FIRST READING Isaiah 51:1–6
1 Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the LORD. Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. 2 Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many. 3 For the LORD will comfort Zion; he will comfort all her waste places, and will make her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the LORD; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song. 4 Listen to me, my people, and give heed to me, my nation; for a teaching will go out from me, and my justice for a light to the peoples. 5 I will bring near my deliverance swiftly, my salvation has gone out and my arms will rule the peoples; the coastlands wait for me, and for my arm they hope. 6 Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look at the earth beneath; for the heavens will vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment, and those who live on it will die like gnats; but my salvation will be forever, and my deliverance will never be ended.
PSALM Psalm 138
1 I will give thanks to you, O LORD, with my whole heart; before the gods I will sing your praise. 2 I will bow down toward your holy temple and praise your name, because of your steadfast love and faithfulness; for you have glorified your name and your word above all things. 3 When I called, you answered me; you increased my strength within me. 4 All the rulers of the earth will praise you, O LORD, when they have heard the words of your mouth. 5 They will sing of the ways of the LORD, that great is the glory of the LORD. 6 The LORD is high, yet cares for the lowly, perceiving the haughty from afar. 7 Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you keep me safe; you stretch forth your hand against the fury of my enemies; your right hand shall save me. 8 You will make good your purpose for me; O LORD, your steadfast love endures forever; do not abandon the works of your hands.
SECOND READING Romans 11:33 – 12:8
33 O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! 34 “For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?” 35 “Or who has given a gift to him, to receive a gift in return?” 36 For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen.
Chapter 12 1 I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect. 3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4 For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5 so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. 6 We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8 the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.
GOSPEL Matthew 16:13–20
13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
WHO DO YOU SAY I AM
When you stop and think about it, there can be all kinds of questions. There is your run of the mill everyday questions, questions asked to improve our understanding and of course silly questions. Additionally, you could say there are dumb questions as well as great questions. There was a comedian who was riding a subway into work. He had finished reading the morning paper and was saving it to bring to his friends at work. “How do you save a newspaper on the subway?” he asks. You sit on it. A new commuter came on the subway, saw the newspaper that the comedian was sitting on and asked, “Are you reading that paper?” The comedian stood up, turned the page, sat down on the paper again and answered, “Yes.”
Charles “Chic” Thompson in his book, What a Great Idea! tells the story of a question that the president of Corning Glass Works once asked. It was a great question because in answering this one question, it turned out to be exceedingly profitable for Corning. The question was addressed to Corning’s head of research. “Glass breaks,” the president of the company noted matter-of-factly. Then he asked this engineer, “Why don’t you do something about that?” This simple question led the lab to devote itself to a singular task: “We’re going to prevent glass from breaking.” The end result was Corning’s now-famous Corelle line of dinnerware. Great leaders, says Thompson, ask great questions.
Jesus and His disciples ventured into the District of Caesarea Philippi, an area about 25 miles northeast of the Sea of Galilee. It was a region that had tremendous pagan religious implications for the Gentiles of the district. The place was littered with the temples of the Syrian gods. Here also was the elaborate marble temple that had been erected by Herod the Great, father of the then ruling Herod Antipas. Here also was the influence of the Greek gods and it was also here that they worshipped Caesar as a god himself. You might say that the world religions were on display in this town. And it was with this scene in the background that Jesus chose to ask His followers one of the most crucial questions of His ministry.
Jesus, in a moment of reflection, looked at His disciples and said: “Who do men say that I am?” The disciples begin sharing with Jesus what they had heard from the people who have been following our Lord: Some say that you are Elijah; others say John the Baptist, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets. Ever since Jesus began His ministry, He was seen by the masses in so many different ways. Some speak of Jesus as prophet, a holy man, a teacher, or spiritual leader, and even today, few will object. But speak of Jesus as the Son of God, as divine, of the same nature as the Father, and people will line up to express their disapproval.
Ask any one of the over one billion Muslims and they’ll say: “Prophet, yes. God, no!” Non-messianic Jews scattered around the world will say: “Teacher, yes. Messiah, no!” Liberal Protestants and religionists of various stripes will say: “Exemplary man, yes. Divine, no!” Who do people say He is? Who do we say He is? And with the answer to that very critical question, what are we called to do with that knowledge? These are three very important questions; ones that deserve our time to consider.
When Jesus asked the first of these three questions, He did so in His first and only trip outside of Palestine. It was a critical moment in the life of our Lord. He was near the end of His ministry and it was high time that He got alone with His disciples far from the watchful eyes of the Pharisees, Sadducees, and other religious authorities and access the last three years of His ministry. Did they now understand who He was? Were all His efforts fruitful or had it all been in vain? It was a critical moment and critical moments call for serious questions. And Jesus begins by asking, who do others say that I am?
