Who Do You Say That I Am?

Sunday the 27th of August 2017

Matthew 16: 13-20

In today’s Gospel reading from Matthew chapter 16, Jesus has taken his disciples on a journey throughout the region of Caesarea Philippi. Now this region was outside the borders of Israel and it was a place that was heavily influenced by Roman gods. It, in fact, was a place where many pagan religions co-existed. It would have been an intimidating place for the disciples, who were all committed Jews, to be. Yet it is in this environment that Jesus chooses to challenge his disciples with key questions of his identity. He begins by asking them who others say that he is, getting them to give their thoughts on what others say. The disciples respond by speaking about the fact that some people say that he is John the Baptist; others declare that he is Elijah, and still others claim that Jesus is Jeremiah or some other prophet. A key thing to note here is that people don’t agree on who Jesus is.

If we were to ask people in our society, ‘Who is Jesus?’ what kind of responses would we find? While studying at ALC, I read some research which suggested that on the whole, Australians don’t have a problem with Jesus; they have a problem with the church. But I wonder if we pressed them further and asked the question, ‘Who is Jesus?’ what would they say? Many people believe that Jesus was a pious Jew who was trying to change the religion of his day. Some believe that Jesus was a wise teacher who gives us good ethics to live by. Many people respect Jesus as some kind of guru, in other words, he is right up there with Buddha, and Gandhi perhaps as a spiritual leader. Many in our society see Jesus as a religious option, you can choose to follow him, or another leader, because in the end, we all get to heaven anyway. Muslims believe that Jesus was a prophet, someone to be respected for his teaching, but he is inferior to the prophet Muhammad.

Having the freedom to choose what we believe about Jesus and not having our views challenged is a major stumbling block to the Christian faith in this country of ours. And what people believe about him is just as diverse as it was when he was walking this earth, two thousand years ago.

But Jesus does not leave it there; he challenges the disciples when he asks the more personal and perhaps confronting question, “Who do you say that I am?”

It is perhaps here that many Christians really struggle. The question Jesus asked his disciples was a very direct question. And he asks you and me the same question requiring a direct answer. I am convinced that Jesus is not wanting us to answer with things like, “My church says, or the Lutheran church says, or perhaps my pastor says”; no, that is not what Jesus is asking. He is asking, “Who do you say I am?” As Christians who follow Jesus you would think that we would be able to answer this question straight forwardly, but in my experience, many people struggle to do this. They would rather defer their answer to others’ opinions about him; refer to others who are more learned perhaps than they are, to people who will give the right answer perhaps.

But hearing Jesus’ question means answering in the moment. It means not waiting to gather the facts, weighing the consequences, waiting to decide what the best side to be on is. The fact is that when it comes down to it many of us have been more cautious and reserved than courageous and we tend to remain silent behind the security of our church walls, keeping our opinions to ourselves.

Peter’s response to Jesus’ question is quite remarkable. It says: 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Notice here how Peter says, “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.” The response of those around Jesus at the time saw him in terms of the past, referring to the greats who had gone before him. Many today refer to Jesus as a historical figure of history, someone who lived two thousand years ago. However, he is the son of the living God.

As I began to think about this it occurred to me that how you and I identify Jesus needs to be based on personal encounters with our Triune God, as he speaks to us through his word and our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. How we identify Jesus should be grounded in a lifelong conversation with God.  Our Lutheran Church, our local church, our pastors, our mothers or fathers, our siblings and others will have their opinions, but in the end, we have to decide for ourselves in conversation with God how we will identify Jesus. No one else can decide for us, or on our behalf. Jesus is the Messiah of the living God. This means that he continues to speak to us and to act in our lives to this very day.

In response to Peter’s response, Jesus says: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” (Mt 16:17). This confession by Peter did not originate with him, it is not something that he concocted, it was not based upon rumor, but his confession came from the fact that God had revealed himself to Peter. This is true for you and me also. The fact that we come to worship our God, that we confess faith in our Lord Jesus, is a result of the work that our Heavenly Father is doing in our lives to reveal who Jesus is to us.

Peter’s confession of Christ is a high point, but the reality of Peter is that even with his strong and bold confession, he struggles. In verse 22 Peter is quick to set his mind on the things of man and not the things of God. (v.23.) Peter makes the confession of who Jesus is—the Christ. But when it comes to what Jesus is going to do, he struggles. The Christ is the one who “must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.’” Confessing Peter quickly becomes rebuking Peter. He does fine with who the Christ is, but struggles with what Jesus is doing.

