Seward United Methodist Church
Monday, January 24, 2022
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Who Do You Say That I Am?

Mark 8:27-38

 Jesus and his disciples have left Galilee for the region around the city of Caesarea Philippi.  This is not the Caesarea where Paul was imprisoned some years later.  That Caesarea was on the coast of Judea.  This Caesarea was to the north of Galilee, at the foot of the Anti-Lebanon Mountains.  There are two great ranges of mountains in Lebanon, running parallel to each other.  The western one is the Lebanon Mountains, and the eastern one is the Anti-Lebanon Mountains.  The crown of the Anti-Lebanon Mountains is Mt. Hermon, which is the highest point in, about 9200 feet in elevation.

 Now technically, this was part of Israel in the Old Testament.  But practically, they never really controlled it.  It was always a very pagan place.  In the Old Testament time, it was a center for worshipping Baal.  The Greeks used it as a place for worshipping Pan, the god of nature.  There was a cave there, called the Grotto of Pan, and from a spring in that cave came the source of the Jordan River.  Later yet, the Romans built a white marble temple on the slopes of the mountain for the “cult of the emperor,” a place where the Roman Emperor was worshipped as a god.  It was kind of a strange place for Jesus to take the disciples for this discussion.

 “Who do people say I am?” he asked them.  Well, some say you are John the Baptist raised from the dead, others say you are the prophet Elijah come back to us, and still others just say you are a prophet.”  

 For people even to say Jesus was a prophet was remarkable.  Almost all Jews believed that prophecy had ended with Malachi, 400 years earlier.  God just didn’t do that anymore, they thought.  

 But is that all Jesus is, just another prophet?  There have been many prophets, so even if Jesus was the first prophet in a long time, that did not make him remarkable.  By the way, this is basically what Muslims think of Jesus; he was a prophet.  They even think that he was without sin and born of a virgin.  But they, of course, do not believe that he is anything more than a prophet.

 Today there are many people who think Jesus was a “great teacher” or a “great religious thinker and philosopher.”  But there have also been many of those.  So if that’s all Jesus is, then he is no one truly remarkable, truly noteworthy.  Is that all he is?

 “What about you?” Jesus asks, “Who do you think I am?”  And of course, we must all answer that question.  We must all decide who Jesus really is.

 Peter, the leader of the Twelve, and so he probably speaks for all of them, says, “You are the Christ.”  CHRISTOS is a Greek word that means “anointed one.”  It’s the same idea as the Hebrew word MESSIAH.  

 What does that mean?  What does it mean for Jesus to be the Messiah?  There are several prominent passages in the Old Testament that basically every Jew understood to be about God’s Messiah.  There was Isaiah 9:  “Unto us a child is born, a son is given.  And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.  His government will never end.  He will rule forever from the throne of his ancestor David.”  There was Isaiah 11:  “From the stump of David’s family, a new branch will grow.  The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him.  He will delight in obeying the Lord.  He will defend the poor.  He will destroy the wicked.  And the wolf and the lamb will lie down together.  Nothing will hurt or destroy.  As waters fill the oceans, so the earth will be filled with those who know the Lord.  And he will be a banner of salvation to all people.”  And there was Psalm 2:  “I have placed my chosen king on the throne of Jerusalem.  You are my Son; I have become your Father.  I will give you the nations as your inheritance.  You will break them with an iron rod.  Submit to God’s son, or he will become angry, and you will be destroyed.”  

 The Messiah, as they understood, would be a “son,” a descendant of King David.  He would be anointed by God.  And he would restore Israel.  

 As God’s “chosen nation,” Israel believed that they would have a special place in the world, even that they would rule the world.  And in the days of David and Solomon, when Israel became the most powerful nation in that ancient Near East for a couple generations, it was easy to believe that was coming about.  But after the death of Solomon, the next 900 years of Israelite history were less than stellar.  They were divided by internal strife.  They were defeated, first by Assyria, then by Babylon.  They were exiled.  They were subjected to one foreign power after another:  Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome.    

