First Reading: Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm: Psalm 116:1-8
Second Reading: James 3:1-12
Gospel: Mark 8:27-38
“I love the Lord, because he has heard the voice of my supplication, because he has inclined his ear to me whenever I called upon him.”
In the Name of God; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Good communication is challenging. I often wonder how preachers, including myself, have the audacity to think we can add anything to God’s Word. At best, a sermon can help open hearts and minds to the revelation of God through scripture. At worst, a sermon can create confusion, offer poor metaphors and interpretations, or even cloud our reconciliation to God and others. A sermon won’t answer all our problems, but will hopefully send us out into the world seeking God’s presence, eager for understanding, and faithfully wrestling with the questions.
The problem with sermons, though, is that they usually involve words. Words are powerful. But words are also woefully inadequate when describing God. Words are limiting. God is limitless. Words are also subject to meaning poorly conveyed by the speaker, and meaning poorly interpreted by the hearer. Human language, as beautiful and inspiring as it can be, is simply imperfect and incomplete. When I am frustrated and my words come out all wrong, I sometimes say, “listen to what I mean, not what I say!”
We use cryptic shorthand language that allows all sorts of expanded thoughts and misunderstandings. A wife was trying to remind herself to make preparations for the next night’s dinner, and placed a note on the refrigerator that said, “Thaw a duck.” The next morning her husband saw the note, and added his own comment, “I thaw one, too.”
The prophet Isaiah beautifully conveys his hope and frustration with words in a text known as the “Servant Song.” Isaiah gives thanks that “The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher” that can “sustain the weary with a word.” Isaiah has dedicated his ears to listening to God, constantly seeking divine instruction, so that he might share God’s word with the world. Yet with all this faith and power behind his words, there were those who would not hear. Many of his hearers continued to turn away from God, and even persecuted Isaiah as the messenger. Isaiah is comforted, and comforts us, that God will strengthen, empower, and vindicate God’s prophets against adversaries. Still, we search for the right words. What shall we say?
Jesus is having a conversation with his disciples, limited by language, about the mystery of God incarnate. “Who do people say that I am?” The disciples interpret this question, “Who do other people say that I am?” They offer the popular opinions ... Maybe John the Baptist has come back to life. Some say Elijah has returned, since the famous prophet did not die, but was swept up to heaven. Perhaps a prophet, since Jesus’ life and message of the coming kingdom of God fit the profile. But communication can limited and shaped by other bias. Notice the disciples don’t tell Jesus what they think he doesn’t want to hear. Some say you are are mad, even demon possessed. Some claim you are a revolutionary, even dangerous. The scribes and Pharisees claim you are a blasphemer and a usurper of the faith. The disciples share only the complimentary word on the street, partly to be good, kind followers, but perhaps for a bit of self preservation. If the nay sayers are right, the disciples will be painted with the same brush as Jesus.
Jesus redirects. “Who do YOU say that I am?” This is the evangelical moment. It requires more than a memorized script or scripture verse, but an answer from faith, telling one’s personal experience of the living God, declaring the Good News. The world is asking us, “Who is this Jesus you follow?” What shall we say?
Peter speaks up, as Peter often does, and declares clearly, succinctly, in no uncertain terms, “You are the Messiah!” The Messiah, the Anointed One, the One sent by God into the world. In this profound moment of faith, Peter gets it right. Then Jesus sternly orders the disciples not to tell.
Perhaps the reason for holding their tongues at this time is revealed in Jesus’ prophecy of his passion. He explains openly, plainly, with courage, frankness, and boldness, that there will be suffering and death, and after three days Jesus will rise again. Peter apparently does not hear the “rise again” part. He certainly does not understand. In his humanity, he is focused on the suffering, rejection, and death. This does not fit Peter’s vision of the Messiah. Peter takes Jesus aside, as if to straighten him out, put him in his place, and explain this is not a good marketing strategy for their movement. Peter rebukes Jesus. Matthew extends and heighten Peter’s rebuke of Jesus, “God forbid it, Lord! This shall never happen to you.”
With a few words, Peter goes from hero to zero. He moves from proclaiming Jesus the Messiah, to assuming in his humanity that all will be worked out as Peter deems appropriate. Jesus rebukes Peter, in no uncertain terms ... “Get behind me Satan.” Jesus is not calling Peter the devil himself, but Satan as the tempter and accuser. Peter is giving in to the cosmic forces that resist God’s rule. Jesus explains that Peter is focused on human things, not divine. Peter wants the mystery to match his own perceptions, his own expectations. Peter’s words of rebuke are not on the side of God’s will but on the side of the will of humanity.
How often do our words and actions proclaim the coming of God’s kingdom, then quickly revert to the whims of humanity ... self interest, self preservation, and self determination? Jesus calls the crowd together with the disciples to offer the hard truth another way. This is not just for the disciples, but for anyone who is willing to hear. To follow is to deny self, to abandon worldly ways and human temptations, and to selflessly give up one’s place as the center of things. To be a disciple is take up one’s cross, accepting burdens and suffering for the sake of the kingdom, and follow Jesus! To save life, we must lose it, giving it away, giving it back, to God. This is both challenging and comforting, spelling out the demands, value, and rewards of faithfully following Jesus. Life is more than thriving, or even simple survival. The saved life does not pursue the world, but lives in the world pursuing life in Christ.
James warns us of the tricky tongue. Our words have the potential to bless, and to curse. This is especially problematic when the cursing is directed towards others made in God’s image. We are challenged to give our words and language back to God, allow God to translate and transform, so we can communicate God’s language to the world.
What shall we say? Right speech is often difficult. Right action even harder. We are called to preach the gospel at all times, using words when necessary. We are called to declare the Good News to the world, even when, especially when, words will not suffice. We are also called to listen, despite the inadequacy of words. We are to seek to understand before being understood. Our witness to the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ is spoken in our word and actions. The world is listening to what we say and do. We are empowered by God’s Word written on our hearts to invite those who feel left behind, to companion the lonely, afflicted, and suffering, to reconcile with God through praise and prayer, and to reconcile with others through sharing, caring, healing, and love. We have the potential to bless or to curse. God is in the business of blessing. Let us give up our tongues, actions, and lives to God, and do as God does, and bless the world. Amen.