Sunday, August 28, 2011

11th Sunday after Pentecost - August 28, 2011

First thing, we’ve got to go back to last week’s gospel lesson. Last week, Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And the disciples answer, Elijah, Jeremiah, one of the prophets, maybe John the Baptist come back from the dead. And then Jesus ask them this question, “But who do YOU say that I am?” And this is when Peter says, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” The question I want to ask before we tackle today’s gospel, is why Peter’s answer was remarkable.

Now first of all, we don’t know exactly why. (Jesus doesn’t explain his reaction to Peter’s confession.) But we can certainly look at the context and try to figure it out. For example, earlier in Matthew, when Jesus walked across the water, the disciples worshiped him, calling him the Son of God. Why is Peter’s confession, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” more remarkable than that? The only difference seems to be that instead of just calling him the Son of God, he also calls him the Messiah. What’s a Messiah? And would it be more important than saying that Jesus is the Son of God? This is the key, I think. What is a Messiah?

The Jewish people of Jesus’ time were well aware of how far their civilization had fallen. Once upon a time they had been big shots. They had had their own country and they had even controlled countries around them. They had been powerful and rich. This was the time of King David and King Solomon. Those were the glory years. But ever since, things had been getting worse. First, the kingdom had been split into two parts, the North and the South. Then they started fighting. Then they lost control over the countries around them. Then other empires starting knocking on their doors, demanding tribute. Then the Assyrian Empire conquered the north and dragged the people away in slavery. Then the Babylonian Empire conquered the south and dragged the people away in slavery and destroyed Jerusalem and the temple to boot.

Since that time, things had gotten better for a bit, when the Persians had allowed the Jews to go home and to rebuild Jerusalem (which you can read about in the Old Testament books Ezra and Nehemiah), but then things had gotten worse when Alexander the Great had come through and conquered them again. Then, for a little while, they had broken free from the Greeks, but before long the Romans had shown up.

For the Jewish people of Jesus’ time, history had been very unkind, filled with disaster after disaster. The current situation didn’t look good. The Romans were the most powerful empire yet and freedom seemed unlikely.

And this is where we get to the idea of a Messiah. The Jewish people of Jesus’ time were looking for a messiah, a savior, to save them. This messiah would be a king like David was a king, powerful and glorious. In fact, this messiah would be a Son of David, a descendant of King David. This is a promise that had been given to David after he had become king. (You can find this promise in the OT book 2 Samuel, chapter 7.) The people longed for the glory days of King David and were looking for the Messiah who would bring them back.

There were also some other ideas of what the Messiah would be like, but these ideas were similar. They all involved the idea that the Messiah would be powerful and that the Messiah would save his people by forceful action. These were the expectations of Jesus’ time. This is what people were waiting for.

So back to Peter’s confession. What he said was different than what the disciples had said before. He had called Jesus the Messiah. And here we need to make an important distinction between the titles, Son of God and Messiah.

The title, Messiah, is all about action. When people think, “Messiah” they are thinking about what he will do. The Messiah will liberate his people

The title, Son of God, seems like a glorious title, and it is. But we need to recognize something about it. It describes a relationship. It describes a relationship between Jesus and God the Father. It glorifies Jesus. It’s great. But it is missing something. The expectation of action. When people think, “Son of God” they are thinking about this relationship, not about what he will do. This is an important distinction.

So what Peter has done is put his finger on something that is at the heart of Jesus’ ministry on earth. Jesus is the Messiah and that means Jesus is here to DO something.

Now we move to today’s gospel lesson. In the wake of Peter’s confession, Jesus begins to teach the disciples what it is that he, the MESSIAH, is here to do. Peter and the disciples expect to hear something like this, “I must go to Jerusalem to claim my throne. I will take power from the tyrants and become your good and gracious king. I will drive the Romans out. I will overthrow the corrupt. I will re-establish true worship of God. I will establish Justice and Peace.” This is what Peter and the disciples are expecting from the Messiah. This is the definition of what the Messiah will do. This is the good news that they long to hear. This, after all, is what we hear at Christmas time when the lesson from Isaiah is read,

“For unto us a child is born, unto us a child is given; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it from this time forth and forevermore.” (Isaiah 9)

This is what the Messiah is going to do. He is going to establish his kingdom on this earth by establishing his power and authority, by taking control of the government, by becoming our king. That is how God will change things for the better.

Instead, Jesus says, “[I must] undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”

Jesus, apparently, does not know his own job description. It is not in the job description for the Messiah to suffer and die. That is nonsense. Worse, it is blasphemy.

Peter knows this very well. He knows that Jesus is getting it all wrong and so he takes him aside to set him straight, “God forbid it, Lord. This must never happen to you.” ‘Stop being so negative Jesus. You are God’s messiah and therefore bad things will not happen to you. God has a wonderful plan for your life. You will go and become king and you will establish peace and justice and true worship of God. These are good things. These are the things that God wants. Scripture testifies that these are the things that God wants. So don’t talk about suffering and dying. That is ridiculous.’

