Down to Basics (Again) (Isaiah 51:1-8; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20)
All of our scripture lessons this morning point to that which is foundational to our identity as the People of God and the Community of Jesus’ Disciples. The lessons emphasize the importance of paying attention to what God is saying and doing in the world. This morning I’ll give pride of place to the Old Testament text from Isaiah 51. Three times in the English text of the verses we read, the Almighty says “Pay Attention”! “Listen Up”! “Listen to me” (verses 1, 4, and 7).
The ones God summons to pay attention are, first, called “you that pursue righteousness, you who seek the LORD,” both of which phrases indicate those who are interested in searching out the right kind of life built on God’s values. This is what the Old Testament means by that word righteousness. The second time the poet prophet says, “Pay attention,” it’s a different Hebrew word that more nearly, means “draw near,” which is further clarified by the words “give heed to me.” The image is of one leaning toward, or walking up close to God in order listen to what God is saying. God calls those who listen here “my people…my nation,” meaning those who have consciously identified themselves as belonging to God. In the third call, in verse 7, the prophet goes back to the same word for “listen” as in verse 1 and calls to “those who know what is right, and have “my teaching” (or Torah) in your hearts.” To summarize, those called of God seek and know what is right (that’s righteousness), and have God’s teaching at the core of their beings (their hearts). Their values centre in God.
God has some things which these folk who listen should pay heed. First, “Look to the rock from which you were hewn and the quarry from which you were dug.” “Go to the place from which you came.” God says, “Go to your tradition, to the rock, to the quarry, to Abraham and Sarah.” Ever since “Fiddler on the Roof,” with that great opening song “Tradition,” we have tended to look on tradition as, at best, a short hand way of saying, “That which makes no sense, but which we do because we always have.” And it can be, when we forget why we do things in a headlong rush not to change how we do things.
The reality is, however, we will never know who we were, are, or where we are supposed to go unless we get our bearings from our tradition, not just to repeat it, but to apply it thoughtfully, dare I say critically, in our day. God’s people don’t start from scratch every time a new thing comes along. No, we look to the rock from which we were hewn and the quarry from which we were dug. This tradition includes the scriptures of the Old and New Testament, it includes the ways in which these scriptures have been interpreted in the witness and history of the People of God, and it includes our own reason as we think about these things to make our own interpretation for our own day and place. The resources of tradition are a rich source of comfort, strength, and gladness for all those desert times of our lives. We must be certain that it is a living tradition, however. That is the first of the “basics” for which we should look: our living tradition.
Next, God calls the People of God to be on the lookout for an outpouring of God’s teaching and justice. The Hebrew word translated as teaching in the pew Bible is torah, the word many times translated as law. But God’s law (God’s ¬torah) should be thought of not primarily as words carved in stone, with rewards and punishments, but as the sound teaching of a loving teacher or parent. The specific content in this passage has to do with justice and deliverance. The God of the Bible is vitally interested in justice and deliverance. The people who first responded to this word were languishing in exile, cut off from home, and marginalized in their world. In our, often shocking, world (more shocking every day) I often feel adrift, maybe you do too. It doesn’t feel like we belong, it doesn’t feel like we know what’s going on. But listen, please, God’s great good news of justice and deliverance is going out into the world. God is vitally interested in taking people from the wrong places to the right places. Here is part of God’s torah: God is on the side of the small (like Abraham and Sarah) poor, and the marginal, and if we’re not, then we need to change sides. The poet who gave us these lines knew the real plight of the exile, as one with them. So, God says, “pay attention,” “Lift up your eyes to the heavens and look at them.” They look everlasting don’t they? “Look at the earth beneath your feet.” It looks pretty solid doesn’t if? Last Monday’s eclipse wasn’t very great here, but in the so-called “totality zone” there was this great sense of the cosmos and of something greater than we are. Well, according to our poet prophet both heavens and earth (the cosmos) will wear away and vanish before God’s deliverance is ended. God’s will and power to make wrong things right will never pass away.
Then, God calls the people who seek to live in ways that put God’s teaching and deliverance at the core of their beings to live without fear. This is another basic of the life of faith. The Bible is literally full of the encouragement, “Stop letting fear control you.” In 1 John we find that “Perfect love casts out fear.” The Church ought to be a place where people aren’t afraid. Unfortunately it’s been true that some in the church have enjoyed making people afraid of what the church can do to them, or what God’s going to do to them if they don’t dot their i’s and cross their t’s in a certain way. They’re made to fear that God won’t love them any more and they’ll get punished. But, pay attention! God says.
Stop fearing the reproach of others, and do not be dismayed when they insult you. For the moth will eat them up like a garment, and the worm will eat them like wool (i.e., they’ll die someday); but my deliverance will be forever, and my salvation to all generations. (Isa. 51:7b-8)
Don’t worry about who tries to put you in fear. Look to the quarry and listen for God’s teaching and deliverance. That lasts forever – human reproach, even though it hurts, does not. That’s the truth, that’s basic to life in the community of Jesus.
