Sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost – August 23, 2020

Texts: Isaiah 51:1-6; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20
If there is one theme that runs through all our scripture texts today, it’s this—sometimes we just need a little pep talk to get us moving off dead center. I mean, people are people, you know?  Sometimes we just need someone to talk us off the ledge of fear or indecision.
Israel was stuck between the life in Babylon and the new Jerusalem that they envisioned in their hearts. Freedom! Home! But it was a long way off, a long journey for body and soul to make.
Isaiah 51 is a love song that God sings to Israel to get the people moving again. Before their bodies could begin to move, their souls needed to be stirred up. The high note of God’s song in Isaiah is the theme of righteousness.
God commended the people for pursuing righteousness. Wherever there is righteousness, God is. Righteousness brings blessing and life, and relationship where all things work in harmony.  
Abraham and Sarah exemplify rock-solid faith. Responding to their steady faith and devotion to God and reckoning it as righteousness, God blessed Abraham and Sarah with children. God turned their dried up bodies into fertile ground for God’s future to grow.
God would likewise create a new future out of Israel’s righteousness and faith in the time of Isaiah. Looking back to Abraham and Sarah meant claiming their lineage, to live as people of faith, in righteousness, and to receive blessing. Perhaps it is also a hearkening back to the pillars of stone that Israelites raised up in desperate places where they experienced God’s deliverance.  
Deliverance into abundance, peace, and joy is not impossible. But it does take conscious effort. It all begins in listening to God’s teaching about justice. For, if you cannot embrace justice, how can you enter the future that God, through righteousness, is intent on bringing about?
The song ends powerfully with a promise. Although it sounds dire, it’s actually not. The heavens will vanish and earth will wear out. The awful phrase “die like gnats” is not faithful to the Hebrew text which says that like the earth, human life will also come to an end.
What lasts infinitely however, is God’s righteousness. And that’s a good thing, because remember: blessing, life, and a new future are the offspring of righteousness. And so, with this song, God counseled Israel to trust, to let go, to move with God.
Isn’t this the same thing that Paul is saying to the Christians in Rome? They’ve hardly begun to embrace their faith in God and already they’re stuck between fear and indecision. Who is acceptable to God, who is not? Who is worthy, who is not? What gifts are God-sent and which ones are not? What does God want from us?
Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” That’s what Paul wrote. It’s wonderful isn’t it? He was drawing a contrast between offering dead sacrifices (like the ones commonly offered to Caesar, and the Temple sacrifices that the prophets said did nothing for God) and offering their own energies as a means through which God’s love could be shared.
That meant worshipping God by trusting, and letting go. Otherwise Christians would be stuck forever, mired in arguments that only end with winners and losers…if they end at all. Meanwhile the mission of Jesus Christ – taking loving service to the whole world – would come to a stop. Dare we say it, a dead stop.
Just imagine what would have happened if Paul had not prevailed! Thank God he did. Out of the lively faith of God’s people, has come centuries of care in God’s name. Hospitals, soup kitchens, orphanages, assisted living centers, relief agencies for disasters and crises of all kinds.
We still need to take deeply to heart what Paul said. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable, and perfect.” It’s not just about what Christians have done for the world to enact God’s righteousness, it’s about what we will yet do in Christ’s name.
This delivers us right to the door of the gospel today. “Who do people say that the Son of man is?” Jesus asked this one day. It wasn’t a surprise pop quiz for the disciples. It was a question of who they were saying that Jesus was because there were all kinds of spiritual leaders out there.

The place of Jesus’s question was important too. Caesarea Philippi represented two highly significant influences in the time of Jesus. It was an ancient religious site centered on a cave from which came deadly vapors and a strongly flowing stream. It was thought to be a portal to Hades and several gods were worshipped there. The town was also a center of Roman authority, rebuilt and renamed by King Herod’s son Philip.
So, the inference seems to be that in the midst of lots of religious and political influence, who were people saying that Jesus was? And then who were the disciples saying that Jesus was?
Their answer would say everything about who they thought they owed their allegiance to politically and spiritually. What did it mean to act in the name of Jesus?
The response of the disciples was vague and safe. The people say you are a prophet – one of the old ones, perhaps even as great as Elijah who was carried into heaven, or Jeremiah who prophesied a new covenant – or, if not that, then a modern prophet like John the Baptist.
Jesus pushed the disciples further, “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter answered for them all— “…the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” It’s called the good confession, though Jesus never criticized other answers. Jesus blessed Peter for his response, but said it was God’s transformative inspiration rather than Peter’s personal insight. The foundation of Peter’s faith, on which the Christian Church stands, is believing that Jesus is God’s living love which saves us.
Finally. The gift of binding and loosing is not Peter’s personally; it belongs to the community. Christ’s community is responsible for calling out righteousness and unrighteousness until Jesus returns. It is not about serving religious or political sentiments. It is about being accountable to God in heaven for right relationship in this world until the Messiah is revealed to all. Amen.

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