Sermon / Pr. Lucas Albrecht/ Season Of Pentecost Proper 17 Sunday September 03rd 2017 - / Matthew 16:21-28 / Deny yourself
Text: Matthew 16.21-28
Theme: Deny yourself
Intr – The Diomede Islands. Have you ever heard about them?
I invite you to picture the image. The Diomede Islands consist of two rocky islands: The Russian island of Big Diomede. The American island of Little Diomede. The Diomede Islands are located in the middle of the Bering Strait between mainland Alaska and Siberia, which borders with the Chukchi Sea to the north and the Bering Sea to the south.
Now, because they are separated by the International Date Line, Big Diomede is almost a day ahead of Little Diomede; due to locally defined time zones, Big Diomede is 21 hours ahead of Little Diomede. Because of this the islands are sometimes called Tomorrow Island (Big Diomede) and Yesterday Island (Little Diomede).
At their closest points, the two islands are about 3.8 km (2.4 mi) apart. During winter, an ice bridge usually spans the distance between these two islands; therefore during such times it is theoretically possible (although not legal, since travel between the two islands is forbidden) to walk between the United States and Russia.
Now think how crazy that is. Two islands in the Behring strait, only 2,4 miles apart. During winter you could even walk from one to the other over the ice bridge that forms there. Because of an international time line drawn right in between them though, they sit 21 hours apart from each other. If you are in big Diomede and get across to the little Diomede, you go back in time. If you do the other way around, you jump ahead almost a day. They are almost the same. But they have this oddity of time between them.
Why do I bring this up? Because in today’s Gospel, we see something that looks like this. Only that it is not an Island, but a Rock. Petrus. That is, Saint Peter. Last Sunday, we saw Big Saint Peter confessing Christ as the Messiah. Now, the portion of text that sits right by its side shows almost an abyss of distance - Little Peter. Here he is trying to give some advice Jesus on how the Saviour should behave in the face of trial, and temptation; so little was Peter that Jesus calls out Satan in him!
1 - Peter looks also like us. Even as Christians, sometimes we jump back in time. We go from big to small, jumping from tomorrow to yesterday. We fall back in sin. We think we can figure out everything to the point that we can even counsel God on how things should be.
-When we see a storm like Harvey;
-When a young person dies;
-When someone we love is diagnosed with bad news;
-When things do not happen the way we think they should.
Then, thinking that we already know what justice, fairness, equality and good sense is all about, we start lecturing about how thing should or must have been. We try even to read the mind of God to say things we shouldn’t. Things that sometimes hurt even more, instead of bringing comfort.
This is us. Small like an island. But thinking that we are as big as the whole world. Yes, for when human beings using the fullest of their intelligence think they have everything figured out; whenever they conclude from their own reasoning that this or that cannot be true since it does not make sense to them; whenever we declare rights and wrongs about God’s actions, we are excluding the possibility that God might as well be bigger than the thoughts of our mind, that there’s is much more out there than the limits of our island-sized limited way of thinking. If I can determine God’s size based only in what I can conceive, then I am God. There’s nothing bigger.
That’s little Peter. Trying to know more than Jesus himself how things should be. That’s little us. Thinking that we have already everything figured out, and dismissing whatever clashes against our pre-conceived ideas, or the values of the moment. And then, we also fall back into yesterday, which always lies less than a couple miles away - Sin. Then, we are miles away from the truth. Even when it is just at hand.
2 – Christ puts things into perspective. “If you want to follow me. Deny yourself. Take your cross. Follow me.” Peter, and the rest of the 12 –and us! -, are being counselled to stop trying to figure out how they think things should be and take them as they are. In this case: faith receives opposition. So it was. So it is. So it will be.
We are shown that there can be a whole world of distance between our small discernment and God’s Big wisdom, love and care. So we should stop trying to get everything inside the box. We are nothing more than islands in an ocean of unawareness. How can we say that this or that must not be true, or is or is not God’s will just because it doesn’t fit within the borders of our known land?
Christ has bridged over the gap created by sin between God and us, so now we can walk in faith in Him, to Him, with Him. Yesterday, in the past, on the Cross, Jesus fulfilled the work that allows us a tomorrow. Walking in faith in HIm does not turn everything into as we think they should be. But it will surely make it clear about how things really are. More importantly, taking up our cross reminds us of who it is who walks with us through times of trouble.
Christ is calling us to deny ourselves. To deny our “little us” of sin and to embrace the big us in the Gospel - made great by the One who is Greater than all! Great in faith, forgiveness, care for our neighbours. Great also in recognizing that there is so much outside of our limited mind and understanding that the best thing to do is to deny ourselves and to be in His arms.
When we come to the “bearing the cross”, that crucial point of Christian faith, we are reminded of this: what we think about God makes more sense when we know what God thinks about us. We try to access God from what we think about Him, we will more often than not find ourselves in the cul-de-sacs, dead ends of our limited minds. When however we access God from what He thinks about us – which is revealed in His word – then we have a complete and reliable picture of who He is and what does operate in our lives.
3 - And if we want to realize another feature of what carrying our cross looks like we can turn to Romans 12, where Paul list a whole set of crazy things we should pay attention to, and do as Christ’s followers. The new life in Christ leaves us a bit of a strange people. After saying “let your minds be transformed”, Paul starts listing a series of little weird attitudes that should flow from it.
For example: “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought”. Another one: “think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.” Another strange counsel: “Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good”. Still: “Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.” And to cap off our short list of strange things: “Be patient in suffering.”
This list definitely does not sound normal to the ears of our world. If it was not like this we wouldn’t have the scenario we see all around. Injustice, fake love, selfishness, rage against people who think differently, lack of respect - just to mention a few of them. Daily news and experiences show that what is normal to Christians is quite strange to many. Many of the current society values are just the opposite of what St. Paul urges us to do. That’s why this Christian way of life sounds a bit strange.
This is strange for the world. But just regular life in God’s Kingdom. This is what the change of mind that the Gospel realizes in our hearts binds us to do. By faith Jesus calls us out from the reality of sin and err to His Kingdom of love and forgiveness. He propels us to a life full of patience, respect, real love, patience in suffering... Things that sound quite strange in a selfish, ungodly world.
We know for sure that we are not perfect, and we will still stumble and fall. But in Word and Sacrament, Christ bridges the past and the future, giving us hope in the present. Sometimes we will still fall back in sin. But we can always look to Him, who lifts us up from ditch of sin and shows us a bright tomorrow. In Him we get out of the box, from the “normal things” in the world’s eyes to live that strange life of people who bear a cross, who follow their Master and who know that we can’t always understand God’s wisdom and actions. But we can always trust them.
Cc – By the way, the Diomede Islands were named after a character from the Greek Mythology. Leaving aside the meaning in that context, when we look to the name itself, it means Deos –Deos – God, and medomai, “To think, to plan”. When you feel small as a tiny island. When you feel that you are criss-crossing the line to much, going back to sin and sorrow. When the cross seems too heavy. When you think that there’s no tomorrow – do not forget this: God thinks of you. What we think about God makes more sense when we know what God thinks about us. God in his Salvation plan in Christ brought you to Him. Also, there’s not a single plan from God that could have flaws. Not a single one.
In the ocean of His love we will never drift away. We have always a secure, and timeless piece of land where to put our feet upon. The very palm of His hand.
 The Diomede Islands are often mentioned as likely intermediate stops for the hypothetical bridge or tunnel (Bering Strait crossing) spanning the Bering Strait.
 (Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diomede_Islands ).