Jesus is a wanted man, just one step ahead of the authorities in Jerusalem. The religious leaders and politicians are afraid of him and his message. They believe his talk about the kingdom will make the Romans think the Jews are ready to revolt. But do the disciples really know Jesus? Is he that great mythic figure known as the Son of Man? Jesus did not believe himself to be the political answer to the hope of his people who were conquered by first one nation and then another?
The popular view was that someday a great figure would ride in on a white horse at the head of 10,000 troops and take charge of the world, with freedom for Jews. Not so, said Jesus. While in the parable of the sower he alluded to himself as the Son of Man, that was a description of himself as a farmer but not as a war-like being. Would the disciples report that ordinary people were saying Jesus is the Son of Man? Or John the Baptist, or Elijah, or even Jeremiah? “Who do you say that I am? Do others think of me not as a militaristic figure but as the long-awaited suffering servant sent from God, do you?”
Now we ask ourselves, “What about us? How do we see Jesus?” Even God’s people in every age have been perplexed about Jesus and how God lived in him. Most of us have asked sincere and serious questions about how God works — especially when we think he’s not doing his part. Most of us have suffered injustices. We are victimized by circumstances beyond our control, or we bear all kinds of unfair burdens. Is God paying attention?
Where is God? Why don’t I get a break in life? How many sorrows and troubles do I have to carry? Why doesn’t God help me? Is God supportive and helpful, or is he distant, unfeeling, unmoved, no help at all? Is God for me or is he against me? Are we the people of God? Who are we in God’s sight?
When Jesus wanted to determine how successfully he was teaching his disciples, he did not ask, “What do you get from my stories?” Instead, he asked, “Who do you say that I am?” That is our endless search. What do we make of Jesus? What does he expect of us? The only difference between us and characters in the Bible is that while their whole life story centered on God, we may not be so sure about ourselves.
For instance, Moses got tired of God not doing enough. Does that sound familiar? Moses took matters into his own hands. When he saw an Egyptian beating an Israelite, Moses killed the Egyptian and became a fugitive from justice in the sands of Sinai.
In that quiet setting, a strange thing happened to this murderer. A bush burned in front of him but was not reduced to ashes. He believed he heard God’s voice from the bush. God saw the injustices suffered by the children of Israel as slaves to the Egyptians and God wanted to do something about this injustice.
These slaves were His people, and Moses was to be God’s agent for their salvation. Then Moses asked God the question we often ask of God.
Moses asked, “Who are you and who am I that I should go to the Pharaoh and become a deliverer? Who are you to speak from this burning bush?” Moses received the same answer to each question, an answer similar to what Jesus asked his disciples.
Moses asked, “Who am I?” and God answered, “I will be with you. And to his question, “Who are you?” God answered, “I will be with you.” The Hebrew word that Moses heard was Emmanuel, meaning, God with us. The angel told Joseph that Mary’s son would be named Emmanuel, which means, “God is with us.”
When Moses asked, “Who am I that I should become an agitator for freedom for the Israelites?” God answered, “I will be with you.” Jeremiah asked God why he should go forth to speak in God’s name. God answered, “I will be with you.”
When Paul was talking to the crowds in Athens, he said, “God is not far from us, for in him we live and move and have our being.” That is, we are whoever we are only as we relate to God. We are nobody until we can say God is with us; then we become somebody.
There is no other answer to the question of who we are and how God loves us. As creatures of God, we cannot be identified except as having our total being wrapped up with God. Moses asked the question we ask God:
“Is it not in thy going with us that we are distinct, I and thy people, from all other peoples on the face of the earth?” Ah, if we could just believe that God is going with us as we move through life, keeping us sheltered even while we are not conscious of his presence! Our well-being depends on the presence of God. With him, we can face the troubles of life and without him, we are nothing.
If we could be certain that we are different from all other people on the face of the earth because he is with us, or if the most important thing about us is that God is present, then how firmly our feet would tread in this world of quicksand and pitfalls.
When Isaiah wanted to give hope to the people in darkness, he picked the same word. He said, “The Lord himself will give you a sign. The young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.” In him, God is with us. That is how we identify ourselves. We are the people with whom God lives.
The God in whom we live and move and have our being is not a timeless and bloodless wonder, nor a figment of our imagination.
He is the God who acted in history. When we rehearse those old stories of God’s presence with his people, we are tugging at God. We want him to do for us what he did for them.
Who among us has not called out to God, “Show me your face? Give me your help. Bring me to the Promised Land.” Who are YOU?
We ask God in storm of uncertainty, and God answers, “I am with you.” God addresses each of us in our own generation. It is not enough for us to sing, “Faith of Our Fathers” as though we can inherit faith from our ancestors. Someone has said that God has no grandchildren. That is, we cannot hide behind the faith of our parents and expect God to treat us as his grandchildren. God deals with us directly as sons and daughters, not removed by a generation. Every generation, every person, can and must call him God, Lord, and Creating Father.
We cannot escape confrontation with God. Who is God and who are we? The crucial question from Jesus to his disciples is always: “Who do you say that I am?” Each of us must answer. Do we not hear echoes of the conversation at the burning bush? Moses knew and others have learned that our identity and God’s name are the same. Moses had no identity apart from God, and God has no name and no identity for us apart from his concern for his people. God’s name is God with us.
At Caesarea Philippi, Jesus was showing his disciples and us that recognizing his identity is crucial to everything else. Their own identity as disciples meant seeing him as that great Messiah figure from God whose name means to be with his people.
No matter how we retell the story, whether crossing the Red Sea on dry land or being with Jesus feeding 5,000 or suffering with Job as he keeps on believing in a merciful God, or with Jesus as he washes feet in the upper room, it always comes down to the same point: God is with us.
We rehearse these old stories of God’s never-ending love because we want his presence. We want to believe God is with us. We want to believe that Jesus Christ lives in our midst. We beg to believe that the spirit of Pentecostal fire is with us yet. If Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God, then we must take him into account. He is always the God who is with us, continuing daily what started in our baptism. It is not by our own thoughts or feelings, not by our own flesh and blood, not by our own choice, not by our own power that Jesus Christ is revealed to us as the Son of God.
“Not by my own reason strength can I believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him,” Luther teaches, “but the Holy Ghost has called me through the Gospel.” God reveals himself to us. Because Christ lives, we are his family. We are his people regardless of what threatens to undo us.
God is with us. That’s who God is. And we are the church of Christ against which neither the power of death, nor the gates of Hades can prevail?
That’s who we are in this time and place. Thanks be to God.