>The following was preached at Veedersburg and Hillsboro UMC on Sunday, September 13, 2009. The text for this week’s message is Mark 8:27-38.

When I came to today’s passage, I couldn’t help but think that I have preached on it before. I got information superhighway and looked at my ESV Study Bible online, and sure enough, I had a note right next to Mark 8 that said, “Verses 31-38, Veedersburg and Hillsboro, March 8, 2009 – It’s Not an Easy Road.” So, now what? I mean, it was already Saturday afternoon. How am I going to pick something else to preach on when the bulletins have already been printed? Okay, so I don’t really wait until Saturday to write sermons. But I was still left wondering if I should maybe preach on something else this week.
But the more I thought about it, the more important I think it is to preach on similar topics and similar passages. Time to be honest – how many remember me preaching on this passage before? It’s all right if you don’t. I didn’t remember either. And I think that reinforces the idea that when we read Scripture, we really need to come back to some passages over and over again. We never come to the same passage, as the same person more than once. Who knows what God has been doing in our lives since we last read this passage? Perhaps, we will look at it again as if for the first time. Perhaps God will speak to us in a new way. Perhaps something that we didn’t understand the first time will make sense to us this time.
When I was in high school, I was on the Sport Bowl Travelers Team. We would go around to different bowling alleys in the area and compete against other teams from different alleys. Trust me, it was a whole lot more exciting than I am making it sound right now. One time, we were at Raceway Lanes in Speedway, and I was struggling a little bit. I spent a little bit of time talking to my Dad between frames, and he gave me a few pointers. While I was bowling, one of the other parents told him that he was a pretty good teacher, and he said, “I don’t tell him anything he doesn’t already know. I just remind him of what he does know.” My dad is a pretty smart guy.
Hopefully that is a little bit of what is going on when I am preaching. I know that many of those here this morning have been going to church for a very long time. This is not a bad thing. In fact, that’s good. Perhaps some here this morning go to church occasionally at best; that’s at least a first step. For some, this morning may just be a reminder of something you already know. For some, this may be all brand new. In both cases, my prayer this week has been that God would speak into your lives; that you would be challenged; and that you would be changed in significant ways. Because who knows what God is up to?
To begin with this morning, some background. Mark tells us that Jesus and his disciples were on their way to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. When we come across this bit of information, our first question needs to be, “Why? What is so special about Caesarea Philippi that Mark would take the time to mention it?” Mark is not big on details throughout the gospel, so why would he give the reader the location of this conversation? The only conclusion that would seem to make sense is that there was something important about Caesarea Philippi that Mark assumes the readers already know.
Caesarea Philippi was a town about 25 miles north of the Sea of Galilee. It was way up there. Its primary population was not Jews, but mostly Syrians and Greeks. The disciples are getting a little out of their comfort zone here. Caesarea Philippi had a long history as a center of pagan worship. It was originally a center for worship of the Canaanite god Baal, who pops up frequently in the Old Testament. And after Alexander the Great conquered the region, it continued to be a center for pagan worship, but this time for the Greek gods.
When this event takes place, the name of the town was only recently changed to Caesarea Philippi. Before Herod the Great’s son Philip renamed it in honor of himself and Augustus Caesar, it was known as Paneas, and served as a center for worship of the Greek god Pan. In addition to changing the name of this ancient city, Philip also erected a temple to Caesar in the town. Emperor worship was not uncommon in the Roman Empire. In fact, it was believed that some of the emperors became gods after their death. So, think about this for a minute.
The disciples are pretty far from Jerusalem at this point. They are surrounded by non-Jews in a region where pagan worship has been prevalent for centuries. And this is when Jesus decides to ask them, “Who do you say that I am?” The magnitude of that question given the circumstances is staggering. It’s like asking a person about their long-term retirement savings plan while standing in the strip in Vegas. It is the farthest thing from their minds at that point. The disciples were surrounded by all the glamour and glitz of paganism, and then they are asked about one of the core, foundational hopes of their faith.
Peter looks at Jesus and says, “You are the Christ.” And Jesus didn’t say, “No, no you’ve got it all wrong, guess again.” He tells Peter and the disciples to keep that little bit of information to themselves. You see, the Christ, or the Messiah, was a loaded term itself. When Peter said this, he didn’t understand Jesus to be the Messiah in the way that we understand it today. Jesus wasn’t the figure, at least not according to Peter’s understanding, who would be resurrected from the dead. That didn’t make any sense to Peter.
The Messiah was the one who was going to clean out all of the filth that surrounded Israel. The Messiah was the one who was going to get rid of all the junk that Caesarea Philippi stood for in the first place. He was going to run all the pagans out of town and restore the kingdom of Israel. Surely that’s what the disciples thought was going on. Jesus was making the declaration of his Messiahship, right in the pagan center that represented everything that was wrong with the world at that time.
