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A WORD FOR TODAY, August 23, 2023
Lectionary Scriptures for August 27, 2023, Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost: Isaiah 51:1-6; Psalm 138; Romans 11:33-12:8; Matthew 16:13-20
“Yes, they will sing of the ways of Yahweh, for Yahweh’s glory is great!” Psalm 138:5, WEB
The best part about reunions is the storytelling. Wherever people gather, for whatever reason, conversation always leads to recalling people, places, and events from our past and our present. Funerals are definitely a time for remembering, but they are highly emotional and there is little time with many people who also want to share their memories. Classmates enjoy sharing what’s happening in their lives, but the talk often turns to the stories of our school days together. Families laugh at childhood memories when they gather for holidays and other celebrations. Best men and maids of honor love to share stories about the newly wedded couple while they toast the marriage and wish them a long, happy life together.
My brother and sister and I don’t get together often enough, but I remember a time a few years ago when we laughed and shared stories. My siblings are significantly older than I am; I am the baby. My brother was headed off to the army by the time I was an interesting individual. My brother and sister had a typical sibling relationship; they fought over everything. He picked on her, she tattled on him. Since he was so much older, he was sometimes left as babysitter for the two of us, but since he was fairly young, he was not the most reliable caregiver.
As we visited during that reunion, they shared stories about our childhood that I could never remember. I had a calendar of photos from our past and they used them to remember. We had a pony for a few months and went on vacations I will never remember. I learned that I had a broken leg when I was just a baby, having fallen down the stairs under my brother’s watchful eye. I heard stories that will only be part of my memory because they told them to me. Although I will never remember those events or many of the people involved, they are a part of my history, and I am who I am because of them.
In today’s Old Testament passage, God was speaking to His people through the prophet Isaiah. He said, “Listen to me you who seek the Lord. Look to your history, your father Abraham and your mother Sarah.” Although none of those to whom Isaiah was speaking knew Abraham personally, they knew the stories of Abraham’s life that were passed down orally in the religious traditions; they were irrevocably woven into their lives. The promises of God were first given to Abraham and Sarah who seemed to have no hope for a future, but to whom God fulfilled His promise that their offspring would become many nations. The people listening were the fulfillment of that promise. They were the children of Abraham.
Isaiah used the image of God’s people being stone, like rocks hewn from a quarry. He reminded them to look to the foundation of their faith, to their father Abraham and mother Sarah. God’s people were founded in the promises given to them. Though Abraham was old, God provided him with a son that would become the father of many. Those promises were given to us, too; the foundation of our faith was started with our father Abraham.
We are the people of the many nations that came from Abraham and Sarah. We are proof of God’s faithfulness and can rest in all God’s promises including those found in today’s Old Testament passage from Isaiah. We will be comforted. God will look upon His children with compassion. He will restore His people and they will rejoice. We will become the light that shines to the world, manifesting God’s justice and peace. God will grant us His righteousness and His salvation. It is ours to live in hope waiting patiently for that which will last forever.
It is up to us to keep telling the story.
That’s why it surprises us that Jesus says, “Don’t tell anyone” in today’s Gospel lesson. After all, it was not much later that Jesus commanded the Church to tell the world. Why the silence in this passage? Shouldn’t they tell the crowds that Jesus is the Messiah? After all, it would help the people know Jesus better, to follow Him with more commitment, to establish His authority in His day. Wouldn’t He want committed followers right from the beginning?
Where would the people in Isaiah’s day have been if Abraham and Sarah had not been so blessed by God? Where would we be if the apostles had not learned the lessons necessary for the building of God’s Kingdom in the world? Where would we be if they had not told Jesus’ story?
Today’s Gospel text was a turning point in Jesus’ ministry. From this point forward in Matthew’s story, Jesus set His feet toward Jerusalem and the cross.
The Pharisees and Sadducees recognized that there was something different about Jesus, but they were afraid. They didn’t want a king who would take away their power and authority. They demanded a sign from heaven, yet they had been given multiple signs. They didn’t want to see the truth because it would turn their world upside down. It seems odd that Jesus didn’t want the truth to be proclaimed.
