Friday, August 29, 2008

Sermon on Matthew 16:21-26 for 15th Sunday of Pentecost, "The Thoughts of God vs. the thoughts of men"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The sermon text is the Gospel, Matthew 16:21-26. Last week we heard about Peter’s rock of confession, that Jesus is the “Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Then Jesus gave the unusual command to His disciples that they tell no one that He was the Christ. Perhaps you wondered why Jesus commended Peter for this great confession of faith, then commanded the disciples to be silent about it? Today we’ll see why the Jews, and even His disciples, weren’t ready yet to consider that the Christ would suffer and die. His purpose as the Christ, the Messiah, couldn’t fully be grasped until Jesus actually died and rose from the dead. Then the final puzzle pieces dropped in place to reveal the whole astonishing picture of Christ. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

The difficulty of accepting who Jesus Christ is, wasn’t limited to the first century. We see the same difficulty today, not only in the world, but also in ourselves. It stems from thinking the thoughts of men rather than the thoughts of God. Here in Matthew chapter 16, Jesus first starts talking plainly to His disciples that He would have to “go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” This would be the hardest thing for them to believe about the Christ. Yet it was divine necessity. It had to be this way, and Jesus was intent on the thoughts of God. He was intent on His Father’s will that He go to the cross to suffer and die for our sins. He could not be turned from this purpose.

Yet clearly Peter thought otherwise. It was unthinkable to Him that His Lord should die! As if Peter had just forgotten who he was speaking to—as if he had forgotten that he had just confessed Jesus to be the Christ, the Son of the Living God—Peter pulls Jesus aside to rebuke Him! “Never, Lord! This shall never happen to you!” As amazed as we might be at Peter’s presumption, as a man trying to correct God, we can perhaps sympathize with his misguided love, and the apparent desire to keep his Lord Jesus safe from death. It wasn’t easy for the disciples to hear that their master must go on to His death. Peter’s instinct was for self-preservation, and that extended to wanting to protect Jesus, his friend and master. More astonishing yet is Jesus’ response, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.”

In a startling turn-around, Peter goes from being commended by Jesus for his confession of Christ, the rock on which the church is built, to being rebuked by Jesus as Satan, and being a stumbling block to Him. It shows how even Christians of great faith and conviction can in a moment be turned to false thoughts and temptation. From a rock of confession to a stumbling stone for Jesus, Peter had gone from thinking the thoughts of God to the thoughts of men. And the thoughts of men are incomparably worse. Jesus addressed Peter as Satan, because it was Satan’s desire to divert Jesus from His goal. Satan desired to cause Jesus to stumble and fail on the path that God had laid for Him. Where Peter had been the mouthpiece of God, by confessing Jesus as the “Christ, the Son of the Living God;” he was now the mouthpiece of Satan by trying to take Jesus’ cross away from Him.

Peter’s stumbling block, versus Jesus’ way, shows the difference between saving one’s life or losing it. Peter wanted to save Jesus’ life, by turning Him away from the path of suffering. But Jesus’ way was to lose His life, to take up His cross unto death, that He might find His life. It’s easy to criticize Peter though, without seeing this same sin in ourselves. We’re also thinking Satanic thoughts when we desire to take Jesus’ cross and suffering away from Him. Do not think that we would have been spared the rebuke had we spoken those words to Jesus. We must be transformed in our mind, to stop thinking the thoughts of men, and to think the thoughts of God. To realize that Jesus’ cross was divine necessity—God carrying out His plan of salvation in the most unlikely way—even a way that was repulsive to both Peter and us.

Last week we talked about common misidentifications of Jesus. In the church in particular, the tendency is to separate Jesus from His cross. One of the first and most influential megachurches in America has made it clear that they won’t display the cross anywhere in their church or on the grounds of their facility. They’re a church without a cross, and on purpose. But far worse than not seeing the symbol of the cross anywhere, is the absence of the word of the cross from Christian preaching! The pastor of that church says that the cross is too likely to offend “seekers” and turn them away. Of course the cross will offend! And it must! The word of the cross is foolishness to those who’re perishing, but to those who’re being saved it is the power of God! (1 Cor. 1:18). But we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews, and foolishness to the Gentiles, but the power and wisdom of God to those who believe. (1 Cor. 1:23-24).

The cross will offend those who are perishing in their sins. Our sinful flesh doesn’t want to hear about it! We don’t naturally want to acknowledge our utter helplessness and dependency on God, our total sinful depravity before Him, and that His Son is our Savior, who had to die on the cross as our substitute. We would rather have a Jesus without a cross. St. Paul says that Christ crucified was a stumbling block to the Jews, because so many of them wouldn’t believe in Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus used the same word, “stumbling block” to describe what Peter was doing to Him. By Peter trying to take Jesus’ cross away from Him, by trying to interfere with what “must be” because of God’s plan, Peter became a stumbling block to Jesus. This was the work of Satan. Peter thought these sufferings were beneath the glory of Jesus as the Christ. Peter was processing the thoughts of men, not the thoughts of God. Be watchful that we don’t fall back into that same trap. But to embrace Jesus and His cross is to find our life.