But notice again what Mark says, “And he strictly charged them to tell no one about him.” Strictly told them. Jesus wasn’t fooling around here. He doesn’t want the word to get out because there was a fundamental misperception of what it means for him to be the Messiah. And he goes on to start correcting this misperception in verse 31. He starts to tell the disciples that he must suffer, be rejected, killed and rise again after three days. And this is where we see the misperception of who Jesus is taking precedence over the reality.
Mark writes that Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. Peter slides in next to Jesus, puts arm around him and starts to correct his, Jesus’, misunderstanding of what the Messiah is supposed to do. Do you catch the irony of this? Jesus says, “Yeah, I’m the Messiah, and this is what it means.” Peter says, “No, no, no. You’ve got it all wrong Jesus. This is what it means for you to be the Messiah.” What could Peter have been thinking? This is the first in a cycle of three failings on the part of the disciples in Mark 8 through Mark 10. Each time, Jesus talks about his impending death and resurrection, and each time, the disciples just don’t seem to get it. And notice Jesus’ response; this is important.
He turns and looks at his disciples, and then he lays into Peter. When Jesus rebukes Peter, it’s not just for Peter’s sake; it is for all of the disciples, so that they get one thing very clear. Jesus is the Messiah, but what that means is not what they assume it means. They were missing the point. They were so caught up in the way that they thought things were supposed to be that they missed out on what Jesus was saying in the first place.
Do you ever have assumptions about what God is supposed to do with your life? When something happens in your life that doesn’t make sense, do you try to tell God how it is supposed to be? I know I’ve done it a time or two. We’re just like Peter. Pulling up alongside God and setting Him straight on how things are supposed to go down. What in the world are we thinking? How can we possibly imagine that we have a better idea of how God is supposed to work in our lives than He does? And you know, it sounds ridiculous when we say it out loud, but we do it all the time. We forget that God doesn’t always work in the way that we expect.
So, dream with me here for a little bit. What is it that God can do through us as individuals and as a congregation if we would just get out of our own way and really do whatever it is that God would have us do? No limits here. We don’t need to worry about whether or not we have the resources because God will provide. We don’t need to worry about whether or not we have the volunteer power because when we have a God-sized vision and goal, the energy is infectious. And we don’t need to worry about whether or not we’ve done it before. All we need to think about is what God can do, if we only let Him. How can we be a part of what God is doing all around us?
It’s going to start with prayer. All great movements of God begin with prayer. But it is also going to take us thinking outside of the box in a big way. It’s going to take a deep, God-driven desire and passion for the community around us. Peter and the disciples didn’t understand what it meant for Jesus to be the Messiah. They had their own ideas of what it was supposed to look like. And they were wrong. It was going to take a lot before they finally understood what was going on. It was going to take Jesus telling them over and over again; it was going to take Jesus dying on the cross; it was going to take Jesus rising from the dead before they finally got it.
I heard a great quote this week, and, quite frankly, it has wrecked me. Does that ever happen to you? You hear a quote and it sticks with you and you can’t get it out of your head? “To reach those who no one else is reaching, you have to do things that no one else is doing.” What is it going to take to reach those in our community who no one else is reaching right now? God is going to work in our lives and in the lives of those around us in ways that we haven’t even thought about yet. Are we going to join in on what God is doing, or are we going to tell God how it is supposed to be done? Here’s the thing, Peter thought he knew all about what the Messiah was supposed to do; so much so that he stopped listening to Jesus and started correcting him.
One more bit of background on this passage that I haven’t shared with you yet, and then we’ll wrap it up. The gospel writers didn’t just structure their writings haphazardly. Before this section, where the disciples fail three, even four times, Mark includes the story of a blind man who regains his sight in Bethsaida. At the end, in Mark 10, there is another man, Bartimaeus, who also regains his sight. I think what Mark is telling us here is that through our failures, we see things more clearly. When we fall short and are corrected by Jesus, things change. We are changed. I know that each one of us here this morning has failed one way or another in life. But God hasn’t given up on us yet.
Spend some time this week praying about what it is that God can do through us as individuals and as a congregation. Like the disciples, we will probably fail from time to time, but Jesus will be there every step along the way. He will be there to pick us up, to correct our failure to understand, and, as painful as it may be, to call us out when we are putting our selfish desires ahead of what it best for the kingdom of God. We need to listen to what it is that God is doing in our lives and what it is that he wants to do in our community. “To reach those who no one else is reaching, you have to do things that no one else is doing.” What is God leading us to do?