The big Reveal!

Preached on: Sunday 10th April 2022
The sermon text is given below or can be download by clicking on the “PDF” button above. There is no PowerPoint PDF accompanying this sermon.
Bible references: John 12:12-19 (and John 1:1-14 & 20:30-31)
Location: Brightons Parish Church

Sermon keypoints:
• The triumphal entry into Jerusalem was a ‘hinge’ moment in John’s account of the life of Jesus.
• Chapters 1-11 of John’s Gospel provide ‘signs’ of the Christ’s rescue plan – but Palm Sunday is the beginning of the big reveal as Jesus ‘goes public’. Chapters 12-21 show Jesus in control and navigating every step of his journey to the Cross.
• John, as an eye witness, reveals Jesus as God who by ‘dwelling with us’ revealed himself and the father by demonstrating that he is the way, the truth and the light.
• The shouts of Hosanna ( save us ) from the Passover crowds began a week of Easter bedlam, the unexpected significance of which only became clear after Jesus’ resurrection.

Thank-you Jason.

Lord God, I pray that the word that we now hear from Your word would go deep into our hearts, that You would speak to us and that your Holy Spirit would lead anything that the speaker says, that’s not of You, send it away like chaff, but anything that’s true, make it hit our hearts like an arrow. Amen.

Last time I was up here it was the second of January and I can remember saying or telling you a little bit about my Sunday School experience. Not sure that that qualifies me to be up here but I was, I’ve been a regular Sunday School teacher for, I don’t know, it was about 25 years and I loved it. It helped me learn the Bible because I prepared and I knew I would get all sorts of interesting questions and interesting feedback from the boys and girls that were there. I’ll never forget Jack McManus. I’m sitting and I’m telling some story from the Bible and he turns to his neighbor and he says ‘He talks funny.” Yep, Jack was absolutely right. And then there was the unnamed member of a Sunday School class I was in and this kid was very, very quick on the uptake, you only need to tell him something once. And we were telling a story and he started making a noise like a frog ‘Heard it. Heard it. Heard it. Read it. Read it.’ Didn’t matter what the story was, this kid knew the story.

Don’t let me put you off. If you want to join Sunday School teaching, it is fantastic. I genuinely mean that, I genuinely mean that. It’s the best thing I think I’ve ever done on my Christian walk/ But, why am I telling you Sunday school stories? Well, it’s because I think today’s message falls into that category, of one of those familiar stories that we’ve heard time and time and time again, and what it means is that we can turn our minds off, we can stop, we can stop thinking about it and it’s a real trap for me. It’s when someone preaches on the Good Samaritan, because I think I’ve heard it hundreds of times and I’ve got to take my brain and really switch on. So, I want to challenge you today, as we look at the story of Palm Sunday – I keep calling it Psalm Sunday – Palm Sunday, not to turn your mind off but to really engage with the story. If you’ve heard it hundreds and hundreds of times, hear it like it’s fresh, and if you have heard it, if this is the first time, then strap yourself in and enjoy it.

We’ve read the story or we heard this story – I’m using the word story, I mean a report by John from John chapter 12 – and we know it must be an important account because it comes up in all four of the gospels, Jesus triumphant entry into Jerusalem. All four gospels. Now remember, not all four gospels actually recount the birth of Jesus, so this must be significant. The other thing is that, in the Christian tradition, over the course of 2000 years, Palm Sunday is a big deal. Roman Catholics celebrate it big time, Eastern Orthodox Christians celebrate it big time, and Protestants celebrate it as well, and I was going to put some screenshots up of some of the ways in which people celebrate it particularly in the South Pacific but I thought it would be really quite distracting. The other thing is songwriters go to town on it. I could have picked any number of hymns today about Palm Sunday and it’s just a big, big theme. But, why? Why is it a big deal?