This is the hardest part of the Christian faith to accept. To believe that he is the son of the living God is one thing, but to accept what Jesus does is another. To admit that the Christ must suffer and die requires one to admit there is a reason for this suffering and death. God’s law shows to you and me clearly and very powerfully that the reason is us. God’s Word shows that the penalty is severe. You and I have certainly sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. You and I are dead in our sins. You and I have not lived this week according to the good and gracious will of God. You and I have not delighted fully in the gifts God offers. You and I have sought to find our own misguided solutions to that which troubles us. The truth that must treat our condition comes down to this: the Son of Man must suffer and die. This is the Christ! This is who Jesus is and what he does for all his children.

This is at the very heart of who Jesus is and who we are. This is what our world and our society find so hard about Jesus. They don’t want this kind of Jesus. The Jesus who is honest with us about who we are before God. The Jesus who comes to save us. The world wants a Jesus in their own image, one that will tell them what they want to hear, not a Jesus who tells the truth.

At the end of the day, all of us have to answer Jesus’ question, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ It is a question that will continue to challenge us as his followers. As the world around us is becoming more and more unstable, it is my belief that Christians are going to have to make a stand. But my encouragement to you all is that even in our confession of who Jesus is: the one that saves us from our sins, this confession is given to us by the Holy Spirit. We are not alone in our faith; we are called by our God to faith in Jesus and we belong to him and we belong with each other. When Jesus asked the question, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ the ‘you’ here was plural. He was asking all of his disciples, so when Peter spoke he spoke on behalf of all of them. We too stand here today united in our faith in Jesus, standing together in our confession of him.

I encourage each of you to think about who Jesus is to you from time to time, to reflect on his word to you so that you too may come to a place where you can confess that indeed Jesus is the son of the living God, but also that he is your redeemer, the one who takes care of your sins.

Call out to the Lord who Saves

Sunday the 13th of August 2017

Matthew 14: 22-33

I wonder if you have had experiences in your life that have really rocked you, that have shaken you up a bit. Those times in life where everything seems to be going to plan and then all of a sudden something happens that changes things. Maybe it was the death of the loved one; the loss of a close friend; the loss of a job; maybe even the realization that life was not going to go how you hoped it would. These are only examples; I am sure there are many other things that interrupt our lives and cause us to be unsettled. It is not surprising that in these times it is not only in life that we are unsettled, but that our relationship with our Lord can also become difficult.

This morning I am going to preach on the Gospel reading from Matthew 14 which is the very well known account of Jesus walking on the water and Peter coming out to him and sinking. I have heard many sermons over the years that have put the emphasis on Peter and his stepping out in faith, but then taking his eyes off Jesus and sinking. I am sure that we can all identify with Peter here and see how this applies to our own lives. But this morning I want to take a deeper look at what’s going on in this account and look at it from a different perspective.

The beginning of Matthew 14 begins with the tragic death of John the Baptist. John the Baptist was a person of great significance for the ministry of Jesus, as it was John who told people of the coming Kingdom of God; it was John who pointed people to Jesus; it was John who spoke God’s Word about what was coming. Because of John, the expectations around what was going to happen at the time were high, and now all of a sudden he was dead.

Jesus, upon hearing this news, tried to get away (in last week’s reading), but the crowds followed him. And in today’s reading he sent his disciples out ahead of him, so that he could be alone, so that he could be by himself. The death of John the Baptist had an impact on Jesus and he needed to be by himself. At this point in time, the disciples may well have wondered about Jesus’ ministry. What did John’s death mean for the future? Did John get it wrong? Is Jesus really the messiah? How could something like this happen? They had experienced a shock and now Jesus went off to be by himself. What did this mean?

In last week’s reading, Jesus shows himself to be the incarnation of the Lord, the one who multiplies food in the wilderness and in today’s reading he again demonstrates who he is when he controls the wind and the sea (and the laws of physics). Both of these miracles are attested to in the Old Testament. Jesus was making a statement of who he is.

And yet even a disciple as bold and as courageous as Peter was not convinced. I suspect that many would think of Peter’s doubting when he began to sink in the water. But his first doubt came earlier. 25 Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. 26 When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear.

27 But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” Jesus had just spoken to the disciples, assuring them, speaking to them and yet what does Peter say?

