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Sermon for Sunday 27 August 2017

FIRST READING Isaiah 51:1-6

1Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness, you who seek the Lord: look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. 2Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, that I might bless him and multiply him. 3For the Lord comforts Zion; he comforts all her waste places and makes 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. 4Give attention to me, my people, and give ear to me, my nation; for a law will go out from me, and I will set my justice for a light to the peoples. 5My righteousness draws near, my salvation has gone out, and my arms will judge the peoples; the coastlands hope for me, and for my arm they wait. 6Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look at the earth beneath; for the heavens vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment, and they who dwell in it will die in like manner; but my salvation will be forever, and my righteousness will never be dismayed.


PSALM Psalm 138

1I will give thanks to you, O Lord, with my whole heart; before the gods I will sing your praise. 2I will bow down toward your holy temple and praise your Name, because of your love and faithfulness; 3For you have glorified your name and your word above all things. 4When I called, you answered me; you increased my strength within me. 5All the kings of the earth will praise you, O Lord, when they have heard the words of your mouth. 6They will sing of the ways of the Lord, that great is the glory of the Lord. 7Though the Lord be high, he cares for the lowly; he perceives the haughty from afar. 8Though 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. 9The Lord will make good his purpose for me; O Lord, your love endures forever; do not abandon the works of your hands.


SECOND READING Romans 11:33-12:8

33Oh, 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 that he might be repaid?” 36For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.
1I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. 3For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, 5so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. 6Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; 7if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; 8the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.


GOSPEL Matthew 16:13-20

13Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 18And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” 20Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.




