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Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

First Reading: Isaiah 51:1-6

 1“Listen 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 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

13When 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.



On This Rock I will Build My Church

“Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah!… 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”.  Have you ever stopped to pondered Jesus’ response to Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ?  Why did Jesus respond to Peter’s confession of, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” in this way?  To fully appreciate the question Jesus was asking and His response to Peter, we must first consider the setting in which Jesus and the disciples find themselves.

Anytime we read hell in the Bible, we naturally think of the realm of the unbelieving dead.  But the Greek word translated here as hades, is also the name for the Underworld, the realm of all the dead, not just unbelievers.  The Hebrew equivalent to Hades is Sheol—the place “under the earth” where all were believed to go after this life ended.  Up until New Testament times, the predominant belief was that Sheol had “bars” (Job 17:16) and “cords” to tie down its inhabitants (2 Sam 22:5–6), preventing any from escaping (Job 7:9).  Both the righteous and the unrighteous went to Sheol.  The righteous believer, however, could hope for deliverance and eternity with God (Psalm 49:15).

And while the imagery associated with the Underworld would have unnerved the disciples, Jesus’ reference to the gates of Hades would have jolted them for another reason.  If they knew their Old Testament history well, they understood that they were standing before those very gates of which Jesus spoke.  Our New Testament reading for today takes place in Caesarea Philippi, situated near a mountainous region containing Mount Hermon.  In the Old Testament, this region was known as Bashan—a place with a sinister reputation.

According to the Old Testament, Bashan was controlled by two kings—Sihon and Og—who were associated with the ancient giant clans: the Rephaim and the Anakim (Deuteronomy 2:10–12; Josh 12:1–5).  The two main cities of their kingdom were Ashtaroth and Edrei, home to the Rephaim (Deuteronomy 3:1, 10–11; Joshua 12:4–5).  These cities and their Rephaim inhabitants are mentioned by name in Canaanite (Ugaritic) cuneiform tablets.  The people of Ugarit believed the Rephaim were the spirits of dead warrior-kings.  They also believed that the cities of Ashtaroth and Edrei were the entryway to the Underworld—the gates of Sheol.  Additionally, during Israel’s divided kingdom period, Jereboam built a pagan religious center at Dan—just south of Mount Hermon—where the Israelites worshiped Baal instead of Yahweh.

For the disciples, Bashan was an evil, otherworldly domain.  But they had two other reasons to feel queasy about where they were standing.  According to Jewish tradition, Mount Hermon was also the location where the “sons of God”, spoke of in Genesis, had descended from heaven—ultimately corrupting humankind via their offspring with human women (6:1–4).  These offspring were known as Nephilim, ancestors of the Anakim and the Rephaim (Num 13:30–33).  In Jewish theology, the spirits of these giants were demons (1 Enoch 15:1–12).  And to make the region even spookier, Caesarea Philippi was also home to numerous temples dedicated to the Greek gods, and the city itself had been built and dedicated to Zeus.

These pagan gods were worshiped at religious centers built a short distance from the more ancient one in Dan—at the foot of Mount Hermon.  In the disciples’ minds, Jesus, by making this statement, was addressing more than the church, Jesus was declaring war on the cosmic realm: moreover, He was declaring victory over satan and the forces of evil.  Keep all this in mind as we later recite the statement, “He descended to the dead,” in the second article of the Apostles Creed.  In this passage Jesus is openly declaring war on all the pagan gods, the devil, and his minions.  But there are, in reality, two different messages Jesus is communicating here in our Matthew reading; the first is a declaration of His ultimate power and authority in Heaven and on Earth and the second is to highlight the importance of what we believe and of how our beliefs impact our lives.

Let me focus for a moment on the Jesus’ response to Peter that “on this Rock I will build my church.  Again, there are two messages here.  First, the rock Jesus referred to in this passage was neither Peter nor Himself; it was the rock on which they were standing—the foot of Mount Hermon, the demonic headquarters of the Old Testament and the Greek world.  Now it’s true that we often presume that the phrase “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” describes the church taking on the onslaught of evil.  However, we need to recognize that the word “against” is not present in the Greek.  Translating the passage without the word against, gives it a completely different connotation: “the gates of hell will not withstand it.”  Rendering the verse in this way allows us to see Jesus as the aggressor.

Jesus was looking ahead to His crucifixion where He would declare war on sin and death.  Jesus knows He will build His Church by first standing atop the gates of hell and He would bury them.  By considering this passage in this way, Jesus isn’t simply playing defense, He’s now going on the offense and boldly declaring victory.  Jesus knows, and so does satan, that judgement has come; that this is the beginning of the end, and the devil knows his days are numbered.  But there is also a second meaning and purpose to Jesus’ question and response: what we believe is important.

