September 16, 2018

Pentecost 17   September 16, 2018   Psalm 19, Isaiah 50:4-8a, James 3:1-18, Mark 8:27-35

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Jesus asks his followers “who do people say I am?” Disciples tell him what they’re hearing on the street. So – what would we say today – if Jesus were to ask us?  I’m guessing none of us know anyone who’s still saying Jesus might be John the Baptist or Elijah back from the dead. But I’m guessing we probably do know someone (or at least know of some people) who say “Jesus is a great religious teacher and leader, but – ” And we may know also of others who say “He’s a great prophet, but… ” And still others who think “He is a great manifestation of the divine…” (Like Krishna or Buddha.)

And when Jesus asks “But who do you say I am?” probably we can go with Peter, and say“You are the Messiah – The Christ.” (Messiah – Christ, same word in Hebrew and Greek, meaning anointed, as in anointed King.) And now we can also say what his first disciples didn’t know yet – You’re the Son of God, our Savior.

Though, even if we’re pretty familiar with the Jesus Story, we may still be wondering why Jesus tells disciples to keep quiet now – and not say anything about who he is – just as they’re finally starting to actually get who he is… And yes, he is the Messiah, the Christ. And…

If we remember the story, we know where Jesus is taking the conversation…As he tells us now he must go through suffering and rejection and be put to death, before rising from the dead. We anticipate Peter trying to talk Jesus out of this…And Jesus rebuking Peter, saying “get behind me Satan, you’re thinking like the world not like God.”

We may also remember the gospel story makes a sharp turn here, toward the cross – as Jesus tells us where he’s heading, and tells us we also need to take up our cross and follow him…

Here’s where I sometimes wish, along with Peter – that Jesus had given us an easier path to walk… Like Peter, I too have raised objections to the cross and tried to reason with Jesus: Lord, do you really have to submit to torture and death? Isn’t there a better way? Meaning, also, I suppose – isn’t there an easier route to heaven for me and mine… than taking up our cross and following you?

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But…No… There really isn’t any easier route, Jesus says. If there was, don’t you think I’d tell you and take it myself? (Don’t you remember how I prayed in the garden, “Father, if possible take this cup from me?”) If there was any easier, better road, don’t we think Jesus – who loves us better than we can imagine – would take us on it? But there is no other better way, Jesus says…(And I’ve tried looking at second opinions… But on closer inspection all the second opinions still look worse than second best…)

So I’m still practicing learning the truth of our Thought for the Week from Philip Yancey – still learning how faith often means trusting in advance – what only makes sense… seen in reverse.

And with the advantage of some hindsight – now – When Jesus tells us “those who want to save their life will lose it – and only those who lose their life for my sake and the sake of the gospel will save their life” – it helps to know he’s not saying we need to literally lift a cross of wood and die on a cross like he did… And it helps me to remember – the cross is not the end of the story… A paradox so deep it’s taking me a lifetime… and I’m still pondering the mystery… and…

It helps for me to remember also the words of Psalm 19 (the psalm we’ve read today) – where the psalmist tells us “the heavens are telling the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims his handiwork…” Then, just a few words later, we also hear –“there is no speech, nor are there words, their voice is not heard” – but then again we hear–“yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.” The word goes out, we’re told – yet no words are ever spoken (we’re also told) – and yet again – creation’s word, which is now also God’s word – still goes out… to the ends of the world…

A certain amount of paradox – and meaning that goes deeper than words –  in other words, comes with the territory of life with God – Author of speech and words – Father of the Word who became flesh and lived among us – God who made the heavens, the earth, the seas, and all that fills them by his word – God, who, is also always still beyond words.

In this world we still need words for communication. Yet words always have very real limitations. Which we do well to ponder… As we see Jesus, who has been trying and trying to communicate who he is to his disciples, now tells disciples – Keep quiet. Tell no one about my identity.

And James, the apostle and brother of Jesus, who depends on words to teach the gospel – also cautions us about speech – telling us – keep our tongues on a very short leash…

Yet just last week we saw Jesus touch a man’s tongue and restore his ability to speak… And today the prophet Isaiah talks about God giving him a sanctified tongue, saying: “The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word.”

