Monday, August 25, 2014

Who do you say He is?

     Our psalm today, 124, is taken from the fifth book and was part of what we call one of the psalms of ascents. It has been a bit of time since we talked specifically about the psalms, but everyone probably recalls that there are five books of psalms. Each book is related to a period of salvation history. Naturally, the fifth and last book is supposed to refer to that time when God has acted to redeem His people. It is called a psalm of ascent because it is one of the psalms which was sung by pilgrims on their way up the hill to Jerusalem. As a way of preparing themselves for worship and for passing the time, pilgrims would sing this series of psalms on the way up the road to Jerusalem. We might like to think we are the first to listen to music as we travel or work out, but the Jews had us beat by about 3000 years. The only difference was that the had no I-pods or phones. Heck, they did not even have walkmans!
     It is an appropriate song to sing as one heads to worship God in His Temple. The song calls to mind the saving acts of God. No specific acts are recalled in this psalm. The psalmist simply reminds the reader and hearers that had God not intervened, His people would have been overwhelmed. Their enemies would have swallowed them in their anger. Did the psalmist have our story about Pharaoh and Moses in mind? Perhaps. But it is likely the author is thinking of any of the “ites” attempted to conquer God's people. Perhaps the author even has in mind the Exile and other situations which do not come quickly to mind.
Interestingly, the psalmist switches from the discussion of enemies to a discussion of flood waters. Is the author referring to the Flood and Noah? It is possible. It is more than likely, however, the author is using ANE symbolism. Water, as we have discussed many times, was a sign of chaos, of disorder. One of the characteristics of Yahweh, as He broods over the waters in Genesis, is that He brings order to chaos. He gives meaning to chance and the random. Christians in the early Church continued this understanding. As we read a couple weeks ago, Jesus walked on water during a storm. Those of us studying the Book of Revelation will not be surprised that the end vision includes a “glassy” sea. Even Corinth derived much of its wealth as a portage city. It was safer and faster to port one's ship across the isthmus than to sail around the Greek peninsula. Rushing waters and floods came to be associated with the daily vicissitudes and travails of life. Such understanding, of course, is still in our own modern idioms. Ever known anyone drowning under the cares and concerns of life? If I asked for a show of hands, would any stay down at the mention of health or death? Would any stay down at the mention of issues of provision? At least none of us have any broken or difficult relationships, right? When the psalmist speaks of a torrent sweeping over us, we can relate.
     To this point, of course, we have only been speaking and thinking of those things which are personal. What of those floodwaters that rage around us, far beyond our control? We have riots to our south, riots like many of us have not seen since the 1960's. We live in a community that, although far from perfect, does not seem to have too many racial tensions. We live in a community that reflects, I think, the melting pot description of the United States. We live at a time when war has become a way of life for many of our families and our neighbors. How many names have appeared on our Intercessors' list this last decade? Now, no military family can watch events in Gaza or Ukraine or Iraq without wondering whether loved ones are headed toward deployment. Can we talk macro levels of provision? Have you seen what some are now calling Meade Pond? You and I know it as that big lake behind the Hoover Dam. Water levels are so low that some agricultural experts say as much as $2 billion worth of food production make be removed from our tables. You know what happens when supply shrinks and demands stays the same, right? Prices go up. Those of us who like steaks and hamburgers complain about the increase of meat prices this year thanks to last year's drought. Can you imagine the spike in prices if $2 billion in production is lost? Can you imagine the impact on food pantries, on Community Meal, on our families? Toss in an earthquake, a few tornadoes, flooding rains, forest fires, and mudslides, and we have a flood of biblical proportions!
     Some in the world have already lost hope. On our border, we have thousands of children who have fled home serving as political hot potatoes for federal and state officials around the country. I say lost hope because of some of the stories we are hearing. Imagine you have a pre-teen or barely-teen whom you love as any good parent should. Your solution to your problems for them is to scrape all your money, give it to strangers, and send your child hundreds of miles to the north. How bad would things have to be for you to send your children to the tundra from here by themselves? Oh, there is one last land mine to dodge: pretend that pre-teen / new teen is your daughter you are sending.  You are a faithful Roman Catholic, yet, you decide that the lesser evil is to have that talk with your twelve to fifteen year old daughter and put her on birth control. By that talk, I mean the rape talk. Honey, if you are lucky, you won't get pregnant when you get raped. If you are lucky, you won't get raped too many times. Suck it up, though. You need to make it to the United States. Here, of course, they become pawns of unconscionable politicians. How bad must things be for you to consider this scenario as a better alternative? What must your conditions be like that this seems like a good idea? Yes, we understand torrents. Yes, we understand floods. Yes, we understand death. Yes, we understand what the psalmist is saying.
     The psalmist, though, is not without hope. Always the psalmist is reminding the reader that all of Israel has depended upon the grace of God for their salvation. Had God not intervened, their enemies would have won. Had God not intervened in the situation described at the beginning of Exodus today, Egypt would have destroyed Israel. If not them, then maybe Assyria, or Babylon, or Philistine, or hunger, or some other catastrophe would be sure to have wipe them out. God has saved them at every turn, sometimes in spite of overwhelming odds, sometimes in spite of themselves.