Let’s set the scene:
Last week Scott was preaching from John chapter 11 and he gave us the account of Lazarus being risen from the dead, and he shared with us the deep symbolism, the deep signs of the future of Jesus that were being played out on through the resurrection of Lazarus but also, at a very practical level, you have to say it caused a bit of a stooshie. You don’t see people coming back from the dead very often. It was the talk of Judea and the back story from what Scott was sharing and from today’s story was that, after it happened, Jesus and his disciples, they had to leave the town, they had to go into the desert region because it had caused such a commotion. They brought a dead man back to life and, of course, the Pharisees, the church leaders of the day, were concerned about it. They created a meeting of the Sanhedrin and so we start chapter 12 with Jesus coming back from the desert and going back into Bethany and it says that there’s a large crowd spot him. We read if we look at chapter 12 in verse 19 and verse 9 it says ‘Meanwhile a large crowd of Jews found out that Jesus was there and they came not only because of him but also to see Lazarus who he had raised from the dead. So, the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well for, on account of him, many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and putting their faith in him.’

So, there’s something happening here, without doubt. Jesus is going public because, up until this point yes, Jesus had a public ministry, but it was quite low profile but then, suddenly, things start to get stirred up and it’s the start of the Passover festival with Jews coming into Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. Josephus tells us, and I don’t know how he could have come up with that figure but Josephus, the church that the Jewish historian at the time said that during Passover Jerusalem swelled by maybe two million people. But also remember, that at that time, Judea was like a vassal state, it was like Belarus or maybe like Hong Kong, it was kind of under its own control but not really, because the Romans still utterly dominated and the Romans had the local officials and the local leaders in their pocket. It was corrupt and the time of the Passover was when real rebellion started to swell and people were looking for this, looking for other options, they were looking to be free, there was a sense of stirring all over the place, if you like. Jerusalem was a hotbed and we know that that’s a fact because before the time of Jesus there’d been revolutions and soon after the time of Jesus there’d been such a desperate revolution that Jerusalem was destroyed and the temple was destroyed. So, it’s some picture but right in the middle of this picture, of this jumble of Passover in Jerusalem comes Jesus and he’s riding on a colt, a young donkey. We get that from the other gospels that the young colt has its mother beside it and that’s significant because this wasn’t some little toy horse, this was an unredeemed male donkey, full of massive symbolism to the Jews and here was Jesus taking on a deliberate challenge because He was taking on the symbol of kingship and riding into and towards Jerusalem.

Jesus was being provocative really, in a very public way because, at this time in Judea, you didn’t rock the boat, you stayed on board with the Romans, you were in bed with the Romans. Remember, for example, Herod and his cronies. Herod that the moment that there was a suggestion of adultery he had the head of John the Baptist. But here was Jesus rabble-rousing, Jesus was being incendiary.

Now I want you to pause and think about that picture because, so often the picture we have of Jesus is kind of that stained glass Jesus, meek and mild, touching the heads of little children and well, this is this is quite a different looking Jesus altogether. He’s working up the crowds again, if we look at the passage, if we look at verse 12 ‘A great crowd had come to the feast and they took Palm branches and they went out to meet him shouting ‘Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the king of Israel.’ Jesus found a young donkey and he sat upon it, as it was written:
‘Do not be afraid oh Daughter of Zion, see your king is coming seated on a donkey’s colt.’’ Now, the Romans might not get it, but the Jews, who knew their Bible, did and they knew the symbolism of a man on a donkey processing.

He was coming in as a future king. He was coming in as a liberator. He knew exactly what he was doing. It wasn’t as if he’d got tired legs and decided that he would just find a donkey to save the walk. This comes straight from the passages of Psalms. Psalm 118 ‘Hosanna, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the king of Israel.’ And the crowds were getting it. The crowd knew that something was happening, that there was something about this being the promised leader and just imagine the sense of rebellion that’s brewing at the time amongst the language of the of the festival of the Passover. Here comes a revolutionary, here comes a man to save us. This is looking like a coup. This is looking like a revolution, a power grab.