The disciples responded, some say that you are Elijah. Now why would people think that Jesus was the prophet Elijah; the man God took to heaven in a whirl wind? Elijah was, of course, a highly revered personality in the religious life of the Hebrews. His defeat of the 450 prophets of Baal on the top of Mt. Carmel was a story well known even by the little children. To help keep this opinion in perspective, we must remember that when our Lord was transfigured, it was Moses and Elijah that appeared to speak to Him. But there’s another reason why people thought that Jesus was Elijah.
It was a commonly held belief among the Hebrews that one day Elijah would return and that event would mark the end of the world. In the very last passage in the Old Testament, the book of Malachi contains these words: “Behold I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.” Clearly Elijah’s coming would mark the most important day in the history of the world. Jesus understood this. Remember what Jesus said of John the Baptist?
Jesus told the crowd, “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come.” (Matthew 11:11-14) Jesus tried to tell the crowd who He was; that He was not the anticipated return of Elijah, John the Baptist was. Jesus is the promised Messiah that John was sent to prepare the way for. So in that one statement, Jesus proclaimed that He was the Messiah and the end had now come, but Jesus also knew that not many would be able to accept these facts.
Most of you are familiar with the Charles Schultz’s comic strip Peanuts. In one particular strip, we see that the television is on, but there’s no one in the room listening to it. The announcer is talking about a golf tournament that’s in process. He says: Smith has to make this putt to win the championship. There will be no tomorrow.” And just as he says “There will be no tomorrow,” in walks Lucy. She immediately goes into a panic and starts running around and yelling to the other children: “The world is coming to an end. They just announced it on television. The world is coming to an end.” Her panic quickly spreads as we see all the Peanuts kids go wildly screaming about. Finally in the last square we see all of the children huddled on the top of Snoopy’s doghouse waiting for the end of the world. And Charles finally speaks up with a puzzled voice: I thought that Elijah was supposed to come back first. Well, at least Charlie Brown knew his Bible. Elijah was supposed to come back before the end time. So the disciples have heard the people talking about Jesus as if he was Elijah. But others, including Herod himself, questioned if Jesus was John the Baptist who had come back to life.
You’ll remember that Herod suffered from guilt because he beheaded John in prison, at the request of his step-daughter and his wife, over John the Baptist’s denouncement of Herod marrying his brother’s wife. John may have been silenced, but his death soon turned into a martyrdom and John’s popularity among the people flourished. John the Baptist was the first prophet to come on the scene in over 400 years. His austere lifestyle closely patterned that of Elijah before him. While the upper classes and the religious establishment rejected his message, he received wild acceptance among the masses and many were baptized under his ministry.
It’s interesting that Herod himself believed that Jesus was John the Baptist reincarnated. He thought John had come back to get him. Matthew 14:1 reads: When Herod heard of Jesus, he said to his servants: This is John the Baptist who has been raised from the dead, and that is why these great powers are at work in him. By saying that Jesus was John the Baptist reincarnated, the people were saying of Jesus that He was a great and powerful prophet in the line of Elijah. Then the disciples added one more description: Some are saying you are Jeremiah. Why Jeremiah? To understand this opinion, you have to know one of the Hebrew people’s folktales.
It was commonly believed by the Jews that before their ancestors were hauled off into captivity into Babylonia and the Ark of the Covenant destroyed, that Jeremiah had secretly gone into the ark and removed the alter of incense and hidden it in a remote cave on Mount Nebo. Just before the Messiah was supposed to return, so the story went, Jeremiah would return and produce this alter to the glory of God. Was the story true? Probably not, but the important thing is that the people believed that it was true.
All of these descriptions tell us one thing. The people thought Jesus was a great prophet. They thought Jesus was here to herald the coming of the Messiah. For those who accepted these views of Jesus, they were paying Him compliments of the highest order. Jesus had asked, who do people say that I am? It was, and is, an important question. But it’s not the most critical question. An even more important question is “who do you say that I am?”
Jesus turns to His disciples and He asks His most personal friends, His inner circle, His trusted students the critical question: “Who do you say that I am?” The world has turned on the heels of the answer to that question. By answering Elijah, John the Baptist and Jeremiah, the people paid Jesus compliments of the highest order. They were exalting the man Jesus. But it was the wrong answer, and so Jesus asks the disciples, their personal opinion: “But who do you say that I am?” In other words, you’ve told me what other people think, but I need to know what you think. Who do you say that I am? I would suggest to you this morning, that that is the most urgent, the most relevant, the most theologically centered question, that confronts us today. No matter where we turn in life, we’re faced with the implications of this question.
