Bringing the Text to Life

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Guess Who? Matthew 16:13-20

Guess Who?

The disciples are let in on a secret.

At a Glance

Researchers can now guess your age, gender, marital status and income solely based on the apps on your phone. Could someone as easily guess that you are a follower of Jesus?

Editors' Pick

For material based on today's epistle text, see "Gig," September 2, 2001, at

If you're heading out to the county fair as the summer winds to a close, you might be tempted to check out some of the hokey old carnival games on the midway. Most of them are rigged to extract a few dollars from you, of course, and that stuffed bear you might win is actually worth less than the money you just plunked down on the counter. Still, it's fun to try to game the system, and one of the places you might do that is at the booth where a grizzled carny attempts to guess your weight and your age just by looking at you.

Usually they win. Sometimes, however, the guesser will intentionally underestimate the age and weight of an older person (particularly a woman), seeing it as a win-win situation -- she is flattered and he keeps the five bucks!

But what if this game were played with one crucial adjustment?

What if the guessing game were to be played without the person or subject being seen?

How would you guess the age?

How would you guess the gender?

What about marital status or income?

Truth is, it's even easier to guess these things sight unseen than it is for that greasy dude at the fair to guess your age by looking at you.

All that's needed is the subject's smartphone.

Look at the apps on the smartphone, and you can deduce the age, gender, income level and marital status of the owner.

Researchers recently cross-referenced the app usage and demographics of 3,700 people to determine which apps and personal attributes correlated and found that they could predict a person's gender, age, marital status and income with between 61 and 82 percent accuracy.

To put it another way, you are what you download!

If you have the Pinterest app on your phone, for example, you're almost certainly a woman.

You're probably over the age of 52 if you listen to iHeart Radio, and younger than that if you choose SoundCloud instead.

If you're an avid user of Uber, you're likely single since most married people will own their own minivan and don't need someone else to drive it.

Your choice of app for restaurant reviews says a lot about your income. You're probably earning more than $52,000 a year if you're checking out Yelp and less than that if you're searching Foursquare.

Not only do your app choices say a lot about you, they also make it possible for the Internet to know you even better than your family and friends. There's a reason those ads that pop up on your phone or computer are so creepily accurate. Your data usage reveals the real "you" in many ways.

The data on Jesus

It would have been a lot harder for people in the ancient world to guess your age and weight given the many layers of robes and a short life expectancy and, of course, the complete lack of cellphone coverage and Wi-Fi hotspots. That didn't stop people from trying, however, especially people who didn't quite fit the usual mold.

The crowds had been observing Jesus for some time by now, but no consensus had developed. In a world where a person's demographics involved a 3g analysis (gender, genealogy and geography), Jesus was an outlier. Consider the data sets about him to this point:

+ He is born in unusual circumstances and of questionable parentage (1:18-25).

+ He is from a poor family, but his birth threatens a king and attracts foreign diplomats (2:1-23).

+ Rather than stay at home and take on the family business, as expected of a Jewish male, he becomes a wandering teacher who leads a ragtag group of disciples.

+ Rather than take on a wife, which was also expected, he remains single and unattached.

+ He has no visible means of income, and yet spends a lot of time at parties and provides food for thousands (14:13-21).

+ He performs incredible miracles, but never uses his power to benefit himself.

+ He casts out evil spirits but, at the same time, is blamed for being in league with them (12:22-32).

+ He is a student of the law of Moses, but teaches that it doesn't go far enough (5:1–7:29).

+ He appears to be a righteous person, but he hangs out with the dregs of society. He even eats and drinks with them.

+ He talks about eternal life, but seems to be obsessed with death and, in particular, his own death on a cross.

It's little wonder that people were confused. The guessing game took place every time he appeared in public and, in fact, even among his closest associates.

What's the buzz?

This brings us to 16:13-20, our text, where Jesus turns to the question of his real identity. Jesus and the disciples arrive in "the district of Caesarea Philippi" -- a fact which is significant for the dialogue that follows. Pagans living in the region believed that a cave near the city was the residence of the Greek god Pan, the half-man, half-goat god of fright (from which comes the word "panic") and the entrance to Hades -- the underworld, or the realm of the dead.

The city was also significant because it was built by Herod Philip in honor of Caesar and given the additional designation "Philippi" to distinguish it from Caesarea Maritima, built by Herod the Great on the Mediterranean coast.

