “Did you sign a contract?” The person will answer, “Yes, but...” What mother has not said, “Yes you can have ice cream, but first you need to eat your dinner.” Not all “but” statements are bad, sometimes they are good. The key is to recognize how often we say it. I know I write it often (sometimes using the word “yet” which doesn’t change the meaning!” We often even use it when we are talking about our faith.

That’s what happened to Peter. Last week he made the great confession of faith, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” This week is his “but...”

This was an incredible moment. It seemed as though the disciples were finally beginning to understand and believe that Jesus is LORD. It was also the turning point of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus’ relationship with the crowds began to go downhill from that point because he was moving toward the cross. His sermons and miracles continued, but they became more pointed. Jesus was not pointing to God’s Messiah as an earthly king to meet their physical needs. He was proving that He was the Promised One who would fulfill all God’s promises.

We see this story through hindsight, and we think that we would have made the great confession by our own power and intelligence. Even now, however, we cannot do it. We like to seek our own righteousness, that’s why we prefer to see Jesus as a Messiah that saves us from our earthly troubles. We prefer the Jesus we meet early in His ministry. Jesus makes us very uncomfortable when He begins talking about death. Even the idea that Jesus is the Son of the Living God is too difficult for the world to accept.

When Peter made that great confession that Jesus is the Christ, Jesus was overjoyed with his answer. Despite the many rumors and guesses, Peter spoke the truth. Only the Christ, the Son of the Living God could accomplish the work of God in this world. Only He could fulfill God’s promises and restore God’s people. Peter was the first to make the great confession, but he was just like you and I. He continued to misunderstand Jesus. We see his greatest failure in today’s text. It is comforting to know that we are all “but people.” Though Peter confessed that Jesus was the Messiah, he didn’t want to believe that Jesus had to die. It didn’t fit his expectations. “You are the Christ, but do it the way I think you should do it.”

Have you ever gotten terribly lost while driving in an unknown part of a city? I was trying to deliver some paperwork to a building I had never visited. I made a wrong turn and ended up in a neighborhood with several dead end streets. At one point I realized that I was on the right street. I took that street in the direction of the building, but there were barriers at the edge of the neighborhood to keep the cars from using it to avoid the heavy afternoon traffic. I could see my building, but I could not get to it because of the roadblock. I had to turn around and continue to find my way back to the main road.

We love Peter, perhaps because he is so much like the rest of us. He is a “but person.” He made the great confession, but he wasn’t ready for the cross. Peter did not want Jesus to die, so he rebuked Him for talking about sacrifice and death. Peter had great faith by the grace of God, but in his next breath Peter’s faith seemed lost to his own needs and wants.

Jesus’ answer to Peter seems so harsh. “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me, for you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of men.” Satan? Is Jesus calling Peter Satan? No, but 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.

Jesus was not saying that Peter was Satan, or even that Peter was trying to block Jesus’ mission. Peter was not seeing Jesus clearly because something was standing in his way.

Satan is real. The reality is that there is a being bent on destroying the work of God in this world. Peter is not that being, and Satan was not physically standing between Peter and Jesus, but Satan was very much a part of that conversation because Peter had fallen prey to the spiritual reality of our own human faults. Jesus rebuked Peter’s point of view that made seeing the reality of Jesus impossible. Peter had seen Christ by God’s grace, and by God’s power, and knew that Jesus was the Messiah. However, Peter had his own expectation of what the Messiah would do and how He would accomplish the work of God. Peter could not see the truth; something was “standing in his way.”

Pope Francis said a few years ago, “Some of you might say: ‘But Father, how old fashioned you are to speak about the devil in the 21st century!’ But look out because the devil is present! The devil is here... even in the 21st century!” There is a very real spiritual battle that has been waged since the beginning of time. Adam and Eve faced the serpent in the Garden who asked, “Did God really say?” and we struggle with the same question today. Satan needs to get out of the way so that they can each see Christ clearly. We are all “but people”, like Peter, when it comes to fully knowing what God intends. We confess faith but we want to do it our own way.

It is easier for us to blame human nature for the evil that we see happening in the world. Surely we are too advanced to suggest that there exists a being like the devil! I’ve never seen him, have you? The quote from Pope Francis was using the text of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness; in that text, the devil or Satan tries to convince Jesus to pursue a different kind of work in the world. Temptation is real, we all know that, but we moderns think that it is ridiculous to blame a character for our own limitations. We especially reject the notion that Satan is a dude with horns and a tail carrying a pitchfork around the world. This is a good thing, because Satan certainly is not a character. And sometimes, yes sometimes, human nature is to blame. Satan is real and sometimes our neighbors cause us to sin. This does not mean that our neighbor is Satan. Satan is real and sometimes it is our own weakness that causes us to sin. This does not mean we are Satan. We are reminded that he is real so that we’ll be prepared, not only if we see evil face to face, but when we are faced with the temptations that come to us through our neighbors and our own hearts. The best way for Satan to accomplish his goals is with the help of flesh and blood people to do his dirty work.

