Walking in the Dark

Image by Georgie Pauwels (used by permission via Creative Commons).

Rev. Doug Floyd
Pentecost 12A 2017
Isaiah 51:1-8, Matthew 16:13-20

“What did Jesus want to say to us? What does he want from us today? How does he help us to be faithful Christians today?”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer opens his work on Discipleship with a series of questions about our role in following Christ. He is particularly interested in how this takes expression in the dailyness of our homes, families, and job. “What could the call to follow Jesus mean today for the worker, the businessman, the farmer, or the soldier?”

Bonhoeffer concludes, “We must take this question to him who alone knows the answer. Only Jesus Christ, who bids us follow him, knows where the path will lead. But we know that it will be a path full of mercy beyond measure. Discipleship is joy.”

It is Jesus who calls us to follow Him, and it is Jesus who will lead us in His way. The path He calls us to is ultimately a path of joy. During this season of Ordinary time, the readings call us to the path of discipleship and give us pictures along the way of discipleship. Last week, Isaac reminded us that this call to follow Christ looks like eating at the table of the Lord. From that place of communion, we realize afresh our desperate need for mercy even as we are raised up as sons and daughters of God.

The Jonah story challenged us with the call to bring God’s word to the very enemies of God’s people even as Jesus brought salvation to the enemies of God. The transfiguration reminded us that the path of discipleship is a path of embodied faith that takes shapes in our feet, our hands, our eyes, our ear and our mouths.

As we seek to walk in the way of Jesus, we still may have questions about what this way looks like. Obedience in the real world can seem a bit messy. We sometimes face ambiguous situations where Christians disagree. It seems like it would be easy if God gave us a manual with clear instructions for every situation. I think this is why the epistles in the New Testament are often so popular. The directives seem so much clearer than the ambiguous stories of the Old Testament.

When the Lord rescues the Children of Israel from Egypt, he does give them very specific laws about behavior, worship, family and such. But He also gives them stories, correction, songs, aphoristic sayings, poetry, a love song, and a series of prophets with rather strange behaviors. The early disciples are born into this world of stories, law, songs, and rituals. They see their own fellow Jews disagree on the nature of obedience, forming at least four Jewish distinctive sects.

Sometimes we think it would have been so much easier to follow Christ when he was physically present, but the Gospels paint a different portrait. We watch the disciples misunderstand Jesus, one another, other people, and the very nature of the kingdom of God. In fact, at times it looks like they are going to be poor ambassadors for the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

If we step back and take another look, it could remind us of how children grow up into lives patterned after their parents’ instruction, stories, jokes, songs, and family fellowship. They make mistakes. They misunderstand. They disobey. But over time, they are enculturated in family ways, family values. Raising children is personal in that it is about raising persons. Person to person. The parent to the child. Each child is distinct and has distinct gifts and distinct challenges, and yet, there are expectations for all children in a family.

Scripture gives us a picture of discipleship shaped in relationships, in personal formation. Personal growth is just that: personal. While the Lord is shaping His redeemed into the singular image of Christ, he is shaping us in particular ways, along particular paths.

Noah is called to build an ark. Abraham is called to leave everything behind. Daniel is carried off into captivity while Jeremiah is called to stay behind and live through the devastation. As we seek to follow Christ, we would do well to follow in the path of the disciples by learning our story in the pages of the Old Testament. As we look to the Lord and trust in His Spirit, we read and reread these ancient stories, poems, and songs, trusting that Jesus Himself is speaking, leading and guiding us into His truth. We are learning how this Good News of Great Joy will spread through us into the world.

In today’s Gospel, Peter announces with gusto that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (Mt 16:16). Jesus celebrates this proclamation. When Jesus mentions that his path as Messiah will involve suffering and death, Peter rebukes Jesus, thinking that Jesus has misunderstood the essential nature of what it means to be Messiah.

The confusion Peter faces makes me think of the confusion we sometimes experience in trying to obey the Lord and follow in His ways in times and seasons when we simply do not understand what he is doing or what he is calling us to. Today, I’d like to take a few minutes to reflect on Peter’s confusion in light of the book of Isaiah. I am hoping this might give us insight in our own call to follow Christ in this age of anger and public distrust and conflict.

Peter, like most Jews of his day, expects a conquering king. At the end of Isaiah, he sings a song of the Conquering King. This king, this Messiah would restore the house of David and restore the glory to Zion. How could this Messiah suffer and die? Peter struggles to see how the image of the Messiah is bound up with the image of the suffering servant. As a disciple of Christ, he is called to follow Jesus both as the suffering servant and as the conquering king.

Let us pause a moment and consider this picture from the reading today in the Gospel of Isaiah. I say the Gospel because in many ways this prophet is given to behold the Good News of God that is far beyond the reach of his lifetime. In chapter one, Isaiah speaks of the nation as a rebellious child, a besieged city, an unfruitful vineyard, an unfaithful bride, and he even compares these people of God to Sodom and Gomorra.

The people who God chose to bring His blessing of redemption to the world have become corrupted like the world. Instead of a holy people, they are clothed in filth. They’ve become morally impure and oppress the weak in their midst.

As the songs and prophecies of Isaiah continue, we see a picture of judgment coming on Jerusalem and in turn, this same judgment is coming on all nations. Judah will fall. The surrounding enemies will fall. And even the great power of Babylon will fall under the sovereign hand of God.

