December 31, 2017
Matthew 2:1-15; Matthew 16:13-20
I love Christmas because it is a season of love, joy, and new life. We celebrate the birth of Jesus, and look forward to seeing what kind of a man he will become. But we sometimes forget that the Christmas story also includes hatred, fear, and the threat of death.
Today’s first lesson from Matthew reminds us that the baby Jesus had a very rocky start.
The wise men were feeling great joy as they came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” (Matthew 2:2). They wanted to celebrate the new life of a king, whose birth was marked by an unusual star.
Their feelings, however, were not shared by King Herod. He was frightened, so he called together the chief priests and scribes, and learned from them that the king, also known as the Messiah, was supposed to be born in Bethlehem. Herod sent the wise men to Bethlehem, saying that he wanted them to find the baby so that he could worship him.
The wise men followed the star to Bethlehem and found the baby Jesus. They were “overwhelmed with joy” (v. 10), and gave Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Then they headed home by another road, having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, who was feeling no joy about the birth of Jesus.
An angel of the Lord gave a similar message to Joseph. “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him” (v. 13). So Joseph took Jesus and Mary to the safety of Egypt. After they left, Herod went on a killing spree, motivated by his hatred and fear, and massacred all of the infants of Bethlehem.
Fortunately, Jesus got away. But what a rocky start to his life.
A life of uncertainty
As we come to the end of 2017 and turn the corner into a new year, I want us to remember that the Christian life is not always filled with love and joy. Like Jesus himself, we are going to encounter hatred and fear and other threats to our well-being. The evangelist Billy Graham is well-known for his Christian faith, but even he admits, “I have my moments of deep discouragement. I have to go to God in prayer and say, ‘O God, forgive me,’ or ‘Help me.’”
For all of us, life is full of twists and turns, setbacks and reversals, dead ends. We walk an uncertain path, and we don’t always know if we are going in the right direction. Throughout our lives, we start new jobs, new relationships, and new business ventures without a lot of clarity about what the future will hold. Today, as we prepare to move into the year 2018, we may find ourselves facing a very rocky start.
Fortunately, the followers of Jesus have been here before. And from them, we can learn about making a commitment to Jesus as we begin a new stage in our lives.
Peter takes a leap of faith
Jumping from Matthew chapter 2 to Matthew chapter 16, we find Jesus on the road with his disciples. They enter the district of Caesarea Philippi and Jesus asks them, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They report to him what they are hearing on the street: John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or another one of the prophets. Then Jesus says, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter cuts through all the confusion and says, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (vv. 13-16).
Peter is announcing that Jesus is the very same king that the wise men visited in Bethlehem. Jesus is God’s Messiah, which means “Anointed One.” In ancient Israel, kings were always anointed with olive oil, and in Jesus’ time the Messiah was the king who would save God’s people.
We have to give Peter credit for taking a leap of faith and saying that Jesus is the Messiah. Although he has seen his master’s power at work, he does not yet have complete clarity about who Jesus is. Still, he is willing to take a stand in the middle of a time of uncertainty and affirm that Jesus is the Anointed One, the Messiah.
On top of this, Peter is showing real courage in making this statement in the city of Caesarea Philippi. You can tell from the name Caesarea that there is a lot of Roman influence here — Caesarea honors the Roman emperor Tiberius Caesar. But the place is also known as “Panias” because it contains the Cave of Pan, the Roman god who is half human and half goat. Pan is the god of the wild, and his cave is believed to be the Gate of Hades. So when Peter takes a leap of faith and says that Jesus is “the Son of the living God,” he is saying yes to Jesus and no to Pan. He is saying yes to Jesus and no to all of the idols of the world.
It is right here, in Caesarea Philippi, that a rocky start becomes a rock-solid commitment. Jesus says to Peter, “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 Hades will not prevail against it” (vv. 17-18).
