Reverend Philip Stringer
LET US PRAY: Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Speak to our hearts with your living word and feed us, that we may live to serve you in faith and love. AMEN
My friend, Mark, was standing in front of a room filled with small children, the summer camp staff who were leading a week of VBS, and some parent-volunteers. Mark told them he was a hypnotist, and that he could make a person perform amazing feats under the power of suggestion. He asked for a volunteer and he chose a girl who was one of the camp staff. He performed his hypnotizing routine and then told the girl to do a cartwheel. She did it— perfectly. Impressive, but not very extraordinary. He told her to do a handstand. She did it. Then he told her to do a series of handspring flips, followed by an aerial flip and land on her feet. She did it, perfectly. The children were amazed! But not the adults.
The “volunteer’s” name was Megan. Megan was Mark’s daughter. And Mark and Megan had a secret: Megan was an excellent gymnast — she had a college scholarship and had been a contender for a spot on the US Olympics Team. Not everyone knew that — but the funny thing is that Megan was wearing a T-shirt that read: “North American Gymnastics Finalist Champions.” Everyone who could read knew instantly what was going to happen next -- although not exactly HOW.
But the children were mesmerized and amazed. Mark & Megan had a secret. And because we could read, we knew the secret, too, and we got to share in their joy of entertaining the children.
That’s a lot like the gospel of Matthew. Matthew begins his gospel with these words: “An account of the genealogy of Jesus, the Messiah….” In the very first sentence he tells us who Jesus is -- we don’t have to guess. We know. Don’t have to listen to the stories and begin to suspect it. We know.
But no one in the story knows -- we hear the stories and the people’s reactions -- they wonder how he has this authority to speak -- they wonder why he can do the amazing things he is doing -- and the excitement builds within us because we know...
Reading the gospel of Matthew is sort of like being the child holding up their hand to be called on because they know the answer.
Jesus asks the disciples what people are saying about him -- “Some say John the Baptist” -- we know that’s WRONG. “Some say Elijah” -- WRONG. “or Jeremiah” --WRONG “or one of the prophets” -- and finally, the secret bursts out of Peter and he says what we have been wanting to say all along -- “Jesus is the Messiah!”
And then-- Jesus says, “Shhhhh. Don’t tell. It’s a secret.” It’s a secret -- but one that Jesus himself will reveal -- not in words but in actions.
In Matthew, the information that Jesus is the Messiah is a secret that isn’t supposed to be a secret. OR -- it is a secret that everybody is supposed to know.
And here is the secret: That what God revealed to us in Jesus is: he is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. God loves the outcasts, and in Jesus, God is drawing all people to God’s self.
Here is a secret that God wants everyone to know: God loves you -- and always will -- and God will go to any length to wrap you safely within that love forever.
Do you know the secret? Yes? No? Maybe?
Whether you know it or don’t know it doesn’t change the fact that it is true.
Matthew doesn’t leave us guessing about who Jesus is. He tells us right away. But that’s not enough for Matthew. He not only wants us to see who Jesus is; he wants us to see who we are, too. Sometimes, that may be harder to figure out than who Jesus is.
In our reading today, there is a lot of revealing of identities going on.
In this world where there is a lot of measuring going on; it would seem that our gospel reading today is telling us that it is better to leave the measuring to God, and instead, focus our attention on the truth of who Jesus is.
Our time is better spent focusing our attention on Jesus because THROUGH Jesus, all things come into focus: who I am, who you are, who God is, what God wants. How God is accomplishing it. All these things come into focus in Jesus. In Jesus, we see.
Problems arise when our attention is not on God, but on ourselves and each other. In fact, that’s a theme that flows through all of scripture. The problem with measuring one another is that we can’t see. We can’t even understand ourselves, let alone each other. The best we can do is guess.
The words had burst out of Peter: “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God!”
“Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah…” whoa. That’s not right, is it? Why would Jesus say that?
Jonah, you may recall, is the name of the character in the OT parable of a man sent by God to proclaim the Word of the Lord to the people of the city of Nineveh. But he doesn’t want to go -- in fact, he tries to run away and ends up being swallowed by a fish in the process.
After three days in the belly of the fish, he gets regurgitated onto the shore, and Jonah decides he’d better proclaim the message after all.
He goes to the city, he proclaims God’s judgment against it, but then something remarkable happens. The people listen to what he says and believe him and change their ways.
And God -- who, (as it turns out) loves the people of Nineveh, turns away from their destruction, and this makes Jonah … mad. “I knew it!!!! I knew that you were gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” He’s mad at God for accepting them, and mostly — he’s mad at God for using him to accomplish it.
Why on earth would Jesus call Peter a son of Jonah; and what does that have to do with you and me? That’s the question -- and its answer is hard to see.
Perhaps it is simply this: Peter sees who Jesus is -- but he still doesn’t see the good news of that for the world and for himself.
He is coming to see who Jesus is, but he still doesn’t see the big picture.
Isn’t that like you and me, too?
The world is continually trying to tell us who we are and who we should be, as individuals and as the church -- but Jesus is the one who shows us the truth. In Jesus we see. “I am a baptized child of God … and the husband of my wife.” … and a banker… and a teacher…. and a mother… and a volunteer at this or that event…In him is where we finally see ourselves clearly — as loved. and redeemed.
We gather around this altar — this is no longer a place of sacrifice for us — we don’t come here to make payment to God, or to earn God’s favor and approval. We gather here, because HE gathers us. The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Because of Jesus, the answer to the question about you is this: “I am a baptized child of God, redeemed and loved by my maker…. and a (husband, mother, teacher, banker, etc.).
Saint Paul saw Jesus — as a scholar and religious authority and was a fierce persecutor of the followers of Jesus. He had sentenced a number of them to death — because he thought too highly of himself. But after Jesus encountered him on the road — and Saul became a Christian with a new name — he came to see that he had been distracted before by his own view of himself, the world and God.
He wrote the Christians in Rome, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, on the basis of God’s mercy, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your reasonable act of worship. Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of the mind, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect.
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...
Keep your focus on Jesus and the mercy of God, and everything else will come into focus, too.
Have you heard the saying, “You may be the only Bible somebody reads?” That is an especially noteworthy point in regard to our texts for today. When people want to know what Christianity is about, they usually don’t go to a book — they just look at the Christians they see and decide.
When people look at the church, they are really asking, “who is the God they worship?”
A number of years ago, a radically hateful church from Kansas got a lot of attention by protesting at the funerals of service members killed in Iraq — brandishing signs saying that God hates people based on their sexual orientation. Is that what Christianity is?
Do you remember the TV evangelists who fleeced people of their money? Jim & Tammy Fae Baker, Jimmy Swaggart, Oral Roberts, and others. Is that what Christianity is?
There was a lot of media attention on the sexual scandal in the Roman Catholic Church. Is that what Christianity is?
“Who do people say that I am?”
The question is still being asked. Lots of wrong answers are being given. Hater, Liar, Abuser.
We know the secret. We know the answer. We are bold to proclaim it here. Will we live the answer out there?
Who will your actions say that he is?