Sermons are part of a conversation between the preacher and the congregation.
You can read most of the sermons preached at Faith in the past few years here. This archive is a blog, which is duplicated on Blogger. You may add comments here or in the blog if you wish.
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The Man Who Would Not Be King
Text:, Matthew 16:21-28
Other texts: Exodus 3:1-5
Last week we heard Peter name Jesus as the Messiah. “Bless you,” Jesus said to Peter after Peter proclaimed this. Jesus told him that his insight was God-sent. Jesus names him Rocky (from Simon) and tells him that the church of Christ will be built on his stoney shoulders.
What a difference a week makes. Or in the timeline of the story, what a difference a moment makes. For when Jesus gets down to details of what being the Messiah might mean, Peter rebukes him. Jesus talks about the days ahead filled with suffering and fear-driven violence. But Peter cannot stand it. “God forbid it,” he says to Jesus, meaning “I, Peter, wish I could forbid it.” This is not what Peter hoped for for his friend and not what anyone hoped for in a Messiah.
Jesus is tempted lots throughout his short life. First, in the desert, where in some versions of the Gospel the devil offers him food, safety, and power. And at the end of his life, on the cross, where he is tempted to do something—flee, perform a miracle, who knows—to save himself, to escape his coming execution. And here with Peter, to abandon his mission, which anyone can see will lead to a bad end for him. In all these cases, the underlying temptation is the same: to live an ordinary life, in peace, with good friends and daily bread.
But that is not his job. He has come to heal the world, and no matter what you think that means, it entails struggle and grief.
But there is a second temptation for Jesus. And that is the temptation to be the warrior that many of his followers hope for. The Messiah not in the way Jesus describes it here, but the king that the crowds wish him to be. Someone who will conquer the land for Israel and defeat the oppressors and occupiers. A king like great King David, who once ruled Israel. Someone who knows how to fight and to win. Not go quietly to the cross.
In Exodus, God comes to the world to be a savior. God calls to Moses because God sees that the people of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are enslaved and oppressed. I have observed the misery of my people, God says. I know their suffering, and I have come to free them from slavery in Egypt. This is a story of promise, since God promises not only to free the people but to bring them to a fertile and good land, a land of milk and honey. The story for Israel promises a happy ending.
But there is a story on the other side, which is the story of the people who lived in the land before the Israelites invaded it. Given to Israel, it is taken from the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. Other people. It is hard to know in real life whether the story really turns out well in the end, for much of the rest of the Bible is the story of battles won and lost, people exiled and returned, cities destroyed and rebuilt. It is still today a violent and open-ended story.
The temptation to turn salvation (which means healing) and redemption into warring, and to turn God, including in the form of Jesus, into a warrior, finds its source not in the divine being but in our own hearts. We want a victory over enemies, freedom from oppressors, bountiful lands. We want to think that God is on our side and no other side. We want our salvation at whatever cost, not wondering whether God works that way at all. We wish to enlist God in our battles.
For some, this is the point of God. The emperor Constantine, who in the fourth century allowed Christians to worship freely and to gather publicly, had a change of heart—or so the story goes—when he won a battle led by banners showing the cross of Christ. For some, the light of Israel to the gentiles was not the example of a compassionate and obedient community, but the rise of a nation in an otherwise occupied land.
At the end of this story in Exodus, Moses asks for God’s name. And God gives Moses two different names. God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” God said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” But then there is another name, given in an identical protocol: God said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The LORD, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’”b This is my name forever, says God. But which name?
This second name is the name of a God of a particular people, the people of the tribe of Abraham and his descendants. But the other name, the first name, is the God of creation, creator of the universe and all that is in it.
In Christ, the savior refuses to be king, becoming instead a victim, true to his teaching, and showing us thereby a different way for the world to be. No wonder Peter says, “God forbid it.” But God backs this plan of Jesus. Jesus rejects our temptations. “Get behind me,” he says to Satan. The longing for a warrior king God is human thing, not a divine thing. We are wise not to be tempted to ask our God of creation to be a destroyer of enemies. And not to think that the destruction of enemies is the work of our own healing God.