It seems appropriate that in a place identified with two significant rulers, and also a place identified with the personification of evil and death, Jesus would bring up the question of his own identity as a counterpoint. So one day he says to his disciples, "Guess who?"

His actual question was, "Who do people say that I am?" (v. 13). What's the buzz about me right now?

The answers given by the disciples as to the crowd's perceptions are all connected to the prophets, even though most Jewish teachers at the time believed that authentic prophecy had ceased. Still, there was some expectation of a return of the prophets at the end time, particularly Elijah (Malachi 4:5).

Some thought that John the Baptist was an Elijah figure, but when John was executed by Herod Antipas, they began to transfer that moniker to Jesus (5:14).

Many of Jesus' miracles had seemed to mirror those of Elijah -- raising the dead being the most prominent (9:18-25).

When Jesus announced God's judgment on unrepentant cities (11:20-24) and downplayed the central role of the temple (12:6; 24:1-2), he sounded a lot like the prophet Jeremiah.

The crowds linked Jesus with what they knew from the past, seeing his ministry as a prophetic one pointing to some future figure who would finally overthrow systems of injustice and oppression, introduce the kingdom of God and rescue them from exile and subjugation. 

Who do you say I am?

But those closest to Jesus began to suspect there was more to him than that. Jesus was more than a prophet; in fact, he was the One for whom they had been waiting. When Jesus asks his disciples the pointed question, "But who do you say that I am?" (emphasis added), it's a question that will not only define who he is but also define the identity of his followers.

Simon Peter answers with confidence, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God" (vv. 15-16). Simon has examined the evidence and concluded that Jesus is the real deal.

But while Simon gets Jesus' title right, he still doesn't quite understand what it means. Like most Jews of his day, Simon had certain Messianic expectations. The problem with expectations is that they often narrow our vision, allowing us to see only that which is compatible with the vision. Clearly, Simon's vision of "Messiah" and "Son of the Living God" is, like the crowd's, limited by what they've seen in the past.

Simon probably knew that God had promised King David that his royal descendants would be his adopted children (2 Samuel 7:14). So, it was natural for any successor to the throne to be seen as "the Son of the living God." The Messiah (which means "anointed one") would be that royal descendant. When Simon confesses Jesus' identity as Messiah and Son of God, he is actually not thinking of him as the second person in the Trinity but rather thinking something more like, in our own vernacular, "I think you might be our future president."

It's clear from the next section, when Jesus predicts his death and resurrection, that Simon's bold confession, while technically correct, still doesn't fit the full messianic algorithm Jesus has in mind (vv. 21-28). It will take the cross and resurrection of Jesus to give Simon the full picture.

Simon nails it

Still, as we said, Simon was technically right. He nails it, and Jesus tells him so.

"Simon, that is awesome! You totally get it!"

Matthew says that his actual words were, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven" (v. 17).

In a place where Caesar is hailed as a god and the realm of death stands wide open, Simon acknowledges the one person who is really worthy of worship. God revealed this to him, Jesus says. And now, standing here near the gates of Hades, Jesus proclaims that it is on Simon (now called Peter, the "rock") and his bedrock confession that his church will be built. Even the forces of Hades and death will not prevail against it, even though we know that Peter the rock will later show some cracks (v. 18). Peter is given the keys to the kingdom and the authority to bind and loose (v. 19). Peter's own identity is changed because he acknowledged the true identity of Jesus. Wherever he goes from now on, he will be identified by his association with the Christ.

How are we identified?

This brings up an important question for those of us who would follow Jesus as well. Would we be easily identified primarily by our association with Jesus? Age, weight, gender, education or income are not relevant factors. Jesus only wants us to identify him as our true Lord and then to work on his behalf, imitating him in all that we do. This identification means that we are willing to not only share in his blessings, but also in his cross (v. 24).

The apps on your phone might say a lot about you, but this is really a private matter between you and the Internet advertisers who are collecting your data.

Following Jesus, on the other hand, might be personal but it's never private. Even when Peter would later deny even knowing Jesus, he couldn't get away with it. Once you are associated with him, it's an identity that sticks. Anyone we meet should be able to tell right away from our words, actions, compassion and way of living that we belong to him. They shouldn't have to guess!

Jesus would sternly warn his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah at this stage of his ministry (v. 20). Well, now the secret is out and we have no such restrictions.

The question is whether people will be able to discover Jesus, see God, through the way we live our lives.

