Lectionary Sermon for Sept. 13, 2009, 24th Ordinary B, Mark 8:27-38

2 Samuel 22:1-4, 47, 50-51
Mark 8:27-38

Alternative Rocks

Pan's Temple complex at Caesarea-Philippi
Pan's Temple complex at Caesarea-Philippi

Going to Israel for two weeks, as I just had the privilege of doing, does not make you an instant expert, but it does open your eyes to things you never saw before.  That is what happened to me when we visited the site in which this text transpires: Caesarea Philippi.  This text is rich, multi-layered, and as relevant as it can possibly get to us today.  My eyes have been opened to a whole new layer of meaning here that I want to share with you in the hope that we all will feel the   power of this passage.

The Good Life and How to Get it

This text is all about hopes and dreams plus ways and means.  We all have a vision of the world we want to live in: the perfect place to live, the perfect circumstances, the perfect set of social conditions – political, and economic, and the perfect set of personal conditions: security, health, family.  We want to live in a prosperous, stable democracy in safety and have a reasonable quality of life for us and our families.

We also have an idea of how we want to achieve this vision of the good life: through education, hard work, disciple, perhaps also through making our own contributions through our church or community agencies, maybe political involvement too.

As Christians, there is another layer to our hopes and dreams and our idea of how to achieve them, and that is the role God plays in our lives.  Most of us would include, in our vision of the good life, a close relationship with God, a strong sense of his presence and a secure knowledge of his constant care for us – in good times  and in bad times.  We understand that part of how to experience this includes attention to our spiritual lives as well as our material lives – we take time for prayer, for worship, for being a vital part of a community of faith, and for study of God’s word – God’s guidance to us – in fact, of God’s revelation of what the “good life” really means.

So, we have a vision of the good life that we want and how to get there, and a strong sense that God is a part of this in both the goal and the means – and in this respect, we are exactly like everyone in the world – including the people of Jesus’ day.

One fact is clear to me: nobody gets what they want.  Nobody.  We don’t get perfect health, we don’t have perfect families, we aren’t as prosperous as we want to be, or as secure, or as happy, or as spiritually alive as we want to be.  The answer to the age-old question “how much is enough?” is always, “a little bit more.”

So we inevitably end up in a world in which we struggle to beat the odds, work against obstacles, overcome difficulties, and push on to find a way to achieve at least most or some of that vision of the world we want, according to our best understanding of the means to that end.

But what if our vision of the “good life” is misguided?  What if the life we think we want, the path we believe will lead to happiness and fulfillment is actually headed towards misery and frustration?  What if the means that we have chosen to achieve that good life are in fact completely ineffective – even counter-productive?   What if God’s agenda and God’s means of achieving His agenda run counter to our agenda and our chosen means of achieving it?  If that is the case, then the longer we travel that path, the further we get from where we want to be.

This text is all about this dilemma: what is the good life, and how do we get there?  What is God’s agenda, and how does my life line up with it?  This is crucial: get this one wrong, and everything goes bad; get this one right, and we experience life the way God created us to experience it: full of blessing and happiness.

The “Good Life” and how to get it – back then

For Peter and Jesus’ other disciples, and for their fellow Israelites, the good life was a life lived in freedom in their own country, ruled by a descendent of the tribe of the great King David, ruling from Jerusalem – from Mt. Zion.   The image of the Rock was a part of this vision: David’s prayer which we read celebrates God as a strong Rock of defense on which he can rely.  David’s prayer came true as he built the City of David, Jerusalem, on the large rock rising up out of the surrounding valleys.

This vision of God as the Rock, supporting Kind David and his descendants on the Rock of Jerusalem, Mt. Zion became the vision of the Good Life for the Israelites.

model: the Rock of Mt. Zion, the City of David above 2 valleys
model: the Rock of Mt. Zion, the City of David above 2 valleys

But that was not the life they were living.  Nobody gets what they want.  A descendant of David was not on the throne in the rock fortress of Jerusalem, but rather a usurper was there: Herod.  To make matters worse, Herod, the non-Jewish king was not independent, but rather was simply a puppet, dancing on strings pulled by his over-lord, Rome.

During Jesus’ lifetime, Herod the Great died, leaving his kingdom to be divided by his 3 sons who each got a piece of his kingdom to govern under Rome’s watchful eye.  Galilee in the North went to Herod’s son Philip.  He did just what his father had done: built a huge city and palace as his administrative headquarters, and named it after Caesar in a naked attempt to curry favor.  The city he built was called Caesarea-Philippi.

