Yr A – Pent 15 – Ex 3:10-15, Mt 16:21-28
Well, it’s Back to School time again. According to the shopping malls it has been since the middle of July! As for my family we’re approaching this September with a variety of different attitudes and outlooks. Ben is gleefully ready to leave the 9-5 working world and can’t wait to get back to classes and books and essays. Josie is going into her last year of high school and is ready to rule the school! My wife, however, is a teacher – so she has a decidedly different outlook! No, I’m just kidding. She loves it too and she’s happy to be back at it.
No matter what age or stage you’re at, there seems to be a certain sense of ‘same old same old’ about back to school time each year. The flyers, the sales, the new clothes, the school supplies, meeting the new teacher (or class) – a fresh start in a new year. Today we’re going to look at two characters from the bible who went ‘back to school’ too. The difference being that they didn’t realize they needed to. There was nothing ‘same old same old’ about their experiences, or what they needed to learn. And it took a lot more than a flashy flyer to hook them…
The first story is about Moses. We’re going to talk about the famous burning bush story. On the surface it seems pretty straightforward – a shepherd encounters a supernatural event, a dramatic representation of the presence of God in the form of a bush that is on fire yet not consumed – and hears the voice of God.
Ex. 3:10 God to Moses: I am sending you.
– God calls Moses to service in a very dramatic way.
Ex. 3:11 Moses to God: Who am I that I should be sent?
– Moses replies with a humble “I’m not worthy.”
Ex. 3:12 God to Moses: I will be with you.
Don’t you think that should be enough? I mean if this piano were to suddenly burst into flames but not be consumed and the voice of God rang out from it and said to you “I am sending you” what would you do? Well, you’d probably say, “Who me?” – at which point God would reassure you and say, “I will be with you.” I would think that should be enough to get our attention.
Moses stood there in front of a burning bush hearing and conversing with the voice of God and says, “Who me?” Then, in the next chapter of Exodus he comes up with a litany of excuses as to why God shouldn’t tap him – “What if they don’t listen? I’m not a good speaker. Send someone else!”
Have you ever felt that way? Have you heard God’s voice or felt God nudging you deeper and said – “Nah, God couldn’t want ME.” But there’s more to this story. We have to know more about Moses. If he were just some guy who encountered a ‘burning bush’ and tried to weasel his way out of God’s call we’d label him a fool, or a jerk. But I don’t think this is primarily a ‘call’ story. I think it’s a trust story, a commitment story.
Moses had already made significant changes in his life, wasn’t that enough? He was raised in Pharaoh’s household and probably had a great life, a life of privilege. But then he gave it all up. He killed an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew slave and then he fled to Midian – to a life as a simple shepherd married to the daughter of a priest.
It’s reasonable to think that Moses probably believed he’d done enough. His ways were changed – he was a new man. He probably thought he’d learned his big life lesson and was happy to live out his days in peace. But God decided to send Moses ‘back to school.’ Moses had to learn to trust in God absolutely, and to follow where God leads. “I am sending you – and I will be with you!”
And how about poor Peter? In the gospel of Matthew, Peter is the one who stands and makes the bold confession of faith “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter (in Greek, Petra, which means rock), and upon this rock I will build my church.”
Can you imagine Peter’s reaction? The person who he has just professed to be the Messiah has in turn entrusted him with the foundation of the church. “Wahoo! Look at me! I’m the Rock! I’m the man!” Peter must have been flying high! Five short verses later, Peter comes crashing back to earth.
Matthew 16:21 “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, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”
Peter must have been floored. The guy he just proclaimed as the Messiah – the Saviour of the Jews, the one who would liberate his people from oppression – says he’s got to go and suffer and die. It was a paradox that Peter could not accept.
So he reacts: Matthew 16:22 “Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him. ‘Never, Lord!’ he said. ‘This shall never happen to you!’” All Peter is doing here is trying to show Jesus support. He can’t believe that the Saviour has come to die – that seems so passive – so ineffective. No way! The Messiah was supposed to come and kick butt – not suffer and die.
Jesus wasn’t turning out to be the Messiah Peter thought he was supposed to be! The one Peter had fashioned in his own mind.
Do you ever do that? Get mad because God isn’t meeting your expectations?
Lose faith because Jesus didn’t say what you wanted him to say?
So Peter spoke out. He was passionate. He was one of Jesus’ most trusted disciples, the rock upon whom the church was to be built. And what does he get for giving his counsel to Jesus?
Verse 23: “Jesus turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.” Ouch!!!
In verse 17 Jesus says, “Blessed are you Peter” but in verse 23 it’s, “Get out of my sight, you Satan, you. You are dangerous to me because you are not thinking in God’s terms, but in human terms.”
Peter, like Moses, had completely changed his life. He’d given up his old ways to walk with Jesus, to learn, to be a disciple, and he was to someday be ‘the rock’ – but first he had to go back to school.