Jesus wondered what was being said about Him around town. After all, He’d been doing some incredible things as we’ve seen in the lectionary over the past few weeks. Jesus fed thousands, He walked on water, He healed a Canaanite woman. Word of His works was getting around. A few weeks ago, we heard that Herod suspected that He might be John the Baptist resurrected. Behind the scenes the people were whispering other possibilities. “Maybe he is Elijah.” “He could be Jeremiah.” “Perhaps he is one of the prophets.”
His actions were gaining the attention of the temple leaders. He had a following. There had been other would-be messiahs, political and religious zealots trying to lead the people into some sort of revolt. They were easily disregarded because they had no authority. However, Jesus spoke with power that seemed to come from God Himself.
Jesus wondered about the scuttlebutt. “What are they saying out there about me?” The disciples told him about all the theories. Then Jesus asked His disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” For just one moment, Peter saw Jesus clearly and confessed faith in the Savior of the world. It wasn’t his own doing.
Jesus answered Peter’s confession, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” Peter’s confession of faith was not something parroted from what other people thought about Jesus. It was not from the teachings of the Pharisees and Sadducees; it was not a fearful assumption from a king, and it was not a guess from those who knew the stories of the Old Testament. It was a confession of faith hewn by God’s own hands. And on that rock, Christ would build His church. Peter didn’t confess faith by His own knowledge or ability. It was God Himself that revealed the truth to him.
“Who do you say that Jesus is?” is a question we still ask today. We like to define Jesus as a good guy, healer, teacher, and prophet. We like to see His radical hospitality and His generosity. He is a friend, brother, and wonderworker. We study the many characteristics of Jesus: He is the living water, the bread of life, the gate. He is the great high priest and the Lamb of God. He is all these things and more. We love to hear the stories and to study the lessons that have been recorded in the scriptures. Yet, no matter how much we believe and love Jesus, we all struggle with the reality that Jesus came to die. The signs may have revealed Jesus as the Messiah, but faith in His ministry was not enough to save us. Jesus Christ had to complete the work He was sent to do.
The image of rocks from Isaiah and the Gospel reminds me of the many historical ruins we visited while we lived in England. We also visited buildings that were still standing, some a thousand years old. Yet, there was something particularly poignant about the sites that were left bare from years of destruction, neglect, and theft.
The abbey in Bury St. Edmunds was one of the most popular pilgrimage sites for many years. Edmund was a hero of the British people because in the middle of the ninth century he stood up against the Danes to save his throne and the Christian faith; the people went to see his relics. The Danes viciously tortured and killed him, then went on to ravage the land.
The abbey built in his honor was a grand complex with a magnificent church more than five hundred feet long and two hundred feet wide. There were also many other buildings used for the business of the abbey. Today there is little more than foundational footprints left behind. My visit to those ruins helped me understand the methods the medieval builders used to create the abbeys and churches we still visit today.
The builders wanted to create thick walls that would survive weather, enemies, and time. They also wanted the buildings to be impressive, with the most beautiful stone, carvings, and towers. All this cost money and though the abbey had great wealth they did not limit their desires to what they could afford. They were no different than us today. It seems to be human nature to always reach just beyond our resources so that we can have bigger and better things.
The cost was too great to make the entire building out of the best stone, so instead of making walls solid with hewn stone, they laid a foundation, built a layer of the fine crafted stone on the outside and inside of the wall and then filled between these layers a mixture of mortar and discarded stone. Though the walls were several feet thick, only a foot or so of expensive stone was used to create the beautiful building. The garbage in the middle was never seen until the abbey fell. The abbey was eventually left to the ravages of weather, enemies, and time. The beautiful stone was stolen to be used in other buildings and the mortared garbage was left behind. No one wanted the junk; they just wanted the beautiful stone. The walls now look like statues of cobblestone towers.
None of us look like stones hewn from a quarry or the beautiful buildings that were built with that stone. We are far more like the mortar and discarded stone; we look like the cobblestone towers left behind in the ruins of the abbey. We are sinners and no matter how good we seem to look, we can’t hide from our Father what is our hearts. Even God’s chosen people made mistakes; they turned from God and worshipped others. They did not do justice in the world. They were unable to keep the Law. Their disobedience left them in ruins, the beautiful facade stolen away over time.