Now, is that the Jesus that we’ve come to read about and think about over many years? Is that the kind of Jesus that we teach to our kids in Sunday School?

This man looks like he is on a power grab.

What’s going to happen?

Here’s a nobody, a man from up north in Galilee, he had a career as a carpenter, he then becomes some sort of traveling teacher, preacher and now, here he is, crossing swords with the authorities in Jerusalem. A complete upstart. So, if you were looking at this story, if you’re in the story and thinking it was a novel or a picture, what’s going to happen? I suggest it can only go one of two ways. Somehow this is the start of an uprising and Jesus is going to take over Jerusalem, he’s going to seize power and he’s going to take on the Romans now. It’s not as fanciful as it sounds. People genuinely had that notion at the time and Jesus was literally going to become King of the Jews. Now, in a week’s time we know that that phrase King of the Jews is used in a very different way. Put yourself in the story. You see, it’s not so outlandish. Muhammad the founder of the Muslim faith certainly operated that way. Muhammad carried a sword and he used it.

So, that’s one thing that might happen. What else can happen?

Well, it’s pretty obvious the authorities are going to deal to Him, they’re going to get Him and we see that theme coming through that the Pharisees were already plotting to kill Jesus, indeed, they were now plotting to kill Lazarus as well because that would have been quite a convenient mop-up. And if they don’t catch Him, well, he’ll sleek away back into the desert again with his disciples and that’ll be the end of that. All a very unfortunate mistake.

But look at verse 16. Even his disciples don’t know what’s going on. ‘At first his disciples did not understand all this only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him and that they had been and that they had done these things to him.’

And that’s where I want you to capture the story, capture the significance of what John is doing here. You see, this is a critical moment, it’s a critical moment in the life of Jesus because it’s His big reveal.

I’m calling it a hinge moment. Heather knows I’ve been speaking spending all week trying to find a hinge that I could show you, that just didn’t work but what I’m meaning is it’s a hinge moment in a story that John wrote down. You see, for 11 chapters from John through chapter 1 to 11, he’s telling the story of Jesus and he’s telling the signs but then, at this moment of the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, it’s a hinge because from this point on, from chapter 12 to the end, we’re getting to see the real story, the real revelation of why Jesus came and that’s why, that’s why I had for read for us the very beginning of John’s gospel, that’s why I put the images up of the of the of the papyrus that John wrote his whole book to demonstrate who Jesus was and this is a hinge point in it.

Let’s go back to John 1. I’m going to read those five verses again, they’re very, very famous verses but I want you to get it and I want you to listen again as if it’s for the first time. So don’t, in your mind, go ‘Heard it. Heard it. Heard it.’ Listen to it for the first time. In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. Hhe was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. That light shines in the darkness but the darkness has not understood it.’ That is John’s story. That’s why he wrote it down.

But, but I think it sounds preposterous. Jesus Christ is God. He came to earth as a human being. It’s preposterous!

Now, you may have been coming to church all your days, I teased John, I know he’s been coming to church all his days but you may have been coming to church all your days and this has kind of just washed over you over time. It’s a strange and bizarre statement that a human being came to earth and he was God. That is the Easter story, that is the Christmas story and John wrote this for a reason and I’m sorry but I think it sounds strange. He is God.

But it goes further. John chapter 1 verse 10 ‘He was in the world and though the world was made through him the world did not recognize him.’ Verse 14 ‘The word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.’ Jason prayed that we might hear the truth. Jesus is the truth. But it’s a really big claim and it’s a claim that our modern world thinks it’s kind of grown out of.

