I recently attended a church conference were our bible lecturer was Rev. Dr. Bret Younger’s who gave an outstanding presentation on Mark. One of his many illustrations was inspired by a question Jesus asks his disciples in Mark 8. I’ve been saving this question for the right time in our summer sermon series Questioning Jesus. But after hearing Dr. Younger’s story, I believe now is the time.
Read Mark 8:27-33
Jesus and his companions are walking through Caesarea Philippi, a lush and vibrant community about 25 miles north of the Sea of Galilee. The villages were built around a massive rock spring whose waters irrigated the land, and fed into the beginning of the Jordan River.
In the hustle and bustle of village life, Jesus was curious what people are saying about him. I wonder if he was questioning the impact his ministry was having. Was his message was resonating with the people? Were they identifying and sympathizing with his talking points? Maybe he was worried about his poll numbers.
I’m also curious how the subject came up in conversation? Did they see shrines to the Greek god Pan (who was from this area) or an image of Augustus Caesar, who brazenly called himself the Son of God? Did someone mumble something under his breath as they walked by? Or did one of the twelve make an off the cuff comment that sparked Jesus to ask them, “who do those people say that I am?”
This is a legitimate question. Jesus had become a well-known figure. His Insta followers are through the roof. And Twitter blows up whenever he posts where he’s going to be showing up next. Jesus was the first social influencer. This begs the question, who did the crowds think they were going to go see? It’s not 100% clear. Some thought he was John the Baptist, others thought one the great prophets from their past.
Following Dr. Younger’s method, I decided to put myself into this story, which is recorded in all four gospels. I picture the landscape, the weather, the sounds and smells, and what Jesus’ voice sounds like when he asks me “Who do your Facebook friends say that I am?”
Do I tell him that some say he’s a great teacher? Or that others believe he is a wise and deeply religious man, like Moses or Buddha? Do I let him know that some of my friends know his name… but only as an exclamation point. I imagine Jesus already knows these things. And that’s why, in my version of the story, Jesus turns the question to me. “But Ian, who do you say that I am?”
Answering this question is the main objective of the Christian Church. And our individual answer is absolutely paramount to sharing God’s redemptive plan throughout the world. I have to really think about this before I speak. We don’t know how the other disciples answered. We only have Peter’s confession, “You are the Christ.” And that is enough. His four simple words would become the very foundation of Christian faith – impacting and transforming the heart of all that is seen and unseen.
The Christ has deep, historical roots in Judaism. And even if Peter didn’t fully realize what he was saying, he believes in his heart that Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s redemptive glory, the promised One who invites us to dwell in God’s eternal kingdom. For two millennia the Church has stood solidly upon this divine affirmation: that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, our Lord and King of all salvation. Today, we affirm this by bearing witness to its truth.
Which takes me to the story Dr. Younger told. It’s about a minister who, after 40 years at the pulpit, decided to retire. For his last sermon, he didn’t talk about Jesus in the doctrinal sense but chose instead to tell his congregation what Jesus meant to him personally. It was a powerful sermon that had left many people crying. And one person very upset. Betty Durant was often quiet, but on this particular Sunday she had no problem giving that old pastor a piece of her mind – letting him know how disappointed she was that he waited so long to share his real love for Jesus.
This got me thinking, maybe I shouldn’t wait so long to answer Jesus’ question. “But who do you say that I am?”
Jesus, You are my oldest and dearest friend. The one I can always count on. We’ve laughed our butts off and cried our eyes out. We’ve wasted days wandering aimlessly in strange places, and spent many a nights under the stars pondering existential questions. You hold all my secrets and know me better than anyone. You don’t judge me when I make mistakes because you know my heart’s in the right place even when my selfish desires aren’t.
No matter how badly I wrong you, you’ve never abandoned or betrayed our friendship. You’re quick to forgive and you forget even quicker. You accept me for who I am, and you love me unconditionally because that’s what friends do. Best of all, you’re never too busy to play with me.
As a friend, Jesus represents God’s steadfast love, and all the joys such love is able to manifest in the world.
But Jesus, you’re also my coach. You push me to be my very best self, even when it means I have to run a little further than I want to, jump a little higher than I can, or do spiritual burpees that make me want to avoid seeing you. You encourage me to never give up. You taught me how to live a godly life by exemplifying that life for me to emulate. When I walk with you, I learn how to live well, love better, and nurture my relationships in more meaningful ways.
As a coach, Jesus represents God’s challenge for us all. He pushes us to be our best, and transforms us in such a way that others are able to see God’s will and learn to do the same.
But more than my friend and coach, you Jesus are my hope. With you I know that no matter how difficult today is, tomorrow will be better. You know what it’s like to be abandoned, hungry, tired, betrayed, frustrated, disappointed, rejected, and angry. And yet you remained true to who God called you to be. The Christ! You are my hope, my assurance that God’s love is stronger than my sin. Because of what you did for me on the cross, I too will see the kingdom of God in all its glory.
Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promise to all creation. He befriends us and pushes us to be our best so that we can see the divine promise, the splendor of God’s love arrive in full-force.
Jesus walks with us, looks out for us, helps us, forgives us and makes everything worthwhile. He holds our hand, and never lets go. He is always there, and never leaves us alone. He loves us, no matter what.
This is the good news we are called to proclaim to the ends of the earth. That God’s love has been fulfilled in Jesus the Christ. But do we? Do we proclaim this truth in our homes, workplaces, or social groups? When was the last time you told someone what Jesus means to you, and what your personal life has been like with him at the wheel?
I fear we’ve become complacent - relying on someone else’s confession of Christ to speak for us. It’s like describing American history by telling someone about the movie Forrest Gump. We don’t need to be afraid to testify to God’s glory, and to do so by acting on God’s behalf – sharing God’s love with those in our neighborhoods, workplaces, and social communities. In fact, if we dare to call ourselves Christians then must be willing to bear witness to Christ’s name in all that we do…big and small.
Why is this important? Just look at your Facebook feeds, or your news feeds, or the world around you as you drive through your town and cities. There is a darkness on our hearts that’s crying out for light. Real people in real pain, in need of spiritual healing and peace.
Just as the world needs the Christ to come to its rescue and healing…so too does the Christ need us to be the conduit by which God’s love and healing is administered. By our words and deeds, we become both individual testifiers within a community, and a community that testifies to the life-giving, transformative gospel of God’s love and grace made manifest in the world through Jesus Christ…my friend, my coach and my hope. Jesus will lead anyone who desires to follow him through the darkest days and down the narrowest of paths…to the joy of eternal salvation.
So as you leave here today, I hope that you will take the time to answer Jesus’ question – to honestly think about how Jesus has transformed the way you live...because you know his truth. As you work through this, remember that it’s not about getting the doctrine right, but about knowing the true story that God has written on your individual heart.
That Jesus is King of kings. Lord of lords. The One who gave up his life so that you could live, abundantly and freely. Now and forever, Amen.
Bartlett, David L., Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 3. Louisville:Westminster John Knox Press (2011), pp. 380-85.
When Sean was a little boy, he always had to have the lights on. The brighter the better. I swear his nightlight was bright enough to land a plane. It was so bright that one day a team from NASA came to investigate the strange illumination that they were seeing from space. I used to think Sean needed that much light because he was afraid of the dark. But it turned out he just couldn’t see. He was in dire need of glasses. Turning on every light in the house helped him navigate his blurry world more clearly.
To Jesus’ point, what good is a lamp if it’s not plugged in and turned on? Even people with perfect vision struggle to get around in the dark?
Now there are basically three kinds of light: natural, artificial, and spiritual.
Natural light is the physical source of all life. It was the first thing God did to interrupt the chaos of darkness. This light is essential to our existence. For example, the sheer miracle of photosynthesis is important to the plant which can take sunlight and turn it into a form of energy we can use, either directly by eating plants, or indirectly by eating something else that eats those plants.
Natural light has the ability to penetrate the ground to give life to dead seeds. And it can bend and bounce across the universe to illuminate our side of the world long after we’ve turned away from the sun’s sight.
Then there’s artificial light, like lightbulbs or candles. Until someone or something turns it on or lights its wick, they are not very useful. But when they are on, the to can be life giving and life saving.
A flashlight can help us see our way out of a dark cave or through a dense forest at night. The beacon of a lighthouse can warn boats of impending dangers and lead ships safely to shore. And as Sean knows…a basic bright lightbulb can help us navigate words in a book, and expose dangers that might be hidden in the dark.
Artificial light can change the way we see things. Take for example black light, which, when turned on, not only makes colors literally glow in the dark, but its ultraviolet rays expose stuff we would have never known were there. Like dandruff and lint on a shirt, or stains on your teeth. Police use these lights in crime scenes. And doctors use them to heal acne, kill fungus, and detect melanomas. But these things can only be done when the light is turned on.
And then there is the spiritual light within us. Some might flicker brighter than others, but we all possess it. This light helps us see and understands the difference between good and bad, the metaphorical bright and dark side of our inner being. Spiritual light illuminates the positive when we’re stuck in the dark place of negativity, depression, fear, anxiety and grief. Such light radiates peace and hope when it seems all hope is lost.
In the Bible Jesus is called the light, and “in him there is no darkness at all.” John says, “If we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another…whoever says I abide in him, ought to walk just as he walked.” So as followers of his way, we are called to shine God’s love in the darkest of places.