     It is with this same understanding that Matthew has been speaking to us. In the Gospel that bears his name, Matthew has been testifying to us who this Jesus is. Three weeks ago we read about Jesus feeding the 5000 men, besides women and children. As I have mentioned, it was a messianic miracle. Jesus took Moses' manna and quail feedings one step further, with no intervention! Then, two weeks ago following that miracle, the Apostles encounter Jesus walking on the water in a storm. The significance of the miracle is not lost on us. Jesus commands the elements. Who but God does that? Better still, Jesus commands the water in the midst of a storm and even invites Peter to join Him. Last week we read of the offhanded exorcism He performs for the woman whose insight we remember each time we say the Prayer of Humble Access during Rite 1 worship. I say offhanded exorcism because Jesus does not give the exorcism any more thought than you and I might breathing or blinking. He says simply, “Let it be,” and it is! That is power! That is God.
     Our Gospel lesson today speaks to that permanent care and concern and protection of God exalted by the psalmist. Jesus takes His disciples to the eastern pagan spiritual heart of the Roman Empire. In front of the temples, and especially the temple dedicated to god on earth – Caesar, and asks who the people say that He is. The disciples share the opinions of the masses. Some say You are Elijah returned. Others claim You are John the Baptist. Others believe You are Jeremiah or one of the other prophets, sent to call us to return to Yahweh. Then, Jesus asks that incredible question. Who do you say that I am? Peter answers that He is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. From that time forward, the lives of the disciples is fundamentally transformed. Yes, Peter and the other Apostles and disciples will still sin. They do not yet understand God's plan of salvation through Jesus Christ. Peter will deny Him three times. Judas will betray Him into the hands of the Temple elites. All will abandon Him in the Garden of Gesthemene. Even after His reported Resurrection, they will hide in a locked room, they will doubt. But, once they encounter the Resurrected Christ, all will be made clear. Peter will truly grow in faith to become that rock of which Jesus speaks. On that kind of faith, Jesus will build His Church and promises that not even Hell itself will prevail against Her!
     Brothers and sisters, consider carefully, who do you say He is? Is He just a good teacher? Is He just a radical Rabbi? Is He just one of many who have tapped into a spiritual consciousness of the universe and been able to share it with us? Is He a charlatan? It is the most important answer you will ever give. If you believe Him to be anything other than the Christ, the Son of the Living God, as affirmed by Peter and Himself this morning, how do you hope to prevail in the floods that threaten your own life and the lives of those whom you love? If you believe Him to be only a good teacher, a radical social engineer, it makes sense that you work worship in when it suits you, that you serve the poor when it suits you, that you seek God and pray only when you are in the mood. If you believe Him to be just one of any number of wise men from whose conglomerated teachings you can develop your own spirituality, your own way of living, why seek Him in the Scriptures or in Bible Studies? If you believe Him to be just another religious charlatan, one preying off the prayers of the weak and gullible, why not worship the god Sealy Posturpedic or Starbucks or NY Times Crossword? If you believe Him to be anything other than the Son of the Living God, how will you stand against the floods that threaten you and yours?
     The question that He puts to His disciples is not academic. The question that He puts to His disciples is not theological? It is THE question of life and death, of hope and hopelessness!  If He is our Lord, the Christ, the Son of the Living God, we can stand against any number of evils and ills without fear of failure. We can seek to care for refugees on our borders, expect Him to intervene in answer to our prayers, to snatch us out of the fowler's snare. We can expect Him to act to glorify Himself in our faithful response, no matter the currents, no matter the snares. To be sure, we may not understand His ways all the time. In fact, I would suggest we usually respond to His call and function in ignorance. Just think, within about three centuries, the opulence that surround Him and His disciples will be conquered! For a time, like when the Temple is raised, God will look like a loser. For a time, like when the emperors choose to persecute Christians for whatever nefarious reasons, God will seem to be looking the other way. For a brief time, when our Lord hangs dead on a Cross, Hell will seem to have conquered!
But, Christians will throughout history respond as He calls. Many will lay down their lives, trusting He will snatch them from that fowler's snare we call death, in testimony of this revealed truth we discuss today. Many will travel to the ends of the world to fulfill the Great Commission which will be commanded at the end of this Gospel and which will be the focus of next year's diocesan plan. Some will even tend the sick and those left alone by the plague that will soon sweep Rome, paving the way for persecutions to begin to fall out of favor with the people and for an emperor to claim Him as Lord.
     Who do you say that He is? How do people know your answer? Do you claim Him as Son of the Living God and yet cannot find the time to fulfill the Great Commandment, placing any number of things above the worship of Him? Do you claim as the One who instructed us to come to Him like children, yet display a hardness of heart towards children in need that would make Pharaoh wince? Do you claim Him as Lord yet find yourself convincing yourself and those around you that your and their problems are unsolvable, unredeemable? Do you find yourself proclaiming He is a gracious Lord, yet convincing yourself that you are not worthy of His grace, His forgiveness? Do you proclaim Him as the perfect offering for your sins against God, yet unable to accept that His blood covers all your sins?
     Who do you say that He is? There is no more important question you will ever answer. So, Who is He in your life? Who do you say that He is?


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