Sunday, September 17, 2006

Fifteenth Sunday in Pentecost
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 116:1-8 (116:1-9, NRSV)
James 3:1-12
Mark 8:27-38

For whosoever shall be ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of man also shall be ashamed of him, when he cometh in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.

On September 17th we commemorate the life of a woman who was far ahead of her time. She lived in the 12th century, born the 10th child of a noble family. As the 10th child, she was given as a tithe to the local monastery at the age of eight. She eventually became the abbess of the house in which she lived and founded another house. She knew little else besides the life of a nun, but she was extremely influential both in the Church and in the world. She was a mystic, known for her visions, but she also acted to advise and reprove powerful leaders. She was a writer of poetry and music, produced treatises in medicine, theology and natural history.

Hildegard of Bingen is known for her words, especially those written about her visions. Her writings inspired many in her day and they continue to inspire people even today. The word "mystic" brings to mind to the main stream some sort of alternate spiritual thought, a new age perspective that is removed from the reality of the Christian life of faith. Yet, Hildegard was firmly grounded in the real world, concerned with both the spirit and the body. She wrote about scientific and medicinal matters. She even wrote with a positive view about sexual relations, perhaps offering the first written description of a female orgasm.

In our modern perspective, we might have felt sorry for Hildegard. After all, she was given away as an offering to the monastery. She was a sickly young girl and the tenth child; she was of little import to her family. Presenting her as a tithe was a convenient solution to the problem of her presence. Yet, her spirit and intellect made her a force in a time when women had little power and even less authority. She was respected not only by the nuns, but by the leaders in the church and in the secular world. Her words meant something. People listened to what she had to say about spiritual things and about natural things.

We commemorate her life on September 17th and the text this week all have a focus of words. From Isaiah's admission that he has a tongue trained by the divine hand to James' warning against wanting to be a teacher, the texts take us to the next level of our relationship with God. When we go to Jesus with our troubles, we come out with far more than we expect. We are healed and then we are sent into the world to share the Good News of God's love.

The psalmist writes, "I love Jehovah, because he heareth my voice and my supplications." Perhaps this sounds like the wrong attitude to take, to love God because He listens. Yet, the second verse puts this in the right perspective, "Because he hath inclined his ear unto me, Therefore will I call upon him as long as I live." We know that God listens, so we can cry out to Him with our troubles, trusting that He will not only listen, but also answer. In His mercy and grace, we receive the healing we need, whether it is in body or soul, and we respond with love. We cry out to God because we trust in Him. We trust in Him because He is faithful to His promises. He hears our voice. He is near.

Isaiah also reminds us that God is near. For Isaiah, the encouragement of God's presence gives him the strength to stand up against his enemies. This servant song is a message of hope to those weary from living in the midst of suffering and pain. This servant knew what it meant to live in suffering. He not only received the gift of the word, but he also lived in the midst of pain. He was persecuted, humiliated, insulted. He was shamed, but without shame. Though he experienced this suffering, he never turned from his calling. He persevered through it, trusting that God was there with him.

Through the eyes of the cross, we see this song as sung by our Lord Jesus Christ. He was the suffering servant who was persecuted, humiliated and insulted. He was even crucified on the cross. Yet, He never wavered, standing firm on the word that had been given to Him. He spoke those comforting words to the people and those who had ears to hear those whose ears had been wakened found hope in the midst of their own suffering and pain.

People were talking about Jesus. He had done some amazing things. He had healed people from near and far, Jew and Gentile. He had fed thousands and spoke about God's kingdom with an authority unmatched by the teachers in His day. He was having an impact on the world, not only by acts, but also by word.

Jesus asked His disciples, "Who do people say that I am?" They had plenty of answers. The answers included John the Baptist, Elijah or one of the prophets. It would have been hard for the people to confuse Jesus with John the Baptist, since they lived at the same time and even met John at the River Jordan to be baptized. Luke even tells us that John and Jesus were related their mothers were related. Elijah is a more practical answer. The Jews expected (and still expect) Elijah to return to announce the coming of the Messiah. In Mark's version of the Gospel, Jesus identifies John the Baptist as Elijah shortly after the story we read this week.

Finally, some thought Jesus was one of the prophets. Yet, this question was not so much about Jesus' identity obviously He could not be John the Baptist but rather about His authority and His position. Some folk saw Him as taking over the ministry of John the Baptist. Others saw Him as one of the prophets. The prophets were sent by God to give warning and hope to the people. So, was Jesus the new leader, the promised herald or just another prophet through whom God would speak to His people? Or was He something else?

Then Jesus made the question more personal. "Who do you say that I am?" Peter responded, "You are the Christ." This was an amazing confession of faith; one that Matthew tells us comes not from Peter but by the hand of God. This is a confession that Jesus would commission the disciples to take to the world. It is the foundation of all that we believe. Jesus is not simply a man taking over the leadership of a growing ministry, He is not simply a herald announcing something great, He is not simply another prophet in a long line of prophets proclaiming God's word. Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Savior.

What does this mean? The disciples did not yet know the depth of what had just been revealed. For many, the expectation of the Messiah was as an earthly king. He would have power and authority from God to bring healing and transformation, but it would come to the nation of Israel in a very tangible way. Israel would be made free. She would be made well. She would become strong, independent and would return to the Golden Years when they were a powerful nation. If the disciples went out and told the crowds that Jesus was the Messiah, if they gave them such a word of hope, the people would assume that He was what they wanted the Messiah to be a king, come to save them from their troubles.