And they don't need an app for that!

Possible Preaching Themes:

+ Mistaking the identity of Jesus

+ The church as a challenge to the gates of Hades

+ The authority of binding and loosing


Dewey, Caitlin. "Quiz: Can we guess your age and income, based solely on the apps on your phone?" The Washington Post Website, March 3, 2016. Retrieved February 11, 2017.

Keener, Craig S. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1993.

THE OTHER TEXTS: August 27, 2017, Cycle A

Exodus 1:8-2:10

What Does the Text Say?

In the volatile border area near the Nile River's delta, if the rapidly multiplying Israelites were to side with invaders, Egypt would be threatened. Out of fear, Egypt began to oppress the Israelites, engaging them as forced laborers. But Israel thrived anyway. Egypt became even more ruthless. The unnamed pharaoh told the two named Hebrew midwives to kill any newborn Hebrew boys. But since the midwives "feared God" (held God in awe and obeyed God), they subverted Pharaoh's command. And God honored the midwives. Then Pharaoh directly commanded all his people to drown newborn Hebrew boys. Chapter 2 deals with the endangerment and rescue of one particular not-yet-named boy. The infant's mother hid him, then made him a waterproof papyrus basket, placing him among reeds at the edge of the Nile. The baby's older sister kept watch while an unnamed Egyptian princess came and (in disobedience to the command of her father, the pharaoh) kept the boy alive. The boy's sister shrewdly suggested that she hire a Hebrew woman to wet-nurse him. So the boy's very own mother was with him. Later, the princess adopted him, naming him Moses. Four women and a girl had helped to rescue God's deliverer. In Matthew 2, Herod endangered the life of God's Deliverer Jesus; God again used human agency to rescue him. Moses' early years were spent with his Hebrew family, where he learned the Hebrew language and culture. As the adopted son of Pharaoh's daughter, his later years were in the Egyptian court, where he would learn the language and customs of Egypt and its court. Thus Moses was uniquely prepared to be the primary one through whom God would deliver Israel from Egypt.

What Is One Possible Approach to the Text?

God's Secret Agents. This sermon could be called "Tools in the Hand of God," or "How God Used a Cohort of Women to Save Moses and Establish a Nation." The takeaway is: "Do not underestimate the importance of the little things you do in God's service." First, the midwives. They secretly defied the pharaoh's orders. Then, Moses' mother, Jochebed, defied the pharaoh by hiding her baby in a small basket in the river reeds of the Nile. Then the sister, Miriam, kept watch to make sure the basket didn't float away, or otherwise become endangered. Then a princess discovers the baby, and finding him adorable, disobeys her father's command. The sister suggests a woman become the baby's wet nurse, and of course, that woman is Moses' very mother. Each of these women had different roles in the drama surrounding the birth of Moses and each role was vital.

*Homiletics has treated this text six times. Go to Select Exodus in the Scripture Search drop down menu and click GO.

Psalm 124

What Does the Text Say?

Psalm 124 is a responsive psalm -- the rubric "let Israel say" is preserved in verse 1b (cf. Psalm 118:2-4; 129) -- and it was probably sung or chanted by temple personnel (perhaps a Levitical choir) taking one part and the pilgrims (designated "Israel" here) taking the other. These Songs of Ascents (Psalms 120-134) are liturgical songs extolling the inviolability of Jerusalem because of the presence there of the temple, the earthly home of Israel's deity. The psalm is a communal hymn of thanksgiving for deliverance from enemies. The imagery of water describing danger (vv. 4-5) is frequent in the psalter (e.g., 32:6; 42:7; 69:1-2; etc.), and so should probably not be construed as a historical reference to the exodus. Not only is escape from watery destruction used as an image of deliverance, but so also is escape from the gaping maw of the enemy (v. 3), an image with roots in Canaanite mythology. In an epic tale from Ugarit (14th century B.C.), Baal descends to the underworld through the mouth of the god Death, who is described as having "one lip to earth, one lip to heaven." This psalm refutes any such polytheistic notions by declaring, in a concluding doxology, that Israel's help is in the name of the Lord "who made heaven and earth" (v. 8).

What Is One Possible Approach to the Text?