The disciples had been with Jesus for at least two years to this point.  So it might have seemed strange to them when one day Jesus asked them, “Who do you say that I am?”  They had heard the opinions of others, but Jesus was concerned about what His disciples believed about Him.  He had come into this world as the promised Messiah, it was a matter of immense importance to Him what the disciples understood about Him and His mission.  What they believed concerning Him would make a difference not only to them, but to the world in which they would be sent to serve.  What the disciples believed was important to Jesus, not for His sake, but for theirs, and for the whole world.

What Jesus knew about the importance of our beliefs is a lesson we need to learn and learn well.  The importance of our beliefs varies in direct relationship to the potential consequences of what we believe.  For example, if you start out to walk across a room, it normally doesn’t matter much whether you believe you should start with your left foot or your right.  However, if you’re driving along the road at sixty miles per hour and are meeting another vehicle coming toward you at the same speed, you’d better believe in staying to the right rather than the left.  What we believe does have consequences, and it does produce results.

And when it comes to the matter of what we believe concerning God’s Son Jesus, then the importance of our believing rises to a level which strains the imagination and confounds the mind.  As we read in John 3:16, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son …”  But, as we also read in the same verse, that it’s by believing in Him that we have the everlasting life He comes to offer.  Initially, it may seem that too much turns upon too little, that a great result depends upon a very small thing.  But we know this isn’t the case.  Believing is no small thing.  It’s the very stuff life is made of.  By our believing, we are always opening doors, or closing them.  And apparently the very door of life everlasting turns on the hinges of our belief.  Each of us has a set of beliefs.

We believe something concerning almost everything.  Our opinions are formed by our beliefs.  We’re not born with our beliefs ready-made within us, and seldom does anyone force them upon us.  We start at the youth end of a long smorgasbord, and as we pass, we make our selections.  Consciously or unconsciously, we pick up this or that, here or there.  And what we accumulate along the way usually turns out to be a rather intricate and complex set of beliefs.  As children, we don’t generally select our beliefs by a deliberate intellectual process; rather we sort of absorb them by osmosis.  This is why Christian Education in the home is so very important.  As we grow and mature, we pick them up, and we incorporate them into our lives, and they become very decisive for how we live.  Our beliefs are important because they do things to us and cause us to do things.  Most of the time it’s what we believe that directs our choices and controls our actions.

Christopher Morley, in the novel Kitty Foyle, has a sentence which says, “Nobody knows what he really believes; you’ve got to guess at it by how you find yourself acting.”  This may slightly overstate the matter, but not by much.  Whether or not we’re conscious of our beliefs, and whether or not our beliefs conform to our confessions, there is a profound relationship between what we believe and what we do.  And, tragically, erroneous beliefs can produce disastrous consequences; believing in the wrong things can propel us in the wrong direction.  And what we believe concerning God, will heavily influence the way we behave.

Around the time of the American Civil War, people were singing a song about “hanging his body on a sour apple tree,” they were singing about a man named John Brown.  John Brown was considered a very religious man, but with some very strange beliefs concerning God.  An impassioned abolitionist, in Kansas he deliberately and systematically murdered five men who supported slavery.  Then, to obtain weapons for his crusade, he led an attack on the United States arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia.  Finally, in 1859, he was caught, tried, and was sentenced to die by hanging.

At his execution, John Brown said: “I was not responsible for these events; I had no control over them; they were foreordained by almighty God even before the world began.”  If someone believes, as John Brown did, that God predetermines everything that happens in the world, then, of course, that man can excuse himself for whatever he does, and feels no regrets for anything he has done.  What we believe about ourselves, what we believe about other people, what we believe about God – these beliefs are of paramount importance in the way we live and how we act.

We risk making a mess of our lives unless we make sure that our beliefs have some reasonable relationship with reality.  On occasion, someone will say, “It doesn’t matter what we believe, so long as we’re sincere.”  This simply isn’t true.  You may sincerely believe that cyanide isn’t poison, but if ingest it, you’ll quickly discover that your mistaken belief does matter – that is, if you live long enough to make the discovery!

When behavior isn’t in conformity with what’s good, we call it “misbehavior.”  When belief doesn’t conform with what’s true, it’s “misbelief.”  There is such a thing as misbelieving as well as misbehaving, and the one usually leads to the other.  It not only matters that we believe something; it also matters what we believe.  Belief has an obligation to truth; it has a responsibility for lining up with reality; it needs to conform with what is, or what has been or what may be.