 Now they looked to God to intervene.  They expected a time of great tribulation:  Wars, natural disasters, great wickedness.  But they expected Elijah, or at least a prophet like Elijah, to come to announce the arrival of the Messiah.  When the Messiah

came, the pagan nations of the world would unite against him.  They would make war on him.  But he would prevail, and he would destroy them all.  

 Israel would then rule over the entire world from the New Jerusalem foretold by the prophet Ezekiel.  The Gentile nations would either become their slaves, or in the interpretation of some, the Messiah would kill them all.  This was their understanding of Messiah:  A man of violence, an intensely nationalistic savior who would come only, or at least mostly, for the benefit of Israel.  

 But what about those Old Testament passages, like Isaiah 52 and 53, that foretold of the Messiah suffering greatly?  Most first century Jews said, “Those passages are about somebody other than the Messiah.”  

 When Jesus asks the question, “Who do you say I am?” the disciples give the right answer.  But do they understand the answer rightly?  It seems they did not.

 Because Jesus goes on to say, “The Son of Man will suffer greatly and be killed.”  Jesus preferred to use the title Son of Man for himself, rather than Messiah.  The origins of Son of Man go back to Daniel 7.  The Son of Man certainly seems to be the same person as the Messiah, but that title wasn’t used by first century Jews.  And so it didn’t carry all the baggage that came with the title Messiah.  And so Jesus could fill it up with his own meaning rather than the meaning other people attached to it.  

 Now the Messiah, he was not supposed to die.  He was supposed to be victorious, to reign forever, and so on.  He wasn’t supposed to die.  So Peter sets out to correct Jesus’ understanding of who he is.  Even the disciples are imposing their expectations onto Jesus.  

 It is nothing less than idolatry when we re-imagine God to fit our ideas rather than accepting God as he is and submitting to him.  But we do it.  We re-invent God and Jesus to fit our values, our desires, our hopes.  

 In the 19th century, there was a group of liberal theologians who decided to find the “real Jesus.”  They wanted to strip away all the mythology attached to Jesus, and find out who he really was.  It was called the “Quest for the Historical Jesus.”  And what these 19th century liberal scholars found is that if you stripped away the mythology, you found that Jesus was a 19th century liberal.  The “real Jesus” looked just how they wanted him to look.  How convenient.

 We still do that today.  In our society today, I think it’s fair to say that the chief value is tolerance.  We are supposed to be tolerant of everyone and everything.  And I’ve heard more than a few people, some of whom I think have a rather dubious level of biblical literacy, say that Jesus is a beacon of tolerance.  Jesus accepted everyone and everything, just like our society does.  

 Two weeks ago, we looked at Mark 7, where Jesus lists the sins that come out of the human heart and make a person unclean in God’s eyes:  Greed, adultery, all forms of sexual immorality, envy, pride, slander and so on.  That doesn’t sound to me like a Jesus who is tolerant of everything.  One of the favorite passages of the tolerance-loving Jesus folks is John 8, the story of the woman caught in adultery.  Jesus becomes a hero of tolerance because he says to the woman, “I won’t condemn you either.”  But what they miss is that the very next thing Jesus says is, “Go and sin no more.”  Jesus did not condemn her for her actions.  But he did condemn her actions.  I honestly think some people would be surprised to learn that about Jesus, given the picture of the always tolerant Jesus now presented.  Jesus was not the champion of tolerance for everything that he is being re-imagined as.  And it is nothing less than idolatry when we turn God into what we want him to be.

 Jesus says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan.  You are only seeing things from a human point of view.  If you want to follow me, then take up your cross.”  

 To carry the cross is to deny yourself and to submit.  We cannot have faith in Jesus if we don’t accept him for who he is, and not who we want him to be.  And I’ll add to that, we can’t know who he is if we do not read the Bible and especially the Gospels.  The Gospels are the accounts of those who walked with Jesus, and who quite frankly, were very surprised to find out that the Messiah is not who they thought he would be!  

 Biblical illiteracy is rampant in our world.  Many of those who say, “The Bible teaches this,” or “Jesus said that,” haven’t read the Bible enough to know.  Read the Bible.  Don’t take my word for who Jesus is.  Take God’s word for who he is.  

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