Sermon on Matthew 16:21-28, for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost 2020 (A), "Set on the Things of God"
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Just last week we heard in Romans 11:33, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” Since God’s wisdom and ways go far beyond our knowing or understanding, there are many things in life that just don’t make sense to us. We often grapple to understand His plan in our lives. The disciples likewise grappled with God’s mysterious plan surrounding Jesus’ death on the cross. It was a turning point in human and salvation history. Jesus tried to prepare them. In Matthew 16:21, Jesus brings it up for the first time. The Gospels record three distinct times when He openly told them about His coming death and resurrection.
Listen again: “From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” Peter’s thoughts clashed with the thoughts of God. Jesus laid out the necessary road ahead, but Peter jumped in the way. He thought He was loving and protecting Jesus, but Jesus showed that divine necessity—God’s plan, was that He must suffer, die, and be raised again. In the thoughts of man, this didn’t make sense. But the thoughts of God led to the cross—and beyond to the glory of the resurrection.
I imagine the disciples listening and Peter saying to himself, “You lost me at: ‘and be killed.’” Do you think the next words “and on the third day be raised” even registered with Peter? We know Jesus explicitly predicted His resurrection 3 times, but they were still in shock and amazement when He actually rose from the grave. Hearing something doesn’t mean we really heard it. Our ears and God-given system of hearing is marvelous! But how much goes “in one ear, out the other”! The effect is universally known. We have selective hearing, and get stuck on something, and don’t really listen, or purposely avoid hearing what God has to say. That is, when we are “set on the things of man”.
But we can relate to Peter and how that mention of suffering and death ahead of Jesus just blocked everything else out of his mind. When our way is darkest and marked with suffering or even death, Satan’s greatest temptation is to say: “This can’t happen!” “God, how can you possibly love me, if this is happening to me?” When life just doesn’t make sense in the thoughts of man, Satan wants us so focused on the death and suffering that we can’t see beyond it, to God’s final victory and glory. We question God’s ways, and set on the “things of man”, we question God’s love. Life is full of struggles. Just going through our prayer list of people who are facing death, or long, protracted struggles with cancer or other disabilities or illnesses—especially those for whom no relief is in sight—there’s a tough list of crosses people are carrying.
But maybe like Peter we think our motives are in the best place— “Lord, that could never happen to you!” or “Lord, you can’t let my loved one suffer” or “Lord, this can’t happen to me (if you love me!)” or in some other way we try to determine what God “must” do. Just an echo behind Peter, our chart for life can’t imagine going through stormy waters or uncertainty. Unfortunately, none of us can grant a prayer. We can’t make sense of it for them. We can’t promise anyone they’ll escape suffering. We wish we could spare them from it. Suffering is part of life. But we can be faithful in joining them and praying for them and trusting it to the will of God. We can also serve them in their needs and try to help them through it. It’s not a matter of if we will suffer, but how we will trust God through it. And when our mind is set on the thoughts of God, to trust His promise of eternal life by Jesus’ victory!
I’ll repeat that God’s ways are mysterious and unsearchable. So, even when by God’s grace we set our mind on the things of God, it’s not like everything suddenly makes sense or becomes easy. Everything ahead of Jesus on the cross still would have been nearly impossible to understand until Jesus rose from the dead. It’s rare to get some grand moment of clarity where all the struggles in life crystallizes and makes sense to us, while we’re in the thick of it. Mostly we just have to keep trusting in God, take up our cross and follow Jesus. He’ll carry us through, and we trust that on the other side, it’ll all or come together and make sense.
The only “must” in Jesus’ conversation with Peter, was that He “must” go to Jerusalem to suffer, die, and be raised. When we try to force our “must” on God and tell Jesus what He must or must not do, our mind is set on the things of man. But when our mind is set on the things of God, we look differently at suffering. Jesus’ death and resurrection is infinitely to our blessing. It brought the forgiveness of sins to the whole world and opened the gates of heaven to all who believe in Jesus. But Jesus endured tremendous suffering first. Some 600,000 Americans paid the price for freedom for the slaves in the Civil War. Sometimes great blessings come at a terrible cost. I’m not saying those deaths were necessary in the same way as Jesus’ death, obviously, but in countless ways through history, the suffering and even the bloodshed of various people has brought liberation or brought truth to the light of day, and other unexpected blessings that lasted long beyond.
The thoughts of man revolve around self-preservation. It’s a natural and mostly necessary instinct. But what about when it stands in the way of our duty or our calling, like when Peter tried to stand in the way of Jesus? What about when our self-preservation instinct stops us from doing hard things? Bearing difficult responsibilities? Does the Soldier have the courage to face the battle, and not run? Do we have the courage and sense of duty to care for those who need our help? What is the task before you, or the cross you bear? Are you trying to carry it alone, or are you leaning on Jesus? By God’s grace, He can set our mind on Him, to face down the hard tasks and yield self-preservation to sacrificial living.
The hymn “What God Ordains is Always Good”, wrestles with this difficult truth. The last verse has this line: “though sorrow, need, or death be mine, I shall not be forsaken.” Do you understand what that is saying? Even if we must face sadness, poverty and death, God will not forsake us. Our sorrows in life do not void God’s love for us. They don’t void the goodness of God’s will. Our needs—whether we are in financial straits, or facing loneliness, or health issues, or whatever—they do not void God’s care and love. Our death does not void Jesus’ resurrection and ours promised to follow! I shall not be forsaken. Christ is with you in your sorrow, need or death. Christ will never leave us nor forsake us. If we have Christ, what else do we need? Nothing can void God’s love for us in Christ Jesus!
God lifts our heart to sing that powerful truth, to look beyond earthly suffering and into the glory of our Risen Lord Jesus. God sets our mind on His things—no longer self-preservation, but how my life be a living sacrifice to God and others? How can God be glorified in my life and actions, even as I bear this cross and follow Him? What does my life look like, molded in Jesus’ image, and living for Him?
Jesus knew that setting our mind on the things of God instead of the things of man didn’t come easily or naturally. And just as God supplied Peter with his confession of faith, so also God supplies us with the mind of Christ that is set on the things of God. God knows how to transform our thoughts and renew our minds, molding them from within to be Christlike. Walking in Christ’s footsteps, in His way of the cross, we can know that God’s ways are unsearchable, but still follow, trusting Him. Life and the suffering that comes with it doesn’t often make sense, but when our minds are set on the things of God, we can live boldly in prayer, in love, in service for others, and trusting that since Jesus has conquered sin and the grave, we can trust it all to Him. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.