If Fergal Keane or Clive Myrie presented the news tonight and said that there’s a guy in, there’s a guy who’s coming to Jerusalem and he’s claiming to be the king of the Jews, he’s claiming to be the Son of God, well, I kind of know what your reaction would be because I kind of know what my reaction would be to that sort of news report. But that is the claim, that is the claim that John made and he was an eyewitness. Again, that was the point of me putting up the papyrus, he was there and we can trust the evidence of eyewitnesses. But getting back to what Scott’s been preaching to us for the last four or five weeks from chapter 1 through 11, there’s been signs all the way through John’s message of the Messiah but now that subtle sign is stopping and he’s actually here in Jerusalem Bang! presenting Himself as the king.

The only thing is, a week later or five days later, they’re marching Him to the cross and the accolades of the crowds and the Hosanna-business is all behind Him and He’s being put to put to death, put to death, and then the strange story that on the Sunday he rises again.

Now please, I totally get it, I totally get that you may think ‘Look I can’t accept this. It’s an absurd story. It’s made up.’ Maybe that’s you. Maybe at best you’re sitting here today and you’re a skeptic or maybe you’re thinking ‘You know what, I’ve never given it any thought. I’ve never given it any thought. I’ve lived a good life. I’ve always thought of myself as a Christian. I grew up with all these stories, they’re nice stories and well, I’ve just gone along with them.’ I don’t know, maybe you’re different from that all together and you’re just, you’re just a person who said ‘I’m not, it’s not hard for me. I just accept it. I just believe.’ Or maybe you’re just not clear. maybe you still just puzzling it through. If that’s you, then good on you, keep puzzling, keep puzzling. You see, wherever you are on the spectrum of belief, you’ve got to make something of this account, of this guy coming into Jerusalem on a donkey which was deeply, deeply wrong, symbolically wrong, to be riding on an unredeemed young male colt, deeply wrong and yet, the crowds are going crazy and singing ‘Hosanna! Hosanna!’ because they see in the context of the of the Passover Festival that the Messiah is coming, and then a week later it’s all gone. You’ve got to make something of it. You’ve got to, even if it’s like I’m ignoring it.

The disciples didn’t know either and I think that’s quite interesting. Remember we get to know the end story because we can jump to the end of the story but, at the time, the disciples are clueless and I don’t mean that unkindly to the disciples, it’s not being revealed.

The young donkey, only Jesus knows what the donkey’s for. Only Jesus knows of the coming betrayal of Judas. Only Jesus knows that Peter will deny Him. Only Jesus knows the outcome of His trial before it happens. And only Jesus knows that He’s going to the cross. Because, through chapters 12 to 21, we’re seeing a story of bedlam, bedlam and I don’t, I don’t blame the disciples for being confused by it. Look at poor Thomas – he gets a hard time in the scriptures sometimes – I think he says ‘Well Jesus, we don’t know where you’re going, we don’t know what you’re doing, we don’t know the way,’ Jesus turns to in chapter 14 and then says, ‘I am the way. I am the truth. I am the life.’ This notion of truth has been thrown away in our society today. Nobody believes in truth. Jesus says ‘I am the truth.’ Again, it’s a big claim and you’ve got to have a reaction to it whether you believe it or reject it.

So, where does that leave us? Back to my Sunday School answer, have you ‘Heard it. Heard it. Heard it?’

I’m told that the intensive care nurse who looked after Boris Johnson when he was near death told him the story of the gospel. So I know the Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has heard the gospel and pray God he doesn’t say ‘Heard it. Heard it. I heard it.’

Why don’t you take a little time this week, find a Bible, find John’s gospel, there’s a few going free at the front of the church, and read it. Read it from chapter 12 to 21. See how far you can get. See what you make of it.

Those old bits of papyrus, copied from 2,000 years ago, and copied, and copied, and copied, and copied, and copied, and shared, there’s got to be something in it. Our Lord lets you reject it but He also gives you a very, very clear picture.

Jesus is God. See what you make of His death and resurrection as we move into Easter.

Let’s pray:

Lord, may Your word touch us. May Your gospel go deep down inside us, even if we’ve heard it before, and reveal Jesus, the Way, the Truth and the Life, Amen.