Throughout the ages various individuals have attempted to answer that question posed by Jesus. Ernest Renan, a French writer, answered it by saying that Jesus was a sentimental idealist. Bruce Barton, an American businessman, said that Jesus was the greatest salesman who ever lived. William Hirsch, a Jewish writer, responded that Jesus conformed to the clinical picture of paranoia. A musical dram was performed some years ago that answered this question by saying that Jesus was a Superstar. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian, referred to Jesus as the “man for others.”
The Gospel writers also attempted, in their own fashion, to answer this most fundamental question. They bestowed upon Him numerous titles and claims: Son of David, Son of Man, Son of God, Divine Physician, King, Prophet, Bridegroom, Light of the world, the door, the vine, high priest, the firstborn of creation, the bright and morning star, and Alpha and the Omega. All of these are attempts to answer this question posed by Jesus.
Some of you may remember a country music singer, song writer and actor named Waylon Jennings. He had several hits beginning in the 1970s. Author Will Campbell traveled for a while with Waylon Jennings on tour, and served, unofficially, as Waylon’s pastor. You need to know, if you don’t already, that Jennings had lived a rough life. One day Campbell decided to talk to Waylon about his spiritual condition. Will asked Waylon, “Waylon, what do you believe about Jesus?” Waylon simply said, “Uh-huh.” That was the extent of his reply.
A few weeks later, Will asked again, “Waylon, what do you believe about Jesus?” Again Waylon said, “Uh-huh.” A few weeks later Will tried a third time, “Waylon, what do you believe about Jesus?” Waylon finally answered. He turned to Will and said, “Well, let me ask you, of all the books that have been written about Jesus, have they ever improved on Him?” Will said, “No.” Jennings said, “Well, then that’s what I believe. I believe in Jesus.”
Waylon Jennings wasn’t too articulate about his faith, but he knew that Jesus was like no other man who ever lived. In his words, no one’s ever improved on Jesus. I’m sure everyone here today will agree with that statement. But is Jesus who He says He is, the Messiah, the Son of the living God? It’s a question of the utmost importance, and all these descriptions and titles are the attempts made by others. And while these answers may be helpful, they still don’t answer the question Jesus is asking.
Jesus is more concerned what our answer is, than what their answer is. Martin Luther wrote: “I care not whether he be Christ, but that he be Christ for you.” Peter responded: Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God. Peter had finally answered the question. He answered from his heart and it was an answer that God the Father had revealed to him. You see, unless Jesus is revealed to us through the work of the Holy Spirit, we can never really answer this question. And it was at that point that Jesus gave Peter a new name. You are no longer Cephas, you are Petros, the rock. In truth, nothing was ever the same again for Peter. And this is why the third question, is important.
The final question isn’t a question directly from the text, but it is an important question for us to consider. What then are we and the church to do with this revelation? Jesus gives Peter the keys to the Kingdom. Jesus hands him, thus the church, the authority to conduct the business of God. He tells him, Peter, whatever you decide to do it will be done in heaven and what you decide shouldn’t be done, it will be bound in heaven. Peter go out into this world and make things happen in my church and point to sin and wrongdoing and call it to account. Which brings us back to the third question: What will you do with your confession of Christ?
Perhaps you’ve heard about these 3 doctors, who on their way to the golf course got into a car accident and all die. Next thing they know they’re standing before the gates of heaven and St. Peter says to the first: “Why should I let you in?” He replies: “Look at my file! I am a research physician. I developed all kinds of procedures to prolong people’s lives.” St. Peter checks out the folder and says: “OK, you can come in.” Then he asks the second: “Why should I let you in?” The fellow replies: Look at my file; I developed drugs, which cured arthritis, and took away much pain and suffering in people’s lives.” St. Peter thumbs through the folder and tells him: “OK, you’re in”. Then he asks the third doctor: “Why should I let you in?” The man proudly declares: “I am the man behind HMO’s. Because of me thousands of folks have access to medical care that they would never have had before.” St. Peter thinks about it and then says: “Ok, you can come in too…but only for three days!”
We’re called to do great things for the kingdom of God, once we’ve come to the point when we too can echo the words of Peter: Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God. And when we actually believe these words, our life will never be the same. Ask the woman at the well, ask Mary Magdalene, ask Paul, ask Martin Luther, ask John Wesley, ask Mother Teresa, ask some people here in this church. Jesus is asking us today, “Who do you say that I am?” It’s not only the most important question for us to answer as followers of Christ, it’s also the answer to life; in this world and the next. And how we answer this question will determine, to a great extent, how we live our lives.