Just as it was in the beginning, the light of Christ interrupts the chaos of darkness, and darkness cannot over power it. When we walk in the light of Christ, we are able to see the glory of God shine all around us, even in those dark and cavernous places we sometimes stumble into. But what good is that light, Jesus asks, if it’s hidden or not turned on? ‘Elucean omnibus lux’— ‘Let the light shine out from all.’
The light of Christ is essential to our physical, mental, and spiritual wellbeing – it helps us see who we really are and what we are called to do.
With his rhetorical question, Jesus compares us to a lamp whose sole purpose is to illuminate the room. Jesus knew the typical household couldn’t afford to keep more than one or two lamps burning. So its position in the room was key to its effectiveness – you’d want it in the middle of the table or on the mantel. Not hide it under a basket or bowl.
In this parable Jesus reminds us that if the smallest of lamps can illuminate a room, then the light of a small or struggling disciple is enough for God to brighten up someone’s life – as long as it’s not covered up, or tucked away. “We are not hiding things, but bringing them out into the open.”
We are the light of the world. Made in the image of the one who first made light appear with such a big bang that it forever changed the darkness. As Danny Gokey sings, “We were made to shine.” And when we shine like Christ all peoples and all nations can know of God’s grace and be transformed.
In Sunday school I used to sing, “This little light of mine…I’m gonna let it shine.” But then I grew up and put that light away with the rest of my childhood. As I entered into the world on my own, I clothed and covered my faith with things that would help me blend in – instead of shine. And I was often left feeling lost and afraid. This is why the world needs our light. They need to see that our faith is real and authentic, and they need us to shine so they can be found and filled with God’s love…the hope and glory of God’s light.
Like I said last week, Jesus isn’t asking you to be perfect. Just to be faithful to what God is calling you to do: shine with acts of love, mercy and justice.
Because Jesus is the light of the world, we are able to see what he does and know that we can do the same. Like him, we too can illuminate the darkness for others to see God‘s glory… radiating in all things. Jesus does not tell us to go start a fire, or to burn bigger and brighter than others. He’s simply telling us to remove those things in our life that hide our light so we can shine.
So I ask you this question: What are the baskets in your life?
Fear, anxiety, shame, guilt? Could it be pettiness, jealousy, gossip? Are you holding onto some past resentment? Or maybe it’s anger, stubbornness, or pride? These aren’t qualities that radiate the light of Christ in you. They only obscure it. Thus Eugene Peterson stated in his Message translation, “Giving, not getting, is the way. Generosity begets generosity.”
Martin Luther King so famously preached, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” I received these words when I graduated from seminary. And in the same spirit I offer them to you, whether you’re graduating or simply struggling to live your best self.
Your light, your love, your peace – as small or dim as it might seem to be – can overcome all the darkness of the world. Through Christ, God’s light is present and hard at work in you. So shine until the world is beaming and radiating the fullness of God’s glory.
Throw off those bushels and baskets, pull your lamps out from under the bed and plug them in. Light up the world so it can be seen from space. And illuminate with such intense brightness that there will be no more need for sun or moon.
Stand in the spotlight of God’s steadfast and never ending love…and let your goodness be seen until heaven and earth become one again. Amen.
Let us pray: Lord God, creator of light and love, you sent us your son to illuminate our hearts and minds so we could see and glorify your name. Empower this church, and all her people, with your Holy Spirit, just as you did on that first day of Pentecost…so that we might light up the world and expose your grace and mercy in the darkest of places. We ask this in the name of the One whose light forever shines, Amen.
Bartlett, David L. and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol 1. [Westminster John Knox: 2010] p. 332-337.
Jeffers-Schori, Katherine. Shine As The Light Of The World For God’s Glory. [episcopalchurch.org : Dec. 16, 2008] (Accessed on June 6, 2019.)
So there we were, the two of us standing on a tiny platform facing our fear of heights and discerning our willingness to trust a piece of rope no thicker than a clothesline. On the ground her boyfriend made all sorts of promises to coax her and calm her fears. I did my best to help this frightened stranger, but next to pushing her off…I had nothing. Fear had gotten the best of her. And me.
Long story short, she eventually closed her eyes and jumped. She floated gently into her boyfriend’s awaiting arms where she began to sob. It was a beautiful and heartwarming reunion. But here’s the kicker, I was next. And there were no arms waiting for me down there. Instead of gentle coaxing, I had my kids yelling at me to keep moving. I won’t tell you all the mean things they said, or how long I sat there, but I too eventually took that great leap.Just before my feet touched the ground, a great surge of life welled up in me. Which was just what I needed to take on the next set of challenges.
Such is the world of faith. It can either scare you, or fill you with life.
As we continue our sermon series Questioning Jesus, today’s readings give us two perspectives of one story. And in both, Jesus seems to ask the same question two different ways. The first comes from Luke 8:22-25. The second is from Matthew 14:26-33.