Imagine the trouble a mathematician would have if they stubbornly believe that two plus two equals five.  You won’t get far in mathematics unless you believe what’s constant in mathematics.  What we believe must coincide with what’s real.  The equation 2+2=4 is an expression of what is.  It’s not a conclusion arrived at by consensus or authorized by a popular vote.  It wasn’t arranged and decided at some convention or conference.  It wasn’t put into force by a legislature or by the decree of some powerful monarch, ancient or modern.  No amount of argument will change the fact that 2+2=4.

Hold two blocks in your right hand and two in your left, and then put them down on a table.  How many blocks are there altogether?  Repeat the exercise over and over and the results will always be the same.  2+2 always equals four.  There’s nothing we can do to change the facts.  You may wish it to change, but it doesn’t.  It’s a mandatory truth.  There simply are things that are facts, immutable laws that we cannot change.

When dealing with space and substance, there are many beliefs that are absolute.  To live in harmony with the physical universe, there are some things we must believe; we have no choice.  In some areas, belief is essentially a matter of acceptance: we must accept the reality before us or simply living each day will be very difficult.  But there’s another realm we must consider.  As in the physical realm, the realities of the mind, spirit and moral, are also as they are, and work the way they do.  We simply cannot change them by pretending otherwise.

Jesus has reason to be concerned as to what we believe about Him.  “Who do you say that I am?”  It’s a critical question.  Jesus came and said, “I am … truth” (John 14:6).  I am realism, I am the way it is.  “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.”  This is who I am, this is a fact.  Therefore, the predominant question is, who do you say Jesus is?  The answer we give will impact everything in our life, beliefs, thoughts, morals, and values.  Will you, by your believing, relate yourself to the truth of Him?  Will you, by your believing, anchor yourself into the everlasting Fact?

What we truly believe has a unique function in our living, a critical and essential role in the drama of human life.  The realisms that impinge upon our lives are many times beyond the reach of our knowledge; they are too intricate for us to comprehend.  Beyond what we can clearly see, and certainly know, are spaces we can enter only by believing our way into them.  The only way we can relate to much of life’s circumstance is to believe, and our beliefs are our ways of reaching out to connect with what’s real.  To misbelieve is to miss the target of truth, but to believe rightly puts us in touch with the whole spectrum of the vast reality in which we live.

“Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.”  This is an oft-repeated refrain of our New Testament.  In the original Greek, the word for “believe” is usually coupled with the Greek preposition eis, which, with the accusative case, implies “action into.”  Thus, to believe in Jesus Christ literally means to believe into Him.  Believing isn’t passive, it’s active.  Believing does something.  And truly believing takes us into the Lord Jesus Christ, and puts us into a relationship with Him.

When Jesus asked His question, “Who do you say that I am?” it was Simon who answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”   And Jesus replied, “And I tell you, you are a rock, petros, Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.”  The Apostle Simon got his new name that day, Peter.  By his believing, he had reached out and touched truth, had made a connection with the chief Cornerstone.  As belief always puts us into relationship with what we believe, so Simon Peter was now related in a profound way to the One in whom he believed, the Christ.  This is a relationship on which Jesus can build His church.  And when we truly believe as Peter believed, we too become foundation people.

For moral guidance, we look to Jesus.  For spiritual power, we connect to a source unexcelled.  In time of storm, we have an anchor, in time of darkness, they have a light.  When turbulence swirls around us, peace abides within.  When tomorrow is uncertain, eternity is sure.  When things close in, we can look up.  When sorrow overtakes us, we know that joy is somewhere ahead.  When we’re anchored in Jesus, we can experience the joy of the Lord despite the heartaches of this world.  Jesus is the solid Rock upon which we build our lives and upon which Jesus builds His church.

In truth, our beliefs are important, not only because of the terrible things the wrong ones may do to us, but also because of the wonderful things the right ones can do for us.  To believe in distant goals can give us courage for the long haul.  To believe in the wonder and grandeur of life can fire within us a zest for its living.  To believe in the ultimate triumph of love and beauty can help us through the dark places and beyond into the light again.  To believe in the eventual victory of right over wrong can make us strong in the struggle against evil.  To believe in a good and loving God can give us incentive for good and noble living.  And to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ can mean the salvation of our souls.  “Who do you say that I am?” asks Jesus.  Our answer to this critical question can and will make all the difference in the world – two worlds, in fact: this one and the next.


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