When the Lord Is on Our Side. Well, this psalm pretty much blows out of the water those naysayers who say that we shouldn't expect the Lord to be on our side, and that we should pray, instead, that we are on the Lord's side. What a nice sentiment, and it sounds so … spiritual and pretty. There's no ambiguity in this psalm, however. The psalmist recognizes that if God had not been on their side in recent conflicts, they would have been destroyed. So, let's praise God, the psalmist says. And why not? This is huge! The nation has been delivered from certain destruction. God was on their side. Now, we cannot extrapolate from this text, of course, that God will be on the side of our home team (be it football, basketball, baseball or soccer). That's another matter. But it is perfectly permissible to thank God for being on "our side" after we emerge from a serious conflict (medical, personal, professional) and giving God the praise. If we're not going to praise God when we come through with a victory like this, then who are we going to praise and when would we do it? Moreover, if we cannot expect God to be on our side, then something's wrong either with us, or with our God. Which is it? Come on! Give it up for God!

*Homiletics has treated this text once. Go to Select Psalm in the Scripture Search drop down menu and click GO.

Romans 12:1-8

What Does the Text Say?

Here we have the initial piece of an extended parenesis that sets out how believers in the church at Rome ought to order their lives in light of "the mercies of God." Paul's methodical exhortation commences in verse 3 and concludes in Romans 15:13. Paul begins with sacrificial language and a call to harmony. In verse 1, he calls for Christians "to present" themselves to God -- a purposive use of traditional OT sacrificial language that calls for placing all of oneself on the altar as a proper offering to God. Just as Paul calls upon believers to use their own wills to offer up themselves as sacrifices to God, he now calls upon their own "sober judgment" to discern the truth about their equal status in terms of faith and spiritual gifts. But equality does not mean a new type of Christian conformity. Rather, Paul is calling for a recognition of the wide variety of individual strengths or gifts that may be used to aid and benefit the entire church -- the whole body of Christ. In today's text, seven different "gifts" are mentioned.

What Is One Possible Approach to the Text?

Sacrifice for Success. It is axiomatic that little of worth comes without effort. A weed requires no work for it to survive; a rose must be tended. Darkness will inexorably fall upon us; only by lighting a light, trimming the wicks and tending to fuel, can we drive the darkness away. The apostle Paul here reminds us that for the world to be transformed by the church, the church and its members must themselves be transformed and renewed, and be willing to lay themselves out utterly in a most sacrificial and selfless manner, to serve others. Fortunately, the Holy Spirit has provided the necessary means whereby this transformation, renewal and sacrifice can take place. But without sacrifice, without effort, without pressing ourselves beyond our limits, not much of eternal import can happen that will change the world -- or change anything.

*Homiletics has treated this text three times. Go to Select John in the Scripture Search drop down menu and click GO.

Worship Resources

Music Links


I Greet Thee, Who My Sure Redeemer Art

Wild and Lone the Prophet's Voice

Arise, Your Light Is Come!


Like a Shepherd

Be Bold, Be Strong

The Servant Song

For licensing and permission to reprint or display these songs on screen, go to The Praise songs suggested by Homiletics can be found in most cases on Google by using the title as the search term.

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on Matthew 16:13-20

from Aug 27, 2017

Today's reading, clearly a high point for the star disciple of this gospel, not only serves as an example of the disciples' faith but also expresses key themes of Matthean Christology and ecclesiology. Located between the third and fourth teaching sections, on parables about the kingdom (13:1-52) and instructions for the kingdom (18:1-35), this pericope narrates the confessional foundation of the ... Read more (you must be logged in to read the commentary)

Animating Illustrations

Ferdinand Waldo Demara Jr. (1921-1982), known as "The Great Impostor," masqueraded as many people -- from monks to surgeons to prison wardens. He was the subject of a movie, The Great Impostor, in which he was played by Tony Curtis.

During Demara's "careers," his impersonations included a ship's doctor, a civil engineer, a sheriff's deputy, an assistant prison warden, a doctor of applied psychology, a hospital orderly, a lawyer, a child care expert, a Benedictine monk, a Trappist monk, an editor, a cancer researcher and a teacher. One teaching job led to six months in prison. He never seemed to get (or seek) much monetary gain in what he was doing -- just temporary respectability.

Many of Demara's unsuspecting employers, under other circumstances, would have been satisfied with Demara as an employee. Demara was said to possess a true photographic memory and was widely reputed to have an extraordinary IQ. He was apparently able to memorize necessary techniques from textbooks and worked on two cardinal rules: "The burden of proof" is on the accuser and "when in danger, attack." He described his own motivation as "Rascality, pure rascality."