Why are the thoughts of God so at odds with our human thinking? Jesus’ path to the cross was one of self-sacrifice and loss. It was a path of self-denial and humility. Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” It’s not easy for us to deny ourselves. It’s easier to gratify ourselves and our desires. We don’t readily give up what we’re accustomed to having. To make sacrifices and surrender our will to the will of God, isn’t natural to us. Sin is a self-pleasing, self-satisfying mindset. Christians often think that the devil only wants to spoil our fun, keep us from getting what we want. But is it a good thing to always get what we want? The devil would be perfectly happy giving us all we want, so long as we aren’t putting our trust in God or seeking to follow His will. If we’re self-satisfied and self-pleased, and living how we want, we may find no need for God. In fact, if this is our state, then we most likely will be indifferent to God. But it’s often those who face hardship that turn to God. All are equally needy of God, but not all recognize the spiritual hunger.

The instinct of self-preservation is built into us. And while in itself it may not be bad, there are all sorts of things that we’ll do for self-preservation that we might not do otherwise. We may commit acts of crime, we may hurt those we love, we may make choices that harm us, we may even violate our conscience for the sake of what we think is essential to our self-preservation. But Jesus shows Peter that self-preservation isn’t on His agenda. Jesus would actually give Himself over to His enemies, to those who hated Him, and suffer. What gain was there in that? Jesus reversed that implied question: What good is there in gaining the whole world, yet forfeiting your soul? Then we can see what gain there was for Jesus. By losing His life, He found it. By losing our life to Christ, we find it in Him. In Christ alone is it true that we can find our life by losing it.

What part (or whole!) of our life are we unwilling to lose to Him? What part of our old sinful existence, our pattern of thinking, are we holding on to? Think about this: Everything that is true that you don’t believe about God, is contained in the Bible. The whole truth of God’s Word, parts of which we’d prefer to pick and choose, remains there, whole and entire. Peter believed that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the Living God, but he did not want to see Him crucified and dead. We don’t want to believe that our sin is big enough to require Jesus’ death in our place. It’s too uncomfortable to admit that He was a substitute for me and my sin.

We’re determined to try to preserve our way of thinking. This is a stubbornness to try to save our life, with its old patterns of thought and actions, rather than lose it to Christ. One of my seminary classmates made this statement in a paper on Christian suffering: “The cross of Christ demonstrates sinners’ inability to judge outward appearances correctly. Men’s eyes see Christ’s shameful suffering and death; God sees the salvation of the whole world” (Carl Roth, Luther on Christian Suffering, p. 77). It’s true. Like Peter we cannot see why God’s plan of salvation had to involve the cross. We can’t judge the outward appearance correctly. The cross is the “emblem of suffering and shame,” but in it God worked the salvation of the whole world. Thinking the thoughts of God, Jesus denied Himself, gave up His life to His enemies, that we might have the full redemption of His blood. Through the apparent foolishness of the cross, which causes many to stumble at Jesus and His works, God was demonstrating the greatest power and glory. Through Christ’s death He reversed the power of death, so that whoever loses his life for Jesus, will find it. Whatever we lose, we find in greater measure through Him.

This gives us a new cross-focused perspective on suffering and afflictions in our own life. In the midst of suffering we often fail to see further than “the now”, and don’t recognize God’s loving work in our lives. Our sufferings always put faith to the test, as we’re tempted to doubt whether God is still faithful and good to us. Job, in the midst of his despair and loss, said, “Shall I receive good from God, and not also evil?” (Job 2:9). Physical pain, mental, spiritual and emotional affliction all lead us to doubt whether it’s really true that God works all things for the good of those who love Him. The Christian’s cross is to bear this suffering, and still have faith in the promise that God will work all things for good. Even if it doesn’t mean recovery from illness, deliverance from pain, or an immediate solution to our troubles. To face even the greatest enemy of death, knowing that if God allows that I should die, this isn’t due to His disfavor towards me, but that as a believer I can be assured of eternal life and a resurrected body. What death seems to steal in the short view, cannot take away what God has given in the long view.

The writer Gerhard Forde explains that the cross demolishes all our other supports and “escape hatches.” It leaves us as a simple human being, “because there isn’t anything to do now but wait, hope, pray, and trust in the promise of him who nevertheless conquers, the crucified and risen Jesus. By faith we’re simply in Christ, waiting to see what will happen to us and in us.” Suffering gives us over to the faithful acceptance of God’s will, even when we’re not in control of our circumstances. We surrender our attempts to explain suffering away, or to blame or excuse God, but cast ourselves trustingly on His care, receiving His gifts through Word and Sacrament as a solid sign and promise of His continued faithfulness to us.

So the crosses that Jesus gives us to bear in this life pull us away from self-centered thoughts, the thoughts of self-preservation, the thoughts of men. If our lives are to be conformed to Christ, how could it be that we would not also take up our cross of suffering? Christ’s perfect life, death, and resurrection alone accomplishes our salvation, but the pattern of His life becomes the pattern of the Christian’s life also. We’re not exempted from persecution or trial, but we’re spared from the ultimate condemnation of sin, and the punishment it brought to Him. Jesus must have His cross, because in the cross He takes all our foolish thinking captive to Him, so that by losing our life for His sake, we may find it. This Christ alone, Jesus Christ who died on the cross, is the redeemer of our souls. We know His identity, and also what He had to accomplish on our behalf by His death on the cross. Confess and hold fast to this Christ. Amen.

Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

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