We see this most humorously in the brilliant story of Screwtape and Wormwood found in the insightful book by C.S. Lewis called “The Screwtape Letters.” Wormwood is an apprentice demon seeking for advice from his Uncle Screwtape. Uncle Screwtape tells him how to use human nature to his advantage.

Here is a quote out of the book: “It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one - the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” Screwtape advises his nephew to play upon the image of the devil as being a scaly red dragon with horns and a tail. Satan’s goal is to convince us that he doesn’t exist. What better way to accomplish that goal than to make his image so ridiculous that it just makes sense to ignore the reality of his existence? He’s done a pretty good job; many people, even Christians, doubt that Satan is real.

Satan is real. It is not old fashioned to think so; it would do us well to remember that the battles we face are not just physical; a spiritual war wages around us all the time and it is up to us to be prepared to fight against Satan with faith and hope and grace every day.

That said, the biblical word that is often translated “Satan” does not always refer to the being. It means “an adversary, opponent, enemy.” Satan is God’s adversary; unfortunately, so are we when we follow our own path. Human nature is the enemy of God’s intention for His people. Temptation is real and we fall to it every day whether the temptation comes from Satan, others, or from within our own hearts. We are His enemies when we sin. Jesus cries, “Get behind me, Satan” when we stand in His way and do what we want to do rather than what He is calling us to. That doesn’t mean He’s calling us Satan, but that we are opposing Him in a way that is not only dangerous to ourselves, but will hinder His work in the world. We are just like Peter when He opposed Jesus in today’s Gospel lesson. Peter was not standing there as Satan incarnate, but he had been convinced by his own understanding and the expectations of the world that Jesus would be the kind of Messiah they wanted. Death was not in that plan. Peter was ready to fight for Jesus in the flesh but didn’t realize that he’d been deceived in spirit. The world identifies Jesus according to their wants and needs. They want a teacher, a rabbi, a miracle worker and a good man. They want a radical willing to stand up against injustice. They want a friend, a comforter, and a guide whose example we should follow. Jesus is far, far more. And because He is more, He is rejected by those who need Him most.

So was Jeremiah. Jeremiah had a right to complain. God called him to a tough job. He had to preach a hard word to people who wanted to hear warm fuzzies. He was persecuted for doing the job God called him to do. He suffered at the hands of his own people. He lived in fear for his life and his future, but he had to do what God called him to do. The book by his name is one of the most honest and personal of all the prophetic books in the bible; in it Jeremiah admitted his disappointment to God.

Names have meaning. A person’s name defines some aspect of their life: personality, purpose, or heritage. Experts are uncertain about the meaning of Jeremiah, although it has been suggested that it means “the LORD exalts” or “the LORD establishes.” These both make sense when we look at Jeremiah and his place in God’s story. The LORD raised Jeremiah and established him as a prophet. Others have suggested that Jeremiah means “the LORD throws.” As we listen to Jeremiah’s words, this name also makes sense. Jeremiah feels like he’s been thrown to the wolves, tossed into a hostile world to face difficulty and persecution.

Throughout his book, Jeremiah made several confessions, admitting to God his hurt and pain. In today’s passage Jeremiah even says, “Will you indeed be to me as a deceitful brook, like waters that fail?” This is a bold statement, blaming God for his heartache. He wants to know where God is in the midst of his troubles. Why has he been abandoned? Why hasn’t God done something! Jeremiah is disappointed in his God and is not afraid to admit it.

I wonder how many of us have felt the same in our own pain. I wonder how many of us have screamed “Why?” when we are faced with fear and doubt. Have you ever felt abandoned and alone? Have you turned your hurt and pain on God? I am sure we have all done this because we do not know who else to blame. Jeremiah could not take his complaints to the people because they would just see him as foolish and false. He had no family, no wife or children. He was alone, with only God as his companion. When he felt as if he had been abandoned by God, he felt he was completely alone in the world. That’s enough to make any of us complain.

Jeremiah was never alone, however. He’d lost his way. The LORD answered, “Turn around and there you will see me. I’m right here with you. Times are tough but I will not abandon you. Speak what is good and you will see my hand do amazing things.” Jeremiah’s complaints were worthless. Complaints do not change things, they only make things worse. If we are honest, we will admit that we complain, too. But our complaints have no value. Even when things seem impossible, we can find peace and hope in the precious words of God’s promises. Transformation comes from the utterance of God’s word. We may feel alone, but we are never outside the presence of God. We will see His mercy and grace.

