Sunday’s Sermon: The Answer is Jesus

  • One of the many wonderful steps along the ordination journey – at least as it’s laid out by the PC(USA) – is the Ordination Exams: fun and exhilarating, lighthearted 3-hr. examinations filled with joy and amusement. Okay … that description may not be entirely accurate.
    • Not so much fun and wonderful –> difficult and stressful
    • Not so much lighthearted –> gut-wrenching
    • Not so much filled with joy and amusement –> filled with frenzy and pressure
    • Days, weeks and even months prior to these exams –> spent in serious study mode … I’m talking about studying 6-8 hrs. a day to the point of brain-frying!
      • Sometimes people like to study on their own, but the thing about these exams is that they’re all essay questions – questions that test your knowledge, yes, but that also test your ability to explain things practically and apply that knowledge in a hypothetical situation.
        • 1st half of each question = theological response to situation, 2nd half is how you would respond pastorally
        • Soon discovered that it was more helpful to study for Ords in groups –> talk through various theologies, worship practices, pastoral care situations, etc.
        • After hours and hours of intense discussions and reading from such tantalizing volumes as The Book of Order and The Book of Confessions, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that we all got a little … punchy. When someone would propose an exam-type scenario, the rest of us would simply respond with our best revival tent, Bible belt impression: The answer is Jesus!
          • Answer-wise: may be a little simplistic … still ultimately the right answer, right?
            • Perfect words from imperfect lips
    • And imperfect words fall from our lips every day.
      • Sometimes we’re aware – we know when we …
        • Lie
        • Gossip
        • Intentionally insult
      • But this isn’t always the case. The things that we say can sometimes inadvertently hurt, offend, or upset people – imperfect words tumbling out of our imperfect lips before we stop to think about them, words we’d often like to take back.
    • Our examples from Scripture this morning – both Job and Peter – are far from perfect as well. And yet in the midst of their imperfection, we find them uttering perfect words.
  • Job
    • Backstory: Job has lost everything – health, wealth, family – and while his wife and his friends question his faith, he remains faithful to God
      • Job’s problem: spends a lot of time proclaiming his own self-righteousness –> Imperfect words falling like rain from imperfect lips.
    • Toward the end of the book, God finally responds to all Job’s complaints and sanctimonious speeches. God reminds Job of God’s own power and omnipotence, artistry and inspiration, infinite knowledge and wisdom. And after this eminent revelation comes our passage for today – Job’s reply to God’s majesty:
      • I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.[1] –> Even though his world has been turned upside-down, Job still manages to recognize God’s sovereignty. Not only that, but Job finds a humility and a reverence that he didn’t have in the beginning.
        • Always believed in God
        • Always loved God
        • But for a while, Job became too swallowed up by his imperfect words to allow himself to be awed by God. But when God’s glory was finally able to shine through, Job speaks words of perfect humility and devotion: I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
          • How often does this happen to us?
            • Get swallowed up by all those little irritants –> lose sight of what’s important (faith, relationship with God)
        • Job’s story teaches us how to find humility before God again
          • Scholar: Job’s confession acknowledges God’s power and ability to implement plans.[2] –> Job is still human. His lips are still imperfect. And yet, we hear a perfect affirmation of God’s sovereignty from those imperfect lips.
  • So let’s turn to Peter, an apostle who is also far from perfect.
    • Peter’s impulsive nature – often got him into trouble
      • Sees Jesus walking on the water: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water” –> Jesus says, “Come” –> part way through his journey, Peter’s fear overcomes his belief and he begins to sink –> Jesus saves him[3]
      • Incident in Garden of Gethsemane: soldiers come to arrest Jesus –> Peter draws sword and cuts off ear of high priest’s servant[4]
      • Not just impulsive actions but words as well – following today’s reading: Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But [Jesus] turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block.”[5]
        • “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me.” That sounds like a reaction to words uttered by profoundly imperfect lips to me.
