August 23, 2020

Brief synopsis of the readings: Speaking through Isaiah God warns Shebna, master of the palace, that he will be replaced by Eliakim. Eliakim will then earn all the perks (e.g. “your sash”). God will place upon him the “key of the House of David.” What he opens no one will close and what he closes no one will open. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus is surrounded by his disciples. He asks them who they think the Son of Man is. Several of them offered guesses: “Some say he is John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” Not satisfied Jesus replies: “Who do you think I am?” Peter then replied that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Delighted by this answer Jesus praises Peter that he will be the rock on which will be built the Church. Furthermore he will be given the keys of the kingdom of heaven.

Most of the time when I preach I attempt to go easy on the scholarly research for fear of getting lost in the weeds and losing the point of the readings. But I have to confess, this week I’m going to have to wander a little into the weeds.

We begin with two people most of us have never heard of: Shebna and Eliakim. They are minor characters and it’s unusual for Isaiah to choose them by name. Neither are the king: at that time Hezekiah was king and had found favor with God. But Shebna was a different story. He was “master of the palace,” still an important position. From what we can see Shebna used his office to advance himself.

This is hardly surprising and far from our only example of this. From the beginning of our civilization we’ve developed roles for each other and ourselves and we’ve (alas) found some roles more important than others. During COVID-19 we’ve seen confusion between “important” and “essential.” And some in these important roles have deemed themselves beyond accountability. Earlier in this chapter of Isaiah God calls out Shebna because he “carved out a sepulcher on a height and carved his tomb in the rock.”

I couldn’t find anything that speaks of a misuse of funds, but at least God is critical of his believing himself important enough to build this monument to himself. We’re all aware of the pharaohs in Egypt who built pyramids for themselves to ensure that their name would be great and long remembered (at least until they were looted).

The idea that Shebna could build this monument to himself and still find favor with God shows how he missed the mark. As master of the palace his role was to serve those around him and give glory to God, not himself. His position did nothing to increase his favor with God and was not supposed to increase his favor with others.

As a matter of fact I suspect Shebna lost favor not only with God but with those around him. They saw him using his position to glorify himself instead of serving others.

Years ago I had the privilege of listening to a baptist preacher who recounted speaking to a group of high school graduates. He reminded them that while they were young and looked forward to many more years, someday they would die. “Your family and friends will come to the church, then go to the cemetery, and then come back to the church basement and eat chicken salad sandwiches.” He then asked what legacy they wanted: titles or testimonies. He told them that a life well lived in God’s love would lead to a community who remembered them well and told their stories and that was much more important than the size of the rock with your name on it.

Moving to the Gospel it is true that Jesus carries many titles. But the fact that four Gospels have stood the test of time should tell us that he has more testimonies than titles. But today’s Gospel is ….interesting. Jesus asks those gathered: “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” He doesn’t ask who people say he is. And when his disciples duck the question by saying what other people say, he drills down and asks them “who do you say I am? The title “Son of Man” goes back to the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel and it always points to a messianic person who will redeem his people.

And here, more than most places, Peter came out shining with his answer: Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” How did Peter come to this? Was this a matter of the Holy Spirit whispering the correct answer in his ear, a way for Jesus to understand that God wanted Peter to lead? Was it like legend of King Arthur who was chosen king when he was able to pull the sword Excalibur from the stone?

Perhaps. But perhaps Peter saw something in Jesus that no one else saw. All his disciples followed Jesus for some reason. Some were simply captivated by his words. Others hoped to ride his coattails to new opportunities while others simply liked being a member of an inner circle of a large group.

But if we play with the idea of the Son of Man and Jesus, perhaps Peter is the first of the disciples to make the connection. Jesus isn’t simply the one who will liberate them from Rome, he is the Son of Man who will redeem all people and welcome all of us into heaven. Whatever insight caused Peter to see Jesus as the Son of Man led Jesus to recognize that Peter would anchor the early church.

Peter saw that Jesus would be the leader who wouldn’t be interested in titles, but instead, testimonies.

And Peter, like Eliakim before him, would be given the Keys to the Kingdom.