Yet Jesus came with a different purpose, a purpose that is still beyond our comprehension. He came to die. Jesus told the disciples to keep silent about what they knew that Jesus was the Messiah because they still did not fully understand how this was to be.

Jesus tried to tell them. "And he began to teach them, that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders, and the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again." Since the crowds were whispering possibilities of kingship, the idea of suffering and death was far from their minds. Peter stepped in with a few of rebuke for Jesus. "Don't say that Lord! You can't die." They were just getting used to this idea that Jesus would be near. He could not be near, He could not hear their concerns, He could not heal them or save them if He was dead.

The disciples could have had a powerful impact on the crowd. If they identified Jesus as the Messiah, the people would not have to question His identity. They would know that He was given the authority of God. They would push Him into doing their will and when He did not respond, they would turn on Him before it was the right time. The disciples had received the most important revelation, but they could not yet act on it because it was meaningless without the actions of Jesus and the cross.

Jesus faced this kind of temptation at another time when He faced the devil in the wilderness after His baptism. There the devil tried to get Jesus to take His power and authority in a different direction. In the wilderness, Satan tried to get Jesus to focus on all the wrong things secular power, fame and social ministry. Jesus said, "No." While He did provide for us an excellent example of how to deal with secular power, fame and social ministry, His purpose was much greater to suffer and to die. Here, once again, Satan tries to turn Jesus' from His purpose. After Jesus faced the temptations in the wilderness, Luke tells us that the devil left him until an opportune time. Now was that time.

Jesus responds rather harshly to Peter's rebuke. "Get thee behind me, Satan; for thou mindest not the things of God, but the things of men." Jesus is not calling Peter the devil. He is commanding Satan to get out of the way. He refused to be tempted by a different path. Anything less than the cross would be useless. It was through Jesus' suffering, death and resurrection that true healing, true freedom, true salvation would come.

See how they miss the promise? Jesus said that He had to suffer and die, but He also gave them the promise He will rise again. I suppose they might have thought that He meant that in only spiritual terms a concept of heaven and resurrection did exist in Jewish thought. Yet, Jesus was promising that He would be raised to new life for the sake of the world.

Jesus' words were tough to hear and even tougher to believe. Even the reaction from His closest friends was negative. They didn't want to hear about suffering and pain. They wanted hope and peace, just like we want today. We don't want to hear about suffering and pain either. We would much prefer that faith give us a life of comfort, that the promise will be fulfilled in the here and now. We don't want to face persecution or contention.

Yet, Jesus says, "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me." God has heard our voice and sent His Son. He calls us to live by faith, to follow Christ even if it means to face suffering and humiliation. He calls us to speak His word into the world, to confess that Jesus is the Messiah even if it means we will face death. "For whosoever shall be ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of man also shall be ashamed of him, when he cometh in the glory of his Father with the holy angels." He calls us to teach, to take the word of hope into the world. We have nothing to fear, because He is always near; He is close enough to hear our cry and He is faithful to answer.

James writes, "Be not many of you teachers, my brethren, knowing that we shall receive heavier judgment." Yet, Peter and the disciples were called to be teachers. We should not cringe at speaking as God calls and guides us, always remembering that He is always by our side. We should beware of our words, however, for words mean something. My attitude affects the world in which I live. The words I speak will have an impact on lives. If I speak words of grace, people will receive grace. If I speak words of anger or hatred, people will respond equally. So, if I make a willful attempt to be happy, under any circumstance, those around me will feel comfortable and satisfied.

I still fail, but I'm getting better. I'm more likely to take a breath first, to think about what I am going to say. I'm more likely to stop and hold my tongue to respond with self-control. James writes, "out of the same mouth cometh forth blessing and cursing." While this is true for all of us who are both saints and sinners, it is not how we are called to live. See how Peter responded to Jesus? One minute Peter was confessing faith in the Messiah, the next minute He was judging Jesus wrongly. We are called to live in a way that brings forth blessing, to trust in God and to go into the world with His message.

There are times when speaking the truth might be dangerous. It might be politically incorrect. It might go against the popular consensus of the day or stand diametrically opposed to societal expectations. It might even take us to a cross. Yet, we are called by faith to confess that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, to take up whatever cross we may face and follow Jesus, blessing and not cursing so that our lives will bear good fruit to the glory of God.

We would really like to make our focus of Jesus' purpose to be about changing the world, about healing and about justice. It is good, right and true for us to go into the world and do these things. Yet, it is not enough. For salvation, for true hope in this world, it is necessary for us to acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah, the Savior who died on the cross. He calls us to live in the shadow of the cross, to suffer for His sake and for the sake of the world. Peter did not want Jesus to perish, because if He did then it would seem like everything they did was done in vain. However, Jesus had a greater purpose salvation, and not salvation in just physical or material terms. Jesus came to save the world.

He calls us to proclaim this to the world, to take up the cross and follow Him no matter what we might face. He is near, He hears our cries and saves. We can carry our cross because we know this to be true. As the psalmist writes, "For you have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling." Thanks be to God.

A WORD FOR TODAY
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