The passage from Isaiah offers a promise, not only to the people in his day, but also to us today. Isaiah wrote, “For Yahweh has comforted Zion. He has comforted all her waste places, and has made her wilderness like Eden, and her desert like the garden of Yahweh. Joy and gladness will be found therein, thanksgiving, and the voice of melody.” The passage points to a future promise that was fulfilled in Jesus. “My righteousness is near. My salvation has gone out, and my arms will judge the peoples. The islands will wait for me, and they will trust my arm.” We are called to look toward the heavens and rest in the promise that God’s answer to our worries and fears is eternal. He has proved His faithfulness.
We might appear to be nothing more than the garbage the builders used to make the walls of those ancient cathedrals look bigger, but we are stones hewn by God Himself. He has given us what we need to inherit His Kingdom forever. He has revealed Jesus as the Christ through the stories in the scriptures so that we will believe. Jesus didn’t want the truth revealed too soon because He had more work to do.
Michael Phelps won a record number of medals at the Olympics in 2008. He was interviewed and profiled; every aspect of his life was reported, including his eating habits. One reporter even tried to duplicate his calorie intake, an impossible feat for the average person. We met his mother and sister and seen their faces as Michael won contest after contest. We heard from his teammates, coaches, and friends back home. He was the center of attention during those Olympics.
This was good in some ways: he put the limelight on swimming. His amazing races were replayed on the large screen monitors at football and baseball games around the United States. Young people began thinking more seriously about the sport. I’m sure there was a rise in sign-ups for swimming classes, which was one of Michael’s goals. He wanted more youth to be interested in swimming so that the next generation would accomplish even more than he was able to accomplish.
The attention on Michael Phelps has had its disadvantages, however. There was little attention paid to the other astounding athletes. Natalie Coughlin was an American woman who dominated women’s swimming; she won six medals in 2008. She also won five medals during the 2004 Olympics. She competed in eleven events over those two Olympics and won in every event. This was an amazing feat, and she was the first woman to do so. She set her own records, but we hardly knew her.
Natalie took it all in stride. When she was interviewed and asked how she felt about Michael Phelps getting all the attention, she answered, “He deserves every ounce of respect and admiration and attention that he gets because what he’s doing is incredibly phenomenal. I am not jealous one bit. Being his teammate for so many years, you get desensitized to how amazing he is. I think many years down the road, me and the other members of the team will realize what an incredible performance he put on for everybody here.”
No matter how good Michael Phelps is at his sport, he was also humble enough to realize that he could not have done this by himself. He was always thankful for the support of his family, bringing up his mom at every opportunity. His coach is like a father. And his teammates are vital. At least one of his record-breaking gold medals would never have been his without the incredible push during a team relay race by his friend and teammate Jason Lezak. They were in second place until Jason took off during the final meters of the race. He took over the lead and won by eight hundredths of a second. That does not sound like much, but in Olympic timekeeping, eight hundredths of a second is an eternity.
No matter how good a person is at what they do, they can’t do it by themselves. Michael Phelps earned those medals through his hard work and commitment, but he was not the only one who deserves the credit. Credit also goes to his mom and family, his coach, and teammates. Together they accomplished this great feat. His purpose was to encourage young people to look at the benefits of swimming. Though most of them would never break records like Michael or Natalie, they would be happier and healthier if they pursued something like swimming in their life. Those who supported Michael were part of his goal and helped many accomplish even more than any Olympic record breaker.
The same can be said about our faith journey. We might accomplish great things for the kingdom of God, but we can never take the credit on our own. We are part of a larger body, a body filled with gifted and committed people who serve the Lord, founded on the grace of Jesus Christ. Together we share God’s kingdom, telling His stories to those who need to know His love. We can’t do it alone. We need those from our past who built the foundation of our faith. We need one another. Most of all, we need God, for all we have comes from Him. We need to tell the stories so that the world will know and believe.
Peter seems to stand alone as he makes his confession of faith in today’s Gospel, but while he was the first, Peter was standing in for the whole body of Christ. The other disciples may have come to the realization at a later time, but all came to understand Jesus and His purpose except Judas. The disciples saw Jesus as the revealed Word of God in flesh, the Savior, the Son. They became sons of God by faith, hewn by God’s own hand.
