Third Tuesday of Advent: In the Middle
When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
—Matthew 16:13-16 (Read Matthew 16)
I’m confident that I’m not the only one who made poor decisions in middle school.
One such example involves me—along with three of my track teammates—swiping knit hats from a donation tree as we headed outdoors for a cold, winter practice. This tree was intended for people to hang winter clothes—hats, mittens, scarves, etc.—as a way of donating them to families in need. (We did not consider this.) The hats in question were Disney princess hats. (We did consider this. And the four of us thought we were hilarious.)
Early in that practice, we were notified that a teammate intended to inform our head coach. So naturally, we attempted to dispose of the evidence…in the toilets of the locker room.
As a result, we were all suspended for the first track meet of the year.
During that first meet, which I watched from the infield in my street clothes, the head coach for the varsity basketball team found me and asked me to take a walk with him. He had not yet been my coach, but we knew each other from youth leagues, basketball camps, and open gyms. We both hoped that I would be playing for him in just a couple years. Basketball was his passion, and mine.
I stood in the infield grass with him, both of us staring without focus in the same general direction—my hands buried deep in my pockets, shoulders hunched, and my eyes, I’m sure, more downcast than his.
“Are you enjoying your first track meet?” he asked.
“No, not really.”
“Good. I hope you aren’t.”
From the corner of my eye, I saw his breath burst forth in brisk billows of condensation as he questioned my judgment, my character, and my choice of friends. Eventually, he heaved a sigh which seemed to soothe him a bit. Then came this curious question:
“When I think of you, Tyler, do you know what first comes to mind?”
I turned to look at him and shook my head slowly. I had no idea.
“It isn’t that you scored 26 points in a game this year,” he continued. “It’s that you, as a sixth-grader, were willing to stand outside at the flagpole last fall and pray out loud, even as seventh- and eighth-graders were getting off the buses and walking past you.”
He was referring to “See You at the Pole,” an annual prayer event at middle schools and high schools across America. He was referring to a moment 18 months prior to this moment on the infield. He was referring to a moment of boldness that had once seemed significant to me, as well. A moment I had not considered in a long time.
“Do you remember that?”
I nodded. I remembered it. Now.
He continued, but I was no longer listening. I was remembering that flagpole, surprised that this was how he saw me. Remembering that this was once how I saw myself.
I suspect Jesus had many, many conversations like this with his disciples. In the Gospels, we see a few examples preserved for us—with Jesus asking just the right question at the right moment.
One poignant example appears in Matthew 16:15. Right after Jesus asks his disciples who other people say he is, he asks an important follow-up question: “But what about you? Who do you say that I am?”
This is a pivotal question, isn’t it? It’s the same question people have been asking ever since Jesus arrived in that manger in Bethlehem. From the shepherds who came from the fields to the first disciples, from healed lepers to Pontius Pilate, from the women who discovered the empty tomb to the overzealous Pharisee blinded on his way to Damascus. Who do they say Jesus is?
The sixth-grade kid who sheepishly raised his hand to pray at a flagpole. And the basketball coach who invited that kid to take a walk with him. Who do we say Jesus is?
Because even when we believe, even when we know who Jesus is, even if we can answer, like Peter did, “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God”—there are still moments when we need to be reminded.
There are moments when we act like adolescents—running laps around a track with Princess Jasmine hats on, thinking we’re hilarious—and we need someone to pull us aside and ask, “Who do you say Jesus is?”
Even if they use different words, sometimes we need someone to be direct with us, to call us back to ourselves.
That conversation on the track infield didn’t immediately change the trajectory of my life. But it is a piece of my story that reminds me of who I knew Jesus to be, reminds me that others had seen evidence of His transforming work in my life, and challenges me to remember. And to respond. And to invite others to do the same.
This Advent season, who do you say Jesus is?
Tyler Charles serves the CCO as Staff Director for the Midwest Region.