Today’s psalm is the prayer of one who has been falsely accused. Saul knew that he was no longer in God’s favor, so he persecuted David. Saul suspected David of conspiring against him and did everything he could to demean him in the eyes of the people. The reality is that Saul was falsely accusing David of the very things he was doing. If you study the word “seek” in the story of David and Saul, you will discover something interesting. In every case, Saul sought after David while David sought after God. Saul wanted David dead; David wanted to follow God’s heart. In this prayer from the Psalms, David says, “Yahweh, I love the habitation of your house, the place where your glory dwells.” David always wanted to be with God.

The people in Jeremiah’s day did not like what Jeremiah had to say, so they accused him of being a very bad man. The same can be said about David. Jeremiah and David were persecuted by people who wanted their way, who wanted to do what they thought was right. Their truth was dependent on their desires and their motivation was totally self-serving. As we read the lectionary passages this week, it might seem as though David and Jeremiah were self-righteous as they talked about their goodness. Yet, these texts are prayers of humble supplication before God, seeking His help in their troubles. We tend to respond to persecution and false accusation a need for vindication, but David asked God to look at his life and do what is right according to His Word. This assertion of righteousness is not a claim that David is a perfect person; he is not more righteous than others. Instead, in the psalm we see David’s example of faith in God’s mercy and justice. We learn that even when we are being persecuted, we can live the life God has called us to live, keeping our eyes on Him and trusting that He will do what is right.

I’ve heard it said that God does not abandon us, but it sure does feel like He has sometimes. The trouble is, when we feel abandoned, it is not God who has left, but we miss His presence because we have turned away from Him. We are just like Peter, looking right in the face of God but not seeing Him as He is because we are blinded by our own ambitions and perspectives. Peter confessed that Jesus was the Messiah but he did not yet understand what that meant. When Jesus said, “I have to suffer” Peter rebuked Him. God was doing something new, something He’d promised since the beginning of time. Unfortunately, most of the people misunderstood what God’s intentions, Peter included. They doubted what Jesus was saying. They worried about His attitudes. They wanted to direct God’s plan in a direction with which they were familiar and comfortable.

But God says, “Look at me.” He calls us away from our ambitions and our perspectives to see the world as He sees it. He promised that He will take care of us. We are quick to want things to go our own way, but then we miss what God is saying and doing. God says, “Look at me” so that we will not take matters into our own hands. We see our “enemies” as Satan, we seek our own revenge. We strive to keep things going our own way, unwilling or unable to see the reality.

That’s why God calls us to the life about which Paul has written. How hard it is for us to abide in a command such as “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” For too many people, peace means staying within the status quo, avoiding change in our thoughts and minds. Peter was given a gift of knowledge directly from God that Jesus was the Messiah, but he still wanted Jesus to fight like an earthly king for His kingdom. Peter did not expect peace until Jesus overcame his enemies. Peter was even willing to cut off the ear of a guard to stop Jesus’ arrest. Jesus says, “Look at me.” He wants us to see Him as He is, to live as He has called us to live, and to do everything we can to be at peace. This is not a peace that overcomes our problems, but it is a peace that gets us through.

Paul tells us that to take up our cross means to love genuinely. The cross calls us to do what is right not for the reward it could bring but rather for the sake of love. Love often demands what is hard. We are to rejoice in hope; not hope in glory but hope in the cross. How many of us really want to be patient in suffering or persevere in prayer when it appears God is unwilling to do what we want Him to do? Paul’s words get even harder. How do we bless our enemy? Is it really possible to be humble in this world of ours? God will not always avenge us as we hope, because He will often seek our enemy’s repentance. How can we treat our persecutors as if they deserved 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 God by humbling ourselves before His throne of grace realizing that we ourselves have no reason to expect His incredible blessings. We do so when we stop paying attention to the things that distract us from seeing Jesus as He is.

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. There are those who will not want to hear. There are those who will stand in our way, especially Satan. It is a task that is not particularly comfortable and we will struggle with doing the right thing. We are reminded that we will not fully see God’s glory while we live in the flesh. We live in a world that will reject Jesus, but we can trust that God is always faithful to His promise.

We might just do what is right. Like Jeremiah and David we might live a life of righteousness, acting according to God’s will. We might see Jesus as LORD, speak the words the world longs to hear, and do the good things we have been called to do. We might just have reason to pray 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 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.

Our cross will never save the world, but as we die to self we will discover the incredible blessing of being raised to new life in Christ. That new life will not always be pleasant; as a matter of fact, we are more likely to see persecution as we are obedient to God. But the new life to which we are raised is one that will last forever even if we suffer death at the hands of our enemies. We need not fear Satan, the world or our own hearts. God is faithful to His promises and He has promised to save us. Let’s just keep our eyes on Jesus and though we lose our lives we can rest in the promise that Jesus has already saved them.

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