The way of the Cross: salty people

Preached on: Sunday 21st March 2021
The sermon text is given below or can be download by clicking on the “PDF” button above. Additionally, you can download the PowerPoint PDF by clicking here 21-03-21 Message PPT slides multi pages.
Bible references: Mark 9:30-50
Location: Brightons Parish Church

Let us take a moment to pray before we think about God’s Word.

Come Holy Spirit, reveal Jesus to us. Come Holy Spirit, lead us in the way of Jesus. Come, Holy Spirit, with power and deep conviction, for we ask it in Jesus’ name, Amen.

In a Facebook group for ministers, I was reminded this past week that over the last 20 years, the membership of the Church of Scotland has halved. Halved. We are…
in decline. This might not be new to you, but nevertheless it should make us all sit up and take stock, and maybe even ask some hard questions. Not necessarily to save our denomination, but because the figures show that Scottish Christians – and it’s true across the denominations – but Scottish Christians seem unsure how to live out their faith so as to bring lasting, positive change. We do a lot of things, but whether we do the right things and in the right way, is most definitely up for debate when all churches are seeing their numbers decline and our church experiencing 50% in 20 years.
Jesus said of His universal Church that ‘you are the salt of the earth’ (Matthew 5:13). We are to be a salty people. Now salt, across the centuries, had a variety of uses: to preserve that which was good; to fend off that which is bad, and so stave off decay taking root; and of course, we know that salt also changes flavour. In these three ways, the church is likewise to be salt: to bring out the good; to prevent decay; and change the “flavour” of our world for the better. If the church is declining, then the extent of our saltiness is questionable.
Our passage today also mentions salt, at the end, so let me begin there. Jesus said: ‘Everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? Have salt among yourselves, and be at peace with each other.’ (v49-50)

Three separate sayings about salt. Not necessarily connected to one another, but connected to the wider passage, and so they act as a summary to what came before. Jesus begins saying, ‘Everyone will be salted with fire.’ which probably means that the church will be salted, or purified, with persecution, with difficult times. We are a people, after all, who are called to the way of the cross, and if the way was hard for Jesus, it will be hard for us as well. We’ll come back to the other two sayings once we dig into the earlier verses.

The passage begins with Jesus talking, for a second time with all the disciples, about what is ahead: He is going to His death. He will be deliberately handed over by God ‘into the hands of men’ (v31). Again, this goes straight over the heads of His disciples, and maybe… because of what happened earlier with Peter they’re afraid to ask more. As a result, they get into an unhealthy, self-promoting discussion: “Who is the greatest amongst us? Who is going to rule with Jesus when He comes into power as the Messiah?” That’s the flavour of their conversation and when Jesus asks about it there’s a really awkward embarrassed silence because it’s completely unworthy of them as His disciples and completely contradictory to the way of the cross.

So, Jesus begins to teach and He takes a little child in His arms and says: ‘Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all…Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me…’ (v35-37)

Who is the greatest? It is the one who gives their life for others. It is seen in their care and service of others, and in particular to those members of society who are not valued. Because Jesus did not include this child as a model to be imitated; His culture had no romanticized notions about children. A child was not seen as especially obedient,… trusting, innocent, pure, or humble. The point here is that children were insignificant in those days. Children had no power, no status, few rights. Jesus is saying, if anyone wants to be great, they should give attention to those who are neglected and regarded as insignificant. We are to serve those who are forgotten, who are little esteemed, who are socially invisible, easily ignored, or who can be hurt and dominated without notice or protest.

What a contrast between the disciples’ motives and the life Jesus calls them to. This… is part of how they are to be the salt, and they cannot follow in the way of Jesus, the way of the cross, if they are putting personal ambition, personal interests, first.

I wonder friends, does the wider world see us more like the disciples, or more like Jesus? What do we prioritise? Is it our agenda and the things that make us feel secure? Or do we stand with the vulnerable, the invisible and those in need within our society?

