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Are You Still Hoping?

Scripture - Matthew 16:13-20

Holy & living God, you promise that our minds, so easily molded in the ways of our world, can be transformed by your grace, & that our lives may be renewed in this transformation. Open our minds, imaginations, hearts, & wills, that we may be made new as beloved members of your church. Amen.

The imitation of hope is postponement. We sometimes prefer to hope rather than to have, & so we talk of hoping while delaying & postponing. This is understandable. It is a whole lot easier to believe a Messiah will come than to believe one has come.

For all of its alleluias & hosannas, Palm Sunday marks the beginning of what writers on the life of Jesus once called the Jerusalem Winter. These were the barren days marked by the falling away of friends, the collapse of hope, & the cold & bitter taste of death. But it was not always so. Those same writers spoke also of the Galilean Spring of Jesus, that early period in his ministry when he enjoyed immense popularity. And I must say the Gospels provide some evidence of the truth of this.

Jesus was a teacher, a healer, & an exorcist. To his ministry of healing & teaching & casting out demons, great crowds came. He was in a house & they came in such large numbers that desperate friends lowered a mattress through the roof to bring a cripple to the attention of Jesus. Sometimes the crowd was so large he had to get in a boat & push away from the shore to have room to speak. When the crowds in the villages swelled so that Jesus could not minister, he moved into the open country. The multitudes on the hillsides sometimes numbered more than 5,000. Jesus needed help; he chose a few, then a few more, & finally, 12. According to the records of his Galilean ministry, Jesus was extremely popular & the text for today explains what lay behind that popularity.

Now when Jesus came to the area of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”

They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, & still others Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.”

He said, “And what about you? Who do you say that I am?”

Simon Peter said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Then Jesus replied, “Happy are you, Simon son of Jonah, because no human has shown this to you. Rather my Father who is in heaven has shown you.”

“What do the public opinion polls show about me?” Jesus asked. And the answer was, “Some say you are John the Baptist come back from the dead. Others say you are Elijah; some say Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” These answers of public opinion were not simply complementary comparisons. These were titles, titles for the one who would be the forerunner of the Messiah. Before the Messiah comes, there will be one like Elijah or Jeremiah or one of the prophets. When the crowds said Jesus was John or Elijah or Jeremiah or one of the prophets, what they meant was, “We believe that Jesus is the forerunner of the Messiah.” In other words, their opinion of him was the same as our understanding of John the Baptist.

If Jesus was regarded by the Galileans as the one announcing the coming of a Messiah, then it is no wonder he was popular. He drew crowds for the same reason that John the Baptist did. “The Messiah is coming,” John said. “The kingdom is at the door,” Jesus said. That message would certainly bring a crowd. School was dismissed early, bread was left in the oven, shops were left unattended, & plows were dropped in mid-field. Everyone came running, totally unaware of anything except the thrill of the message. “The Messiah is coming. He will be here soon. The Messiah is coming.” And why not? Every beautiful story that they knew began, not with ‘once upon a time,’ but with the words, “When the Messiah comes.”

To every blind beggar sitting on the street, hollow eyes looking over an empty cup, “I’m sorry friend, but when the Messiah comes…” To every cripple with a twisted body folded beneath him, “I’m sorry friend, but when the Messiah comes…” To every beggar, clutching his rags with one hand & with the other reaching for alms, “I have no money, friend, but when the Messiah comes…” To every prisoner, straining after that one little ray of light through a narrow window, “I’m sorry, friend, but when the Messiah comes…” To every couple, married now over 14 years & still rocking an empty cradle, “I’m sorry but when the Messiah comes…” To every father seeking to calm a sobbing daughter assaulted by a Roman soldier, “Now, now, my child, when the Messiah comes…”

When I imagine these crowds drawn by messengers regarded as forerunners of the Messiah, it seems natural to envision even larger crowds when the Christians came announcing, “The Messiah is here. The Messiah has come. The Messiah has come.” You would think so. After all, if the promise brought thousands, wouldn’t its fulfillment bring tens of thousands? But they did not come in larger numbers & they do not come today in larger numbers. The crowds, in fact, were smaller. Why?

If anticipation is your way of life, you do not want fulfillment. Looking forward to something can be the way you spend your whole life & you really are disappointed when it comes to pass. Why is it that Christmas Day is the saddest day of Christmas? Because Christmas is looking forward to Christmas. In much of life pleasure is more in the chase than in the catch. The magnificence of life’s promise is often lost in the poverty of its achievement. And as long as life remains an image in the mind, then life can be shaped to the contours of desire. While I am looking for a Messiah, I can make him what I want him to be. If I’m hungry, I can make him one who feeds me. If I am tired, he is one who gives me rest. If I’m at war, he gives peace. If I am poor, he gives prosperity. If I am alone, he brings fellowship because I have created him out of the emptiness of my life. When I think about the Messiah coming, I know what he’s going to be & I know what he’s going to do for me. And I really do not want that dream exploded by anyone, not even the Messiah. I prefer the dream.

