Sunday, August 31, 2008

Sixteenth Sunday in Pentecost
Jeremiah 15:15-21
Psalm 26:1-8
Romans 12:9-2
Matthew 16:21-28

If it be possible, as much as in you lieth, be at peace with all men.

“Get thee behind me, Satan.” Have you ever heard some make that declaration to another person? Unfortunately, I have. A few years ago I spent time online in Christian chat rooms, ministering to other people. Actually, in most cases we ministered to one another. I had friends that I only knew by screennames and the information they gave me via email and chat. Yet, they were my friends and in many ways my support system.

The chat rooms had a host of different types of people. Some were Christians just looking for some fellowship, often people who had some sort of disability and were unable to be active in a local congregation. Others were amateur theologians using the chat rooms to debate doctrine and share new found teachings. We often so seekers in the chat rooms, people who wanted to know more about Christianity and were looking for answers to their many questions. We also had people that were anti-Christian interested in only the fight.

There were also people who came that considered themselves prophets of the Most High. They spoke ‘words’ in the chat rooms, foretelling the future and proclaiming God’s will for the world. While there were the occasional ‘words’ that made sense and prophecies that came true, most of what they spoke was hogwash. Self-proclaimed prophets usually proclaim their own will and perspectives on the world, often twisting scripture to make it fit into their point of view and their ambitions.

These self-proclaimed prophets used the words of Christ to their advantage. Whenever someone questioned their prophecies, they would answers, “Get thee behind me, Satan.” They saw anyone disagreement as a roadblock placed in their way by Satan. They ‘saw’ (after all, they were ‘prophets’) into the hearts of those disagreeing and knew they were the adversary. They weren’t just people with a disagreement, they were Satan himself. If I were to believe the dozens of self-proclaimed prophets who commanded me in the words of Christ to get out of their way, I would have to see myself as evil.

I know that is not true, so I’ve come to look at this passage from a slightly different point of view. When Jesus says to Peter, “Get thee behind me, Satan,” is he referring to Peter as Satan? I don’t think so. But Peter’s vision of Jesus is blocked and Peter is blinded to the truth.

Peter was trying to convince Jesus to do His mission in a different way. Peter did not want Jesus to die, so he rebuked Jesus for talking about sacrifice and death. Last week we saw Peter with great faith, by the grace of God recognizing Jesus for who He was. Yet, in the next breath Peter’s thinking was lost to his own needs and wants. 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.’ It was not something tangible that needed to get out of the way, but something intangible. Peter was not Satan, but Peter was not seeing Jesus clearly. His own expectations were in the way.

I’ve heard too many people use the phrase, “Get thee behind me, Satan” in a way that suggests the person to whom it was spoken is Satan. They do not like what has been said to them, especially if they truly believe that the work they are doing is from God. They see any question of their authority or power as an attack from Satan and the person speaking as the conduit. However, it is more likely that Satan is in the midst of the situation in both perspectives. Satan needs to get out of the way so that they can see the Christ in one another. They are both well meaning, trying to live the life God has called them to live: one speaking the word they believe God has given them, the other speaking a word of grounding to a brother or sister who may be going astray. We are all failures, guided to much by our own point of view and, like Peter, unable to see clearly what God fully intends.

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.

This is a theology of glory, a theology that puts us and our ideas in front of God. 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.”

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. Repentance means seeing God as God is, instead of how we want Him to be.

Jeremiah's prophetic ministry 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?”

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 only 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 no choice. 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 as Jeremiah admitted to God and to those of us who read his words his unhappiness.

Names have meaning as is often noted in Bible notes. A person’s name defines some aspect of their life: personality, purpose, or heritage. Experts are uncertain to the meaning of Jeremiah’s name, 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 up and established him as a prophet. Others have suggested that Jeremiah means “the LORD throws.” As we listen to Jeremiah’s words in today’s Old Testament lesson, this name also makes sense. Jeremiah feels he’s been thrown to the wolves, tossed into a hostile world to face difficulty and persecution.

Jeremiah was not alone, though. 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.” In his confession, Jeremiah was doing and saying what is worthless. Complaints do not change things. Accusations only make things worse. We all do it; it is part of our nature. Those of us who are honest admit that we do. But our complaints have no value. Even when things seem like they can’t get any worse, we 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 at the moment, but as we stand in the presence of God we will see His mercy and His grace in our lives and in the world

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.

Today’s psalm is a prayer of one who has been falsely accused. David faced persecution from Saul because Saul knew that he was no longer in God’s favor. Saul suspected David of conspiring against him and did everything he could to demean David in the eyes of the people. The reality is that the accusations of Saul about David were a mirror to Saul’s soul. I once did a study on the word “seek” as it is found in the story of David and Saul. In every case, Saul sought after David while David sought after God. Saul wanted David dead; David wanted to follow God’s heart. We see that in the last verse of this passage as David says, “Jehovah, I love the habitation of thy house, and the place where thy glory dwelleth.”

