February 23, 2020

“Who Do YOU Say I Am?”

Mark 8:27 – 9:8

A sermon for Hawaii Kai UCC by Janice Ogoshi

February 23, 2020 (Transfiguration Sunday)


We’ve reached the half-way point of the gospel of Mark, and up until now, the question of who Jesus is constantly swirling around him.  The spirits know full well who he is.  

·       At Jesus’ very first healing in the synagogue, the impure spirit who has possessed a man said to him, “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth?  Have you come to destroy us?  I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” (Mark 1:24). 

·        As crowds began to follow Jesus because they had learned of his healing powers, the impure spirits that dwelt in people recognized him, fell down before him and cried out, “You are the Son of God” (Mark 3:11).  

·       When Legion, the spirit who possessed the man in the region of Gerasenes, saw Jesus from a distance, it shouted, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” (Mark 5:7).

The spirits knew exactly who Jesus was, but he commanded them not to speak about him or reveal his identity to the people.


The people, on the other hand, didn’t know.  Those who witnessed Jesus’ many healings and listened to his teaching were amazed.  But they didn’t know what to make of him.  When he taught in the synagogue people were impressed by the way he spoke, but they also questioned whether a mere carpenter, Mary’s son, could really teach and heal (Mark 6:2-3).  


At this point, half way through the gospel, Jesus was ready to lift the curtain a bit and reveal who he was to his disciples.  While they were walking around Caesarea Philippi he asked them, “Who do people say I am?” (8:27).  This was an area named in honor of Caesar, full of reminders of Roman power and pagan shrines.  In the midst of all these competing idols and gods, Jesus asks what people are saying about him.  The disciples responded with the word that was going around.  People guessed that he was John the Baptist who had come back to life.  Or perhaps he was Elijah or some other prophet.  


But then Jesus went straight to the heart of the disciples:  “But what about you?  Who do you say I am?” (8:29a).  And in a passing moment of brilliance, Peter responded, “You are the Messiah” (8:29b).


These four words, “You are the Messiah,” held the hopes and dreams of the people of Israel.  The Messiah was the Chosen One from the line of their greatest king David, who would lead and save and redeem Israel from all its oppression and suffering.  The Messiah would bring a new day of freedom and release from bondage.  It was a very significant confession.


And then Jesus told them not to tell anyone about him (8:30).  He was still not quite ready for the crowds, the religious leaders or the Romans to know about who he was.  And for good reason.  He had just revealed himself to his closest followers, but they did not understand what it meant for him to be the Messiah, and they needed time to learn what it really meant.


Peter got the title right, but not its meaning.  Jesus began teaching the disciples what it meant for him to be the Messiah.  He spoke plainly 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” (8:31).  


Suffering, rejection, death…this was not anyone’s idea of the kind of life the Messiah would live.  Clearly, Jesus was wrong.  So Peter began to rebuke Jesus.  Stop this crazy talk.  That’s not what the Messiah is all about.


But then Jesus came right back at Peter with his own strong rebuke:  “Get behind me, Satan!  You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns” (8:33).  Peter’s vision of the Messiah was so far off that Jesus called him the devil.  Peter’s ability to see Jesus as Messiah was blurry, not clear at all.


Just before our reading in Mark, there is a curious story of Jesus healing a blind man:

They came to Bethsaida, and some people brought a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him.  He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village.  When he had spit on the man’s eyes and put his hands on him, Jesus asked, “Do you see anything?”


He looked up and said, “I see people; they look like trees walking around.”


Once more Jesus put his hands on the man’s eyes.  Then his eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.  Jesus sent him home, saying, “Don’t go into the village.” (Mark 8:22-26)


Imagine that!  Jesus’ healing failed—it didn’t work completely the first time.  The man got only partial sight.  He saw clearly only after Jesus put his hands on him a second time.


I think that the gospel writer wanted us to have this story in mind as we reflect on today’s reading, because Peter saw who Jesus was, but didn’t see him clearly.  It took a while for Peter to fully understand, to clearly see the Christ who Jesus was.  Like the blind man, Peter’s vision of Jesus came in steps, not all at once.  We’re like that too.  At different stages of our Christian lives, we see Jesus differently.  Hopefully, our vision gets clearer the more time we spend with him, the more he touches our eyes.


The life that Jesus calls us to live is difficult and goes against the grain of life in our world.  It’s not the ideal life that we imagine for ourselves or for our children.  It is difficult for us to really see Jesus and the kind of Messiah he is and the kind of life that results from following him. Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it” (8:34-35).


Deny yourself in a world in which people are only concerned for themselves and their families or inner circle relationships, who think that all desires must be gratified?  Take up your cross, as if you were headed for execution?  What kind of life is this?  


