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"The Things of God and the Things of Men"

Matthew 16:13-20

Rev. Alan Taylor

Pentecost 11, Proper 17, series A
St. John Lutheran Church  
Galveston, Texas

Sun, Aug 28, 2011 

+ In Nomine Jesu +

A rather famous author summarized his view of life in his autobiography.  He wrote, "A myriad of men are born; they labor and sweat and struggle for bread; they squabble and scold and fight; they scramble for little mean advantages over each other.

Age creeps upon them and infirmities follow; shames and humiliations bring down their prides and their vanities.

Those they love are taken from them, and the joy of life is turned to aching grief.  The burden of pain, care, and misery, grows heavier year by year.

At length ambition is dead, pride is dead, vanity is dead; longing for release is in their place.

It comes at last - the only un-poisoned gift earth ever had for them—and they vanish from a world where they were of no consequence; where they achieved nothing, where they were a mistake and a failure and foolishness; where they left no sign that they had ever existed -a world that will lament them a day and forget them forever"

The man's view of life is obviously pretty bleak.  Contrasted with some of his other work, like the adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, it's hard to imagine that they were penned by the same man.  Samuel Longhorne Clemens, Mark Twain, as he was known, for all of his brilliance and for all of his giftedness, was a devout atheist.  His view of God's supposed relationship with His creation, in other words, his view of the Gospel, is best summed up in his 1909 publication Letters from earth.  "Man (he says) is a marvelous curiosity … he thinks he is the Creator's pet … he even believes the Creator loves him; has a passion for him; sits up nights to admire him; yes and watch over him and keep him out of trouble.  He prays to him and thinks He listens.  Isn't it a quaint idea?"

Mark Twain, of course, didn't stand alone in his denial of Christ.  Perhaps it's a bit unfair to single him out.  His denial of Christ, and of the things of God, however, poses a curious question…'why would anyone be so adamant in their denial of God's grace?' It just doesn't make much sense, does it?  God gives His own Son to die for the sins of the world.  Nailed to the cross, Jesus literally becomes sin and in that horrid, and yet, blessed moment of atonement, the Father turns His back on His Son.  He does so because He loathes what His Son has become, the sin of the world.  God's eyes, you know, are "too pure to behold evil."  Jesus cries out in agony, the nails sending searing pain through His hands and feet, His lungs convulsing to draw in the breath of life.  But, more than that, He cries out in loneliness and rejection, for, in His darkest hour, His Father literally turned His back on Him.  "My God, My God (Jesus cries), why have You forsaken Me?" In the end, Jesus commits His spirit to His Father in that one final act of absolute trust.  His broken body is laid to rest in the tomb, only to be raised again in victory over death and the grave three days later. 

The story of Jesus life, of course, is laid out beautifully and testified to by the four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  All of history converges on that single moment in time when God reconciled this broken and damned creation to Himself.  From that lonely hill outside of Jerusalem, the Word of forgiveness and grace went out to the highways and the byways.  People believed the truth.  They were drawn to the cross, in fulfillment of Jesus words, "I, if I be lifted up will draw all men to Myself." They were drawn to the cross too in demonstration of the power of God's Word.  Some even went to their graves singing the praise of Christ, refusing to deny Him, though it meant death for them. 

And yet, as it has been through history, so it is today.  In the comfort of a suburban living room, on a campus of higher learning somewhere across the fruited plane, or, in the circles of affluence that describe and define our society, the Samuel Longhorne Clemens of this world continue to say NO!  No, I don't believe in Jesus!  I don't believe that He died for me!  I don't believe His crucifixion, if He was, in fact, crucified, has any bearing on my life whatsoever!  The things, the agendas of men, are exalted over the things of God and the sobering words penned by the apostle John continue to ring true today as they did when he first wrote them.  "(Jesus) came unto His own, and His own received Him not." 

We hear and we see the denial of Christ everywhere in our culture and we are amazed because we don't see how it could be so.  How can a man choose death when he is offered life?  How can he choose condemnation and guilt over freedom and a clear conscience?  We don't understand the rejection of Christ and the shameless denial of the things of God!  That is, until we nudge ourselves up next to Simon Peter, a fellow sinner who bore the venerable titles of disciple and apostle, and yet, who stood in the way of Jesus and the cross, who favored the things of men over the things of God.  "Get behind me Satan (Jesus said)! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of things of God, but the things of men."

Jesus' words seem so harsh.  After-all, Peter was only trying to do what he thought was right!  Clearly He didn't want Jesus to go to the cross!  He didn't want Him to die!  He wanted Him to live and to be the kind of King he thought He should be!  With that zeal, with his mind set on the things of men, he even stood in front of Jesus and rebuked Him.  'Jesus, that's enough of this talk about crucifixion and death!  It will never happen to You!  I'll protect You!  I'll defend You!  I'll save You!'

I suppose the question for us this morning is "are we really all that different from Peter?" When we exert our will over the will of God we try to put God in a box!  I wonder, have you ever done that, tried to God in a box, that is!?  I'm sure you have!!  At least, I know I have.  We do so for the same reason that Peter tried to keep Him from being crucified.  God, the true God, doesn't follow our plan, our agenda!  He doesn't always do what we want Him to do!  He's funny that way.  He's the Shepherd and we're the sheep!  He leads and we are supposed to follow!  And when He calls us to follow He lays out a path for us that's anything but the one we really want to follow.  "If anyone would come after me (He says), let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.  For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it."

Detrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran theologian who was executed under Hitler's regime, once said, "when Christ calls us to follow Him, He bids us to come and die."  I suppose this is the difficult part for the Simon Peter's and the Mark Twain's of this world, and for the rest of us for that matter, denying ourselves and losing our lives.  We can't exalt ourselves and still follow Christ.  We can't be the master of our own destinies, the captain of our own ship, or the ruler of our own little universe and still follow Christ. 

Jesus expected Peter to set his mind on the things of God, which means He expected him to let go of what he wanted and to embrace the things that God ordained.  Peter, of course, stepped aside and Jesus walked on.  What Peter didn't want to happen, happened.  Jesus became sin and in that horrid, and yet, blessed moment of atonement, the Father turned His back on His Son.  Jesus cried out in agony, the nails sending that searing pain through His hands and feet, His lungs convulsing to draw in the breath of life.  More than that, He cried out in loneliness and rejection, for, in His darkest hour, His Father literally turned His back on Him.  In the end, Jesus committed His spirit to His Father in His final act of absolute trust.  His broken body was laid to rest in the tomb, only to be raised again in victory over death and the grave three days later.  And all of humanity has been blessed since.  That pivotal moment in history came to pass.  And, in the end, Peter was embraced by the very forgiveness that he tried to prevent Jesus from procuring.  And, of course, you and I live beneath that same blessed forgiveness and grace of the cross. 

It's the way God works in our struggle to die to self.  He convinces us that there is something greater in life than ourselves.  He convinces us that life is really only worth living through the blessedness of the things of God.  To that end, we join the saints of generations past, as we learn to pray those solemn words that our Lord taught us to pray, "Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven."  In Jesus' name.  Amen. 

The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

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