28 “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.” “Lord, if it’s you.” Even at this point Peter is not confident in Jesus’ words. He does not trust what Jesus says to him.

In the times of life where things are not going to plan, when things seem to be chaotic, where we are uncertain, do you and I trust Jesus’ words to us? Do we trust that Jesus has everything in order, that we are in his hands, that he is looking after us, that he will not leave us? We may believe that Jesus is that miracle worker, that great teacher, but do we trust his words of promise to us?

29 “Come,” he [Jesus] said.

Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”

Even as Peter was walking, putting one foot in front of the other, he did not trust. Yes, he was bold, and yes, he did step out of the boat, but he still did not trust Jesus, so when the wind and waves came he sank.

I believe that it is important to see that this account is about Jesus and his identity; it is about who Jesus Christ really is, and not so much about Peter. It is easy to come to the conclusion on the surface that you and I should be like Peter in our walk with Jesus; to conclude that we can or should step out in faith or learn to walk on water, to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus so that we can overcome the struggles and storms in our own lives. The problem is, as I see it, Peter failed miserably at both these. I would not suggest following his example in this situation. The one thing that Peter did do that was right was to call out: “Lord, save me!” When he did this, “31 Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. Jesus chastised him for his doubt and unbelief and got back into the boat. 32 And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. 33 Then those who were in the boat worshipped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

As much as the spotlight is put on Peter in this account, the real character of the account is actually Jesus.

In the Old Testament there are various places that refer to today’s account. I would like to highlight a few.

In Job 9:8 it says of the Lord: “He alone stretches out the heaven and treads on the waves of the sea.”  Isaiah 43:16 16 This is what the Lord says—he who made a way through the sea, a path through the mighty waters…” This account is about Jesus’ confirmation of who he is, as the one who has authority of creation. This is the one who the disciples confess together is “the son of God”; this is the one who has authority and power to command his creation, but he is also the one who will save his people from their sins. He is the one who is the redeemer. In times of doubt that we all face in this life, the point is not so much thinking that we can overcome our doubts, but to do as Peter, to cry out to Jesus: “Lord, save me!” It is in the midst of these times of upheaval and uncertainties that we are ready to see Jesus for who he truly is, that is, the one who saves us.

The reality is that we face times of difficulty and times when the storms of life seem to be getting at us, and during these times it is easy to wonder about Jesus, to wonder if he will keep his word to us. But in the midst of these doubts and trials the most important thing that we can do is to call out to the one who is our redeemer, the one who saves us from our sins. Then we will know how close he actually is to us, that he is right there to pick us up.

My encouragement is to keep your attention on Jesus and who he is, rather than putting your attention on your faith, or perhaps lack of it. For it is Jesus Christ who has you in his hands; he is the one who keeps us from going under. He is the one who keeps us safe and in his care. Instead of trying to rely on your own strength, trust that Jesus has everything in his hands.

Jesus is The One Who Does the Impossible

Sunday the 6th of August 2017

Matthew 14:13–21

During the past week I have been over in Warrnambool, Victoria for pastors’ conference and while I was there, together with the other pastors, we did some work together with the Gospel reading this week, from Matthew 14. This led to some great discussions and different viewpoints around a reading that is well known, as it is Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand. So I have decided this week to preach on this reading and share with you some of the wisdom that God spoke to us through it.

Today’s Gospel reading is not the only time in scripture that God has provided bread for his people to eat, in fact throughout the Old Testament God often provided bread to his people in great time of need. An example of this that I would like to point out is in 2 Kings 4: 42-44.

In this account a man comes to the prophet Elisha with: “twenty loaves of barley bread baked from the first ripe grain, along with some heads of new grain. “Give it to the people to eat,” Elisha said. 43 “How can I set this before a hundred men?” his servant asked.

But Elisha answered, “Give it to the people to eat. For this is what the Lord says: ‘They will eat and have some left over.’” 44 Then he set it before them, and they ate and had some left over, according to the word of the Lord.”

Notice that in this account Elisha the prophet referred to what the Lord had said, and that it ends with everyone having been filled and having leftovers, “according to the word of the Lord”. This miracle was not Elisha’s doing—this was God acting through his word to bring about his purpose.

The people of Israel knew this and believed it, that their God would provide for them through his Word bringing miracles to his people.

In today’s Gospel reading Jesus was in an isolated place with a large crowd and they were hungry. So the disciples said to him: “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.”16 Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.” 17 “We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,” they answered.