    • But in our text for today, we come upon Peter’s saving grace: perfect words from his imperfect mouth.
      • Text: Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say that the Son of Man is?” … Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”[6] –> Like Job, Peter affirms the true nature of God. He names Christ as the Messiah – the One for whom they had waited, the One who would save them all. While the other disciples spoke from their heads, comparing Jesus to powerful (yet solely human!) examples from Jewish history, Peter spoke from his heart. And it was by doing this that he was able to make that profound and yet crucial leap from the imperfect to the perfect, from the familiar to the unknown, from the human to the divine.
  • Another important lesson from Peter’s story – don’t find in Job’s story –> Let’s look at Peter’s perfect and imperfect examples again.
    • Example – perfect words from today’s text = Matthew 16:13-20
    • Example – imperfect words and Jesus’ response of “Get behind me Satan!” = Matthew 16:21-23
    • You see, Job’s perfect words of witness came at the end of his story. They followed all the imperfections, almost as if he glossed over the bad with the good, trying to redeem the bad with the good through his own efforts. But Peter’s redeeming words preceded his imperfect ones.
      • God knew Peter’s impulsiveness would get in his own way – not so different for us –> God knows that sometimes, we’re going to say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing, or neglect to act as we know we should.
    • Peter’s story teaches us that it’s not always about saying the right thing at the right time.
      • Not about covering every wrong answer with a right one –> can’t earn grace
      • Not about telling yourself you’re only going to “say the right things” from now on –> perfection is impossible
  • You see, despite all the slip-ups and complaints, God’s love never wanes. God’s mercy never fails. Jesus’ response to Peter is similar to God’s response to Job: blessing.
    • God’s response to Job’s humble repentance = restoration and renewal
    • Jesus’ response to Peter – text: And Jesus answered him, “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, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.”[7]
      • So then what is it about? It’s about knowing the right answer – the perfect words – in your heart. It’s about believing in the truth and the saving power of the gospel. Even when our lives are muddles, even when everything feels like it’s falling apart, even when our imperfections are overwhelming us, do we treasure the perfect truth and everlasting love of our Savior deep inside?
  • Sometimes, as far as the world is concerned, we have anything but “the right answer.”
    • Friends who struggle mightily with passing Ordination Exams
      • Took 3 or 4 attempts
      • Some still haven’t passed
      • For whatever reason, the answers that they pour their hearts into are not the ones that the exam readers are looking for. The answers that they spend hours agonizing over just aren’t enough. And this can be a really difficult thing.
        • Ords = significant step in PC(USA) ordination process –> have to get permission from presbytery’s Committee on Preparation for Ministry every time you want to take them
        • Treated by a lot of presbyteries as an indicator of validity of a candidate’s call –> So when these friends of mine are struggle to pass these exams, they’re not only questioning their own knowledge and abilities, they’re also questioning whether or not they’re actually called.
          • Sometimes presbyteries handle dilemma well – encouragement and alternate forms of testing
          • Sometimes presbyteries don’t handle it well – dropping people from care process –> These committees are essentially saying, “We don’t think you’re really called to ministry after all,” and confirming the worst fears of those already struggling.
    • It is because of times like these – times when the world seems to be against us, when nothing’s working out the way it’s “supposed to,” when we feel like we can’t do anything right – it’s times like these that we have to remember the only answer that matters. When we ask ourselves who is in control. When we ask ourselves who can help us in the midst of this mess. When we ask ourselves who cares, who can pick us up and brush us off and make it all better, who can possibly love us in spite of everything that’s happened. The answer is Jesus. Amen.

[1] Job 42:2.

[2] Carol A. Newsom. “The Book of Job: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 4. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996), 628.

[3] Mt 14:22-33.

[4] Jn 18:10.

[5] Mt 16:21-23a.

[6] Mt 16:13, 16.

[7] Mt 16:17-18.

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