This morning marks the beginning of that epic adventure known as the Exodus. It is the foundational event of Israel, and there is much that we can learn from it. So, for the next 10 weeks, we will be journeying with Moses and the Israelites as they make their way through the wilderness to the land of promise.
The Israelites arrived in Egypt during the time of Joseph. They came because of a severe famine in the land. They settled in the land of Goshen, in the north-east of Egypt, and there they prospered for some 400 years.
But then things changed. A new Pharaoh did not know the story of Joseph and was so concerned about the growing numbers of Israelites on his border land that he turned them into slaves and encouraged midwives to kill off the baby boys at birth. It was a bleak time for the Israelites and they cried out to God to save them. And, as often happens in Scripture, God’s intervention begins with a baby and his name is Moses.
Some 1500 years later, the Israelites are once again being oppressed; this time by the occupying Roman army. Once again, the people cry out to God for help and God’s intervention begins with a baby whose name is Jesus.
Jesus begins his public ministry at about the same age as Moses. And as he goes about teaching and healing, people begin to wonder; who is this man? This is when Jesus asks his disciples, Who do people say I am? Who do you say that I am?
Now, its important to note that today’s gospel is set in Caesarea Philippi. That may not mean much to us but it’s an important part of the story. Caesarea Philippi is the town where the young King Herod built his summer residence, making it a symbol of Roman power, a power that claims Caesar is the son the god and lord of all. So, when Peter professes Jesus to be the Messiah, son of the Living God – in this place – he’s saying that it is Jesus who is God’s holy and anointed one, not Caesar. So, it’s a statement of faith with some serious political overtones.
Jesus’ questions echo down through the ages, seeking an answer from every generation. So, who is Jesus for us? Some consider him a rabbi or healer. Others, including Muslims, consider him a great prophet.
In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is the new Moses. As the great lawgiver and liberator of his people, Moses is the undisputed star of the Hebrew Scriptures, second only to God in those writings we call the Old Testament. As the story of Moses unfolds, we will notice all sorts of parallels with the life of Jesus. As the new Moses, Jesus is the one sent by God to instruct, lead and liberate the people from everything that would enslave them. And that includes Rome.
Through the centuries, the church has wrestled with questions like: Was Jesus God in a human body or a human being in whom the Holy Spirit dwells? Eventually, creeds and catechisms were developed for us to memorize. And that’s all well and good, but we still have to answer the question for ourselves.
Oddly, other than referring to himself as the Son of Man, Jesus never explicitly answers his own question. Except in John’s gospel, Jesus tells us who he is more by his teachings and actions and then invites us to make up our own minds.
We usually begin by repeating the things we have been taught. But no one can answer that deeper and more personal question – Who do you say I am? – for us. And it’s okay is we haven’t given it much thought until now. And it’s ok if we’re still not sure of the answer.
But, if we want to be credible followers of Christ, then we need to spend some time thinking about ‘who is this man we claim is Lord of our lives?’ Who is this man who is going to be our teacher and guide on the way to our land of promise? And I’m not speaking here of heaven but of the commonwealth of God in the here and now.
As I continue to try and follow this man in my life, I have discovered he is so much more than I was ever taught in Sunday school. The Jesus I meet in the gospels is anything but meek and mild. But he’s also not the angry, violent Jesus we often encounter in some factions of Christianity. And as he continues to expand and illumine my world, he gets me doing and caring about all sorts of things I never thought about before. This Word, this light, this love of God made flesh is a very colourful character.
In todays’ world, it is really important that we know which image of Jesus we identify with because, just as our image of God influences our behaviour, our understanding of Jesus and his way of life influences our behaviour and self-understanding and the kind of church community we want to build and belong to. What we believe about Jesus also influences our sense of purpose in the faith we proclaim.
So this week, I would encourage you to spend some time thinking about the man from Galilee we who will be our wilderness companion, teacher and guide. Who do you say he is and how does that influence your life?