Occasionally, the news media carries a story of someone who claims to be the messiah. It happened over in Knoxville, TN not too long ago. A local man claiming to be Jesus Christ was arrested after he attacked his wife. The man was charged with assault after he shoved his wife into a chair and threatened her if she left him. He also ripped out a telephone and smashed a car windshield. “He was yelling about being Jesus,” a deputy wrote in the warrant. At the Knox County Jail, a corrections officer, entering the case information into a computer, asked the man his religion. “I’m Jesus,” he replied. He also told jail officials that he wanted John, Paul and Moses on his visitors’ list. At last report, he was being held on a $5,000 bond and was scheduled to appear in court. Obviously, this is a troubled man.
Psychologist Milton Rokeach authored a book titled, The Three Christs of Ypsilanti. In this work, he described his attempts to treat three patients, at a psychiatric hospital, who suffered from delusions of grandeur. Each believed he was unique among humankind; each believed he had been called to save the world; each believed that he was the messiah. Dr. Rokeach found it difficult to break through, to help these patients accept the truth about their identity. So, he decided to put the three into a little community, to see if encountering other people, who also claimed to be the messiah, might dent their delusion. It was a kind of messianic, 12-step program.
As you can imagine, this support group led to some interesting conversations. One would claim, “I’m the messiah, the Son of God. I was sent here to save the earth.” “How do you know?” Rokeach would ask. “God told me,” one answered. One of the other patients would then counter, “I never told you any such thing.” Remarkably, every once in a while, one of the patients would get a glimmer of reality–never deep or for long. Acutely ingrained in these troubled individuals was the messiah complex. And the minimal progress Rokeach made, was pretty much accomplished by putting these troubled people together in the same room. Sadly, this isn’t a modern problem.
In first century Palestine, it wasn’t uncommon for people to come along and claim to be the messiah. After all, the Jewish people had been looking for a messiah for hundreds of years—looking for the one who would come and deliver them from their enemies. It wasn’t unusual for a person–either out of an irrational spirit of grandiosity or as a cynical means of acquiring power–to claim to be the one whom the people had been expecting. But how were the people able to discern who was the genuine messiah and who wasn’t? Even John the Baptist, a prophet called by God from before birth, was unsure of how to judge.
John the Baptist, as we have come to learn, was one of the most prominent, revered and feared religious figures of his time. John considered himself to be the forerunner of the messiah; the one whom God had called to announce the coming of the Lord. At Jesus’ baptism, John thought he had it figured out. Jesus was the one who was to come. He was the messiah. Of course, we know that Jesus was John’s cousin. They had grown up together. So, it makes sense that John was in the best position to know that there was something special about Jesus. It isn’t surprising, then, that when Jesus came to where John was baptizing people in the River Jordan and asked to be baptized, that John tried to deter him. John said, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
Further, Matthew tells us that as soon as Jesus was baptized, He went up out of the water. And at that moment heaven was opened, and Jesus saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on Him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased.” Now, from all the evidence given by God, heaven opened, the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove and God’s own voice, one would think that everyone there that day would be convinced. However, evidently, there were still some questions.
Jesus never did quite act like the messiah they were expecting. It’s probable John shared the common expectation that the coming messiah would be a military-type figure who would lead the people in a revolt against the iron grip of Rome. But Jesus showed no interest in leading an overthrow of the Romans; He seemed content to be a humble teacher and healer. And on at least one occasion, John thought he had been mistaken. Later, when John was imprisoned, he sent two of his disciples to Jesus with a message. When the men came to Jesus, they said, “John the Baptist sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?’”
It appears that John was confused by the direction Jesus’ ministry was taking. It wasn’t as obvious that Jesus was the Messiah as John had hoped. In response to John’s question, Jesus answered: “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those with leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor” (Luke 7 20-22). Obviously being a messiah had nothing to do with encouraging a revolt. Evidently, healing those who are hurting and proclaiming good news to the poor was what being the Messiah was all about. Even Jesus’ closest friends and family were confused about His ministry. So, it was a big deal on this occasion when Simon Peter testified that Jesus certainly was the One who was to come.
We all know the story from our gospel reading for today. The Bible tells us they were in the region of Caesarea Philippi. Jesus asked His disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” “But what about you?” Jesus asked. “Who do you say I am?” And Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus was pleased with Peter’s answer and replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.”
“But what about you? Who do you say I am?” This is the question that confronts us today. For me, this is the ultimate question. It’s absolutely the most important question all of us will ever be required to answer. Before we can claim to be a Christian, before we can become a disciple, even before we can expect to go to heaven, we must answer this all important question: “But who do you say I Am?” And even more important, we can’t answer this on our own. Jesus said to Peter, “flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” Study all you want. Read all the books you want, search the internet, interview today’s leading theologians, none of this will do you any good unless God reveals to you who Jesus is; you’ll never be able to answer this profoundly important question. How you answer this question will determine how you spend eternity.
Terry and I have been watching documentaries lately and several of the episodes have dealt with the subject of Jesus, either directly or indirectly. After viewing these TV shows, one thing is clear, there are a lot of opinions out there as to who Jesus actually is. Each of these shows featured accomplished writers as well as researchers recognized in the field of history. What was evident from the variety of opinions given is, there are a number of ways that Jesus is perceived. Generally, these opinions range from outright denial to partial acceptance.
For example, some view Jesus as simply a historical figure, a man about whom many myths are written. Others see Jesus as healing prophet, much like Elijah. This is how Jesus is seen in the Islamic religion. Still others claim that Jesus was nothing more than the front man for Mary Magdalene. This group forwards that Mary Magdalene was actually the messiah, but because of the patriarchal nature of first century Palestine, Mary Magdalene needed a male public figure in order to carry out her ministry. Still others accept Jesus as God’s Son, but that He was never really human.
