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The Life of Jesus: The Turning Point

April 6, 2014

Sermon:  The Life of Jesus: The Turning Point
Text:  Matthew 16:13-28

This week we continue our sermon series The Life of Jesus by considering a pivotal point recorded for us in Matthew 16:13-28. Hear now the Word of God.

13 When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
15 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he ordered his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
21 From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.
22 Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”
23 Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. 26 What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? 27 For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.
28 “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

At the end of the 19th century Mark Twain was a little known journalist for a San Francisco newspaper. The local people knew him only as a young storyteller who had published one story at that time, “The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” Twain convinced his publisher to let him take a trip across Europe and into the Holy Land. He agreed to send his publisher frequent letters, describing the places he visited.

Mark Twain accompanied a group of Episcopalians as he traveled through the Holy Land. They booked passage to France, went down through Italy, and into the Holy Land. Try to imagine this scene now. He and this group of tourists rode mules into the Holy Land, entering from Syria, coming down Mount Hermon, down from the Golan Heights, to a city called Banias. That is just right for a guy from Hannibal, Missouri, wouldn’t you say?

Nearly every day Twain wrote a letter of 100-200 words, not really long for a journalist. The newspaper published these letters, which were hilarious, as a serial in the paper. When Twain returned home those letters became his first book, Innocents Abroad. The book itself was quite remarkable, but the speaking tours that resulted from those letters really sold Mark Twain in this country. When audiences saw and heard him on stage, they were captivated.

This journalist and storyteller from Hannibal, Missouri, described Banias with no cynicism, no humor. He was dead-serious about what he saw in this city that also goes by the names Paneas and Caesarea Philippi, as in the Scripture today.
As the evening drew near, we clambered down the mountain through groves of the biblical oaks of Bashan, (for we were just stepping over the border from Syria, entering into the long-sought Holy Land,) and at its extreme foot, toward the wide valley, we entered this little village of Banias and camped in a great grove of olive trees near a torrent of sparkling water whose banks were arrayed in fig trees, pomegranates, and oleander in full leaf. Barring the proximity of the village, it is a sort of paradise.

The very first thing one feels like doing when he gets into camp, all burning up and dusty, is to hunt up a bath. We followed the stream up to where it gushes out of the mountain side, three hundred yards from the tents, and we took a bath that was so icy that I did not know this was the main source of the sacred river Jordan. Up yonder in the precipice where the fountain gushes out, are well-worn Greek inscriptions over niches in the rock where in ancient times the Greeks, and after them the Romans, worshipped the sylvan god Pan.

Twain made many jokes about all the other places he visited in the Holy Land. He said that Mary, the mother of Jesus, must have been a very homely woman because he did not see one good-looking woman in the entire city of Nazareth. In Jerusalem he visited the Dome of the Rock, which is sacred to three religions. The Jews say Abraham offered Isaac as a sacrifice here. The Christians recognize this as a place where Jesus taught. The temple was built on top of that rock. The people of Islam view this rock as the third holiest site in their religion. It was said that Mohammed leapt from this rock into heaven. Mark Twain looked at the rock and teased, “If that is Mohammed’s footprint, he wore a size seventeen.”

Twain teased everyone and every location in the Holy Land with the exception of Caesarea Philippi. He had a particular reverence for this place, saying it was astounding to be in the same place where the Son of God had stood.

This location has long been considered a sacred spot, holy ground in at least four different religious periods. The god Baal was worshipped here during the Canaanite period. When Alexander the Great had no more worlds to conquer, he started a process known as Hellenization, turning the entire world to the Greek language and culture. The deep cultural changes, which continued for almost one thousand years, are reflected here. We see this Greek influence in a nearby cave, which is said to be the birthplace and home of the goat-footed Pan, the god of desolate places, music, and nature. Pan was also god of goat herders, which is no surprise. Ancient armies marched along a road near the cave. That road, known as “the way to the sea” is mentioned in Isaiah. It was there that these armies stopped and took refreshment from the very same cold water that flowed from the cave. The Jews regarded this spot as sacred because this stream was one of the three sources of the Jordan River, which plays such a pivotal part in so much of Jewish history.

