We often lose our nerve. However, when Christians lose their nerve it is both a cause for shame and repentance and the occasion for renewal and growth.
Jeremiah 15:15-21; Matthew 16:21-28
Have you ever lost confidence in someone or something?
Gallup recently updated its 2022 poll surveying Americans’ confidence in public institutions. The data show we continue to lose confidence in 11 of the 16 institutions Gallup tracks. The trend continues in 2023.
But this crisis of confidence isn’t just for institutions. We’re losing faith in each other. This has been going on for some years now, but it seems to be picking up steam as the next election cycle approaches.
So, we’ve lost our confidence, but today we have two stories about what happens when God loses His confidence in us.
Jeremiah, a true and chosen prophet, utters blasphemy and calls God a liar. He says:
“[God,] You are to me like a deceptive brook, like a spring that fails.”
This immediately disqualifies Jeremiah from continuing as God’s spokesman.
We know this because in the very next verse God says:
“If you repent, I will restore you that you may serve me. If you utter worthy, not worthless, words, you will be my spokesman.”
It’s almost as if God said, “I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that, nevertheless here’s what you need to do to fix it.”
In a word repent. Be faithful to the words that I have given you.
A similar story is told in today’s reading from Matthew.
Jesus tells His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem to suffer many things and be killed.
Peter calls Jesus a liar, in so many words. What Peter says is:
“Never, Lord! This shall never happen to you!”
Jesus’s response is harsh. He says:
“Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
In other words, “Peter, I am telling you something very straightforward and yet because you disagree with me, you seek to oppose me.”
Both Jeremiah and Peter lost their standing with God by doubting God’s word.
To what extent do we do the same, especially when that word is plain and clear? Now there are parts of the Bible that are obscure. No one disputes that. But there are passages that shine like the sun and can help to illuminate even the darker passages with God’s grace.
For instance, there are two obscure sayings in today’s gospel. The first is when Jesus:
“…began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”
The second one is:
“For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.”
You can be forgiven for not understanding what these mean right away.
At first, it’s probably easier to tease out what they don’t mean.
First, Jesus is not going to gain the confidence of the Jerusalem establishment. Likewise, anyone who is hoping that Jesus will “drain the swamp” will be disappointed.
Second, things aren’t going to change, not at first anyway. The Jerusalem establishment is entrenched and powerful and will not think twice about conspiring to kill a popular leader.
Third, those who want to see real change happen and who want to be a part of making that change happen are going to have to pay the price.
The fundamental reforms that need to take place in Israel do not come cheap. They are not free. They are going to cost something.
This isn’t going to be as simple as saying, “Let’s Make Israel Great Again” or going back to the original intent of the Law of Moses.
In other words, neither nostalgia nor originalism will work.
So, what will work?
To answer this, I think it helps to ask: Why did both Jeremiah and Peter doubt God’s word? I think it’s because both men lost their nerve.
Jeremiah recounts his initial love for God’s word. He says:
“When your words came, I ate them; they were my joy and my heart’s delight.”
But then persecution and suffering came to Jeremiah, what Jesus calls “the cross.”
Jeremiah got tired of carrying his cross. He lost his nerve.
Likewise, Peter begins to lose his nerve when Jesus speaks of His own imminent death. It is becoming apparent to Peter that if his master suffers, he too would have to suffer.
And Jesus makes that clear, not just to Peter, but to all of the disciples. He says:
“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
This seems to be the only method sanctioned by God to true reform, whether that is personal reform or political reform.
If you want to change something sinful in your life you need to begin by denying yourself.
Now, for most people, our thinking about self-denial doesn’t get much further than giving something up for Lent, which is not something I recommend you do, though it can be a useful way to teach the concept to children.
But by the time you’re in your second decade of life you need to start to grow into a mature Christian faith.
Unfortunately, this is when most of us stop growing in our faith in Christ and start growing in our faith in ourselves.
It’s during these years that we start to doubt God’s word, trying to self-justify our wickedness using so many human words.
“I was born this way.”
“I am a victim.”
“This is my authentic self.”
“I am speaking my truth.”
Eventually, we sound just like Jeremiah in his moment of apostasy:
“Why is my pain unending and my wound grievous and incurable?”
In moments like these the Church dares to answer:
“You were not born this way. The pain is the effect of sin, both original and actual, in your life.”
“You are not a victim. Christ is the victim — your victim. You have wounded Him, or, more specifically, your sins have wounded Him.”
“This is not who you really are. What good is it for you to live this way yet lose your soul?”
“Your word is not truth. Jesus says the words of His Father are truth and that they will sanctify you.”
Take heart, today’s gospel tells us that you and I are not incurable. This parish is not incurable. This country is not incurable.
Jesus tells us, “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
I believe that. I believe that Jesus is returning. The signs are all around us.
Why would you spend your remaining days keeping the old man alive or propping this old world up?
Let it fall. Let it die.
But be sure that you are right with God.
I’ve said it before and will say it for as long as I preach. God does not love you just for being you. He loves you because you have been washed in His Son’s Blood.
If you haven’t been washed, you will not enter the kingdom of God.
King David wrote in Psalm 2:
“Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and ye perish from the way… Blessed are all they that put their trust in him.”
Kiss the Son, my friends. Kiss Him. Put your faith in Him. If you believe His word — and try to live by it and teach others to do the same — then God will never lose confidence in you. Amen.
Preached on September 3, 2023 at St. Peter’s Lithgow, Millbrook, New York.
Questions for reflection and discussion:
1. America is experiencing a crisis of confidence in her ____________.
2. In today’s readings we have two stories about what happens when God loses His ____________ in us.
3. By calling God a liar, Jeremiah utters ____________.
4. This disqualifies Jeremiah from continuing as God’s ____________ or ____________.
5. Jesus calls Peter “Satan” because Peter ____________ the meaning of Jesus’ words.
6. Both Jeremiah and Peter lost their standing with God by ____________ God’s word.
7. Anyone who is hoping that Jesus will “____________” will be disappointed.
8. The Jerusalem establishment is entrenched and powerful and will not think twice about ____________ a popular leader.
9. Those who want to see real change happen and who want to be a part of making that change happen are going to have to pay a heavy _____________.
10. Jeremiah lost his nerve when he faced _____________. Peter began to lose his nerve when he realized that he would have to take up his _____________.
11. Self-denial means we have to stop our efforts at _____________.
12. Today’s gospel assures us that you and I are not _____________. Neither is our ____________ or ____________.
Parents and Grandparents, you are responsible to apply God’s Word to your children’s lives. Here is some help. Young Children – draw a picture about something you hear during the sermon. Explain your picture(s) to your parents or the minister after church. Older Children – Do one or more of the following: 1) Count how many times “confidence” is mentioned. 2) Discuss with your parents what happens when you let someone down.
(1) public institutions; (2) confidence; (3) blasphemy; (4) spokesman, prophet; (5) opposed; (6) doubting; (7) “drain the swamp”; (8) conspiring to kill; (9) price; (10) persecution, cross; (11) self-justification; (12) incurable, church, country
See Matt. 22:1-14 for the parable of the wedding guest who is removed from the feast for not wearing the proper attire. We must be clothed in Jesus Christ to enter the banquet. Baptism is symbolic both of washing and a new garment.