A sermon for Preston High Street UCA on Mark 8:27-38 for the Sixteenth Week after Pentecost Proper 19(24) Year B
What is the point of life? That’s a question which we can easily avoid in ordinary times when we have things to do and people to see and the fundamental questions don’t land so hard. In easier times, we aren’t forced onto our own resources so much. When we are confronted with suffering, whether it’s the acute suffering of a sudden terrifying medical diagnosis, or the ongoing dispiriting grind of yet another day, week, month in lockdown, it reveals to us whether our fundamental understanding of life is up to the job.
It’s only when our comforting simplistic answers no longer work that we have sufficient motivation to ask the big, hard, confronting questions.
So, when Jesus asks Peter “who do you say that I am,” he’s not just curious about how well his viral marketing campaign is going.
He is saying something much closer to: what is the meaning of life?
Or, more exactly, where are we in the big story of God and God’s dealing with sinful, suffering humanity?
And to understand that we have to have a sense of what the big story of God and the world actually is. So, just like a TV series, let’s start with “previously on E.R….”
In the beginning, God creates the world. Not by wrestling with some divine monster, but with a word. Then God creates us – the first humans – out of dust. Not to have slaves to serve the needs of the gods, but out of love. Out of joy. Out of something like artistry, God creates humanity, and then loves to spend time with them in the cool of the evening in the garden, which God had made for them to live in.
Of course, this is too good to last, and the humans, propelled by something more than dramatic necessity, eat precisely the fruit that God told them not to eat, and find themselves cast out of the garden, estranged from one another and from God. The stage is set.
Art is long and life is short, so let’s skip a few things and get to Abraham and Sarah. God says to Abraham “go”, and so Abraham and Sarah went, leaving their homes and everything they had ever known, and become the spiritual ancestors of all of us who base their lives on the promise of God.
Time passes, and the descendants of Abraham and Sarah are slaves in Egypt. God raises up a great leader – Moses – who brings the people out of Egypt, through the wilderness, to the encounter with God on Mount Sinai, and then, finally, to the promised land.
Skip forward again, and the Children of Israel, now live under kings in the promised land. However, they are not faithful to the promise of God, and are defeated by the Babylonians, the superpower of the time. The temple is destroyed, many of the people, and all of their leaders, are carried off into captivity.
And there, the great story of God’s dealing with the children of Israel could have ended. A lot of other national stories no doubt did – swallowed up by the story of the great god Marduk, he of the fifty names.
After all the Temple – God’s house – had been destroyed and so God could not be properly worshipped any more. And, of course, the promise to give the land to the Israelites appeared to be over. God had abandoned them – or, even worse, perhaps God been defeated by Marduk.
This was a crux time for the Israelites. Would they give up? Was the story over? Or was God ultimately faithful?
The prophets said: hold fast to God. Even here, God is faithful. The time is coming when we will return to the land, when the long exile will be over.
Which is precisely what happened. The Persians defeated the Babylonians and allowed the Israelites to return to Israel. Not all of them, which is why there was a Jewish population in Iraq within living memory, but enough did. The temple was rebuilt. The long exile was over.
Or was it? While the Jews were now back in the promised land, and temple worship had started up again, it dawned on them that, in a deeper sense, the Exile was still going on. There was a brief period of renewed Jewish independence under the Maccabees, but it was soon ended and they were under foreign rule once more.
Who would lead the Children of Israel to freedom now? Who would be a new Moses, the friend of God? A new Elijah who ascended into heaven in a fiery chariot? A new David, a king after God’s own heart? And what did freedom really mean anyway?
Which brings us up to date, ready for the new episode.
Jesus is walking about Galilee and the surrounding countryside teaching and healing and proclaiming that the Kingdom of God is at hand.
In this time of great confusion and expectation, rumours are flying around about Jesus. It’s easy, in our digital world to imagine the ancient world as being a very static place. But I reckon news travels fast in oral cultures, especially given that they didn’t have Netflix and Facebook to sate them, and the Romans saved their bread and circuses for the cities. The question of who Jesus was would have been the hottest topic in the marketplace, and down by the well, and while reclining for dinner. We can see what a phenomenon he was by the crowds who followed him everywhere. Even when he left the strictly Jewish areas and thought he could get a moment’s peace, people followed him everywhere.
Jesus was asking a live question. Who did people say that he was?