This group, the Gnostics, teach that Jesus had a stand in when it came time to die on the cross. This is a bit of an over simplification of the Gnostic religion, but I think you get the point. Finally, another large group of individuals don’t really accept that Jesus is divine, they do however, believe that He is the best example of what it means to be human. And I think many, so called Christians today, fall into this category. This is a group that will recite one of the Creeds each week, but I doubt they actually believe what’s contained in the Creed.
Jesus, for many, is viewed as a man blessed by God and is the ideal person for us to emulate. He’s the model for what we all should be. Haddon Robinson, in his book What Jesus Said, notes that after World War I, General Pershing planned a series of victory parades through many European capitals. He needed 27,000 soldiers to march in those parades, and each participant was to possess two qualities. Each soldier was to have an unblemished military record, and he was to stand at least one meter, eighty-six centimeters tall. Forty American soldiers, guarding an ammunition dump about one hundred miles from Paris, read with interest the notice about Pershing’s victory marches.
What’s more, each man in the company met the first qualification. Their military record was spotless; they were all good soldiers. The second condition, however, puzzled them. They didn’t know how high one meter, eighty-six centimeters was. The corporal asked the sergeant, and the sergeant didn’t know. Then the corporal said, “Well, Sarge, I know that I’m taller than you are.” After that it began. Since no one in camp knew how tall one meter, eighty-six centimeters was, the soldiers began to compare themselves with one another. They stood back to back like children in a kindergarten until they knew who the tallest through the shortest men in the company were.
Slim, the tallest, kidded his buddies that, since he knew he was the tallest he also knew he would be selected. Therefore, he would take a look at the girls in the European capitals for the rest of the company and send back picture postcards. Before long, the shortest man in the company, thought that if he marched in the parade, everyone else would too. When a captain from headquarters arrived to find out if anybody qualified, the soldiers told him their problem, “We don’t know how tall one meter, eighty-six centimeters is.” So, he translated the metric measurements into feet and inches and made a mark on the mess hall wall.
Some of the men looked at the mark and knew they weren’t tall enough. Others stood up against the wall, but they fell short of the mark by an inch or more. Finally, Slim stretched himself as tall as possible, but even Slim fell one-quarter of an inch short. Not a single soldier in the company came to the six feet, one and one-fifth inches that one meter, eighty-six centimeters represents.
Pershing eventually found enough qualified men to marched in his victory parades, but the point of the story is that when we have an absolute standard to measure ourselves by, it’s futile to measure ourselves against other men and women. We must measure ourselves by the standard of Christ. Jesus is, of course, the mark we measure our lives by.
Jesus is the perfect example of what we, as God’s children ought to be. For some people that’s good enough where Jesus is concerned. He is the absolute standard. As we claim each week when we recite the Creed, Jesus became “incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became fully human.” And because He was obedient to the Father even unto death, He is the ultimate role model for humanity. He is humanity at its finest. But this isn’t good enough. Jesus is more than the best humanity can produce. Each week we also confess that Jesus is God’s “only Son our Lord.” This means that He’s also the best representation of what God is like.
When a little boy was asked to describe Jesus, he thought for a moment and then replied, “Jesus is the best picture God ever had taken.” I like that. Author and former Divinity School professor John Killinger explained Christ’s role in another way. “Jesus,” he said, “is God’s way of getting rid of a bad reputation.” Humanity had many ideas about the nature of God prior to the coming of Jesus. But even the most brilliant theologian was a blind man trying to describe an elephant. How could any mortal capture the essence of the Divine Other? It’s beyond the capacity of the human brain.
Even more critically, bad descriptions of who God is have caused some to perform outrageous rituals such as infant sacrifice, temple prostitution and the slaughter of unbelievers. Bad ideas of God always produce correspondingly bad behavior. If someone says to you, “Oh, it doesn’t matter what you believe, just so you’re sincere,” ask them to consider those armies, even in the world today, who send children out to be slaughtered in battle so that these children can supposedly go to heaven. It absolutely does matter what we believe about God. It’s of paramount importance how we answer the question, “Who do you say I am?” Because we could not climb up to God, God reached down to us in Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is the revelation of what God is really like. (Jn. 14:9)
I’m reminded of the final scene from the movie Shrek. In case you haven’t seen the movie, Shrek is the story of an ogre, a big, fat, green ogre who rescues the Princess Fiona. Fiona is a beautiful creature who bears a striking resemblance to Cameron Diaz with red hair. However, Princess Fiona is under a curse. Every night, she becomes an ogre, every bit as green and fat as Shrek. Every morning, she becomes Cameron Diaz again with red hair. This cycle is to repeat itself until, in classic fairy tale fashion, she finally experiences true love.
At the end of the movie, Shrek finally sees for the first time Fiona’s ogre persona that she’s been hiding it from him. But he loves her and kisses her anyway. And then something quite unexpected happens, something that never happens in traditional fairy tales. Rather than being transformed back into the beautiful Cameron Diaz-like princess, Fiona is permanently transformed into a fat, green ogre. She loves Shrek so much that she gives up her former beauty and becomes like him. That is, of course, what God did for us in Jesus Christ. Out of His great love for us, God emptied Himself and became fully human as well as being fully divine.
Who is this man Jesus? One could say that He is the ultimate role model for humanity. He is humanity at its finest. And while all of this is true, Jesus is so much more than that—He’s also the best representation of what God is like. As the little boy said, “Jesus is the best picture God ever had taken.” “Who do you say that the Son of Man is?” asked Jesus. For once, Simon Peter got it right, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” This is the ultimate question we must also answer today: Who is Jesus to you?
Is Jesus simply a healing prophet, a historical figure and fine example of what it means to be a good person, or is He the incarnate Son of God? Is He your Lord and King who sits at God’s right hand? The One “who will come to judge the living and the dead?” Before we can ever claim to be a Christian, before we can ever begin to be a disciple, before we can ever expect to go to heaven, we must answer this question. This is the ultimate question, because how you answer this question will determine how you live your life not only in this world, but also in the next.

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