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. They 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 passages like today’s psalm, it might seem as though David, and Jeremiah who could have prayed that same prayer, are self-righteous as they talk about their goodness and seek God’s favor. Yet, this prayer is one of humble supplication before God, seeking His help in their troubles. We tend to respond to persecution and false accusation with a desire to vindicate ourselves, but David asks God to look at his life and do what is right according to His word. We are not asked to see David as a perfect person, or to see David as one more righteous than others. Instead, we see David's example of faith in God's mercy and justice and learn that even when we are being persecuted, we can still live the life God has called us to live, to keep our eyes on Him and trust that He will do what is right.

Jesus' answer to Peter 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.

So, how do we live this life to which we’ve been called? Paul gives us a list of things that are demanded of those living in the Christian community. We aren’t called to think too highly of ourselves or to seek vengeance on those we deem to be our enemy.

“Let love be without hypocrisy.” The NRSV says, “Let love be genuine. We all know that there are people in this world whom we just can’t get along. For some reason or another, our personalities clash. Though the Christian response to such people should never be hate, there are some people that we just don’t like. They grate on our nerves. They annoy us, frustrate us and even make us angry. It is impossible for us to like them, so how can we be expected to love them? Yet, that is what Christ calls us to do and if that person is part of our daily life, it is impossible to avoid them. We have to find some way of living in the relationship despite our dislike. When it is particularly difficult, or impossible, for us to love our neighbor, we need only look at them through the eyes of faith. God will love them for us, giving us the strength to act boldly in Christ’s love for their sake. We don’t have to pretend, we need only to live with them in grace. Love without hypocrisy means living out that our love for neighbor in active grace.

“Abhor that which is evil; cleave to that which is good.” Here we go, this is a demand we can support. And yet, what is evil? What is good? Are we so perfect that we can tell the difference? Let us always approach this one with grace, looking for God in the midst of the situation instead of Satan. NRSV says we should hate what is evil. What does it mean to hate? Biblically it means to separate ourselves from it. “Get thee behind me, Satan.” Let us always put those things that keep us from seeing God clearly behind us, and cleave to what is good.

”In love of the brethren be tenderly affectioned one to another; in honor preferring one another; in diligence not slothful; fervent in spirit; serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope; patient in tribulation; continuing stedfastly in prayer; communicating to the necessities of the saints; given to hospitality.” This is grace in action, things we do for those we love. As we put others first, living in faith and keeping our hearts and eyes on Christ, we’ll see God working in our lives, even when things may seem out of control.

“Bless them that persecute you; bless, and curse not.” God knows, just like Jeremiah prayed. He knows our enemies and the hurt they have done to us. He is just and He is faithful to His promises. But we do not know the whole story. We don’t know the plans He has for our enemies. So, we are called to bless because one day that enemy might just be our brother. Perhaps it is the grace we share which will see them transformed into the person God has created them to be. And perhaps we will find a lesson to be learned that will bring transformation to our own lives.

“Rejoice with them that rejoice; weep with them that weep. Be of the same mind one toward another.” How often do we try to bring down those who are happy and lift up those who are sad? We are always ready to steal someone’s thunder and offer advice in someone’s pain. Yet, God calls us to experience the joy and the sorrow of our neighbor, be of the same mind. Empathy helps us to see the reality of our neighbors, to know their deepest hopes and fears. Peter wanted to change Jesus’ mind. Instead of weeping in Jesus’ reality, Peter wanted to force a victory. God’s grace is found in both joy and in sadness. We are called to experience it together.

“Set not your mind on high things, but condescend to things that are lowly. Be not wise in your own conceits.” Be humble, remembering that you are no different than your neighbors—sinners in need of a Savior.

The rest of the passage reminds us to live in grace, actively sharing the love of God with others, especially our enemies. Paul writes, “If it be possible, as much as in you lieth, be at peace with all men.” Peace does not mean that everything will be perfect for everyone. We will face suffering and pain. We will have people with whom we can’t get along. We will fail and doubt and fear and lose sight of our God. But, as it is in our ability, let us show grace to everyone, loving them as God has loved us so that they will experience the presence of God and be transformed.

We do this by laying down our lives for the sake of His Gospel and speaking God's Word into the lives of all. We trust in God by humbling ourselves before His throne of grace realizing that we ourselves have no reason to expect His incredible blessings. 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.

A WORD FOR TODAY
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