There is an ancient Chinese secret that goes like this: “If you friends have BMW, you will have BMW; if you friends drive bicycle, you will drive bicycle.” It might not be all that ancient, but it is a well-known saying, and it just happens to be true. Its real meaning is that the company you keep matters. It says something about who you are and who you will become.
We have two readings this morning, one from track 1 and one from tack 2, which both pose similar questions about who we want to be friends with. At the end of each reading we will see that the good news is not always as easy as we might like. There is no quick or easy redemption. It is a journey, not an event. And, depending on which kind of company you decide to keep, there might be a cross… just so you know.
The lection from track 2, Isaiah 50:4-9, was written just before the Babylonian exile came to an end. The writer and his friends were still in exile and they weren’t sure when it would end, but they had made a decision about their future. They decided to turn back to Yahweh.
It may seem like the Babylonian Captivity was a long time ago and that it happened to people who are not much like us. That’s true enough. But, people are people, and throughout history no one has ever relished being marched off into captivity by a foreign power, no matter how “benevolent.” The Jews must have wondered what kind of God would let this happen. Who were they apart from the land that God had given them? It must have seemed as if their faith had been misplaced and that God had let them down. Those seem like pretty modern themes. People today still wonder what kind of God allows bad things to happen, we wonder who we are when our identity is challenged, when suddenly “home” – that is, safety and comfort — isn’t there anymore.
The Jews could see that their refusal to listen to God was what had led them astray, and ultimately into exile. During the exile, some of the Jews had assimilated and become part of the oppressor culture. But the writer and his friends could see that this was not the way forward and so, having once turned their back on Yahweh, they now turned their backs on the oppressor culture and looked again toward Yahweh.
That is not the end of the story, though. In fact, it’s only the beginning. The faithful Jews were not immediately released to go back to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. That was still a long way off. It’s what happened in the meantime that’s significant. In the meantime, there was a revival of faith in Yahweh. The center of religious life shifted from the temple to the synagogue, from animal sacrifice to Torah study. Leadership shifted from temple priests to rabbis who studied and taught in synagogue. The Babylonian Talmud was written. It was a very rich time in terms of revival, literature, and the building of a new kind of Judaism. During this time, though, they were still in exile. Their situation didn’t magically change after they turned to Yahweh, but they had made a decision about what kind of company they’d keep during this trying time. Sure, some chose the company of the oppressor, but many more chose the friendship of God.
Eventually, the Jews went back home and rebuilt the temple. But, having chosen the friendship of God, they became a Godly people. It’s the company you keep.
In the reading from track 1, Mark 8:27-38, Jesus and the disciples were traveling to Caesarea Philippi. Caesarea Philippi is now called Banias, an Arabic permutation of one of its other ancient names Paneas, after the Greek, god Pan. This is important because it tells us that Jesus and the disciples were not in friendly territory, they were in Pan’s territory. This was the center of emperor worship, and worship of Pan; his consort, Echo; Pan’s father, Hermes… This was the territory of the pagan gods and those who worshipped them. You might even say it was “exile territory.”
In this place Jesus asked his disciples what people were saying about him, “Who do people say I am?” he queried. Immediately they clicked off some names, “Some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” And then Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus had been traveling around healing blindness, but he seemed unable to make the disciples see. On this occasion, though, Peter got it right, “You are the messiah, the Son of God,” he exclaimed. Peter really seems to have nailed it on this question of who Jesus was. But Jesus told the disciples not to tell anyone else about is identity. Sometimes we call this “the messianic secret,” because Jesus did not want people to know he was the messiah.
But why? It’s because being known brings expectations. In asking, “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus was really asking, “What do you expect from me?” A messiah had been expected for a long time. Some people had even claimed to be the messiah.
The reason Peter’s answer was not correct is because he expected a messiah that would not suffer, be rejected, or be killed. “Son of God” is what we call Jesus, but In Caesarea Philippi it was what they called the emperor. Peter was intimating that he expected Jesus to replace the oppressive Roman regime with his own.
So, the real journey here is not to Caesarea Philippi, it is a journey from expectation to reality. Peter, one of Jesus’ insiders, a man with all the right answers, still failed to see that having the right answer was not enough. Knowing Jesus is not just about knowing that he is the messiah, it is also about knowing his cross too. The expectation of a crown of gold will have to be replaced with the reality of a crown of thorns.
As they travel on towards Jerusalem – only three chapters away! – the disciples will choose to remain in the company of Jesus and one another. It was a time of continuing formation for them and, because they chose friendship with Jesus, they became more like him.
You may be living in some kind of exile and trying to forge a new spiritual path that will be more authentic, or you may have all the answers and be the ultimate insider like Peter. Either way, it’s not enough. Just as turning back to Yahweh did not grant the Jews immediate release from captivity, recognizing Jesus as the messiah will not do much for us either. Both are good, but they are only a beginning.
The readings today call us to an often-disappointing journey from expectation to reality. Sometimes it may seem as if all is lost, but the tenacity of the exiles and the disciples remind us that we are on an journey which may have some twists and turns. Whether we are seeking release from exile or the empire, redemption is not likely to happen in an instant. It takes time. But, what we’ve seen in these two readings is that it’s “the meantime” that matters. Even in the worst situation God is working to redeem, to reclaim, and to renew those who choose friendship. “The meantime” is where the action is, and the resolution, when it comes, will be more about the company you keep than about anything else
Some Notes of Possible Interest
There wasn’t just one exile. The Babylonian exile happened in stages. The actual numbers of people deported in each stage is not clear. Basically, people were exiled to Babylon in, or around, 597, 587, and 582.
It is not an exaggeration to say that the Babylonians were “benevolent” towards the Jews in exile. Some Jews even adopted the religion of their oppressors and named their children after the Chaldean gods. Others formed a community and rededicated themselves to Yahweh. You can read more about it here. This is an interesting article too.
In calling Peter “Satan” Jesus does not mean that Peter is a devil, he means to say that Peter has tempted him. The only other time “Satan” is used in Mark is when Jesus was tempted in the wilderness.
Linda McMillan is still in Thailand.