The public had the opportunity this week of memorializing Walter Cronkite who died this last July at 92 years of age. He was very close to my parent’s age. He attended Sam Houston High School in the same years my parents attended San Jacinto High School in Houston, Texas. Of course my parents had the better of it, they had Lyndon Johnson’s uncle for their civics teacher and Lyndon for speech and debate. Anyway, Walter Cronkite was, for my generation at least, best known for instructing us about space flight, helping interpret to us the Vietnam war, explaining the political intrigue of the time and his was the voice which told us of the shocking assassination of John F. Kennedy. The closest thing to a scandal Walter Cronkite’s personal life or career was when in 1976 another television newsman reported that Walter’s name was on a list of journalists who had worked for the CIA. In an angry confrontation with then CIA director, George Bush, Cronkite demanded that he disclose which news people had actually been CIA agents. Bush refused. A week later, the CBS Evening News reported that at least two former correspondents for CBS had secretly worked for the spy agency. During all those years – and even there after – Walter Cronkite was often cited as “the most trusted man in America”. He was a man of integrity. What a reputation to have. One of Cronkite’s trademarks was ending the CBS Evening News with the phrase “…And that’s the way it is.”
In considering this week’s readings from Isaiah, Mark and James, that phrase came to mind, even before I was aware of the memorial for Walter Cronkite that was held this week. Something about the reality caught up in these passages of scripture that speak on ministry, especially the one from James seemed to say “And that’s the way it is”.
Where I’d like to begin today is a reading from the Prophet Isaiah (50:4-9) 4The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens— wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught. 5The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward.
What a beautiful gift, to “know how to sustain the weary with a word”. And the prophet continues by saying that the gift comes day by day, each morning the Lord awakens him – his ear anyway – to listen – like a tuition paying student, hungry for knowledge. Isaiah reports that he didn’t reject but responded to God’s call. But now listen to what happens:
6I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting. What is about trying to live a life of service, obedient to God’s call on your life? I guess Walter Cronkite’s truism fits the situation. “And that’s the way it is..” With determination and courage the prophet continues taking a long view of his situation:
7The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; 8he who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me. 9It is the Lord God who helps me; who will declare me guilty? All of them will wear out like a garment; the moth will eat them up.
I had a coach one time who liked to use the word” stick-to-i-tiveness”. That seems a fitting description of what Isaiah says. I sat at my desk and wondered what it was like to set your face like flint. I found lyrics to a song that began: “Set my face like flint; Don’t matter what you say; You can’t make or break me; You can’t make me quit.” So says Isaiah to those who strike him on the back and pull the whiskers from his beard, who spit on him and insult him. The Lord God helps me when I stand firm in obedience to his call on my life. Wouldn’t it be nice for that not to be the case. Isaiah wrestles with his giftedness and the challenges it presents. This gift of the tongue of a teacher gives him the opportunity to sustain the weary with a word. What a ministry. And each morning awakens him – not to speak, but to listen. And, like other prophets before him, when he hears the Lord’s call he did not turn back due to the opposition of those who would prefer him to be silent. He doesn’t rebel but withstands being spit on, insulted, struck and disfigured. In his commitment he is not disgraced. He knows that the Lord God will help and vindicate him. So he sets his face like flint. Isaiah is a man of integrity and to us he says “and that’s the way it is.” Do you expect that when you ‘tell it like it is’ you will be celebrated and rewarded for your candor? Isaiah is a mentor for Jesus.
Our scripture passage from the Gospels is Mark, 8:27-36. 27Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” 30And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
Our more genteel English translations miss something pretty important in this last verse. This ‘sternly ordered’ thing is much stronger than it sounds. Jesus sternly rebukes Peter for calling him Messiah. To the people of Jesus’ day the word messiah carried with it religious and political expectations foreign to Jesus’ understanding of his call. In the Hebrew Bible the term is used to describe Israelite priests, prophets and kings who were especially anointed and that included such a person as the gentile king of Persia, Cyrus the Great. Christianity emerged as a movement within Judaism about AD 30. These early Christians believed that Jesus was the anointed one the Jews were expecting. Wasn’t that the message that Andrew took to his brother Simon, “We have found the Messiah!” So it’s important to not lose the fact the in Jewish messianic tradition the word messiah refers to a future King of Israel from the Davidic line who will rule the people of the united tribes of Israel and herald an age of global peace. It is a long jump from such a worldly ruler concept to mainline Christian theologies that consider Jesus, the Word made flesh, to be God.
What a great triumph this would be – to enthrone Jesus as political and religious leader of Israel, running the Romans out of the country and sitting back to enjoy global peace. These Jewish followers of Jesus could see themselves becoming his cabinet, ruling all aspects of human endeavor and dominate the world for God. Such a vision Jesus rejected out of hand. If his vision wasn’t that of immediate world domination, what was it? Let’s start reading again:
31Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
If you’ve read anything of the beliefs of the very secretive movement behind the “C Street” house in Washington whose residents have made national news of late, you will discover that such dominion theology still flourishes. And it is dangerous. Instead of seeing oneself as an especially anointed one of those who before Jesus’ return will rule the world maybe it would be instructive to hear what else Jesus said that day to his followers:
34He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?
I couldn’t help but think of the Cross that hangs on our Meeting Room wall – whose cross it is? Is it Jesus’ cross, now free of its burden and a symbol of his willingness to follow in the obedient footsteps of Isaiah? It reflects one excoriating moment in our salvation history. As Jesus’ cross it tells only of his acceptance of disgrace, torture, and death. We do not hear the voice of Isaiah saying “It is the Lord God who helps me….” It stops short of the waiting tomb and resurrection.
But what if it is your cross and mine that hangs there week after week? What if it is a reminder of Jesus’ words to those who wanted to be his followers to let us deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow where Jesus’ obedience to God’s call led him. Our experience may be similar to Isaiah’s or Jesus’ in living our obedience to God’s call to “sustain the weary with a word”. Most evident is that the world has never cared for those who take the part of the weary, dispossessed and dirty. A passage you would not want to use to recruit people to take on responsibilites in the church highlights the level of integrity we saw in a man who was primarily known to us by the words he used to help us understand our world. Let me read it to you. In James 3 we find this: Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.
This warning is rooted in two ideas; first is the realistic assessment that even well grounded believers lack the wisdom necessary to control our inward desires that incline us toward thoughts of dominion and triumphalism rather than servanthood. Put another way, James in his next sentence reminds us that “all of us make many mistakes”. Well, that’s just the way it is. But that shouldn’t keep us from trying. The second idea is the bracing awareness that what we say and do has a direct impact on how the Kingdom of God is received by others. The best example today is the level of ridicule heaped on the whole church because of the behavior of an out of control heretical sect whose private illicit behaviors have become front page news. We have a calling, a vision, an endeavor to live obediently to the Spirit’s call on our lives – no different than the prophets before us. And we have Jesus’ call to follow him and that journey requires the willingness of an obedient prophet to trust God to help us – even when we must set our face like flint to endure the insult and abuse we may receive for using our giftedness to seek to sustain the weary with a word.