--Ferdinand Waldo Demara, Retrieved February 8, 2017.

In late December 2004, a catastrophic earthquake and tsunami struck the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Indian Ocean. The islands are part of India.

Many of those who survived lost their homes and all their possessions: the tsunami scoured the low-lying smaller islands of the chain, sweeping literally everything out to sea.

In the days and weeks following the disaster, the survivors were clustered in refugee camps operated by international relief organizations. They were well-supplied with the basic essentials for living, but most of them had lost one thing that's vital for meeting the demands of modern society: identification papers.

Op-ed contributor Amitav Ghosh visited one of the camps and wrote in The New York Times about how these people, who hailed from all over India, were coping with their unexpected loss of identity. A key figure was Father Johnson, a young Roman Catholic priest who ran this particular camp:

"In the absence of any other figure of authority they had laid siege to Father Johnson: when would they be allowed to move on? Where would they be going? And, most important, how could they rebuild their lives?

"Their anxieties were founded not just in their experience of the tsunami but also in their separation from their safety net of identity and support. ... Not only did it destroy the survivors' homes and families; it also robbed them of all the evidentiary traces of their place in the world. ...

"Realizing eventually that Father Johnson knew no more than they did, the refugees reduced their demands to a single, modest query: could they have some paper and a few pens? No sooner had this request been met than another uproar broke out: those who'd been given pens and paper now became the center of the siege. People began to push and jostle, clamoring to have their names written down. It seemed to occur to them simultaneously that identity was now no more than a matter of assertion, and nothing seemed to matter more than to create a trail of paper. Somehow they had come to believe that on this, the random scribbling of a name on a sheet of paper in a refugee camp, depended the eventual reclamation of a life."

--Amitav Ghosh, "Identities lost at sea," The New York Times, January 4, 2005. Retrieved February 8, 2017.

As Saint Bonaventure said, "Christ is the one whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere."

--Alan of Lille, Regulae Theologicae, Reg. 7, as quoted by Bonaventure, translated by Ewert Cousins, The Soul's Journey into God, Classics of Western Spirituality (Paulist Press: 1978), 100.

When people use the word "Jesus," then, it's important for us to ask who they're talking about.

Are they referring to a token of tribal membership, a tamed, domesticated Jesus who waves the flag and promotes whatever values they have decided their nation needs to return to?

Are they referring to the supposed source of the imperial impulse of their group, which wants to conquer other groups "in the name of Jesus"?

Are they referring to the logo or slogan of their political, economic or military system through which they sanctify their greed and lust for power?

Or are they referring to the very life source of the universe who has walked among us and continues to sustain everything with his love and power and grace and energy?

--Rob Bell, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (Harper Collins, 2011), 156.

Yes, it's a thing: hilariously misspelled names on Starbucks cups. There are even websites that accumulate photos of coffee cups with those oh-so-wrong names scrawled on the side in black Sharpie.

Pity poor Andie, who became "Auntie" (whether or not she had any nieces or nephews).

Ingrid wasn't Ingrid anymore. She became "Angry" (even before she saw what the barista had written on her cup).

Ariel must have looked like she came from another planet, because she was transformed into "Alien."

Two friends, Yvonne and Caitlyn, somehow became "Evan" and "Kitten."

Our identity is very important to us in life. It's a good thing coffee-shop baristas aren't really in charge of declaring what that is. Retrieved February 8, 2017.

Children's Sermon

Wear a nametag with just your first or last name on it. Write your name in large block letters. Ask the children to read the name on the tag. Then ask them if that tells them who you are. Agree that yes, it does tell them what your name is, but does it tell them who you are? Does it tell them you love baseball and soccer or that you play a mean game of tennis? Does it tell them what your favorite book is or that you are the person in your family who does all the cooking? Put on another nametag that says something about who you are as a person, such as optimistic, cheerful, good listener, open-minded. Ask the children if they knew you were a cheerful person and a good listener, even without the nametag. Since we don't walk around with nametags on, how do people find out who we are? The point to stress with the kids is that people know who we are by how we act. Ask them, "Do you think if someone came into your Sunday school class today they would know you followed Jesus? Would they know you followed Jesus if they came to your house? Your Scout meeting?" We are followers of Jesus all the time, not just when we are in church. Dismiss the children by giving them two nametags, one for themselves and one for another family member. Ask them to write on the nametag a word that describes who they are without using their name.