Peter has listened to what Jesus the Messiah has taught and knows in his heart that Jesus is wrong. Jesus is mistaken. Jesus must not suffer and die because that isn’t what the Messiah does. The Messiah comes and saves his people by becoming king. That’s the way it works. Except, that it isn’t.

“Get behind me, Satan!” Jesus says to Peter, “You are a stumbling block to me.”

Peter has understood that Jesus is the Messiah and he has understood that Jesus has come for action, to do something. He has even understood that Jesus the Messiah has come to liberate his people. But he has completely misunderstood how God has decided to accomplish this.

God has not sent his son, Jesus the Messiah, to take power, but to be crushed by it. This is what the Messiah will do, he will go to Jerusalem, undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and the chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. Yes, the Messiah is all about action. But the action is so very different than they expected.

And it only gets worse. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it......”

The whole point of waiting expectantly for the Messiah, was the hope of deliverance, the hope of freedom and justice right now, the hope that things would be set right, now. And in the place of this hope, Jesus is offering suffering, denial and death.

“God forbid it, Lord!” We had been hoping that you would come to make our lives better, and instead you are offering to make them worse! “God forbid it.”

Is this really how it works? Yes. In Jesus Christ, God made a decision to act for us.

God acts. Make no mistake about it. But his action will not be what the old sinner desires. The old sinner desires improvement. Peter wanted Jesus to go to Jerusalem and make things better. We desire for God to make us better, to sand off some rough edges, perhaps add some paint. The old sinner desires improvement. Make this world better, Lord!

But that isn’t why Jesus came. He didn’t come to improve us. He didn’t come to improve the world. He came to die. Peter didn’t understand this and we can see how Jesus set him straight. God isn’t working to make you a better person. That isn’t the point.

No, like Jesus, we have to die. That is the meaning of the cross. The cross that we pick up is not something that we are to carry around patiently as if that were the Christian life. Jesus didn’t carry the cross around. He carried it to the place where he was nailed to it and then he died on it. And so it is with us. Our cross is not a burden, but an instrument of our death, the death of the old sinner. We die in baptism and we die daily in repentance. We die to our own way of thinking. We die to our pretensions. We die to our dignity. We die to our own self-esteem. It is necessary that, like Christ, we die. For Jesus did not come so that we might improve a little.

Jesus came so that we could die with him...... And then BE RAISED with him. He came not so that we could be made better, but new. He came not so that we could have self-esteem, but so that we could have the dignity and purpose that comes from being a child of God. He came not to become the ruler of an earthly kingdom, but to establish his kingdom in the hearts of men, women and children who have faith in him.

You might say that Jesus rebuked Peter so sharply because he was thinking too small. Peter wanted a little improvement. Jesus came to make him a new creation. And so he comes for you. But know this; it will take a little dying.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

9th Sunday after Pentecost - August 14, 2011

Upon reading the gospel lesson this week, two difficulties came into my mind.  The first one you can see on your bulletin insert, verses 10-20 are listed in parenthesis.  This is probably because they don’t seem to have anything to do with verses 21-28.  In those first verses he’s talking to a Jewish crowd about eating.  In the other verses, he heads out of the country and drives a demon out of a foreign woman’s daughter.  The one really doesn’t seem to have to do with the other. 

The second difficulty is that Jesus treats the Canaanite woman so contemptuously.  He basically calls her a dog.  It isn’t easy to hear those kinds of words in the mouth of our Savior.  Is there some explanation for it?    

As it turns out, everything in this gospel lesson fits together really well.  The two parts are like two parts of a puzzle and when you fit those two parts together, then it makes sense why Jesus treats the woman so harshly.  The first puzzle piece lays out an important teaching.  This is followed by the second puzzle piece which is a real life situation in Gentile country that illustrates the teaching for the disciples. 

Part I. Teaching:

Jesus tells the Jewish crowd, “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”  Jesus is talking about Jewish dietary laws. If you look in the Old Testament, you will find all kinds of rules about what can be eaten and what can’t be.  Pigs, lobster and animals that aren’t killed or cooked in a particular way are off limits.  These dietary laws were important because they determined whether a person was “clean” or not.  Something or someone who was not “clean” could not be holy and could not even come into contact with what was holy.  Thus it was hugely important to eat the right things in order to be clean, because doing so had spiritual consequences.

Jesus is doing something amazing here.  He tells the crowd that it does not matter what you eat.  He is not tweaking the system or reinterpreting it.  He is turning on its head.  The Law says that what you eat matters a lot!  Jesus says that what you eat doesn’t matter at all.  We can see that this caused some controversy because the disciples say to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?”  Of course they took offense!  Jesus is attacking their beliefs.