As I have reflected on this passage, I’ve been drawn to recent news stories in relation to Sarah Everard. I think we are all aware of this tragic injustice and it rightly has touched a nerve within society. I was stopped in my tracks by what one woman said in a recent article: ‘[Women] moderate everything – our clothing, our drinking. We get taxis where maybe we can’t afford it. We hold keys between our fingers. We don’t wear headphones when we’re jogging. We stick to well-lit areas. It’s exhausting.’

In one particular tweet, women were asked if they had ever faked a phone call, changed route, or run in fear, after feeling threatened by men in public spaces, and this tweet was affirmed more than 120,000 times.

These experiences made me wonder about the male privilege that men, including myself, have in life, in that we don’t have to live the way women do, we never, never have to contemplate such realities, and so sadly we often right-off these issues, until it is too late.

So, if Jesus were here today, would he be calling His Church to do something about this? Jesus says, true greatness means caring for people, not just important people, or my people, or the people who look like me, or think the way I do or see things the way I see things.

Moreover, I have to ask, why is the church so far behind on this at times? Because I was struck by something the Prime Minister, of all people, said on Thursday last week, that ‘…there also needs to be “long-term cultural and societal change to deal with this issue”.’
Is this not a way for the church to be a salty again? Because it’s inherent in our calling from Jesus that we are to help shape and improve culture and wider society; we are to change the flavour, bringing out the good and reducing the decay. The question then, is whether we’ll do anything about it?

Or have we, the church, lost our saltiness? Have we lost the radical self-sacrifice and devotion to Jesus and His way? His way, after all, which was amongst the first to care for all and see all people as precious.
We are called to a salty way of life in how we care for others, but we are also called to show this saltiness in our unity with one another. The third saying of Jesus read: ‘Have salt among yourselves, and be at peace with each other.’ (v50) This is a reference to sharing salt, of having meals together in the context of fellowship and peace, because when you’re at peace with other people you share life. This neatly summarises the two portions of our earlier passage.

Firstly, Jesus rebukes the disciples for trying to stop someone using His name to help others. Their reason for doing this? simply that ‘he was not one of (them).’ (v38) The disciples were once again focused on being great, and they did not want to share their power because doing so would undermine their position and status. In contrast, Jesus tells them to live another way, to live in unity with all who call on the name of Jesus; it doesn’t matter if they’ve not been ‘one of us’ up until this point.

Their self-interest is so dangerous that Jesus goes on to give a very stark warning. At first it can seem a little extreme, but Jesus was not being literal, because the Old Testament forbade self-mutilation, so Jesus is using hyperbole to get His point across: that anything which undermines unity in the faith needs to be dealt with. Indeed, by referencing body parts, which are precious, God-given, good things, we might even say that Jesus is not only calling us to reject sinful ways – like self-interest – but also to reject anything that might be seen as good,…
and yet which still leads to disunity.

We are called to be a salty people, to have unity with one another, and be willing to give up ways – whether good or bad – so as to preserve that unity and bring out the flavour of God’s Kingdom amongst ourselves as well.

I can’t help but think about the Braes Hub in relation to these verses. What good things do we need to give up in order to bring greater unity? What power do we need to give away to bring us together? But like last week,…
that might seem quite far off, so let me raise something more immediate.

Of all the facets of church life that I get feedback on, it is Sunday worship which seems to produce the most friction. As such, I have said to the elders that beginning in May, they will be working with me to do something about this, so that when we do eventually come back here to ‘normal’ worship, we come back differently and maybe even to something different. Because Sunday worship should not be producing the degree of tension that it…
sometimes has. This work with the elders will take some time and we’ll update you when we can. But let’s be clear, it won’t depend on the elders, it will depend on all of us changing, and following the way of Jesus.

Brothers and sisters, we are called to be a salty people, people who follow in the way of the cross, and do so, in how we care for others and through our unity with one another. Jesus calls us to a new way of life, to turn the values of the world upon their head, such that in us and through us, the flavour of God’s kingdom is experienced here across the Braes.
I pray it may it be so. Amen.

