Friday, August 22, 2008

Hey! It's That Guy! (Matthew 16:13-20)

The late character actor J.T. Walsh inspired a website and a book dedicated to the phrase most often used to describe him: “Hey! It’s that guy!”

Walsh played in more than 50 movies and was nominated for an Emmy. The year he died of a heart attack, 1998, he was in three movies. He rarely had a lead role and was often kind of a meanie, but he popped up in so many places people couldn’t help but remember his face, even if they had no idea what his name was. Thus, he became “that guy.”

A little of that goes on when Peter identifies Jesus as the Messiah when the group is gathered at Ceasarea Philippi. Jesus ask them, “Who do folks say I am,” and they answer that he’s supposed to be Elijah or Jeremiah or another of the old prophets.” So Jesus asks who they think he is. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” Peter answers. The answer makes Jesus happy and he predicts great things for Peter as the church begins its ministry after he is gone.

Is Jesus happy just because of Peter’s answer? Maybe, but look at what he says about it: “Flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father in Heaven.” I believe Jesus is even more excited because Peter’s answer suggests he’s opened himself up to God’s guidance in a whole new way. Even though he doesn’t stay open to it for very long, he’s made a start and Jesus knows this will be the way the church spreads through the world.

For any right-thinking properly educated Jew of Jesus’ day, Jesus himself was a round peg to fit into a square Messiah hole. We’ve probably heard at least once about how many religious leaders rejected Jesus as Messiah because they looked for a political leader to overthrow the Romans and restore Israel.

It’s more than that, though. The promised Messiah was more than just a king. Many of the psalms describe the ideal king for the nation, and the Messiah was expected to fulfill all these ideals. He would be a great general able to defeat armies on the battlefield as well as a great warrior able to do some of his own smiting if the need arose.

He would be a well-dressed but not flashy guy who presented himself well. The ladies would all love him. The old Israelite kings often had many wives, so the ideal king would be surrounded by well-dressed knockouts and devoted to each of them equally. By Jesus’ day, the custom of polygamy had faded among the Jews, but the idea was the same, only without the physical relationship. He would also be a man’s man, able to hunt, fish, camp out and hang out with the guys, who would all enjoy hanging around him. His wisdom would outshine Solomon himself.

He would support the folks who had it hard, and be on the side of those who didn’t have anybody on their side. They would know he was their protector. And he would uphold the teaching of God so that the whole nation, and through them the whole world, could be blessed and know God’s direct presence – his law “written on their hearts” as Jeremiah would say.

Today, we could say this ideal king would be a man who led the army to victory in battle, thwarted an assassination attempt single-handed, came home to accept congratula-tory yet perfectly appropriate hugs from all the gals, chest-bumped, ooh-rahed and high-fived all the guys, told their mothers that that was the best potato salad anybody had ever sent to a war zone (and of course they’d said grace over every spoonful) and told their dads that even though he and the rest had won, he was pretty sure they didn’t have a patch on those guys back in their day.

Then he’d finish it off by rescuing a kitten stuck in a tree.

This, you see, was what the Jewish people of Jesus’ day expected. Yes, Jesus was wise and compassionate, and he certainly did have a charisma that drew people to him. But he matched few of the rest of their expectations, so no ordinary person who sized him up and puzzled him out would have said, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Only a person who allowed himself or herself to be led by the Holy Spirit could say such a thing with true understanding, and somehow Jesus knew that Peter had that understanding when he spoke.

Without the leading of the Spirit, the most anyone could say would be something like what people said when they saw J.T. Walsh’s familiar but un-named face on the screen: Hey! It’s that guy!

I believe that we could see Jesus in so many places today if we would let the Spirit guide us and open our eyes to him. We could see him in the people in need. Didn’t Jesus tell us that as we had done unto the least of these, we’d done unto him?

That’s just the start. He is at work all around us and the evidence is right there, if we will let ourselves be guided to see it, so that instead of saying, “Hey, it’s that guy!” we can say, “Hey! It’s Jesus!”

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