Peter now steps forward and asks for Jesus to explain this controversial teaching.  This is what Jesus tells him, “What you eat just ends up in the toilet anyway.  It really doesn’t matter.  Instead, what matters is what comes out of you, your words.  Because the words that you speak testify to what is really in you.  If you are full of wickedness, then wicked things will come out of you in your words, and this is what makes you dirty, not the food that you eat.”  We could put this in a different way.  “It isn’t the cover on the book that matters, but the content of the book.”

So, to take stock: Jesus has just overturned Jewish religious practice.  He has just told the disciples that part of what they have grown up believing is wrong.  It isn’t easy to be confronted with a new teaching like this.  It isn’t easy to adjust.  Sometimes we need to hear the same lesson in a new way, or see the lesson play out in front of us.  And this leads to our next section.

Part II. Object Lesson

This is when Jesus and his disciples head north, out of Jewish territory and into the land of the Gentiles.  According to the old way of thinking, they were headed into unclean territory where people don’t eat the right way.  Thus, according to the old way of thinking, the people that they meet will be unclean.  And I believe this is the reason for the trip.  Jesus is going to show them what the new teaching means in practice.  Or rather, an “unclean” Canaanite woman is going to show them what the new teaching means.  This will be an object lesson for the disciples.

So here’s the situation, Jesus and his disciples are walking along, minding their own business. Jesus isn’t teaching the crowds or anything like that; there aren’t any crowds; he is there on the down low, incognito. 

And then up runs this woman and she starts shouting at Jesus, saying, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”  Now what we want to have happen is for him to take care of the problem right away.  But remember that his concern is for this Canaanite woman to teach his disciples an object lesson.  And so he ignores her and just keeps walking along.  She continues to shout and to make a scene.  The disciples just want Jesus to quick take care of the daughter so that the woman will go away.  After all, she isn’t an important person, she isn’t Jewish, she’s one of those unclean people, she is of no account.

But Jesus tells them no, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  Is Jesus being serious?  Has he come only to the Jews?  I don’t think so.  I think he is inviting the disciples to apply the lesson that he has just taught them.  Do they do it?  No, of course not.  And that is why the Canaanite woman must teach it to them.  So here is the lesson.

First, the conventional wisdom says that she is dirty.  She is not a Jew, so she hasn’t been following Jewish dietary laws.  Therefore, she has been putting all kinds of things into her mouth, lobster, ham, bacon, etc...... that make her unclean.  Because she is unclean in the matter of food, that means that she cannot be holy or come near to the holy.

But the words coming out of her mouth are the following, “ Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.”  By calling him the Son of David, she is essentially calling him the Messiah.  The words coming out of her mouth testify to what is inside her.  And Jesus has just taught that it is what is inside of us and that comes out which make us holy.  And what is inside of her is faith.  She believes that Jesus is the Messiah and she believes that he can help her daughter.  There is faith inside of her which comes out in words.  This is what makes her holy.  It is faith that justifies.

The woman is the embodiment of the lesson.  She is the lesson in human flesh.  According to the old teaching she is worthless.  According to Jesus’ new teaching, she is clean and holy, because what is inside of her is faith.

To hear the harsh words which come next, we must understand that Jesus is drawing something out of her that she needs to say and something that the disciples need to hear and learn. 

“Lord, help me” she says.  Jesus replies, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  Ouch.  With those words, Jesus has laid out the old teaching.  The old teaching said that the Gentiles were the outsiders.  The old teaching said that only the Jews were God’s chosen people and they drew near to him by keeping the Law.  Jesus gives her this old teaching like a hanging curveball......

She replies with the new teaching and hits it out of the park, “Yes, Lord, for even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”  “Yes, the Jews are fed first; they have received the teaching.  But God cares for us Gentiles too.  God provides for us Gentiles too.”  She speaks words of faith.  Before, being clean was only for the Jews, being close to God was for the Jews.  This was the understanding.  And this understanding was based on the Law.  But now Jesus has changed this.  Being near to God, being clean and holy is now based only on faith.  And what an example of faith she is.  There is faith on the inside of her that comes out in her words.  This faith is what makes her clean, what makes her holy.  This is the lesson that she has taught the disciples. 

So the basic Lutheran teaching that we can see from our lesson today is that the Law has been surpassed by the gospel.  It is faith that saves, not following the rules, not being part of the right group.  No, it is faith.

