Brief synopsis of the readings: In the 50th chapter of the book of the prophet Isaiah he tells us that God opened his ear so that he may hear. Once done, “I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting.” But God gave him the strength: “See, the Lord God is my help; who will prove me wrong?” In Marks’ Gospel Jesus asked his disciples who those say that he is. They respond that some see him as a prophet. But when Jesus asks them what they think he is. Peter then tells Jesus that he is the Messiah. Jesus then ordered them not to tell anyone about this.
Let’s face it: sometimes deafness gives us a good place to hide. Last week I spoke of Christians who cling to a juvenile faith because it makes their lives easier and allows them to avoid hard questions. It’s not a stretch to recognize that deafness isn’t always a physical inability to hear: sometimes it’s an unwillingness to listen and take responsibility for what we hear.
I find it interesting that once God opened Isaiah’s ear, bad things happened to him. He was struck, his beard was torn, he was insulted and spit upon. You have to wonder if Isaiah didn’t wonder from time to time whether or not his life was better when he was deaf.
You see, Isaiah was a prophet. I’ve said this before, but prophets are called to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” This was never a role for people who wanted to be liked, respected, and revered. Prophets pay a high price and we have to wonder why they do this.
I have a theory why prophets speak up: their moral compass does not allow them to do otherwise. That’s not an easy task. Sam Rayburn, US House Speaker in the 1940s and 1950s, famously said that if you want to get along you need to go along. We all know people who are happy, or at least willing, to do that. They check their morality at the door in service of popularity and/or job security and pretend to care about things they don’t and ignore things they should care about.
I believe that discipleship in Jesus calls us to nothing if it doesn’t call us to the moral compass that directed Isaiah. He recognized that God called him to a place where the popular people would not join them. He recognized that he was called to a path that wouldn’t make him powerful or even respected.
And so when, in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus asked a dangerous question: Who do people say that I am? They told him that some think of him as a prophet. But then he asked: “Who do you say that I am?” We don’t know if any of them answered before Peter but I have to think that several of his followers gave him safe answers: You are a good teacher, you are a wise man, you are a prophet. As an aside I appreciate that Jesus was an effective enough leader that none of his followers likely felt the need to fawn over him or curry favor by claiming that Jesus was the best/wisest/smartest person in this history of the world.
When Peter uttered his famous words “You are the Messiah” he changed everything for his disciples. If Jesus was simply a prophet or a teacher, his disciples could go on with their lives as better people. But when Peter identified Jesus as the Christ (the anointed one), suddenly those gathered became the leaders of what we now know as the Christian Church.
Let me draw an analogy: We know that the apostle Paul was a Pharisee before he became an apostle. In Acts 22:3 that learned that he was a student of the Pharisee Gamaliel. Most Christians don’t recognize his name, but nearly all Jewish scholars recognize his importance. Had Paul continued his path as a Pharisee none of us would recognize his name because he was nothing more than a student of an important teacher. Had Jesus been just a prophet or a teacher his disciples would have been nothing more than students.
But because Jesus was much, much more than a teacher or prophet his disciples were much, much more than students. I remember reading Mark’s Gospel and recognizing a sea change after this passage. Now they began to understand that Jesus wasn’t just another Isaiah, or John the Baptist, or Gamaliel. Peter’s recognition meant that they now became the first generation of leaders of a faith that would change the world.
I don’t see these readings as good history lessons, and I hope none of us do. Two thousand years after this Gospel I hope we recognize that we all experience times when we say something that changes our lives: “Will you marry me?” “I believe we’re ready to have a child.” Or we answer a question with “Yes.”
Like those gathered in today’s Gospel, they signed on to a promise having no idea how they were going to keep it. Our call to discipleship doesn’t end with accepting that Jesus is the Christ. Embedded in our choice to follow Jesus we are called to keep our promises, even the ones we made with no idea what we promised.
And that’s the problem: if we live only for ourselves, if we live thinking ourselves the most important person in the world, our morality is easy. I remember in the 1970s hearing the phrase “looking our for number one.” This phrase argued that we are called to care about ourselves before others and this will lead us on the path of happiness. This calls us to evaluate our homes, our jobs, our friendships, our marriages, and our families in terms of how satisfying they are to us. If they don’t satisfy us we should look out for number one and walk away.
But if we accept that Jesus is the Christ we can’t look out for number one. We believe that Jesus isn’t simply a prophet or a teacher or a smart guy (though he clearly was all those). He is more. He is not simply the path to intelligence or wisdom, he is the path to eternal life. And this path calls us to embrace the poor and outcast because our path to salvation calls us to each other. Reaching out and creating community with the people who make us uncomfortable embody the promises we made when we decided to follow Jesus.
Our choice to heal our deafness and our choice to follow Jesus tells us that we cannot live lives that makes us safe and easy. But our choice gives our lives meaning that goes long beyond “looking our for number one.” It gives our lives meaning that advances the Kingdom of God that Jesus calls us to.