The way of the Cross: step forward

Preached on: Sunday 14th March 2021
The sermon text is given below or can be download by clicking on the “PDF” button above. Additionally, you can download the PowerPoint PDF by clicking here21-03-14 Message PPT slides multi pages.
Bible references: Mark 8:27 – 9:1
Location: Brightons Parish Church

Let us take a moment to pray before we think about God’s word:

Come Holy Spirit, lead us in the way of Jesus.
Come Holy Spirit, reveal Jesus to us.
Come Holy Spirit, with power and deep conviction, for we ask it in Jesus name,
Amen.

When you were younger, did you ever play that relay race where you would take two steps forward and then one step back? I remember playing that in the Cub Scouts and it’s harder than you think. It’s not natural. It doesn’t come easy, and so when I was a Scout Leader and playing it with Beaver Scouts, who are younger than Cubs, they would struggle, often bending the rules because they just want to go forward.

I wonder if that’s a picture which could capture how you feel or have felt about your faith?

Maybe you were making progress, two steps forward, but then something came along and it forced you to take a step back, and in some cases you might even have taken several steps back.

We imagine the life of faith, don’t we, to be a constant, upward, positive journey – forward step after forward step – when the backward steps do come they take us by surprise and, because no one prepared us, and few of us are open enough about our faith, then we struggle and our faith becomes undermined, even in a detrimental way.

I think Peter would know some of that experience himself. Up to this point in the book of Mark, Peter has been watching and listening to Jesus and he, along with the other disciples, has been asking ‘Who is this?” “Who is this whom even the wind and the waves obey?” “Who is this who heals and teaches with such authority?”

As they journey with Jesus, they hear what others are saying. They hear the whispers, the rumors, the questions. They’ve maybe been asking them themselves and slowly, ever so slowly, the pieces start coming together, and Jesus discerns it’s the right time to ask a question or two.

“Who do people say I am?” The answer given is largely positive and makes sense but it’s not quite there yet, because the crowd hasn’t spent as much time with Jesus as the disciples have.

So, Jesus presses them further “Who do you say I am?” Peter answers “You are the Messiah, the Christ?” Well done Peter, two steps forward, you’ve figured it out!

So, now Jesus begins to teach them the true nature of what it means to be Messiah. He discerns that they are ready to hear this and the way he will go.

We read these words earlier, “Jesus then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed, and after three days rise. Again he spoke plainly about this and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.”

The Messiah must die. The way of Jesus is the way of the Cross, and so, Jesus is the Messiah who will give his life for others.

But this is too much for Peter, because Peter, as with all his contemporaries, expected the Messiah to be a king-like figure who would rid Israel of Roman occupation and bring Israel back to its glory days. So, how can Jesus speak of suffering? How can he speak of dying? If he dies he cannot be the true Messiah and so Peter rebukes Jesus. Peter seeks to impose his perspective, his agenda onto Jesus, because Peter’s concept of Jesus as Messiah is too narrow.

In the space of a few minutes Peter suddenly takes a backward step and, with the rebuke of Jesus, maybe he even takes a couple of steps back. What’s striking here is that it is Jesus who causes Peter to take those steps back. We might say, even, it is Jesus who undermines the faith of Peter. Yet Jesus does this so as to lead Peter to a higher and truer faith. There will come more steps forward but first Peter must step back so that Jesus can help Peter know the Messiah truly.

This has been the case for people across the centuries. Paul would one day say “Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.”

The secret of Jesus identity is not that he was the Messiah but what he came to do as the Messiah, and the way in which he would accomplish this. His way seemed weak, seemed foolish, to many, a backward step, an undermining of faith, but it is the way of Jesus.

Friends, have we recently experienced the backward step of faith ourselves? Maybe because of the pandemic. Where are you going? Maybe because of the changes coming for the Braes churches. Is this really what you want God?

