Proverbs 1:20-33

Mark 8:27-38

I feel like I should have some kind of disclaimer about these gospel readings. We’re halfway through Ordinary Time, at the turning pt of Mark’s gospel, and Jesus’ identity has finally been grasped. The truth of who Jesus is has been “hidden” for seven chapters, and it’s finally out. The demons and religious outsiders have known it for a long time, but now Jesus’ followers – the insiders – can say who he is. When Peter finally says, “you’re the Anointed, the Child of God,” we want to stand up and cheer, it’s been such a long time coming.

Mark makes a big deal about Jesus’ “secret,” how careful he is about whom he shows himself to, as if God’s presence were some kind of secret. For us, it’s not much of a secret at all. Reading Mark’s gospel is kind of like watching a bad detective show that way: you know who did it and how, long before the cops get a clue. So we might wonder how Peter takes so long to figure this out. Then again, we knew how the story ended the first time we read it. Peter doesn’t. Jesus has been dropping clues all along, living in a way that only makes sense because God’s Spirit dwells in him, but it’s finally time to put his cards on the table. He asks the disciples to stake their claim: “who do you say I am?”

Peter gets it right, and Jesus goes on to a harder teaching. It’s like math class, where you just learned one thing, and now there’s something else to learn. It’s a lot like many classes, where each thing we learn leads us to something else we didn’t know. We’re constantly growing this way. Sometimes the curriculum changes, like in our children’s Sunday School class this year. Sometimes you transition to a new level, becoming a youth or an adult. Sometimes, you might be new at Sunday School in general. It’s all new – even if it’s the same old thing, you’re still learning it with new eyes.

Peter goes through several stages of learning all at once here. First, he answers a childhood question: “who do Mom and Dad say Jesus is?” We start with learning stories. Our faith is our own, but it wears words and ideas we get from someone else. The disciples answer that people say Jesus is John the Baptizer or Elijah; we begin by thinking God is like people we recognize, because that’s how we’ve been taught to see it.

The next stage Peter hits is adolescence, when you pull the rug out from under yourself. We ask, “I wonder who I think Jesus is.” Jesus asks us to think for ourselves. Whatever we learned as children, we’re usually not so clear at this point. We’re unsure enough about who we are, and there are lots of questions that can’t be rushed. Sometimes we feel as clear as Peter did (“you’re the Messiah”), but remember, that took seven-plus chapters to arrive. Peter invested lots of puzzling time in this answer. It was hard for him to say anything more, because much was still hidden. We spend a lot of time learning the content of words we’ve already said. We’ll always be learning.

Then young adulthood hits, and Peter says, “here, this is who Jesus will be.” Jesus goes on to deepen the sense of this ‘Messiah’ title, explaining that he’ll have to suffer and die to live out this call. Peter, though, is cruising along with his own plans. He has no time for the Christ to be rejected and die, and he tells him so. Jesus reacts strongly to this. We might too. We might tell Peter to get off his high horse and quit telling God what to do. Jesus throws some pretty strong words at Peter – not because Peter is unfaithful, just because he’s wrong. Peter is faithful even when he blows it, just like we’re usually more faithful than we can see in ourselves. We commit boldly to this life, even if the path turns out wrong.

Eventually, we move toward maturity – something that’s hinted at but not seen here. Eventually we say, “okay, Jesus is not exactly who I thought at first.” Jesus goes deeper into the Anointed role he fulfills, and he tells us that being God’s Anointed comes with no great human power. He shows us the way of uncompromising compassion, finding yourself by losing yourself. We eventually recognize – usually painfully – that much of what we valued at times doesn’t matter so much anymore. Our priorities are replaced, the deeper importance shows through some things we initially discounted, and the values we live by grow.

Notice that the question doesn’t change much each time: “Who do people say I am?” “Who do you say?” “Here’s what I say.” We come back time and again to the same questions, the same lessons, the same turning points in life. We come back to Sunday School and church – after the summer, after decades, or after just six days off – and it’s the same Bible, the same God. When we scratch the surface, we’re all wrestling with the same stuff: Who is God? Who am I? How am I going to live? We return each time for new depth, finding a different dimension of the same old questions, and we move forward and back on these stages.

We learn something new each time we come back. Even though we’re learning “the same old things,” we’re different people each time. We find more depth each time we come back to the same material. You can study the same chemical reaction or the same painting for years, and you won’t be done. Luther got it right when he said, “If you could understand a single grain of wheat, you would die of wonder.” The heavens indeed tell the glory of God, and they tell more each time we come back to them, if we can hear it anew.

This is a beginning time of year. You might be in a new beginning yourself – a new job, grade, town, or relationship. It’s comforting and disappointing how similar new beginnings are. They’re so much like what you had and were before. They’re so much the same because God has so much more to teach you, such greater wisdom to share. Thanks be to God who fills the world with such depth!

Amen.

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