Raise your hand if you’ve ever tried to tell God what to do… me too. I think many of us have. We see a problem and tell God to help. We see a need and we expect God to act. We encounter adversity, pain, or a setback, and we hope God will deliver or get busy… and if God doesn’t seem active enough, we often pray for that divine intervention. Over the course of my ministry – and my life – I have both prayed and heard a lot of prayers that sound like we’re giving God a “to-do” list. Like, Hey God, here’s what I’m going to need from you this week – a little bit more money, cure aunt Kathy, drop some locusts on my neighbor whose dog won’t stop barking, help Jimmy hit a home run, vaccine please, and if you have time world peace. And in the same way that we can find ourselves telling God what to do, at times, I think we can catch ourselves telling God what not to do – we find ourselves drawing a line we don’t want God to cross – like, who can be forgiven or healed, or even where God’s Spirit might go.
That is where Peter finds himself in the 16th chapter of the gospel of Matthew… telling Jesus what he can’t do. Just prior to this text Peter and Jesus had a positive exchange. Peter confessed Jesus as the messiah, the Son of God. And Jesus said, “Blessed are you.” But now the story has taken a decidedly more ominous tone. See, from that time on Jesus began to show his disciples that he had to go to Jerusalem where he would undergo great suffering, be killed, and rise again. And for Peter this is a no-no. Messiahs don’t suffer. The son of God can’t be killed. And so, he takes Jesus aside (imagine that, consider the audacity of taking God aside and saying: we’re not going there, you’re not doing that, that’s not part of my plan for us). I mean it seems like a crazy thing that Peter does, until you reflect on how many times we’ve done something similar – how many times we’ve tried to lay our own plans out before God – plans that primarily aim to avoid pain, suffering, and death.
Well in the midst of his rebuke of Jesus, Peter gets hit with a pretty hard admonishment himself as Jesus says, “Get behind me, Satan. You are a stumbling block to me for you are setting your mind not on divine things, but human things.”
While this is the first time Peter has been called Satan. It is not the first time he has heard Jesus say: Get behind me. In fact, these were the first words he heard Jesus speak. Way back at the beginning of the story while fishing by the sea Jesus approached him and his brother and said: Get behind me. Most of the time we translate that differently, we translate that “follow me”, but in the original Greek it is the same sentence. And so, when Jesus rebukes Peter he isn’t just asking for him to get out of the way, but inviting him to get in line… to allow God to lead.
In the waters of baptism that same invitation is extended to us. By those waters we hear God say: get behind me, follow me. It Is an invitation to get out of our own way, an encouragement to stop being a stumbling block to ourselves and others, and an offer to allow God to guide. Friends, we, like Peter, ARE CALLED TO FOLLOW… To go where God calls us to, not to tell God where to go… To minister to those God would have us, not to have us tell God who needs help… To listen to Jesus, rather than boss him around… and To allow our prayer to include as much listening as it does talking… to not just tell God what we need, but to see what God might need from us.
There’s an old phrase: let go and let God. As cliché as that sometimes seems, it is the invitation extended in this gospel – after this altercation with Peter Jesus turns and tells his disciples, “If you lose your life, you will find it.” If you can just let go, you will discover abundant and blessed life.
See, that’s the part Peter missed when Jesus was talking. All he heard was Jesus say he was going to suffer and be killed. He was so caught up with that he didn’t hear Jesus say, “I will rise again.”
That is the promise we have in Christ. That is why we follow Christ… Not because we expect life to be perfect or good all the time, but because we know that Christ has conquered the grave, because we know that when life is at its worst our God is at his best, and because we know that while suffering and death are realities we must endure the end of our story is life that never ends.
One of my ongoing fears for the church is that we, like Peter, still think we’re smarter than Jesus. He says, love and pray for your enemies, we choose bombs. He says, give to everyone who begs, we turn a blind eye. He says, don’t judge, and yet, we gossip. He says, forgive and yet we feel safer holding on. We like to take God aside and tell him how it’s going to be.
Well, maybe today we let go of all that – get behind Jesus – and let God do his thing. Amen.
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