When the Romans defeated the entire known world and took charge, Herod the Great built a beautiful white marble shrine on the side of the mountain to honor his mentor, Caesar Augustus. In the year 3 B.C. Phillip the Tetrarch founded this city at Paneas. It became the administrative capital of his very large territory. The name was changed to Caesarea Philippi, named for Caesar and Phillip. We see this name for the city in the New Testament to distinguish it from Caesarea Maritima, which means Caesarea by the Sea, located on the Mediterranean Sea.

According to the Synoptic Gospels, the woman Jesus healed from an issue of blood, the one who came from behind him and touched his garment, was from Caesarea Philippi. When Jesus came here he was as far away from Nazareth, as far away from Capernaum and Bethlehem, as far away from Bethany and Jerusalem as he would ever be.

We have seen in these sermons on the life of Jesus how the gospel story has been moving along at a steady pace. Now we wonder why Jesus traveled with his disciples to this remote corner in the northeast of Israel. I see this episode as the midpoint of the gospel story though it comes a little past the mid-point in the Gospels themselves. Here is a pivotal spot, a turning point, a crucial time. If we calculate a kind of timeline, Jesus chose to ask a pivotal question about two years into his ministry – maybe a little longer than that. In only a few months Jesus will go to Jerusalem and face all that is ahead.

We might think of this point as the disciples’ mid-term exam, a test which consists of only two questions. Most teachers would agree that students would much rather have multiple choice and true/false questions on a test. They prefer questions that do not ask them to think deeply. Here in this desolate place where the town had been destroyed, in this remote place far away from Nazareth, in this location where four religious traditions had their roots, Jesus asked the first question, one that was not that difficult. Jesus was basically asking, “What have you learned so far?” Remember that during the years that they had been following him, they had heard him teach. They had heard him read the servant poem from Isaiah when he first returned to Nazareth: “This day this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” They had heard the Sermon on the Mount and the many other lessons. They had witnessed the many miracles he had performed. Jesus, who had repeatedly referred to himself as “the Son of Man” – a messianic phrase that comes from the book of Ezekiel – asked the first question, “Who do people say that I am?”

The disciples generally kept their ear to the ground. Like deacons in a Baptist church, they knew the scuttlebutt on the preacher. I might add that if deacons do not hear it for themselves, they hear it from their spouse. The disciples should know the answer to such questions as, “What are people saying? What are people talking about? Who do people say that I am?”

That first question – an external question – had an easy answer. The disciples simply told Jesus what they had heard: “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others Jeremiah, one of the prophets.”

The second question Jesus asked, which is internal, is much harder: “And who do you say that I am? Who do you believe I am?”

A long pregnant pause, a heavy silence, among the disciples followed. The only sounds were those of the wind blowing among the cedar trees on the mountain and the water gushing from the cave and flowing over boulders. The aroma of cedar mingled with oleander, yet no one spoke.

Tough questions require thoughtful answers. Teachers know that every class always has at least one student who cannot stand the empty vacuum very long. In this instance the impulsive Simon Peter, who thought he could walk on water, for heaven’s sake, blurted out an answer. Peter declared, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” His response echoed from the cave of Pan, off the limestone walls of Baal, and off the marble in the shrine to Caesar.

Do you think Simon Peter knew what he was saying? I am not sure. His answer is right, of course. This simple declaration became a turning point in the life of Jesus and the disciples. Keep in mind that at this time Peter knew nothing about the arrest to come, nothing about the trial in the kangaroo court of the Sanhedrin, nothing about the crown of thorns, the flogging, or the mocking. Peter knew nothing about the crucifixion or the resurrection. Just based on what Simon Peter had witnessed – the teachings, the healings, the miracles – he affirmed, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Peter did not have the advantage of an instant replay perspective. He did not know what was coming. His affirmation of faith that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, came based only on what he had seen up to this point. We, however, already know how the story will end. I watched very little of the basketball game between Kentucky and Wisconsin last night, but I did see the instant replay of that last remarkable shot. Instant replays are wonderful because they allow us to experience an event two or three times.