What did Jesus expect these disciples to do? Were they able to feed the crowd? Of course the answer is no, that was impossible. So why did he ask them?

In accounts such as this one it is easy to focus on the miracle of the multiplying of the bread and the feeding of the crowd, but miss the point. This was what actually happened to the people themselves. They had expectations that were to be fulfilled which meant they failed to see Jesus Christ the Son of God among them.

Jesus asked them to do the impossible to point to himself as the one who is the Word and speaks the word of God. 18 “Bring them here to me,” he said. 19 And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. 20 They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over.

In every other account of God providing bread for his people in the Old Testament, the focus was on the word of the Lord bringing about his purposes; the Word of the Lord providing for his people. Hence Elisha says: “Give it to the people to eat. For this is what the Lord says…” God provided when his priests and prophets interceded for the people or where the Lord spoke through them, whereas Jesus did not do this. He said, “Bring them to me.” The disciples were to bring to Jesus what they had, no matter how small it seemed to them. He then gave thanks, broke the bread and multiplied the bread. He did not ask or intercede; he spoke and it was done. Jesus spoke and brought about God’s purposes.

Often this is missed in the hearing of this account. On many occasions I have heard many arguing about the plausibility of the miracle, rather than the point of Jesus’ actions. Jesus Christ is the Son of God and his word is the word of God.

I don’t know about you, but this is where faith in Jesus tests me. We all have times in our lives where Jesus asks us to do things, that for us seem impossible, but he still asks us. Perhaps Jesus asks us to walk through difficult times, help difficult people; perhaps he asks us to forgive those who have deeply hurt us; perhaps he asks us to treat our enemies with love. These things may seem impossible to us—we just cannot do what he is asking of us. One of the tasks that Jesus says to his pastors of his church is to feed his sheep. “You feed them” spoke to us all at the conference. This is the difficult task for all pastors, who face many difficulties and challenges and sometimes it feels impossible.

But the next thing Jesus says is, “Bring them to me.” All Christians and followers of Jesus are to trust that Jesus is the one who does what we cannot. He is the one who does the impossible, he is the one who speaks his word and brings about his purposes. We just need to bring what we have to him. And this requires faith. So often we focus on what we have to do; on what is expected of us by God and others; we often try very hard, but there are times when it is impossible for us. But it is not impossible for Jesus. I believe that this is the point being made here by Jesus to his disciples.

A few chapters on in Matthew 17 after Jesus came down from the mountain where he was transfigured, he was approached by a man who came to him because his son was suffering from a demonic attack. (v.14-21) The man said, “I brought him to your disciples, but they could not heal him.” Jesus went on to say: “Bring the boy here to me…” and he spoke and the boy was healed. The disciples asked Jesus, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?” Jesus replied, “Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”

Notice the similarities here. What they were trying to do was impossible, but Jesus said: “Bring the boy to me…” as Jesus said earlier with the bread and fish: “Bring them to me”. You see faith in Jesus Christ is not faith in what we can do through him, but is about trusting that he can do the impossible through us. Jesus spoke the word and the miracle happened; it brought about God’s purposes.

The miracle of the feeding of the five thousand was not so much about the actual feeding as it was about who Jesus Christ is, and his authority to speak the Word of God into the lives of God’s people. This is the challenge for all of us who follow him, not just those disciples. Do we trust that Jesus will do what he says, that the Word of God will accomplish its purpose, not only in our own lives, but in the lives of the world? Do we trust him to do what is impossible, or do we focus on ourselves, our own lack of knowledge, ability and lack of faith?

God certainly asks a lot of us as his people. As Christians we are to try to follow him and be faithful to his Word which means actually living out our Christian faith. But there are times where this means that even though we do not do all that God expects of us, that we bring what we have to him, and trust him to work his Word in us. In this way faith is a matter of trust that Jesus will work as he promises to.

I encourage each of you as you journey with our Lord through this life, to bring what you have to the Lord and let him work through his Word in your life. I encourage you to trust that Jesus is true to his promises and is working in your life bringing about his purposes, even if they are not obvious to you. I also encourage you all to take comfort in this; take comfort in the fact that Jesus can and does do what you yourselves cannot do in your own strength; I encourage you to give your burdens to him and allow him to take and carry them for you. Finally, I encourage you to rest assured that Jesus is the one who provides for all of your needs and to trust him in this.