In today’s Old Testament passage, God says, “Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look on the earth beneath; for the heavens will vanish away like smoke, and the earth will wear out like a garment; and its inhabitants will die in the same way: but my salvation will be forever, and my righteousness will not be abolished.” We don’t need another earthly king; we need a Savior.
Peter confessed his faith that Jesus is Lord, but Jesus’ relationship with the people went downhill from that moment. They want something different than what He is willing to give. The miracles and stories continue, but they are more pointed as Jesus moves toward the cross. Jesus refuses to be what they want: an earthly king that meets their physical needs. He is the Anointed One who will fulfill all God’s promises.
In Isaiah God said, “Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look at the earth beneath; for the heavens will vanish away like smoke, and the earth will wear out like a garment. Its inhabitants will die in the same way, but my salvation will be forever, and my righteousness will not be abolished.” We didn’t need another earthly king; we needed a Savior.
Peter confessed his faith that Jesus is Lord, but Jesus’ relationship with the people went downhill from that moment. They wanted something different than what He was sent to give. The miracles and stories continued, but they were more pointed as Jesus moved toward the cross. Jesus refused to be what they wanted: an earthly king to meet their physical needs. He didn’t come to do their will. He is the Anointed One who came to fulfill all God’s promises. It wasn’t time to reveal the truth.
Today’s scripture is perhaps one of the best-known passages. It is the source of much debate about the nature of Jesus, the nature of the church and the relationship of Peter to the church. We could spend hours discussing these questions, noting Peter’s confession of faith and how he failed to understand fully what Jesus had said. What is important in this passage is that God revealed the truth to Peter and that there is more to come. Peter and the disciples had not seen the whole story. They thought they understood, but until the end, until the resurrection and Pentecost, they would not fully understand what God was doing in and through Jesus.
Jesus said, “Don’t tell anyone.” Why the silence at this time, especially since we would eventually be commanded to take His story to the four corners of the earth? Jesus’ authority was not built solely on His life. The authority He has now, over life and death, was established in its fullness on the cross and in the empty tomb. Peter thought he understood, but he would not understand until the story was complete. A detail still needed to be revealed. A light still needed to shine. Then, and only then, could Peter, and the Church which he represented in this story, fully live God’s calling to tell the saving story of Jesus.
Just like Peter, we can never come to a bold confession of faith without God’s grace. He puts the Word in our hearts and the words in our mouths that Jesus is Lord. Our life of faith begins with the humble realization that we are like the garbage that filled the walls of the abbey church, sinners in desperate need of a Savior. Believing in Him also means that we are covered with His righteousness, a robe like the beautiful hewn stones from the quarry. Our faith is built on the foundation which Jesus laid; we are blessed with the salvation that comes through Jesus Christ our Lord. It is there we find the strength to live and love and rejoice. Our earthly troubles, whatever they may be, are temporary because God has promised that His salvation is eternal.
God revealed to those first disciples that Jesus was the Word which was exalted above all else. They might have wondered about Jesus, His identity and purpose, but everything changed once He was revealed as the Christ. They began a new journey that would lead them not into power and fame, but into danger. Despite his confession Peter failed miserably but God gave him a measure of faith that did not fail in the end.
The psalmist sings, “I will bow down toward your holy temple, and give thanks to your Name for your loving kindness and for your truth; for you have exalted your Name and your Word above all.” We praise His name because He has fulfilled His promises. Singing a song of praise brought the singer into the presence of God. He dwells where His name dwells. He dwells in the hearts and on the lips of the faithful who sing about His goodness. As they sing, they not only show their praise to God, but they reveal His wondrous grace to the world. Thus, God is made known to those who have not believed through the praise and thanksgiving of God’s people, and with our voices we remind the world that all other gods are lowly while the Mighty One is raised high.
Today we join in the chorus of thanksgiving with the psalmist, Abraham and Sarah, the people of Judah, Paul, Peter and the other disciples, and every generation of the Church throughout time. We can rest in God’s promises, for He is faithful. We are sent forth in faith to be God’s witnesses, to tell the story of how Jesus the Messiah fulfills God’s every promise. As we are obedient to our calling, God will fulfill His purpose for our lives. Today and everyday sing praise and thanksgiving to God, for He has hewn you out of the solid rock and given you the foundation of faith to see Jesus as He truly is. He is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, the One who brings God’s eternal salvation to the world.
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