II Peter 2:16-21
The Rev. Helen Havlik
February 23, 2020
The time after Epiphany, January 6, traditionally has been set aside for reflection about Jesus, the mystery of God become flesh, living among us. In the early days, Jesus preached and taught, performed miracles—and called disciples to follow him. In our Gospel lesson this morning, Jesus has come to a turning point in his public ministry. He and his disciples have drawn the attention of religious authorities as crowds have grown and many have been touched by this mysterious rabbi. It’s time for Jesus to head to Jerusalem to fulfill the purpose for which he had come, but before he does he takes some disciples up on a mountain to pray. And what happens gives them at least a glimpse of glory. I’m reading from Matthew, Ch. 17, beginning with vs. 1. Listen with me to God’s holy word.
It’s just human nature to make snap decisions about people based on who we are and what we’ve experienced. We make “educated guesses” about people all the time based on what they’re wearing, how they speak, the car they drive. Some of this is no big deal—but stereotyping often hurts people in major ways. Studies have been done looking at teachers’ expectations of students—and it seems that if you’re labeled as someone not likely to achieve much, then you probably won’t. The thing with expectations is whether or not they are realistic—and even then we run the risk of not seeing reality clearly, of asking too much or of not asking enough. Of missing a blessing God wants to give us through another person. Sometimes, though, as we learn more about something or someone, our expectations change. We know a friend is always late—so we learn to expect that. We know plans with a sibling are likely to change at the last minute, so we learn to expect that. A cousin turns his life around—and so we start expecting to hear good news when he calls (and not to expect he’s looking for money). As the disciples—and we—see Jesus in action, our expectations of him also have the chance to change so that we see him as he really is. Or do we?
We’ve spent a few weeks thinking about what it means to be called to follow Jesus as his disciple—and it begs revisiting the question of why we’d want to do that. Who is this person whose birth and baptism we celebrate? Who asks us to follow him, not into wealth or fame, but to the foot of that symbol of human depravity, the cross? By what authority does he command our devotion and why would we make that journey with him? Who is he, anyway—and what do Matthew and Peter want us to know that will help us with an answer?
First, Jesus came to help everyone, not to harm anyone. At the beginning of Matthew’s gospel, John the Baptist appeared to expect a firebrand Messiah with blazing eyes, an ax in one hand and a pitchfork in the other, spewing what we now call “hellfire and brimstone.” John expected Jesus to gather the wheat and burn the chaff—and we probably do, too. But Matthew shows us again and again that Jesus was a compassionate healer who put his own needs on hold to attend to people who needed help. We could excuse John the Baptist for his picture. He lived at a time when the God of Israel wasn’t the only god in town. Greeks and Romans and others worshiped a whole host of selfish, capricious and sometimes vicious gods who demanded obedience and sacrifice, who thought of human beings as playthings at best and dinner at worst. Even the God of Israel was often worshipped out of fear. So why wouldn’t the Messiah of God come with punishment in mind, wielding power against us rather than for us? Instead, Matthew shows us a humble, obedient savior, who directs God’s power to heal rather than harm.
Second, Jesus shows us how to be who we really are. He could have done everything he did without inviting anyone to be his disciple. He still can do everything without our help. But Jesus came to bring us back into the relationship with God that Adam and Eve enjoyed at first: a mutual relationship of trust, love and service. So he called those first disciples—as he still calls us and teaches us about his kingdom so that we can live it and teach it to others. He sits us down with his first disciples as they listen to the Sermon on the Mount. He tells us we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. He tells us things are different now—among other things, his followers don’t seek revenge, they turn the other cheek. That it’s not good enough just to love your neighbor—he wants us, his followers, to love our enemies, too, and pray for those who persecute us. And he gives us work to do—“you feed them,” he told the disciples when all they had was two fish and five loaves for a crowd of 5,000. Jesus doesn’t take the easy path and expects us to follow him anyway. He teaches us to do the right thing, even if it’s hard—even if we don’t want to forgive, even if we don’t want to help, even if it’s hard to trust him. He holds up the mirror and shows us ourselves, warts and all, and then whispers in our ears, as God did in his, “You are my beloved.” That’s who we really are, God’s beloved, and Jesus challenges us to live accordingly.
And third, Jesus came to include rather than exclude. He came to make the circle bigger than we ever expected and may be comfortable with, whether we’re talking about lepers or the Canaanite woman whose daughter needed healing—or any number of people who still don’t get invited to sit at his table because of what they do for a living or where they’re from, whom they love and whom they worship. From Matthew and the other gospel writers, we learn that Jesus heals anyone who needs to be healed, he never lets anyone go hungry. He doesn’t make distinctions between who’s “in” and who’s “out” or who does or doesn’t deserve help. In fact, he himself chooses to be “out” so that we can be “in.” And he reminds us that, ironically, since none of us deserves his help, everyone does. Look carefully at the gospels, especially Matthew, and it’s clear that his miracles know no bounds and his welcome makes no distinctions. His generous patience with us allows for God’s grace and mercy to work within us and among us and around us—so that the field he plants, in the end, will produce more wheat than weeds.
This is Jesus: helping not harming, including not excluding, showing us who we are. You and I are not God—we can’t walk on water, but Jesus can and we’re called to trust him. And just when we think we know exactly what to expect, there he is on the mountain, with the shining face and clothes—the embodiment of God’s glory. There he is giving his life for us on the cross. We’re not on a mountain this morning but as we worship in this light-filled sanctuary, we see for ourselves that even when clouds roll in and we feel disoriented, he alone is here, steadfast and constant. Moses and Elijah disappear, human rulers come and go, but Jesus is the One who touches us and says “be not afraid.” The One who will never leave or forsake us—whatever else we might expect or questions we may continue to have, that’s who he is. What would you do if you came face to face with such glory? I hope you and I would bow in awe—and then follow the light wherever it leads.