When I was a youth, the hilarious curate would help out with the youth group, and he described this scene like being something out of Monty Python. He pictured the disciples gazing blankly at each other and saying “umm…. a Greek?”
But with the greatest respect to Bruce, there might even be deeper things at work here. How did people understand Jesus’ ministry?
Because Elijah didn’t die, but was taken up to heaven, it seems to have been pretty generally thought that his return would be the beginning of the dramatic intervention by God. Someone with Jesus’ powers and mysterious backstory would fit the bill well.
Or perhaps he was just John the Baptizer, miraculously alive after all, and back with an even more amazing message.
Or maybe one of the other prophets – after all, Jesus definitely spoke the word of God and did amazing things.
I imagine a long pause as Jesus looked at his disciples. What did they make of it all? Were they ready? A deep breath: this would be a threshold which, once crossed, would change everything.
“And you – who do you say that I am?”
Again, I imagine quite a long pause. The disciples gazing at one another, hoping that someone else would take the plunge.
And then Peter, of course Peter, obviously Peter, it was always going to be Peter, speaks up.
“You are the Messiah.”
And then, in what must rate as one of the great anticlimaxes, “Jesus sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.”
And then, to make matters worse,
“Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”
Two questions strike me here. Firstly, why was it such a big secret? Given that the whole country knew about Jesus, was talking about Jesus, was following him around the countryside, surely that ship had already sailed?
Secondly, why did the Messiah have to suffer and die? What does that have to do with the big story of God and the world?
I identify with Peter here – surely this isn’t going to happen to you, Jesus? You’re the Messiah – aren’t we going to raise an army and, with God on our side, sweep the Romans and the rest into the sea? At last, we can unify the Zealots and the Essenes and the Pharisees and the Sicarii and all the rest under your God-ordained leadership, and finally properly re-establish David’s kingdom? After all, the word Messiah essentially means “King.”
Perhaps this goes a long way towards answering my first question about why Jesus’ identity had to be kept a secret. Because it turns out that God was doing a new thing – God continues to do a new thing, because in the sweep of human history, in the long story of which we are so small a part, two thousand years is the merest snap of the fingers.
The story of God’s dealing with humanity, which began with a wind from God sweeping over the waters of primordial cosmic chaos, and then narrowed in to two people, to Abraham and Sarah and their faith, and their descendants, was about to enter a new phase. A new chapter, a new episode – even an entirely new series: a stunning remix of the themes which animate the first best-selling book, back for a new and exciting instalment.
Here’s the dramatic twist in the story: being the Messiah was not at all what we would have expected. Instead of power, instead of worldly triumph and glory, we have something much more profound.
Alexander the Great, probably the greatest general in history, conquered the Eastern half of the known world within a few short years. He was so famous that even now, thousands of years later, people are named after him – including me. Yet his great achievements were swept away a few years after his death by his feuding generals.
Augustus Caesar ended the Roman civil wars and brought real, solid, lasting peace to the empire. But Augustus is now nothing more than a name and his story largely unknown except by scholars.
But the real Messiah-ship, the Messiah-ship that Jesus brought, is live and vital and has never been more needed than right here, right now.
Rather than power and coercion, Jesus showed that what God fundamentally wants is love and inner transformation. And while it does have a public side – we are to love our neighbours as ourselves after all, with all that means for how we live together, it stands on something even more fundamental. After all – why should we do something as counterintuitive as loving our neighbours, let alone our enemies?
We all fail to live like that – there are no rules which we won’t break. Our alienation from ourselves and one another is deep rooted. But, through Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension, God has taken the weight of the world’s sin on Godself.
God enters the story. And this is what makes it more than “just a story.”
God wants us – God wants you specifically, personally, in all your limitations and grief – to take up your part in this story, this divine drama. The “meaning of life” is not just some particularly well-crafted sentence, nor the result of some mathematical formula. It is to be caught up into the divine life. To be caught up into the joy and sorrow and transformative possibilities and hope of the world. To collaborate with God in God’s reconciliation of us with each other and with God.
That story which begins with God creating the world with a word, running through Abraham and Sarah and Moses and Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension, now waits on you. What will you do?
Jesus asks you: who do you say that I am?
Image: CSONTVÁRY KOSZTKA Tivadar, Praying Saviour
 Alister is apparently the Gaelic for Alexander