I think that we know these stories so well that we often miss the subtlety of the message. We focus on Moses beating up on Pharaoh, not him whining ‘not me’ at God. We think of Peter as the rock but not being called ‘you Satan.’ These are dark moments in these characters’ lives – moments of truth when they were called by God…and blew it.
Moses was chatting it up with a burning bush, a burning bush for crying out loud! – not your everyday occurrence – and he still hums and haws. He missed the point. It wasn’t about what he could or couldn’t do – it was about trusting God. Peter hung out with Jesus every day and he missed the point too. “You are not thinking in God’s terms, but in human terms.” Fortunately, both of these men eventually did go ‘back to school,’ learned to trust completely in God, and did great things.
Now it’s time for us to go back to school!
In Matthew 16:24 Jesus goes on to say, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?”
It’s an interesting paradox. You must lose your life to save it. This is what it means to think in God’s terms instead of human terms. “You want to be my follower, fine. All it costs is everything. But if you trust in God completely – you’ll find that you have more than you ever dreamed of.”
The Greek word rendered as life here can also be translated as soul. I like soul better than life in this context. Losing your life for Jesus’ sake can have an ominous ring to it – we tend to associate life with physical things – heartbeat, breathing. But speaking in terms of one’s soul moves the reflection into more of a metaphysical vein. “For what good will it be for someone to gain the whole world yet forfeit their soul?”
So what’s the point here? Maybe it’s this: we mistakenly think that our goal is to acquire something external to bring us peace, and joy, and wholeness. But the real treasure is inside!
St Catherine of Genoa gave us this gem to ponder: “My deepest me is God.” Your deepest you, is God.
Let the enormity of that idea sink in.
The deepest, truest, most real part of you, the very centre of your being, is God, is divinity, is holy, is sacred, is love.
But you can’t reach that depth if you and your stuff are still the centre of the universe! And here’s the part that confounds us – you can’t reach that depth by effort, or good deeds. You can only get there by abandoning yourself to God’s holy presence and letting the Spirit do its thing in you.
That means letting go and trusting.
That is what it is to lose your life to save it.
This is so completely counter to our current culture that we, just like Moses and Peter, need to go ‘back to school’ to learn it.
Matthew 16:24 from the New Living Translation reads, “You must put aside your selfish ambition, shoulder your cross and follow me.” Put aside your selfish ambition and focus on God first – that’s clear enough.
“Shoulder your cross” – that’s tougher. Obviously not meant to be taken literally, but what exactly do you think Jesus is getting at? Bear your burdens? Keep a stiff upper lip? Do what is asked of you? Be prepared to suffer? – Maybe. Or maybe it’s just this:
Trust in God completely! “…and follow me.”
My hero, Brother Lawrence, uses the word abandonment to talk about this. Abandoning yourself to God sounds pretty radical – and it is! It’s about utterly letting go, surrendering, and trusting.
They say that you can’t really learn a foreign language until you totally immerse yourself in it, and learn to think in that language rather than translating from English first. That’s what abandonment means – so totally immersing yourself in God that you start thinking in ‘God’s terms’ rather than in human terms. Jesus was totally immersed in and abandoned to God. Peter wasn’t there yet. Neither was Moses. Are you?
What about the church? I don’t mean Faith United in particular but the whole of the Christian church. Does the church think in God’s terms or in human terms?
What’s the purpose of the church? – to keep the doors open come hell or high water? – to fill the pews and the coffers?
Whose agenda comes first at church? – God’s? The minister’s? The treasurer’s? The traditionalists’? The radicals’?
Who’s in charge? Who’s in the centre? We all know what the answer is supposed to be…
What would church look like if we committed every day to putting God at the centre? – if we made every decision with God firmly at the centre? – if we set aside our selfish ambition, took up our cross and followed Jesus? – if we trusted God absolutely come what may? I don’t know. But I bet it would be glorious, and powerful, and amazing – if we really had the guts to risk it…if we really had the trust.
One of my favourite authors, Brennan Manning, offered this benediction when he did speaking engagements:
May all of your expectations be frustrated,
May all of your plans be thwarted,
May all of your desires be withered into nothingness,
That you may experience the powerlessness and poverty of a child
And can sing and dance in the love of God,
Who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
There is nothing ‘same old same old’ about that. It’s the lesson Moses had to learn. It’s the lesson Peter had to learn. It’s the lesson I’m trying to learn. I think it’s the lesson the church needs to learn. And I truly believe that we can. Deep down it’s why we’re all drawn here.
And the thing that is completely, astoundingly, incomprehensibly cool is that God desperately wants us to learn this lesson, and won’t give up on us until we do.
God has sent us millions of burning bushes through the ages to get our attention – after all, you’re sitting here instead of somewhere else this morning – and school is ‘in’.
Your teacher is named Jesus Christ.
The Holy Spirit will be your peer helper.
And the subject is your abandoning yourself in radical trust in the God who is your deepest you.
Welcome back to school.