Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Christ We Follow

Texts:   Exodus 3:1-15; Matthew 16:13-28

    IN THE FIFTEENTH VERSE OF THE sixteenth chapter of the Gospel according to St. Matthew, Jesus asks His disciples a simple but life-changing question.  He says to them, "Who do you say I am?"

    Who is this Jesus of Nazareth we follow?  Get that question right, and it means comfort and peace here on earth and joy, power, and everlasting honor in heaven.  Get it wrong, and we doom ourselves to the outer darkness for all eternity. 

    From the first, our reading from Matthew makes it clear who Jesus is not.  Our Lord asks His disciples, "Who do people say the Son of Man is?"  And they reply, "Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets."  Today, many people say much the same thing, that Jesus was a great Teacher or a wonderful Prophet. Does Jesus accept such answers?  Clearly, He doesn't.   He was a Teacher, the greatest of teachers, and a Prophet, the most wonderful of prophets.  But that's not all He was, and He certainly wasn't one of the honored prophets of old, brought back from the dead.  As great as those men were, no disciple of Jesus should use them to identify the Christ we follow.

    So, disciples in all times and places, what about you?  Who do you say Jesus is?

    Simon Peter gets it in one.  He exclaims, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!"  We know it's the right answer, because Jesus replies, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven."

    But wait a minute.  Didn't the disciples all say Jesus was the Son of God, back in chapter 14 when Jesus walked on water?  True.  But on a fear-filled, stormy night, men can blurt out things they'd never dream of saying in the calm sunshine of day.  Matthew tells us that Jesus and His disciples were in the region of Caesarea Philippi, in Gentile territory north of Galilee.  He was teaching them privately, away from the crowds, and in that setting a man could be composed and think clearly.  And it's now that Peter gives his earth-shattering answer, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."

    Jesus of Nazareth, the One we follow, is the Christ.  The Greeks said "Christos," the Jews said "Messiah," but they both meant "the Anointed One."  Jesus is the anointed Prophet, Priest, and King that God had spoken of through the prophets all through Old Testament history.  Through Him and Him alone all God's covenant promises are fulfilled.  We don't need to look for anyone later or better.  No one who came after Him-- not Mohammed, not any church or cult leader-- can ever improve on Jesus.  He is God's Anointed, His Christ, and in Him we find salvation, life, and peace with God.

    And Peter confesses that this Christ is the Son of the living God.  Think how radical it was for a Jew like Peter even to think something like that.  The Jews were expecting a human Messiah, a biological Son of David.  He'd be their deliverer, a man especially endowed with the Holy Spirit, but still, only a man.  The Jews had it drilled into their heads ever since they'd been freed from Babylonian exile 400 years before that there was only one God.  But here comes Jesus of Nazareth, preaching and teaching and doing miracles in the power and authority of God, and more than that, He talks as if God in heaven was His Father; He claims blessings and honors that only a divine Son and Heir had the right to inherit.  And Peter is moved to the heaven-inspired conclusion that it's right to identify Jesus somehow with the one true and living God, Maker of heaven and earth.

    Jesus says that only His Father in heaven could have brought Peter to this conclusion, and it's only God's Holy Spirit that we, too, understand just who and what Jesus is.  It's not that God somehow has begun to contradict Himself, as if He'd said to the Jews in the Old Testament, "I'm alone in my godhood," and then when Jesus came suddenly was saying, "No, wait a minute, I'm really Two, or Three."  No.  We see the eternal Son of God even in our reading from Exodus.  He is the angel of the Lord who spoke to Moses from the burning bush.  He is the God who receives the worship of Moses, the great I Am who commands and empowers him to deliver God's people Israel from slavery in Egypt.  The Holy Spirit of the Father enabled Peter to make this connection.  God was always One in Three, and this eternal Son, the angel of the Lord, the Lord, is now forever incarnate in the Man Jesus Christ.  This is the Christ we follow, and if your Christ isn't all that, you're following the wrong one.  Only the Man who is God in human flesh can free you from your sins; only He can give you eternal life.
    The Christ we follow is the builder and the head of His church. In verse 18, Jesus says, " . . . on this rock I will build my church."  The Greek word translated "church" is the same as the Hebrew word meaning "congregation" or "assembly."  It harks back to the congregation of the children of Israel that God brought out of Egypt under Moses.  But notice, Jesus doesn't say "I will build up God's church."  He says He will build His.  People of God, you are the people of our Lord Jesus Christ.  He's the head of this congregation and of every other congregation in every time and place who faithfully confess His name as their only Savior and Lord.  If any pastor should tell you to follow him instead of the Jesus you see revealed in His holy word, if any so-called Christian teacher should say that the church is irrelevant and we should stop attending, he is a false shepherd and not to be followed by God's sheep.  Jesus alone is our Shepherd and Guide, and He is the one that will see that His church not only survives, but triumphs.  For, as He says in the second part of verse 18, the gates of Hades-- of hell-- will not overcome it.  The "gates of Hell" is a metaphor for Death, and in this word of Jesus we have His faithful promise that His chosen congregation will never be defeated and never die.

