By Linda Rex
August 23, 2020, Proper 16—Recently, one of the hardest things for me as a pastor was to have to stay at home on Sunday mornings when I would much rather have been at church among the dear people of my congregation, talking with them face to face. I missed the laughter, singing worship songs together, and praying with people carrying heavy burdens needing lifted. We were so blessed to be able to still gather online, but there were so many faces I was not able to see and voices I was not able to hear since the quarantine began.
It is hard to watch the church in exile in this way, and I’m glad so many congregations like our own are beginning to be able to gather again. It is good to remember, though, that it is in times like these that the seeds of God’s greatest work are often planted. It is when the church is resisted or pressed against that it expands and grows in exponential ways.
This brings to mind the Old Testament reading for August 23rd (Exodus 1:8–2:10). Here we find the fledgling people of Israel have been in the land of Egypt for over three hundred years. Over the centuries, the rulers of the land have forgotten the history of this people and how Joseph helped to save Egypt from starvation. Now they only see the people of Israel as a threat to the present regime, so they are enslaved, forced to help the building of Egypt’s great cities.
As the numbers of the Israelites grew, the ruler of Egypt made an edict that every one of their boy babies was to be killed at birth. He increased the toil in their slavery and pressed harder and harder upon them. But no matter how hard he tried to restrict, reduce, or diminish Israel, the more they grew in numbers. In time, God even sent a deliverer, a baby boy placed in a rush basket in the Nile river who was adopted by the king’s daughter. He would, in God’s good time, deliver his people from slavery in Egypt.
This story is a good reminder that no matter how hard any of us try, we cannot resist the purposes and plans of our mighty God. He had made a covenant with Abraham, renewed it with his son Isaac, and grandson Jacob (whom he named Israel). He had told Israel that his people would be in Egypt for four hundred thirty years, and sure enough, when that time was up, God ensured that they were brought out of Egypt and into the new life he had in mind for them in the promised land.
The redemption of the nation of Israel began, in this sense, with the revelation to Moses of who God was—the I Am. He was their deliverer, their redeemer, and he was faithful to them in all their ups and downs, even when they turned from him and fell back into their idolatry and rebellion. The I Am was faithful to them, and even when they ended up in exile because of their turning away from him, he ultimately brought them back to their homeland in Judea.
But the nation of Israel Jesus came to had been through so much. The scribes, Pharisees, and leaders of the nation had made significant changes to how they worshiped God while they were in exile. They had put so many traditions and rituals into effect to ensure their purity that they had actually placed the Jewish people into a new form a slavery. Instead of a joyful relationship with their redeemer, they often found they could not do everything that was required of them. And when it came to temple worship, there were levels of exclusion, with women and proselytes being relegated to the outer courts, and Gentiles of any nation being excluded from table fellowship with the Jews.
This obviously was not God’s intent. We find Jesus near the end of his ministry asking his disciples who people were saying he was (Matthew 16:13–20). The common person believed Jesus was some type of prophet. There hadn’t been prophets for centuries up until the time of John the Baptizer and there weren’t supposed to be any more until the end of the age. This was a significant assumption on their part—the messianic deliverance of their people must be near since now Jesus was present and doing healings, miracles, and feeding the multitudes.
Jesus’ then asked his disciples who they thought he was. This is a good question even for you and me to ask ourselves. Do we imagine that Jesus is just a prophet—a good man who did a lot of nice, miraculous things and taught people how to live? If this is the case, we are missing out on the whole point of Israel’s story. We are missing the message of scripture—in the fullness of time, God sent his Son as Redeemer and Deliverer, not just of his people but of all people everywhere. Jesus, the I Am in human flesh, the Messiah who lived our life, died our death, and rose, ascending into glory, is so much more than just a prophet!
Jesus is the one who establishes in his person our identity as human beings. When Jesus said, “But you, who do you say I am?” he was asking them to accurately ascertain what it meant that he was their Messiah. It did not mean he was a political leader set to take over by powerful, military means. What it meant was that he would allow circumstances to take their course, submitting himself to the evil plans of the leaders of his own people, knowing it would result in his crucifixion. He knew this was the path that was going to be necessary to reconstitute the people of God, Israel.
Peter’s response, given to him by our heavenly Father, acknowledged who Jesus was as the Son of the living God, the Messiah. He may not have understood the distinction between who the Messiah Jesus was and that kind of messiah which the people hoped he was. But his answer pointed to a new reality.
Jesus, in response, took the Jewish rabbis’ authority to ratify what was bound and loosed in heaven and gave it to the apostles, with Peter as their representative. He gave Peter, and the apostles, the keys to the kingdom—and we see in the book of Acts how Peter and the apostles first opened the doors to the kingdom through their proclamation of the word on Pentecost after the resurrection, and subsequently when the gospel was received by the Samaritans, and later the Gentiles at Cornelius’ home. The doors of the church were opened wide to receive all nations and peoples, with all worship and obedience centered in Jesus Christ alone.
Jesus told the disciples that not even death could stop the expansion of the kingdom of God. Death would not prevail against the church, for the resurrection of Jesus Christ was assured and it happened just as Jesus said it would. Yes, he did have to die on the cross and enter the gates of death, but death could not hold him! And neither can it hold us any longer.
Whatever effort the evil one may make to silence or kill the church will fail. We know this because love never fails. Our God, who is love, has come, given himself to us and for us, and has risen from the grave. He has bound all humanity to himself in an unbreakable bond and sent the Spirit to draw us together into a community of faith, a body of believers, the church. By the Spirit we are given special gifts for each member to participate in the edification of the church and the proclamation of the gospel.
Our calling today is to cease giving ourselves over to the ungodly ways of this broken world and to embrace who we are as the called-out ones—the children of God. We are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds—informing ourselves of the will and purposes of God and living accordingly, participating fully in the intimate relationship between the Father and the Son in the Spirit (Romans 12:1-8). And we can rely fully on Jesus’ assurance that what he has begun in his church, he will finish, even to the end of this cosmos.
Thank you, Abba, for your faithful love and grace. Thank you, Jesus, that you are Lord of your church, and that death did not, cannot, and will not prevail against it, for its existence is bound up in your very self. Thank you, Spirit, for your giftings and blessing—grant us the grace to edify your church and proclaim the good news with boldness, courage, and love, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“Look to Abraham your father | And to Sarah who gave birth to you in pain; | When he was but one I called him, | Then I blessed him and multiplied him.” Isaiah 51:2 NASB
“’Had it not been the LORD who was on our side,’ | Let Israel now say, ‘Had it not been the LORD who was on our side | When men rose up against us, | Then they would have swallowed us alive, | When their anger was kindled against us; | Then the waters would have engulfed us, | The stream would have swept over our soul; Then the raging waters would have swept over our soul.’ … Our help is in the name of the LORD, | Who made heaven and earth.” Psalm 124:1-5, 8 NASB
“Though I walk in the midst of trouble, You will revive me; | You will stretch forth Your hand against the wrath of my enemies, | And Your right hand will save me. | The LORD will accomplish what concerns me; | Your lovingkindness, O LORD, is everlasting; | Do not forsake the works of Your hands.” Psalm 138:7-8 NASB