At this same time Jesus changed Peter’s name, telling him, “You are Petra, the rock. Upon this rock I will build my church.” Let me offer my perspective of his comment. Is Jesus saying that he is going to build the church on Peter? No. He told Peter, “You are Petra, the rock,” then pointed back to himself and said, “But upon this rock, I will build my church.” Jesus Christ is the cornerstone, not Peter. Jesus Christ is the Lord, not Peter. Jesus Christ is the church’s one foundation, not Peter. Jesus builds the church on himself.

Notice Jesus’ use of the personal pronoun “my” in front of the word church. “Upon this rock I will build my church.” As far as I can determine this is the only time in the entire Bible where the personal pronoun “my” is used with church.

People will ask me, “How are things going at your church?”

More often than not, I answer, “This church is not mine. This church belongs to the Lord Jesus Christ.” We like to think of Morningside as our church, but we must never forget that the church belongs to Christ.

Peter did write about Christ, using us as living stones in one of his letters: “…you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (I Peter 2:5).

Following this pivotal point the disciples must have thought, I guess we finally got it figured out now. We know who Jesus is. This is just mid-term. The disciples have much more to learn.

Why would Jesus now direct his disciples not to tell anybody? It is possible that he was saying to them, “Look, you do not have it figured out. You are not ready to tell people about this because you do not fully understand.” At this turning point, he, himself, was heading now to a deadly confrontation with the empire and with the temple. Jesus revealed to them, “The Son of Man must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things. He must be killed and on the third day raised to life.”

Their reaction suggests that this information was brand new, that they had never before heard it. Peter, the disciple who had just said, “You are the Christ, Son of the living God,” now had the audacity to rebuke him, remarking, “Lord, I will never allow that to happen.”

Jesus, in turn, rebuked him, “Satan, get behind me.”

Jesus gave the disciples additional information, telling them that they, too, must go to Jerusalem. Life would not be easy for them either. He did not say, “Come on, folks. This is going to be real easy.” Instead, he revealed, “If you are coming with me, you must deny yourself. You must take up your cross also, whatever form that takes. This is no cheap grace. This grace is very costly, very expensive. It is offered freely, but it involves a commitment that is different for everyone. You have to be willing to take it.”

I must give some credit to Thomas, who according to John’s Gospel, said, “Let’s go to Jerusalem and die with him.” What a courageous statement of faith from a man best known as a doubter!

The Gospel now turns its attention to the end of the earthly ministry of Jesus. Events move more rapidly now. If you look at the material in the Gospels you will see that almost half of the accounts are dedicated to the first two-and-a-half years of Jesus’ ministry. Now the second half is dedicated to the very end of his earthly ministry with particular emphasis on that last week; the question Jesus had asked – “Who do you say that I am?” – still hangs in the air.

Each disciple – Peter, John, James, Andrew, Thomas, and even Judas – must answer for himself. Pilate, Herod, Caiaphas the high priest, the centurion at the foot of the cross, Barnabas, and all the women – Mary Magdalene and even his own mother – must answer the question for themselves. The two thieves who die with him – one on each side – must answer the question, “Who do you say that I am?”

Dag Hammarskjold, Secretary General of the United Nations, was a Swedish Christian who loved to backpack and hike. On the Appalachian Trail signposts along the trail are known as white blazes. Hammarskjold gave the Swedish equivalent name, “markings,” to his journal. At a key moment in his life Hammarskjold wrote,

I don’t know Who, or what, put the question, I don’t know when it was put. I don’t even remember answering. But at some moment I answered Yes to Someone, or Something, and from that hour I was certain that existence was meaningful and that, therefore, my life, in self-surrender, had a goal.

Saying yes to Jesus is not without cost. We must deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him. “Must Jesus bear the cross alone and all the world go free? No, there is a cross for everyone, and there is a cross for me.”

The disciples must all answer, and so must we. I ask you, in the name of Jesus, who do you say that Jesus is? Is he your Savior? Is he your Lord? Is Jesus the Christ, Son of the living God? Many of you have already answered yes. Some of you still have a decision to make. We invite you to make that decision.

Kirk H. Neely
© April 2014



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