I completely understand Peter’s confusion and rebuke of Jesus.  The life he is called to live as a follower of Jesus didn’t make sense then, doesn’t make sense even today.  I can imagine how Peter and the other disciples felt when on the one hand, their teacher revealed that he was the Messiah, and on the other hand, this Messiah was one who would suffer and die, and his followers would do the same.  It didn’t make sense.  Their vision of Jesus was only partial, and needed time to become clearer—just like the blind man’s sight.


The trip up the mountain was another step toward a clearer vision of Jesus.  Mountains were significant places for encounters with God.  Moses received the commandments on Mount Sinai.  After a very difficult encounter with Jezebel’s priests, Elijah heard God’s word of assurance and comfort on a mountain.  So when Jesus took Peter, James and John up a high mountain, we can sense that something important would happen there.  


Jesus was transfigured—his clothes became dazzling white and he shone.  And Moses and Elijah were there, talking to him.  Once again Peter spoke before thinking.  He meant well, offering to set up tents for Jesus, Moses and Elijah.  He didn’t really know what to say.  But a voice from a cloud intervened and said, “This is my Son, whom I love.  Listen to him!” (9:7).  


From the moment Peter declared that Jesus as the Messiah, he had not really listened to Jesus.  Peter realized Jesus was the Messiah, got stuck in his own understanding of what that meant, and didn’t listen to him.  The transfiguration of Jesus and the message from God up on the mountain was very clear—Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God.  They needed to listen to him.  The Messiah’s talk about denying one’s self, taking up the cross and following him—now that was something to take very seriously.


Peter’s vision of Jesus was only partial, and it would become clearer by steps as he and the rest of the disciples accompanied Jesus to Jerusalem and to the cross and beyond.


As I said earlier, today’s reading is a major turning point in the gospel of Mark.  Jesus has lifted the curtain just a bit.  His disciples have seen who he is—the Messiah.  But this Messiah was not the one they had imagined in their minds. This Messiah spoke of dying, not domination, forgiveness, not vengeance, serving, not being served, giving up everything instead of grasping for all, being last, not first.


So from this point in the gospel, Jesus helps us see more clearly who he truly is, and what kind of Messiah he is.  He begins to show all who he really is.  And the question we will need to grapple with is whether we will listen to and follow this Messiah.  


I take comfort in Peter’s slow realization of who Jesus really is because I am like him.  Peter and I are like the blind man whose sight was only partially restored at first.  It will take time for us to be completely healed of our inability to see Jesus for who he really is.  Like Peter, I’ve said that Jesus is my Messiah, but my life doesn’t always reflect it.  My vision of Jesus did not instantly become clear.  It was initially fuzzy, and as the years have gone by, it’s become clearer by steps.  


For example, when I tell people the story of my call to pastoral ministry, I often say that had God told me from the beginning that I was called to be a pastor, I would have gone the opposite direction.  Growing up, even in college, and after college I couldn’t see myself as a pastor.  But step by step, God revealed the call to me, and step by step, I answered the call—first to go to seminary, then to try out different kinds of ministry, then pastoral ministry.  The blinders to God’s call were removed slowly.


It’s the same with other steps of faith, like forgiving, tithing and devoting time to prayer and loving our neighbors.  We don’t jump into these spiritual disciplines fully, but learn and take steps until they become a normal part of our lives. I learned that it was a good thing to give offerings to the church, returning to God what belonged to God.  But it took a number of years before I gave a full tithe.  And now I don’t think about tithing—I just do it.  The same with spending time in prayer, or learning to forgive and to ask for forgiveness or serving others.  God has partially healed my self-centered ways of living, and given me the grace to learn and grow in my response to God’s goodness and mercy and blessings.  My vision is still not 20/20, but as I continue to follow Jesus, my sight and my willingness to take up my cross and follow him are increasing.


Jesus asks us, “Who do you say I am?”  And like Peter, we may be willing to say with our lips that he is the Messiah.  But are we willing to listen to him, to deny ourselves and take up our crosses to follow him?  Will our lives fully reflect our confession that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God?


Our theme for the season of Lent, which begins on Wednesday, is “Think Like Jesus.”  In order for us to deny ourselves and take up our crosses and follow Jesus, we need to learn to think like Jesus.  We need to understand life and living and relationships from his perspective so that we can follow him and do the things he did.  We will be looking at his teachings and the way he interacted with people and how the values of the kingdom of God shaped his life.  And we will be challenged to have the mind of Jesus, to think like him.


I invite you to continue to reflect on our Scripture reading this week and answer Jesus who asks, “But what about you?  Who do you say I am?”  And even if it is a partial answer, even if your vision of him and the life he calls you to live is blurry, commit to following him and learning more about him and the life he is calling you to live.  Trust that your vision will become clearer and you will be able to respond and live the life Jesus wants you to live.  Jesus is the Messiah.  Amen.