Philip did not start from scratch; he chose the place where he built his lavish palace  right next door to a huge complex of temples and shrines dedicated to the worship of the god Pan – the half-goat like god of shepherds, fields, springs, and fertility: the god who could help give you “the good life.”

Pan’s temple was built at the mouth of an enormous 30 foot cave out of which flowed a steam of water – actually the source of the River Jordan, way up in the hills of the Golan Heights.  The cave itself was at the foot of a huge, imposing rock face.  Here, at this rock, is where Herod Philip built his rock palace, Caesarea Philippi.

Pan, god of shepherds, fields, & fertility
Pan, god of shepherds, fields, & fertility

The Question in Context

So now we are ready to hear the powerful question that Jesus asked his disciples: in the region of Caesarea Philippi, at this rock-temple to Pan and rock palace of Herod-Philip’s political power and prestige, Jesus asks the man he has named, “Rock” – Peter (for that is what Peter means – having changed his name from Simon – the hero of the Maccabean revolution) “Who do people say that I am?”

In effect he was asking, “Am I John the Baptist who was killed for his opposition to Herod’s father’s debauched, corrupt regime? Am I the prophet like Elijah who will confront the political powers of my day as he did, leading to their destruction?  Who do you say that I am?”

This question is put to all of us: what are we expecting from Jesus?  Who do we say that he is?  Is he the vehicle for our hopes and dreams for the good life?  Is he a cleaned-up version of a fertility god like Pan, on whom we call for a steady stream of blessing?

Is he a path to political power, a means to triumph over our enemies and secure our place for us and for our kind after us?

In the face of all of these alternative Rocks, Peter the rock gives his clearest confession of faith:

You are the Messiah.” (that is, the anointed one; the Christ).

Right so far Peter, but in what way and how will Jesus be this Messianic solution to the problems at hand?  What are his ends, and what are his means?

God’s means and God’s ends

Herod-Philip's palace: Caesarea-Philippi
Herod-Philip's palace: Caesarea-Philippi

God’s agenda is the path to the life that will lead to our greatest joy and fulfillment, but his path, Jesus announces, first leads to suffering – and this is the bitter pill that Peter is not ready to swallow.

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.

Nobody gets what they want; we want the good life for ourselves and for our kind, but Jesus refuses to baptize our selfish agendas: his path is the path of self-sacrifice; of laying down his life for his friends to redeem them from their evil, dark little worlds and to set them free for a life in a kingdom far greater than they – we – can imagine.

There is a cost involved here: it is the cost of relinquishing our petty agendas, and embracing God’s agenda for his world and for its people:

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?

God’s path to the good life is not the path of acquisition and accumulation, of security at any cost, but of self-sacrificial giving away of our lives for the sake of God, our true Rock of refuge.

The call to scrutinize agendas

This call to denial of self has to be real and concrete – as much so in our day against the alternatives of our times as it was in Jesus’ day against the alternatives of Pan, Herod, Rome and Zion.

There are many competing agendas today, all demanding allegiance and promising “the good life” to us.  We, as followers of Jesus who know him as the Messiah, the Christ, must hold all of them up for scrutiny.

I believe that it is simply inconceivable that Jesus’ agenda and his means could be identical with any single political party’s agenda or News media outlet’s.  Every party has its own agenda, and every news media its own corporate owners and power interests.  If there is never a time when we say, “This is not Jesus’ agenda” to our own dearest  parties and our favorite new anchors, then who has co-opted whom?  It is simply impossible that a news channel or a political party could ever be identical with the path of Jesus, advocating his agenda and his means to accomplish it.

Listen: God loves us more than we can imagine; he does not want us to rush head-long into destruction.  God today, just as Jesus in his day, is insistent that the wrong path, the path of setting our minds on “human things” not “divine things” is ultimately Satanic – a path that leads, not to the good life we seek but to the opposite.   Jesus calls us to life in the Kingdom of God, life lived in fellowship and relationship with the Creator of Life.

Jesus calls us to scrutinize our lives: for whom are we living?  For whom are we struggling?  For whom are we acquiring and protecting?  The path to the good life is in letting go, in sacrifice, and in engaging the suffering of the world we have been placed in.

This path may not fit the triumphalist agendas of our culture and our times, but the alternative path faces this solemn warning:

Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.


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