Of all the questions Jesus asks, these two, “Where is your faith?” And “Why do you doubt” have had the greatest impact on my life. Because I have lacked faith, and held on to doubt. Instead of debating the subtle differences of the two stories and the two questions…I want to look at the bigger picture and how Jesus’ words might navigate your spiritual journey.
In both stories, the disciples are put into a boat, and pushed out to sea. Once out there they find themselves trapped in a violent storm where Jesus comes to the rescue. Now it’s worth noting that the Hebrew word for water is mayim, which comes from the root word meaning ‘chaos.’
This begs the question, why would Jesus push his disciples out into the chaos? Was it to test their faith? Or to flex on them? Maybe it was to simply remind them that their mission isn’t always going to be smooth sailing?
Wherever you are in your spiritual journey, doubt and faith will inevitably cross paths. Like high pressure and low pressures clashing over the Midwest, when faith and doubt collide, a spiritual storm will brew.
Yet, in both stories, Jesus overpowers the chaos. Therefore our faith, first and foremost, needs to be with him. The one who has been given all authority to calm the storms we face. He helps us overcome our doubts to find our true self in God’s love.
The Hebrew word for faith is emunah, a verb that literally means, “to take firm action.” This is important to remember because Jesus is pushing us out into the chaos to continue his mission, which will require doing things that might seem impossible. To do this, we need to know exactly where our faith is. Is it shivering in the boat - afraid with the disciples? Or is it leaping boldly off the platform into the wild, raging waters?
Peter learned the hard way that God wasn’t testing his faith but pushing it to places where he would didn’t necessarily want to go – like to a rickety platform in the middle of the woods where he would have to face his fears, and trust that when he jumped God was jumping with him.
Still, it shouldn’t surprise us that Peter hesitates and even doubts. It’s a natural response. He even questions Jesus, and that’s ok for us to do too. But when Peter is invited to join Jesus in the chaos, he goes for it. And as a result, he does the impossible. Faith can scare you, or it can transform and empower you.
We all face that moment in life where we find ourselves on the edge. Some of us will jump fearlessly. But most of us will jump reluctantly, and with great doubt. As Peter demonstrated, both ways can lead us into a deeper relationship with God – strengthening our faith in the process.
In their doubt and fear, the disciples were able to see who Jesus truly is. Sometimes it takes a massive storm to see and understand how Jesus calms our fear and the chaos around us. Each time we see who Jesus is and what Jesus can do in our lives, our faith begins to build muscle memory. And God knows we will need that muscle if we are going to live like Christ in the world.
Peter is quick to flex his faith. And despite his inability to do it right…still remained faithful. It’s often implied that Peter took his eye off Jesus and that’s why he failed. But the way I see it, Peter kept his eye on Jesus the whole time.
When the wind slapped him in the face, and raging waters began to knock him down, Peter’s first response isn’t fear, but faith. He instinctively cried out, “Lord save me.” And immediately Jesus is there. Peter knew who Jesus was, and his natural response was to rely on him. This is what we always need to remember. Faith can scare you, but it always saves you.
Jesus isn’t calling us into perfection. He’s just asking for our faithfulness. Like Peter showed us, the more we practice our faith, by stepping out on that ledge of life, the more our faith becomes instinctive – our go to response. God isn’t testing us, but conditioning and strengthening us so we always know who is saving us. And that is Jesus the Christ.
So the key to doubt and faith is to follow Peter’s example. As Ernest Campbell taught, “We must be willing to step out of the security of the boat and head into the troubled waters of the world to proclaim the love, mercy, and justice of God that we find in Jesus Christ.”
To his point, the world doesn’t need any more nominal Christians splashing around in the safe and shallow waters where we miss the opportunities to strengthen our spiritual muscle. What the world needs is more stumbling and bumbling disciples like Peter who saw what Jesus did and did it himself.
By taking this brave first step, we can move from having weak faith to possessing the kind of spiritual strength that Jesus says can move mountains, heal the sick, cast out demons, forgive sins, and to love those who hate us.
By watching and doing what Jesus does, we can calm the storms of life and teach others to live with us in peace. So do not worry if your faith scares you or trips you up from time-to-time. Do not give up. Weather the storm. Keep moving building your spiritual strength. Keep doing the hard work of the Kingdom and bear the good fruit of your faithfulness. Don’t be afraid to call out to Jesus, to be saved and rescued from the chaos you are in. If you do, you too will discover the impossible is, in fact, very much possible. Amen.
Bartlett, David, and ed. Barbara Brown Taylor. Feasting On The Word; Year A, vol. 3. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009.
has been blogging under the name: Jesus not Jesús: Looking for Christ in the face of strangers. You can read his posts and browse his archives by clicking here.
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