The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 19 - 16 September 2012

Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 116:1-8
James 3:1-12
St. Mark 8:27-38

Background: Caesarea Philippi
This place name is so associated with this confession of Peter that I thought it might be interesting to talk about the place.  Located near the southwestern base of Mt. Hermon in the Golan Heights area, it is the site of a spring and grotto and thus several shrines devoted to the god Pan.  Originally the site was named either Banieas or Paneas, reflecting the cult that had developed there.  The site is not mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures, but is mentioned in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (and also in Thomas).  It was first settled by the Ptolomies (Hellenic rulers of Egypt) in the third century BCE.  Pan was the god of “desolate places”, so the site seems appropriate to that.  It is, however, located close to the Way of the Sea, the trade route that stretched from Mesopotamia into the Levant, also the route of ancient armies.  In 20 BCE, Paneas was annexed to the Kingdom of Herod the Great, and in 3 BCE Philip the Tetrarch founded a city there.  In 14 AD it was named Caesarea Philippi in honor of Caesar Augustus.  In the Gospel account, Jesus doesn’t enter the city but is in the region.  It is here that he asks of his disciples, “who do people say that I am?” 
Isaiah 50:4-9a
The Lord GOD has given me
the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain
the weary with a word.
Morning by morning he wakens--
wakens my ear
to listen as those who are taught.
The Lord GOD has opened my ear,
and I was not rebellious,
I did not turn backward.
I gave my back to those who struck me,
and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
from insult and spitting.

The Lord GOD helps me;
therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
he who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
Let us stand up together.
Who are my adversaries?
Let them confront me.
It is the Lord GOD who helps me;
who will declare me guilty?

In a section of IInd Isaiah called “Hymns to the New Jerusalem” we have today’s reading about “Israel in darkness” or the Third Suffering Servant Song.  Who is the servant?  To the eye of IInd Isaiah it is the collective whole of Israel.  In this understanding, the prophet encourages the people to have open ears, awakened each morning to the Word of God.  Listening to the Word and then structuring life around its understanding is a dangerous thing in the mind of the prophet.  “I gave my back to those who struck me,” seems to indicate how others treated those who listened and acted on God’s Word.

The second section (verses 7-9) contrasts good and evil in the context of the courtroom.  In a virtual pun (the word disgraced is a form of the verb to buffet seems to bind the two sections together. The prophet states his case directly with declarative sentences and sharp questions.  The last sentence of the song is elided from the reading, but is helpful here.  “See they will all wear out like a garment, consumed by moths.”  The notion of cloth or of clothing becomes a metaphor for the person of the enemies, those who persecute the hearers and doers of the Word.  God’s help and redemption is stated succinctly in this verse that concludes the song.

Breaking open Isaiah:
  1. How do you hear God?
  2. Have you ever been derided for your faith?

Psalm 116:1-8 Dilexi, quoniam

I love the LORD, because he has heard the voice of my supplication, *
because he has inclined his ear to me whenever I called upon him.

The cords of death entangled me;
the grip of the grave took hold of me; *
I came to grief and sorrow.

Then I called upon the Name of the LORD: *
"O LORD, I pray you, save my life."

Gracious is the LORD and righteous; *
our God is full of compassion.

The LORD watches over the innocent; *
I was brought very low, and he helped me.

Turn again to your rest, O my soul, *
for the LORD has treated you well.

For you have rescued my life from death, *
my eyes from tears, and my feet from stumbling.

I will walk in the presence of the LORD *
in the land of the living.

In this Thanksgiving Psalm, in the Hebrew, the first verset ends with the name YHWH, so that the sentence more correctly reads “I love when the Lord hears.”  That construction places the emphasis on the trust that the author has in God’s ability to hear and then to act.  Somehow the author has encountered death either through a personal tragedy, or in battle.  It is in this situation that he utters his plea, and “the Lord hears.”  The prayer is not only directed to God, but to the individual’s soul as well, “Turn again to your rest, O my soul.”  God’s intervention has returned life to a sense of normalcy and calm.  The phrase “I shall walk before the Lord” (in our reading, “I will walk in the presence of the Lord”) is an idiom expressing not only life’s journey with God, but also continued service to the God who has delivered the author from the threat of death.

Breaking open Psalm 116
  1. How do you speak with God?
  2. Does God listen to you?
  3. How do you know, and how do you react?

James 3:1-12
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.

How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue-- a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.

We continue with our continuing reading from the Epistle of James.  In James 1:19, James encourages his readers with the discipline of being “slow to speech.”  This section expands on that injunction by instructing his readers on how to teach, or how to use the tongue.  Various tools are mentioned, such as the rudder of a ship, or the bridle of horse, to bring to the reader’s mind the controls that are needed for Christian speech.  Other examples are used by the author such as a forest fire, or the cosmic reach of an untoward phrase.  An interesting set of contrasts concludes the second paragraph, where blessing God is contrasted with the curses with which we beset our God-created neighbor. 

Breaking open James:
  1. Who does James want us to be “slow of speech”?
  2. Have you ever regretted something that you have said?
  3. How did you redeem yourself?

Mark 8:27-38
Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that I am?" And they answered him, "John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets." He asked them, "But who do you say that I am?" Peter answered him, "You are the Messiah." And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, "Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things."

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels."

The confession of Peter at Caesarea Philippi is both a mountaintop experience and the nadir of misunderstanding.  At first blush, Peter seems to get it, understanding the “who” and role of Jesus.  What follows however is akin to the contrasts that James notes in the epistle.  Peter wants to dissuade Jesus from his talk of suffering and rejection.  Jesus sees in Peter’s speech nothing other than Satan, the argument of evil against his ministry in the world.  From this incident comes a sermon on denial and salvation, both tied together in the Christian effort to model Christ.  Of special note is the use of the word “ashamed”.  It not only distances us from the embarrassment of the Suffering Christ, but also distances us from the One who sent him.

Breaking open the Gospel:

  1. Do you have any sympathy for Peter in this situation?  Why?
  2. What do you think that Jesus means about denying yourself?
  3. Are you ever ashamed of your faith?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

O God, because without you we are not able to please you, mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.


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