Of course last week Jesus also touched that man’s ears – so he could hear before speaking. And Isaiah also says: “Morning by morning he wakens – wakens my heart to listen as those who are taught…The Lord God has opened my ear and I wasn’t rebellious, I didn’t turn backwards… ” Isaiah and James, our eloquent, well-spoken teachers, are also very good listeners….

So when we hear the apostle James say: “Not too many of you should become teachers –” (since those of us who teach will be judged more strictly)… We’re better able to connect now with Jesus, when he doesn’t want us talking about him in Mark’s gospel… till we understand on a deeper level who he really is.

And as we remember how Jesus said “don’t judge lest you be judged yourself…” – and – “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy…” we can see anew the connection with James, as he warns against using our tongues to trash others. With our tongue, James says, we bless God and curse human beings made in the image and likeness of God. Breaking the commandment, James strongly implies – “you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” – even if we’re technically telling the truth – unless we’re telling nothing but the truth – and telling it entirely in love… we’re breaking the commandment…

Some teachers in the churches James is writing to apparently are talking too much about others, and not listening well enough to what God says to them. Something I am reminded of the danger of almost every time I go out the door – as my wife and daughter habitually tell me: “Listen well! Don’t say too much!” And with practice, now I no longer much mind the reminding. I’ve learned it’s good to be reminded. Words can do a lot of damage. It can be hard to walk back our words once spoken. Hard to consider in advance, always, what effect our words are likely to have… unless we cultivate the practice of waiting and listening well… And I’ve been remembering an old Duke Ellington song from the forties, that riffs on a World War II theme: Shhhh! Don’t say too much… Husshhh… Don’t speak too much… Cause a slip of the lips might sink a shipShhhh…

James warns us – words can sink people too. But notice, he doesn’t say we should never speak. As a teacher, himself, James needs to use words. But his words, even when he’s correcting us, are well chosen. And the grace of his words is very evident, as he speaks of the beauty of a life in Christ well lived – life transparently pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield (meaning open to other perspectives) – a life full of mercy and good works, without partiality or hypocrisy… Words from the apostle that bring a deep sense of peace and blessing… even just in the hearing… and…

The tongue, of course, like all body parts, is created good – perfectly designed by God – yet stained, scarred, and bent by misuse due to our estrangement from God. Like Jesus (his brother) James is not shy about using a little hyperbole – sanctified exaggeration – to make his point. He knows the tongue isn’t literally always on fire – or really always the tail that wags the dog. He knows it’s out-of-control hearts and minds that wag the tongue that in turn wags the rest of the body. His point is to get us to hear the words of God – humbly – in deep listening mode – in order to keep us from glibly passing out advice and counsel in the name of the Lord… Counsel that really isn’t from God… or helpful for God’s people…

And just as Isaiah is a deep prelude to Jesus and the cross, so also James is a holy postlude or epilogue to Jesus, crucified, risen from the dead. Isaiah and James serve as bookends (so to speak) for Jesus. Both speak from deep personal experience of the presence of God. Through their lives and words and their witness we are able to see Jesus more clearly, completely, in fuller context…

Isaiah suffered many indignities in the course of his long service to God and God’s people – and spoke prophetically of Jesus – yielding his back to those who beat him, his face to those who strike, spit, and torment him… receiving the hate, the spit, the insults… without retaliation….

James, brother of Jesus, first leader in the Jerusalem church, gives his life for the faith… As he shepherds the early church and teaches by word and example… what it looks like to take up the cross and follow Jesus…in changing times and circumstances…

Reminding us, as Jesus reminds us – its only in losing our lives for Christ and his good news… that we start to really live the true life that brings enduring joy… and peace too deep for words. New life that still requires words, spoken in love, with good listening… The gospel of peace  we understand better… as we continue to love and serve our gracious and holy God…worshiping and praying together and singing God’s praises…

Thanks be to God. Amen. (Let’s sing…)