When Jesus speaks of suffering and death, it looks like the judgment that came upon Jerusalem, upon the people. How could the Messiah fall under the judgment of God? Peter would struggle to see how this fits in the pattern of the coming Messiah.

When the Messiah comes, Israel and the disciples expect this Messiah to bring down the nations who have oppressed the people of God. They expect the day of the Lord to bring judgment to the enemies of God. When Peter declares that Jesus is Messiah, he is expecting Jesus to restore the kingdom and the glory of Israel.

But then Jesus says that he will suffer and die. Peter cannot bear to hear that this Messiah finally comes and is not speaking of defeat and death. He will need to rehear the stories of Isaiah, he will need a fresh vision of the role of the Messiah and God’s people. Isaiah told another story that was part of this king story. He told a story of a suffering servant.

Let’s go back to Isaiah. After proclaiming the fall of Judah, the fall of the surrounding nations and finally the fall of Babylon, the word of Isaiah shifts. He begins to sing God’s comforting words to the nation. His song will declare the goodness of God who turns the wilderness into a fruitful garden. After falling in judgment, the people of God are surrounded with words of hope and restoration and healing. The Lord is doing a new thing.

Isaiah talks about a servant who will lead the way in healing. Who is this servant? At times it sounds like Isaiah, sometimes it sounds like Judah. But this servant is bigger than Isaiah or Judah. Isaiah sings of restoration for Judah and for all nations.

In chapter 49, he sings,

“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to bring back the preserved of Israel;
I will make you as a light for the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (Is 49:5–6).

Then in Isaiah 50, this servant becomes an intercessor for the sins of the people. The servant steps into the judgment upon God’s people.

I gave my back to those who strike,
and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard;
I hid not my face
from disgrace and spitting. (Is 50:6).

This servant who restores the people of God and the nations of the world will suffer at the hands of God’s enemies. In the familiar suffering servant song of Isaiah 53, we discover this servant bears the judgment of humanity’s sin.

But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed. (Is 53:5)

Just as Jesus calls the disciples to follow in the path of the cross, Isaiah indicates that this servant will also call God’s people to obey and follow him. The final two verses of Isaiah 50 are a bit puzzling at first:

10  Who among you fears the Lord
and obeys the voice of his servant?
Let him who walks in darkness
and has no light
trust in the name of the Lord
and rely on his God.
11  Behold, all you who kindle a fire,
who equip yourselves with burning torches!
Walk by the light of your fire,
and by the torches that you have kindled!
This you have from my hand:
you shall lie down in torment. (Is 50:10–11).

The servant calls the people of God to follow in the darkness with no light. In that place, they can only trust in the name of the Lord. There is a fierce judgment for those who light their own lamps instead of trusting in the Lord. They will lie down in torment.

The people of God must follow the servant of the Lord through the dark and learn to trust in name of the Lord. Hundreds of years before the disciples, Isaiah has already been preparing the disciples for the path of suffering and death that the disciples of Christ will experience as they follow Jesus.

In today’s reading, Isaiah speaks to those following in the path of the suffering servant telling them to remember their story.

Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness,
you who seek the Lord:
look to the rock from which you were hewn,
and to the quarry from which you were dug.
2  Look to Abraham your father
and to Sarah who bore you;
for he was but one when I called him,
that I might bless him and multiply him. (Is 51:1–2)

They are called to look back and remember. Remember their story of being called out, cut from the rock, born from the barrenness of Sarah. This whole history is a history of God creating something out of nothing.

As they walk through the dark places, they remember the story of their people. They remember God’s power in calling them out of nothing, in redeeming them out of slavery.They rehearse God’s promise to restore this wilderness back to Eden. They remember God’s Word, God Law. They look to the God who created the heavens and earth and remember that He is more faithful than the very ground they walk upon.

In verse 9, these trembling pilgrims cry out for God to wake up. Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of the Lord…(Is 51:9). God, in turn, reminds them that He is Lord over all. This image reminds me of the disciples waking up Jesus during the storm, and Jesus responds, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” Then he calms the sea by his word alone.

As Alec Motyer explains, the Lord is saying to these pilgrims, ‘You call me to perform works of salvation, but it is rather for you to wake up to what I have already done: the day of salvation has dawned’

As we reflect on Peter’s confession of faith in today’s gospel, we hear the witness of the people of God across the ages. The Good News of Great Joy is that Jesus the King has come and broken the power of sin and death and is making all things new. This witness echoes from age to age.

But it echoes through people who follow in the way of the servant. This way, this path sometimes leads through the dark and the valley of the shadow of death, but it also leads in the way of righteousness, peace and joy. To become the witnesses of Jesus Christ in any age is to walk in the way of the cross, but it is also to walk in the way of resurrection life. It is both.

As I pause over this reading today, I am challenged to rest in the faithfulness of God even if the way looks dark and the steps seem unsure. Even as I am wrestling day by day to know how to speak and act and serve in a culture that sometimes seems so filled with rage. I have no light, no hope, no good news outside of the light of Jesus Christ, so I don’t have to worry about drumming up something exciting, something relevant, something hip, something, anything other than that Good News that the King, the Messiah Jesus Christ is the suffering servant who enters into the curse of sin and death and opens the way of resurrection life, the way of lovingkindness, the way of hope, the way of life.

Some days may feel messy and more confusing than others, but each I walk, I walk remembering the stories of God’s people from across the ages, I walk rehearsing the promises of God in Christ, I walk trusting that it is Christ Himself who is walking before me and behind me and beside me. It Christ Himself who sent His Spirit to lead me into all truth.

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