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Message for 2-23-14 WHO DO THE POLLS SAY THAT I AM

“WHO DO THE POLLS SAY THAT I AM?”

Matthew 16:13-20

 

            Polls cannot measure truth.  Polls cannot measure reality outside the human mind.  They can only measure faulty human opinion.  It doesn’t matter whether 80% of Europeans are against a war.  It doesn’t matter whether 70% of Americans are in favor of a war.  It doesn’t matter what any of us think!  100% of us can be wrong!  Poll numbers cannot tell us the right way to handle a crisis.  Pogo once said, “If 2 million people do a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing!”  When the questions get tough on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”, polling the audience becomes a lousy way to find the right answer to the question.  Truth is never determined by what we think.  It is dangerous to make decisions based entirely on polls or focus groups.  A majority of public opinion can easily be wrong.

            In an article called “The Moral Bankruptcy of World Opinion,” Jewish commentator Dennis Prager writes, “Whenever you hear that world opinion holds a view, assume that it is morally wrong.”  He points to the victims of the world’s greatest mass murders: victims of Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, or the people of Tibet, Rwanda, or Sudan.  “Ask any of these poor souls if world opinion did anything for them.”  World opinion can be very wrong.

            In today’s scripture, Jesus takes a sample poll to see what public opinion is saying about Him.  Jesus takes this poll while He is on retreat with His followers in the woods up north near the Lebanese border.  He comes here to get away from the Jewish crowds down in Galilee.  He comes to the source of the Jordan River, at the foot of snow-capped Mt Hermon.  Here the ancient Canaanites had built a shrine called Baal-Gad, “The Lord of Fortune.”  Hundreds of years later, the Greeks had built a temple to Pan, the god of nature.  And recently, Herod’s brother Philip had built a temple here for the worship of Augustus Caesar, and had named the nearby town after Caesar (“Caesarea of Philip”).

            Here in the woods at the source of the Jordan, surrounded by pagan shrines, Jesus asks, “Who do people say that I am?”  The answers He gets back prove how wrong polls can be.  Every answer they give is wrong.  Out of all those surveyed in this poll, only 1 guy gets anywhere near the right answer.  Simon Peter answers, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

            Jesus says, “Simon son of Jonah!  You lucky guy!  You have stumbled into the truth!  You didn’t figure this out from the polls.  You didn’t get it from any human brain.  You got it straight from God.  You have just unearthed the rock on which I will build my Knesset (my assembly, my church).  That’s why I’m going to call you Peter – Rocky!  I’m going to make you the chief rabbi in charge of the teaching I am passing on to the group.  I’m going to give you the keys to my Kingdom, the authority to make binding decisions based on my teachings after I’m gone.”

            Here at Caesarea Philippi, surrounded by the shrines of other gods (the Baal of Fortune, the Greek god of nature, the temple of Caesar), Jesus lays His identity on the line. He claims to be both the Jewish Messiah, and the Son of the living God.  Jesus claims to stand taller than any competing claim on the market. 

Peter’s answer to the ultimate poll question becomes the rock on which we stand.  Like the Jordan River that flows downhill from here, the question “Who is Jesus Christ?” is a watershed dividing line.  Where our faith goes is determined by the answer we give here.   Jesus is NOT one Lord among many.  He is not merely Lord “for me.”  Jesus is either Lord of all, or else He’s not Lord at all.  Speaking with the mind of a scientist, Nobel prize winning physicist John Polkinghorne says, “Either Jesus is God’s Lord and Christ or He is not, and it matters supremely to know which is the right judgment.”

“Who do people say that I am?” remains a question that cannot be answered by the polls.  It doesn’t matter what 1 billion nominal Christians think – we could all be wrong.  It doesn’t matter what 800 million Muslims think.  To quote the Quran, “Those who say the Lord of mercy has begotten a son preach a monstrous falsehood.” (Sura 19:88)  Elsewhere it calls our belief a “monstrous blasphemy.” (Sura 18:5)  No human opinion poll can decide this fundamental disagreement.  The numbers mean nothing.  Jesus contradicts the Quran by confessing to be the “Son of the living God.”

The Hindus say that Jesus is one of many gods, and that we are all a part of God.  The Buddhists and most Jews accept Him as a great teacher.  Atheists would peg Him as either deluded or dishonest.  Who Jesus is does not depend on the polls.