Maybe it’s in a personal area of life. Don’t you love me God?

Maybe you feel like you’ve taken a backward step, that your faith has been undermined and it might raise the question of whether belief in this God, belief in Jesus as God, is foolish and weak.

I wonder, in the midst of your questions, in the midst of all you are wrestling with, are you willing to allow Jesus to change your perspective of Him? Are you willing to allow Him to undo the easy answers? Will you allow him to lead you to a higher and truer faith even if difficulties remain or lie ahead?

We too, like Peter, can begin to take steps forward once more, and to do so we simply need to keep journeying with Jesus. We keep giving him our time in prayer, through reading the scriptures, in worship, or solitude. We keep journeying the way of Jesus even amidst the dark night of the soul, and one day, one day light will come, hope will arise, pieces might fit together, not with easy answers, but with a higher and truer faith in Jesus the Messiah who suffered to give his life for you and for me.

In our reading today, Jesus sought not only to mature Peter’s faith, the occasion gave Jesus the opportunity to speak to the wider crowd as well, and help them see that He wasn’t calling them to a revolution against the Romans, no, His way, the way of the Cross was also for His disciples, for any who would follow Him and seek life through Him. Jesus said “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. Forever whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.”

To follow Jesus and find life through Him, to belong to the way, is to give your life for Jesus. We might think that to follow Jesus is to give our life away for others, after all that’s what Jesus did, but this is not what Jesus says, he says “Whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.” Why does Jesus say this? Is he an egotistical Messiah?

Well Jesus taught, in line with the old testament, that the first commandment, the first, is to love the lord your God’s with all your being with every area of your life. The second is to love others. And when we get the order of our loves right then we are able to love rightly. As we love God’s and receive His love, we can grow then and truer and purer love for others. For as we learn to deny self, as we follow Jesus, then we are better placed to love others sacrificially.

Jesus is not seeking a minor adjustment to our lives. Here we are called to the way of Jesus, to the way of the Cross, but we cannot do that if we do not love Jesus and show that love by giving our lives for Him. What is more, do you know what can happen when we love others first or even seek to do good without reference to Jesus? Well, it can lead us to think we deserve God’s blessing. We might think to ourselves “God, I have loved others surely I deserve salvation?” or we might think to ourselves as well “God, I have loved others so why am I facing these difficult times?”

The way of Jesus is the way of the Cross. He is the Messiah who will give His life for others. To follow Him, to follow in the way of Jesus, is to give your life for Jesus. When we get this wrong we build a wrong perspective of Jesus, we put our agenda on Him and we turn Him into a genie God or a slot machine God, a God for the good times and a God who must make our life go our way.

Sometimes when we picture Jesus like this and then experience an event which forces us to take a backward step, we can become stuck in that backward step, I think, maybe because we understood Christianity as something other than loving Jesus first, something other than giving our lives for Him.

This has been a problem across the centuries such that in the 15th century a Christian writer named Thomas à Kempis said this:

“Jesus today has many who love His heavenly kingdom, but few who carry His cross. Plenty of people He finds to share His banquet, few to share His fast. Everyone desires to take part in His rejoicing, but few are willing to suffer anything for His sake. There are many that love Jesus as long as nothing runs counter to them, many that praise and bless Him as long as they receive comfort from Him but, should Jesus hide from them and leave them for a while to draw them into deeper relationship with Himself, they fall to complaining. Those who love Jesus for His own sake, not for the sake of their own comfort. Bless Him in time of trouble and heartache as much as when they are full of consolation.”

Brothers and sisters, we journey with Jesus towards Easter. The Jesus who is Messiah, who would suffer and die as Messiah, came to die as Messiah, and as people who belong to the way, Jesus bids us come follow Him, give our lives, our love to Him, that we might walk in His way and carry our cross in our day.

I pray it may be so,

Amen.