In closing, consider this.  The Canaanite woman understands and confesses that Jesus is the Son of David, which means the Messiah.  Next week, you will hear in the gospel lesson that Peter confesses this very same thing; and he gets all kinds of credit for being the first one to figure it out.  But this Gentile woman has beaten him to the punch!  She has understood the new teaching of Jesus!  It is not the works of the law, the things that we eat and all that business that matter, but only faith in Jesus Christ which is in our hearts and on our lips.  Amen.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

8th Sunday after Pentecost - August 7, 2011

Michael Jordan was the best basketball player of his era, perhaps of all time.  He led his Chicago Bulls to three straight NBA titles.  After taking two years off to play minor league baseball he came back and won three more NBA titles in succession.  He was an amazing player.  Aside from his on court talents, he was also did very well with endorsements.  Perhaps his most famous ad campaign was for Gatorade.  “Be like Mike” was the slogan.  The idea was to emulate Michael Jordan.  The idea was to be the best.

I want to be like Peter.  Peter is a faith giant.  Peter is the leader of the disciples.  Peter is Jesus’ right hand man, or it certainly can seem like that.  Nobody ever talks about Simon the Zealot, or James the Lesser.  We hardly know anything about them.  But Peter is always right at the center of the action.

Now fame is no reason to admire someone; I realize this.  But that’s not really what I’m talking about.  Let’s take today’s gospel lesson, for example.  Peter believed that Jesus was able to pull off the impossible.  He believed that Jesus could make him walk on the water.  I love that.  I wish I was more like that.  Instead, I find myself thinking about what is “realistic.”  I'm often more inclined to think that Jesus will work through more normal means.  If I were more like Peter, then I would expect bigger things.

Peter’s faith is impressive.  Climbing out of a boat in the middle of the lake, during a storm, in the middle of the night takes faith.  I wish I was more like that.  Instead, I find myself doing what is safe, what is comfortable.  I know what I want to believe, but do I really have the courage of my convictions?  Do I believe these things enough to step out of the boat and risk everything for them?  If I were more like Peter, then I would have the faith to get further out of my comfort zone; I would have the faith to take more risks.

Now all of what I’ve been talking about is how I’ve felt about Peter over the course of many years.  I’ve looked at Peter as an example, as someone to aspire to, as a spiritual Michael Jordan.  But the more I study the Bible, the more I begin to see that this isn’t such a great idea.

Take our gospel lesson for example.  Here’s the situation.  The disciples are in the boat in the middle of a storm.  And here comes a figure walking towards them on the water.  They freak out.  They think it’s a ghost – and that’s at least as reasonable as any other explanation.  After all, human beings do not walk across lakes (unless it’s Winter in Minnesota.)  So they freak out and they are afraid.

But then Jesus speaks to them, “Take heart.  It is I.  Do not be afraid.”  We have talked before about the power of words.  We have talked about how promises create faith in those who hear.  Well, these words of Jesus are powerful indeed.  They calm the disciples.  Except for Peter.  Instead of calming down, instead of receiving these words of peace, he flies off the handle and does something that is ridiculous and lacking in faith.  “Lord, IF it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”  IF.  Give me a sign because quite frankly I don’t believe it.  Give me a sign because I don’t trust the word that you have just spoken to us.  Give me a sign to prove yourself in a way that won’t require a lick of faith on my part.”

Peter’s example here really isn’t so good.  He doesn’t believe the word that is given to him and he demands a sign.  And remember, this is after Jesus has just fed the 5,000.  It’s not as if Jesus hasn’t proven himself already.  Why doesn’t Peter have faith?    

Well, Peter is like the rest of us.  He is a sinner who has been chosen by God.  As one who is chosen, he is a mighty man of faith – and God works through Peter to accomplish many amazing things.  And as one who is a sinner, Peter is an absolute knucklehead.  Sin clings to him like white on rice. 

The interesting thing is that we can see both sides of Peter when he steps out of the boat.  When Jesus tells him, “Come” he somehow believes and Peter, the man of faith, begins to do the impossible.  But Peter, the old sinner, is right there too.  And before long, Peter begins to sink.  And he is left to simply cry out, “Lord, save me!”  And Jesus reaches out and catches him and saves him from himself.

So is Peter an example?  Well, in a way he is, I suppose.  He is an example of what a Christian is like.  He is an example of how our sin and doubt cling to us, even when we have heard Jesus give us a word of peace.  And he is also an example of what happens to one whom Jesus has chosen.  Peter can be the biggest fool in the boat; he can be a dead man walking, but Jesus his Lord has decided to save him.  And so he is saved.  And not only is he saved, but God does work through Peter for many years to come.  He makes him into a mighty man of faith.

Back to that Gatorade ad with Michael Jordan, “Be Like Mike.”  It was a tremendously successful campaign.  But I can guarantee you that none of the folks who bought the drink ever ended up like Mike; Gatorade doesn’t have the power to do that. 

We, on the other hand, are already like Peter.  Warts and all, we are the ones whom Jesus saves.  And for many years to come, God will accomplish his work through us.  And God DOES have the power to make us mighty men and women of faith.