    Who is this Jesus we follow?  He is the long-awaited Anointed One, He is the Son of God--God in human flesh-- and He is the Founder and Preserver of His church.  That sounds like a Christ worth following!  These days, people who are interested in Republican Party politics are waiting to see which contender emerges from the primaries.  If Jesus of Nazareth were running and we knew all these glorious things about Him, He'd be a candidate we could all get behind, full of excitement, optimism, and hope.  But there's more we need to learn about who the Son of Man really is. As Jesus tells His disciples in verse 21, He is also the Christ who was born to die.  He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and  He must be killed.

    But that won't be the end, for He is the Christ who was foreordained to be raised to life again.  But Peter and the other disciples don't hear that part.  They only take in what Jesus has said about suffering and death.  Peter speaks for them all: "Never, Lord!  This shall never happen to you!"

    But it must.  The Christ we follow was destined for the cross since the foundation of the world.  He was always the Lamb of God prepared as a blood sacrifice for our sins.   Just as Moses was appointed to lead God's Israel out of physical bondage in Egypt through the wilderness into the promised land, it was and is Jesus' purpose to liberate His new Israel the church from slavery to sin and death, through the cross, to the glory of everlasting life. 

    Satan aimed to sidetrack Him from that purpose, and any man who tried to prevent Jesus from fulfilling His destiny was doing Satan's dirty work.  Even blessed Peter.  A Christ without the cross is a Christ who cannot save.  The cross makes no sense to mortal man, but God in His wisdom has appointed it as the only way that you and I can stand before Him cleansed of our sins and clothed in His righteousness.  Jesus calls us to keep the things of God in mind, which is to keep the Cross and what Jesus did for us on it always before us.  For it is only by the Cross that He is our Savior and Hope in this world and the next.

    Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, the Head of the church, is our crucified and risen Savior and Lord.  He is something else.  He is our Master and Example.  Now, when most people speak of Jesus as their Example, they mean they try to follow Jesus in  being kind to others and doing nice things.  And Jesus does want us to be kind to one another and do nice things.  But when He tells us to follow His example and take up our crosses and follow Him, He means far more than that.  The cross in Jesus' day meant certain death, death that was demeaning, disreputable, and hideously painful.  Jesus went to the cross in faithful obedience to His Father God.  He calls us his followers to bear any inconvenience, any shame, any pain, even death itself to be loyal to who He is and what He has done for us.  The Christ we follow has the right to demand that, for He bore the cross for us first, and His cross paid not only for our sins but for the sins of the whole world.  God calls us to see Christ, His sufferings, His coming glory, in every situation of life, whether good or bad, and follow His footsteps up the hill of Calvary. 

    In effect, Jesus calls us to renounce our right to life on this earth.  For He tells us plainly in verse 25, "Whoever wants to save his life will lose it."  Our lives here on earth are a big messy ball of our desires, our ambitions, our possessions, our sense of self, all the rest of it.  That life is doomed to die anyway, when we breathe our last breath.  But there's a better life promised to those who belong to Jesus Christ.  As He says in the second part of verse 25, "whoever loses his life for me will find it."  Jesus braved the cross because He knew that resurrection life lay before Him.  In the same way, He promises that His faithful disciples will gain the deathless life in God that He alone can give, and in that life we will find our true selves.

    Jesus of Nazareth can keep this promise.  He is our Master and Example, our Savior who died and rose again, the Head and Preserver of the Church, the Christ, the Son of the living God.  And He is our everlasting King and Judge.  In verse 27 Jesus says, "The Son of Man is going to come in his Father's glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person for what he has done."  By now we should understand that outside of the grace He gives us in His death and resurrection, we can do nothing.  But with Him and in Him and through Him, we will triumph to the glory of God the Father.  Before His incarnation, speaking from the burning bush, God the Son of God told Moses, "I will be with you."  And in the power of the eternal Christ we also can do all that God requires of us and receive the reward He has promised.

    The promise to Moses came with a sign: God said that when His people were freed, they would worship Him on His holy mountain.  And they did.  People of God, Jesus Christ has freed us from sin and death.  We worship Him in our assemblies on earth, but a time will come when the Son of Man comes in His Father's glory, and we will worship Him on His holy mountain, the Mount Zion that is above.  Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the Founder and Preserver of the Church, the Savior who died and rose again, and the Judge of all the world.  He is our Lord and our God, He is worthy of our worship, obedience, and praise, so with hope and joy let us take up our crosses and follow Him.

No comments: