Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 3, 2017, Proper 17, Lectionary A
The Rev. Dr. C. Clark Hubbard, Jr.,+ Rector Scripture: Matthew 16:21-28
“Stretch out your hand [Oh, Lord] to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” Acts 4:30
Let us pray. Heavenly, loving Father, send now the Holy Spirit to open our hearts to see your love and care for us even in the darkest of times through Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God for ever and ever. Amen.
Bad news, bad, bad news! Does it ever stop? This week has been especially bad. Hurricane Harvey obviously has dominated the news. The damage and destruction to Texas and the Houston area has been historic, as the media likes to say. All of us to a greater or lesser extent will feel the impact of the storm. Have you noticed the price of gasoline? Of course, there is North Korea. The news from there this past week further darkened when the country fire a missile over Japan. And, in today’s new, apparently North Korea has conducted an underground nuclear test.
Bad news, though isn’t as bad when it is at a distance, but when it is nearer to home (Emily and I do have a daughter in Houston. She is doing well), and involves those you know and love, or happens to a young person, well, it seems even worse. There was that young couple (relatively speaking), who along with the pilot were killed when their plane crashed here in Bryan County. My brother-in-law, Buck, Emily’s brother, told us of a strange lightning strike in Gulf Shores, AL. Here’s what the newspaper article said about it:
“A young Mountain Brook man struck by lightning on the beach in Gulf Shores died early Monday. Taylor Harsh, 24, died at UAB Hospital at 12:50 a.m. after being flown to Birmingham from Gulf Shores earlier in the day. He and five of his friends were injured Saturday afternoon when a storm cell quickly and without warning passed over them as they were heading back into their house.
Harsh and five other young men were on the beach when all six were impacted by a lightning bolt. All six of were knocked unconscious. There was a really bright flash of light out of nowhere. It hit Taylor and then arced to Stephen and then one other guy, an observer reported. He said all of them were up, and then all of them were down.”
Even more disturbing bad news came this week with an email from my brother, Lister. It came in the form of a letter from the rector of the parish where my brother is a member.
“Dear Christchurch family, it is with deepest sorrow that I write to you of the tragic death of precious Aubry Ellis Houlditch. Most of you knew this 10-year-old boy as a spark of life and energy and joy in our life together at Christchurch. Aubry was a boy blessed with a quick wit and a mischievous grin, who loved to tell goofy jokes and who possessed a love for Jesus that seemed far beyond his years.
We weep with his family – Kevin, Dondra, and Brewer – and will endure with them the storm of sorrow and lament that accompanies all deaths, especially the death of one so young. Aubry died from a single, clearly accidental gunshot wound. This was a beloved child’s innocent curiosity resulting in a horrific tragedy, and not something he did intentionally.”
Yes, it has been a week of bad, bad news, perhaps no more than usual, but one that has gained headlines and been brought to our attention whether we wanted it to or not. And, seemingly, as we listened to today’s gospel reading from St. Matthew, we were again challenged with, yes, more bad news. “From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed.”
Peter, perhaps embolden by Jesus’ affirmation of him a few verses earlier (“Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ 17 And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah!’”), understandably reacts to this bad, very bad news of Jesus’ death saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” It is a reasonable and loving reaction on the part of Peter. No one wants to see a loved-one die, much less willing submit him or herself to circumstances that will result in a seemingly unnecessary death. Peter’s response was perfectly human. For him not to have responded in that way would have been cold-hearted, indifferent, or just plain mean, even sadistic.
If we reflect on those in the Old Testament who spoke up to God, generally they did not get scolded. They are not struck by lightning, turned into a pile of ash or reviled by scripture. Job speaks out against God, insisting he does not deserve what has happened to him; he even cries out that he cannot get a fair hearing in God’s court. Abraham argues with God about the impending destruction of Sodom and talks him down to saving the city if only 10 righteous people can be found. Moses scolds God for his intention to destroy the people in the desert, claiming it will give God a bad name among the nations. Habakkuk argues with God about God’s plan to send the Babylonians against the Jewish nation. Prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah argued that they were not up to being God’s representatives.
When Peter criticizes his master, Jesus lashes back at him: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” This seems unusually harsh. Did Peter really deserve this criticism? What did Jesus mean when he called Peter “Satan”?
What if Peter had instead said something like, “Jesus, good I am glad you will soon die? I am tired of wandering all over the countryside, sleeping on the ground, all these people following us. Besides, the best time for fishing is next month.” Well, that, of course, is not what Peter said. We would have been shocked if he had something like that. However, we were shocked, at least the first time we heard it, when Jesus reprimanded Peter with these words, “Get behind me, Satan!” As noted just moments before, Jesus had commended Peter, calling him blessed by God, and now Jesus calls Peter Satan. Which is it? One commentator makes this observation:
“In the preface to his Christian classic The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis suggests that there are two errors one can fall into regarding the Devil. One is to have no interest and the other is to have too much interest. To deny Satan’s existence and to pay him too much regard are both errors, says Lewis. Even so, this passage invites us to think about Satan, if for no other reason than the fact that Jesus calls one of his apostles by that name. We have to ask why, what did he mean by that?
To put Peter’s and Jesus’ responses into some perspective, let’s say Peter had been there to oppose the deaths of those killed by Hurricane Harvey, the death of the young couple and pilot, the death of the young man killed by lightening, or the accidental death of a little ten year old boy, named Aubrey. Peter objected to those deaths and Jesus responded again, saying, “Get behind me, Satan!” and then added, “You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Who would we call Satan? Not Peter! No, it is Jesus who seems to be advocating bad news, very bad news.
Would we really entertain the notion that the deaths of those in this past week of “bad news” were somehow God’s will? Tell that to the parents of Aubrey. That mother and father will mourn for the loss of their young son for the rest of their lives. I suspect most of us know parents for whom that has been true. They are wounded, deeply wounded. How then are we to understand Jesus’ harsh words to Peter and not think that Jesus is some kind of advocate for misery and death?
If we reflect back on Jesus’ temptation by Satan in the wilderness after Jesus’ baptism, then we see that some of what Satan tempts Jesus to do is not intrinsically evil. He encourages Jesus to do the things he has come to do anyway — but by taking the easy way, not the difficult way of the cross. Jesus came to feed the hungry, but the first temptation is for Jesus to feed himself. Jesus came to do great wonders, heal the sick, cast out demons that plagued people emotionally and raise the dead, but Satan tempts Jesus to excite wonder by casting himself off a high tower and landing safely.
As Jesus came to reign eternally, Satan tempts him to do so painlessly, effortlessly, instead of through the tortuous path of suffering (the cross), the path of the innocent who bears blows without complaint, according to the will of God. In that respect, it makes sense that, having told his followers that He would suffer, die and be raised again, Jesus would identify Peter with the Adversary, who had already offered him the kingdoms of the world the easy way — by a shortcut, but one that would (supposedly) achieve God’s will. Isn’t that what temptation is all about? It offers us the easy way, but in the long run leads to damnation, whether in this life or the next? Think of the last time you succumbed to temptation, did something wrong. What were the ultimate consequences?
That aside, there is a very serious bottom line here. If it had been done Peter’s way with no crucifixion, then Jesus’ life and ministry would have done us no favors at all. How is that you, you may ask?
By permitting Himself to be crucified, Jesus allowed Himself to embrace the very worst of bad days. Because He did, then the worst of our bad days are not as bad as they might have been. Not only has He been there, He has overcome that baddest of places—death itself, not just in eternity, but in this life as well. We see that evidenced, we see that promised in the subsequent verses of today’s gospel. Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
At first glance, denying oneself and taking up one’s cross sounds like a rather unpleasant discipline—the season of Lent gone wild, where we give up every enjoyment we have in life. This, though, is not what Jesus is talking about. Rather, He is talking about following Him, trusting in Him, even when things look their darkest, their baddest.
I hate to use the examples again because I have used them before, but they make the point clear that in losing one’s life for Jesus sake we find our life. Some of you will recall the story of when my brother’s first wife suddenly and unexpectedly dying at the age of 43, leaving him with four children to raise. My brother said the most difficult time after her death was at night before going to bed. He felt so alone. Some months after her death his church was preparing for a teaching mission and part of the preparation entailed a group of people praying for it. My brother, Lister, was part of that prayer effort. He told me that one night before going to bed he was praying for that mission when suddenly out of the corner of his eye he saw Jesus standing there, looking young and strong. Lister knew then he would never be alone again.
Then there is my own experience, which some of you will recall. Some 20 plus years ago I began have severe attacks of tachycardia, where my heart would beat at 160 beats a minute for an hour at a time. I was so frightened. I did not know whether I would die now or now or now. When the morning arrived for me to have a procedure to hopefully correct the tachycardia where they would thread catheters into my heart, I was so afraid that I told Emily I had to leave the hospital. Everything looked gloomy and foreboding, even the scripture I had read that morning, which included Psalm 22, from which Jesus quoted from the cross when He exclaimed, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” Emily, though, told me that she had read Psalm 91 that morning. We found a Gideon’s Bible there in the hospital. As I read the psalm, suddenly all my fear went away. No longer was I afraid of dying. Jesus did that.
Jesus doesn’t replace what was lost, but He does fill the void left by the loss. When we though try to hang on to what was loss, save our lives as He puts it, it is then that we lose it, not as some kind of penalty, but because what is lost is gone. Not only is it no longer there, but it can no longer give us what it once did. In our litigious society, we have been duped into believing that money will fill that void, wherein the innumerable lawsuits.
Think of the parents of the little boy who accidentally shot and killed himself. He is dead and gone. Nothing can bring him back. However, if those parents continue to rely on Jesus, in spite of the obliterating sense of pain and loss they are feeling, they can be assured that Jesus in His own way, at His own time, will come to fill their void.
It may escape our attention at first, but if we take a moment to ponder the last words we heard in today’s gospel, we see evidence of Jesus coming to fill that void for His disciples. He told the them, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his glory.” To what is Jesus referring here? If we read a few more verses after this morning’s reading from Matthew what do we discover? “Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3 Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him” (Matthew 17:1-3).
In spite of the fact that Jesus had delivered this terrible news about His coming death, these three disciples were given a glimpse of who Jesus really is. It was revealed to them, though they did not yet know, that though Jesus would die, He would not stay that way because not only was He a man, He was also God. The eternal had opened up for the three disciples to see beyond that of this world which is forever fading away into bad news.
Jesus has conquered the baddest of news. This is the hope and promise we have in following Him. We can believe it. We can trust it, but it is only when we experience God’s love for us through Jesus in the baddest of circumstances that we come to really know it, and discover there is no other treasurer like it. That’s what it means to follow Jesus. That’s what He means when He says, “Those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.