This is a rich statement, but it becomes even more valuable when we look at it in the original language of the New Testament. In Greek, Peter is Petros and rock is petra, so Jesus is having a little fun with words here. He is saying: You are Petros, Peter, and on this petra, rock, I will build my church.
What Jesus is saying is this: The one who has a rock-solid commitment is the one who will be favored by God. “On this rock I will build my church,” says Jesus, “and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” The gates of Hades were right there, in the Cave of Pan at Caesarea Philippi. Jesus is saying that the church has power over the Roman gods of the underworld, and over the Roman people who worship them. He promises that the keys to the kingdom of heaven will not be given to Philip, the son of King Herod — the same Herod who tried to kill the baby Jesus. The keys will not be given to Tiberius Caesar, whom Philip honored by naming the city Caesarea Philippi. Instead, the keys will be given to Peter and the Christian church.
Solid foundations for rocky times
Often, when we speak of a rocky start, we are talking about a beginning that is shaky and uncertain. But in this case, Peter’s rocky start is the exact opposite: It is grounded in a rock-solid commitment. When Peter says, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” Jesus responds by saying, “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” Peter’s commitment to Jesus results in Jesus making a commitment to him. Peter becomes the rock of Christ’s church, a solid foundation for rocky times.
That kind of commitment is what we need today, as we face rocky times. Such a commitment can be a solid foundation for our lives today, and in the new year.
Are you familiar with the hymn “Rock of Ages”? It is one of the most widely published English hymns, and is in our hymnal. It even entered popular culture in the Broadway show and movie called Rock of Ages. The hymn was written in 1775 by a man named August Toplady. The story is that Toplady wrote the hymn in the cleft of a rock, where he hid for refuge during a storm. This fits the dramatic line, “Rock of Ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee.” Today, there is a rock in England which has a plaque on it, claiming to be the spot that inspired the hymn. Is the story true? Probably not.
Jesus the Rock
The real truth of Toplady’s life is actually more interesting. Toplady began his career with a desire to be a Methodist minister, following the teachings of John Wesley. But there was a great theological debate going on at that time between Arminianism and Calvinism. Clergy in the Methodist Church tended to be Arminians, while clergy in the Church of England were usually Calvinists. It was a time of ugly debates, and plenty of uncertainty and confusion. Kind of like today.
August Toplady started out as an Arminian, but then became convinced of the truth of Calvinism. He wrote and debated on these theological distinctions, and the result was a major, public rift between him and John Wesley. He died young, at age 38, and never resolved his differences with Wesley.
So Toplady’s life ended before he could make peace with a man who had once been his mentor. It is a sad personal story. But the good news is that he found a solid foundation in Jesus, the Rock of Ages. His hymn says: “let the water and the blood, from thy wounded side which flowed, be of sin the double cure; save from wrath and make me pure.”
A rock on which to build
We live in rocky times, with plenty of ugly debates, uncertainty and confusion. But a rock-sold commitment can make a huge difference in the way that we approach the challenges of life. Think of Joseph and Mary, fleeing to Egypt to protect the life of the baby Jesus. Think of Simon Peter, walking into Caesarea Philippi with idols all around him, but willing to take a strong stand for Jesus the Messiah.
When we make a commitment to Jesus, we are given a firm foundation in uncertain times. By saying yes to him, we say no to the idols of our era — idols such as money, possessions, and political power. By being committed to Jesus, we receive the assurance of his commitment to us. And by accepting him as the Rock of Ages, we are given the gift of his acceptance, forgiveness and assistance.
It might seem like a rocky start to say that Jesus is the Messiah. But there is no better rock on which to build our lives. Amen.
“Ancient Caesarea Philippi,” Bible History Online, http://www.bible-history.com/biblestudy/caesarea-philippi.html.
Tim Challies, “Hymn Stories: Rock of Ages,” @Challies, April 14, 2013, http://www.challies.com/articles/hymn-stories-rock-of-ages.