In Romans chapters 1-8 Paul engaged in what was, to that point, probably the most sustained and intense Christian theological description of what God was up to in Christ in existence. In chapters 9-11, he worked on what that meant concerning those who, like him, were Jews for whom Jesus was Messiah and those for whom he was not. Then, beginning in our Epistle Lesson in chapter 12, he begins to work out some ways of living in light of what he’d written.
To read some material written about the Epistle to the Romans, you might think that God cares more about the Hebrew sacrificial system, and the logic of the counting house than those things Isaiah 51 said God cares about. But, in spite of some of what has been written about Romans, I find it interesting that Paul, in beginning this section of the Epistle itself in chapter 12 – the section that deals with Christian living by the way – wrote that word “therefore.” “I appeal to you, therefore…” he wrote. That word “therefore” points back to everything he had tried to explain about God and how it related to God’s work in Jesus. In other words, he began where Isaiah 51 does, but using different images. He began by pointing people back to the tradition, which he’d tried to explain in the light of Jesus’ work.
It’s also interesting that Paul appealed to these Christians, not on the basis of (or even “by means of”) the logic of God, or the wrath of God, or the law of God, but on the basis of the mercies of God. He appealed to the Roman Christians on the basis of these mercies to give themselves to God, which is a way of talking about living. He said that giving ourselves to God is “our reasonable worship.” This word “reasonable,” was a favourite word of philosophers to describe something that was thoughtful and thoroughly reasoned. He meant that how we live “out there” says more about our worship of God than singing hymns, and praying prayers, and listening to sermons “in here.” He explained further by saying that Christians strive for a new mindset, a new way of looking at the world. He didn’t detail exactly what that is here, but, if we read on we will find that, at the least, it grows out of the traditions of the faith and grows up into the kind of life that imitates God’s love in Christ. This new mindset is not centred in self, but in God and others. Paul said, “Let’s be realistic about who we are and what we can do.” Honestly, for most in the Roman congregation, and in most congregations since, the answer is “Not much, really.” We have been fooled into thinking that we all can do anything all alone. The truth is, we can’t. But, says Paul, that’s OK, because we’re not alone and were never meant to be. We are meant to be incorporated into a community of faith (that depends on the tradition, that seeks the ways of God, and that lives unafraid of opposition). This community is made up of people who have the skills and gifts among them to complement one another in their differences. Paul says, operate on the basis of God’s grace with a new mindset in a life-style of sacrificial giving, depending on others as they depend on us, honouring our unity and diversity in Christ.
The Gospel Lesson is the closer for us this morning. It is Matthew’s version of Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah, and Jesus’ response to him. This Lesson provides the basics of the new mindset that Paul spoke of in Romans 12. Christians look to Jesus to tell them who God is and what God does. That’s non-negotiable for our new mindset. Paul himself knew that when he wrote that benediction I use every Sunday from 2 Corinthians 16: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” He named Jesus first, not by accident, but design. Jesus is the lens through which Christians see the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit.
Matthew’s most distinctive contribution to this shared story comes in verses 17-19, where Jesus links Peter’s confession with the life of the church. It isn’t just individuals who have Jesus at the core of their new mindset, but communities as well. The Church is built on a confession of Jesus such as Peter made. The Gospels only uses the word “church” here and over in Matthew 18:17. God takes what the community of faith does on earth seriously, and promises it the same kind of victory over fear and death (Hades) that the poet prophet of Isaiah 51 did.
It is clear from all our Lessons that it is God’s voice to which we should be listening. God’s voice points us back to our tradition, interpreted critically, thoughtfully, and faithfully for our own day. It points us to a life of imitating God’s purpose of human liberation through love. It points us to the importance of living our whole lives by a new mindset marked by what God has done in Jesus Christ, and how this wonderful deed works out in a life of grace, service, and love rather than by intimidating people with the fear of punishment by God or others.
Paul said that living in this way accomplishes the will of God. Doing the will of God is not trying to figure out what’s in a giant book nobody’s seen up in heaven, where God has written what career we’re supposed to have, what person we’re to marry, what clothes we’re to wear, and so on. If we figure out what’s in the book, life is good, if we don’t, we get punished, here or hereafter. Guess what? The Bible doesn’t talk about the will of God in terms of those kinds of choices. When the Bible talks about the will of God, it talks about choosing to live an ethical, loving, grace-filled life in imitation of Jesus. Then the choices we make will be ethical, loving, and grace-filled – the will of God. I leave you with one place that actually does give examples of the will of God from 1 Thessalonians 5:
We appeal to you, friends, to respect those who labour among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you; esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. And we urge you, beloved, to hold idlers accountable, encourage the faint hearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. See that none of you repays what is harmful with further harm, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, AMEN.