Jesus makes some uncompromising claims, in a time and place where the name of the game was compromise.  There was plenty of room to accommodate anyone’s god, as long as nobody claimed that theirs was Lord of all.  The Romans tolerated the Jews for their belief as long as the Jews were willing to tolerate everyone else.  Jesus’ claims put Him at odds with His world.  He makes it hard, even dangerous to follow Him.

Jesus’ claims may be an embarrassment to us today.  We live in an age where we are sometimes surrounded by neighbors who bow down at different altars.  We find it hard to believe that so many good people could be wrong, or that their different beliefs could make that much difference.  We cringe at the thought of being arrogant, intolerant, or bigoted.  We cave in to post-modern peer pressure, which reduces faith to opinion.

We live in a day where we are tempted to believe that polls determine truth.  We hear people say, “Nobody today believes in hell.”  That’s not true, but how many people actually do believe one way or the other doesn’t matter.  All the numbers can tell us is what’s in people’s minds.  They cannot tell us what GOD thinks.  The Himalayas do not cease to exist, simply because no one believes they do.  Wishing can’t change reality.  The same is true for all the great issues that divide us: abortion, capital punishment, homosexuality, living together, evolution, and war.  WE don’t decide any of these issues.  We cannot invent the truth.  The best we can do is to discover the truth.  And that all depends ultimately on whom we trust as our most reliable source of information.

  Jesus – is He one of many lords?  Or is He Lord of all, whether anyone chooses to bow to Him or not?  The answer can never be decided by the polls.  It can never be determined by faulty, fickle human opinion.  Lucian the skeptic said that 10 philosophers can make 10 different guesses as to how many beans are in a jar, and they can all be wrong.  Therefore, it never matters which way the winds of human opinion are blowing, nor does it matter when they may change or where they may blow next.

It takes courage to believe that.  It takes courage to stick to our convictions, when the overwhelming crowd is screaming at us and threatening to vote us out of office.  It helps to remember that it never pays to believe a lie, no matter how many millions may swallow and repeat that lie.  Lies will always leave us ripped off. 

The same is true as we decide how to answer the ultimate poll question, “Who is Jesus Christ?”  It doesn’t matter how many millions claim to follow Him, or how many don’t.  It doesn’t matter how many claim to follow someone else.  What matters is whether Jesus is telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.  If Jesus is not who He claims to be, we need not waste our time on Him.  But if Jesus is who He claims to be, then He is Lord of all, not just of those who believe.  If He is Lord of all, then who He is and how we respond to Him becomes all-important to our future destiny.

We need not be arrogant – in fact, we should not be arrogant as we affirm that Jesus is Lord of all.  If someone believes the world is flat, we don’t need to call them stupid or treat them like dirt.  But neither must we agree with them or humor them in order to love and respect them.  We can respect someone, without accepting their beliefs as equally true.  Saying that someone is wrong does not make us hateful.  Nor do we need to shrink back at the thought that our faith is just an accident of where we were born.  The principles of space flight are just as true, whether you were born in Texas or Indonesia.  So what if you are more likely to learn them if you were born in Texas?   Where you were born doesn’t change the laws of physics.  Neither does where you were born change the truth about God.

We need to be humble when we talk about truth, because if it’s possible to be wrong, then it’s possible that we are wrong.  Coming face to face with other religions forces us to get honest about the question, “Are there other saviors?”  The night before the cross, Jesus begs God for another way for people to be saved.  If there was any other way for the world to be saved, the cross becomes a stupid mistake.  I must conclude that there was no other way.  The whole world needs what God offered us on the cross.  And that’s a very humbling conclusion I am compelled to draw.  

Standing in the woods in the shadow of Mt Hermon at the source of the river Jordan, surrounded by the gods of competing faiths, Jesus asks us the question, “Who do you say that I am?” It doesn’t matter what the majority of public opinion thinks.  It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.  Jesus’ question is a watershed dividing line. Where our faith goes is determined by the answer we give here.

Let us pray.  How easy it is to call you Lord – how hard it is to mean what we say.  How hard it is to act like we mean it.  Help us to come to terms with Your exclusive claim on our lives, and on the whole of creation.  Help us to resist our natural inclination to be driven by what everyone else thinks.  Help us to make you Lord of all, in every part of our lives.  And help us to share Your truth with others, with love and respect.  We ask for Jesus’ sake.  Amen.

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