Sheryl & I have a cabin at High Rock Lake. When I leave the office in the afternoon, we can throw a few things in the car & in less than an hour, be at our cabin. As you know, the lake is clear, deep, & blue. It’s peaceful there. Trees line the shore, very nice neighbors, very quiet, & good fishing, a very relaxing place. We have never seen a mosquito, not a bug or a fly. We have never had any vandalism. The plumbing always works perfectly. Do you know where this cabin is? It’s in our minds. And you are crazy if you think we are going to trade it in for a place like yours!

Even more, looking forward can be a way of handling by postponement all the problems of life. Every time I see injustice, inequity & misery in the world, I can say to myself, “But when the Messiah comes, all this will be changed. When he comes, we’ll hear ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic.’ When the Messiah comes, we’ll hear the hammers of justice, the bell of freedom, & the song of love. Upon his arrival, there will be the correction of grievances, the taking up the cause of the oppressed, but in the meantime, we must continue looking forward to his coming.”

It is easier, really, to believe that a Messiah will come than to believe that one has already come. You see, there is always enough misery in the world to make the announcement that a Messiah will come, believable. There is always enough misery in the world to make the announcement that a Messiah has come, unbelievable. How, then, are we to account for Simon Peter’s confession? If the public opinion of Jesus was, “You are the forerunner of the Messiah,” how are we to account for Peter’s answer to the question, Who do you say that I am? You are the Christ.

Has Simon Peter seen something that others have not seen? Has he detected in this Galilean something of the strength of Samson? Has he seen something of the shrewdness of Gideon, the leadership of Moses, the kingly qualities of Saul or David, or the heroics of Jephthah? Has Simon Peter gotten something that the rest had missed? If he did, he certainly had a keen eye because it was not obvious. This J went about his ministry without anyone ever hearing his voice shouting in the street. He incited no riots; he shouted no propaganda. This is the Messiah? A bruised reed, he would not break; a smoking wick, he would not quench. He had such a tender care for the weak, for the violated, for the crushed, & even for those as obnoxious as a smoking wick. This is the Messiah?

Has Simon Peter detected that this Jesus has begun to make a move, a move that could be called messianic? If he has seen it, he certainly saw more than others saw. In fact, most of Jesus’ followers grew a bit restless with his wasting so much time on the crippled. Stop to pick up every cripple along the way & this army will never march. And the children; we stop to have a session along the road & in come some women with small children. The children fret & begin to whimper & cry. “Get these children out of here. We’re trying to get the kingdom started.”

And Jesus said, Allow the children to come to me. Don’t forbid them, because the kingdom of heaven belongs to people like these children. This is the Messiah?

One day Jesus attracted a large crowd & a poor widow suffering from a hemorrhage came pushing through the group to touch the hem of his garment. She claimed that she was healed. Who touched me? Jesus asked.

“Who touched you? What do you mean who touched you? Everybody here is pushing & shoving. We have our biggest crowd yet.”

Two blind men heard him coming & cried out, Show us mercy, Lord, Son of David!

The crowd scolded them & told them to be quiet. Jesus stopped in his tracks & called to them. “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked. More delay. This is the Messiah? And now contradictions of all contradictions, Jesus is saying something about going to a cross, going to be killed.

Has Simon Peter picked up on something that everybody else has missed? If he did, it certainly was not obvious. In fact, it was incomprehensible. And yet Simon Peter said, You are the Christ. How could he say it? The answer was & is simple. Flesh & blood did not reveal this to Simon. He did not get this by observation; he did not come to this understanding by listening & watching. On the contrary, listening & watching could lead to one conclusion. Jesus is no Messiah. It is absolutely impossible to say Jesus is the Messiah except by the revelation of God. As Paul put it, No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.

The central miracle of the Christian faith is this: that anyone would say, “The Messiah has come & it is Jesus.” Why? Because this confession calls for a grasp of the fundamental secret of the kingdom, a reversal of one’s whole perspective on life. A view that once dreamed that wherever the Messiah is, there is no misery, has been transformed into the present conviction, that wherever there is misery, there is the Messiah. That reversal of judgment can come about only as Jesus expressed it. No human has shown this to you. Rather my Father who is in heaven has shown you.

Friends, the Messiah has come & he is Jesus of Nazareth, & the first great task of the Messiah is to get us to quit looking for another.

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