Data collecting is a major focus for today’s marketing industry, and it has been for decades— typically by surveys done in person, or on paper, or by phone. But no one likes, or will do, survey’s anymore. If a surveyor approaches us in the marketplace, we say no thanks. If a surveyor calls us on the phone, we hang up. If a survey pops up on our screens, we X out.
In a world where people are in a hurry and attention spans are short, the old methods of data collection are cumbersome and intrusive. Marketers know this, which is why the technology boom of the last few decades has been a godsend for them.
In a high-tech world, companies and pollsters will still get information from us, and about us, whether we want them to or not.
Let’s say you head to the local grocery store and buy a certain brand of candy that delights your sweet tooth. But to get the best price you have to swipe your “Customer Loyalty Card”—which is free to get, when you sign up with your name, address, phone number, email address, date of birth, median household income, and favorite color. All of which is, of course, data.
You make your purchase and at the end of your transaction what happens? Out pops a coupon for that product! Or perhaps, out pops a coupon for that product’s competitor!
The grocery store knows what we like without us ever having to say anything or answer a question.
But my favorite “Big Brother” data collecting is via online shopping.
For instance, I was surfing for new shoes, checking out Doc Martens, wedge sandals, and Ugg boots—What? I could totally pull of Ugg boots. Just my wife won’t let me.
So say you shop for Ugg boots, but you give up because no one believes in your ability to pull off Ugg boots, and so you click over to Facebook to post a passive aggressive message about how your “hip style” is inhibited by voices of “reason”—and low and behold there in your feed are ads for Ugg boots! Is this a Godly sign telling you to go back and order the boots? According to my wife, it’s not. It’s just a complicated algorithm mining data from you.
Ahh, but the data collecting joke is on them!
Around my birthday and Christmas I grab my wife’s phone when she’s not looking and search for all the things that would make wonderful gifts for her husband!
When Jesus took his disciples to Caesarea Philippi, he gave them a couple of data collecting questions, but questions not so much designed to gather information as they are questions to create an opportunity to define the brand of discipleship Jesus was looking for from them—and, by extension, from us.
As they were walking, Jesus offers up the first data collecting question: “Who do people say that I am?” What’s the word on the street about me? (v. 27)
As they traveled with Jesus through the villages of Judea and Galilee, the Disciples collected this data. They listened to the buzz. They felt the pulse of the crowd. And there was one significant data point that dominated the survey: The crowd believed Jesus was a prophet in the mold of John the Baptist, Elijah or one of the others who influenced Israel’s history.
This was a radical interpretation of the data, but it wasn’t quite radical enough.
To the crowd, Jesus was a kind of a throwback to an earlier age and perhaps, like John the Baptist and Elijah, he was in the model of a forerunner to the real Messiah to come.
But their view of Jesus is rather myopic—seen through the skewed lens of personal bias toward what a prophet and a Messiah would look like—which for them was that of a conquering king.
It’s no coincidence that in the story immediately preceding this one, Jesus heals a blind man who at first sees people but not with the full clarity of vision. To him they looked like trees walking around (v. 24).
It took a second application of Jesus’ healing hands in order for the blind man to finally see things clearly and in perspective.
This crowd also needed a similar retooling of vision to understand the information about Jesus’ true identity, and Jesus’ true intent as the Messiah.
This brings us to a second data collecting survey Jesus asks of his disciples: “But who do you say that I am?”
Peter, an eager guy who today would probably be the first to participate in every online survey, gives his opinion without hesitation: “You are the Messiah.” (v. 29) That seems like the right answer.
But like the crowd, his own bias gets in the way of understanding what that word, that title “Messiah”, actually means.
There is still great potential for misunderstanding until all the data is in, which is why Jesus “sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him” in verse thirty.
Jesus himself then begins to fill in the data in verse thirty one, telling of what will happen to him—he will be rejected; undergo great suffering; and be killed, but then he will rise again after three days (v. 31). But this new piece of data doesn’t fit Peter’s messianic profile, so he takes Jesus aside and began to “rebuke” him. (v. 32) Which doesn’t end well for Peter.
Many opinions about the Messiah’s role and mission were in circulation. Messiah wannabes had popped up before Jesus and would continue to do so afterward, each gathering their own group of followers and selling their particular vision of what God wanted to do through them.
The common thread of the data around the Messiah was that he would be a descendant of David and restore Israel’s sovereignty, bringing earthly deliverance to the earthly kingdom of Israel.
This vision of a Messiah was also skewed by the bias of people looking for relief from oppression by Rome and years of foreign domination. This is why, when people heard the word “Messiah,” they thought of someone who might be the modern equivalent of a conquering king.
This is also why the crowd saw Jesus as a prophet and not a Messiah. He wasn’t acting like someone who wanted to rumble with Rome, and thus his poll numbers would not seem to indicate he would be a viable candidate.
Peter was close to Jesus, however, and saw potential. After all, anyone who could feed 5,000 people with five loaves and two fish and then walk on water had to have the ability to be the kind of Messiah who would bring God’s word and kick out the Romans.
But now Jesus was talking about rejection, suffering and death. So how can you be the Messiah if you’re dead? That kind of data made no sense to Peter.
But it made perfect sense to Jesus, who understood the bigger picture of where the data was trending. The people would get what they needed—but it wasn’t going to come the way they wanted.
What we see in this text is Peter staying close to the status quo.
But Jesus is moving in a different direction— one in which few want to go, maybe including ourselves.
Jesus makes the different direction clear: It’s not about comfort; it’s about the cross. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (v. 34)
To follow Jesus is to walk on a road to rejection, suffering and self-denial.
It’s a life of doing what’s right and hard, rather than wrong and easy.
Following Jesus is not trendy and cool, nor is it easy or convenient.
And if it ever is, we’ve got the wrong Jesus.
Following Jesus is not about getting people we like elected, or laws we want passed.
And if it ever is, we’ve got the wrong Jesus.
Following Jesus in a life lived on behalf of others.
Following Jesus is a life lived speaking truth to power.
Following Jesus is a life lived loving our enemies and turning the other cheek—which is not about letting people beat you up or take advantage of you, but rather about doing justice.
Following Jesus is a life lived outside the status quo.
Following Jesus is a life lived where your greatest joy and the world’s greatest need intersect.
Those are the “divine things” Jesus wants his disciples to focus on, not the “human things” of popularity, prosperity, and power.
To follow Jesus is to embrace a downward mobility in which one’s own preferences are set aside in favor of Christ’s preferences for us, and for all.
To follow Jesus usually means going against the trending data.
Marketers easily prey on the fact that we want things and will always prefer things that match our interests.
Jesus, however, calls us to different things.
Jesus knew his disciples better than they knew themselves, and he knew their preferences for the kind of Messiah they were looking for needed refining and redefining.
And so in our text we see how Jesus begins to turn his disciples’ attention from their needs and desires toward the way of the cross— which is, admittedly, a much tougher sell. But it is the faithful way. And it is the work Jesus is still doing today. He is turning our attention away from the human things we want, to the divine things that will bring new life into the world.
It’s easy for us 21st-century disciples of Jesus to want to tailor our message and our methods to better fit market trends. We’d like to be popular, trendy and have a lot of people following us. We’re tempted, like Peter, to answer Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” by making him into a Messiah who fits our profile.
But Jesus won’t have it.
There’s only one real answer to that question— Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, and he calls us to follow him in ways that may not be popular or trendy, or even comfortable and convenient, but they are ways that will lead us, and others, to new and abundant life. Amen.