February 25, 2018

Second Sunday in Lent
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Psalm 22:23-31
Romans 5:1-11
Mark 8:27-38

Not only so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation.

God made a covenant with Abram which was renewed in today’s Old Testament lesson. In Genesis 12, God called Abram and sent him to a new place, promising that he would be great and a blessing to the whole world. He also promised Abram that his offspring would inherit the Promised Land. There was no reciprocal promise, God asked nothing in return. This promise was renewed in chapter 15 when God met with Abram and cut the covenant. There the Lord presented Abram a royal grant - an unconditional promise to fulfill the grant of land.

Abram never saw the fulfillment of God’s plan, but God remained faithful despite Abram’s unfaithfulness. All along the journey Abram took matters into his own hands, never quite trusting that God was in control. Ultimately, Abram and Sarai even tried to provide their own heir, turning to Hagar to be a surrogate, but Hagar’s son Ishmael would never be the son of the promise. God repeated the promise of offspring, showing Abram that he would be father to children more numerous than the stars in the sky and that they would inherit the Promised Land. Abram believed and it was credited to him as righteousness. Abram was ninety-nine years old in today’s passage. He still had no children and Sarai was barren and very old. Despite their unfaithfulness, God appeared to Abram and confirmed his promise.

Now this promise is more than a royal land grant; it is that Abram would be the father of many nations. This was a suzerain-vassal covenant which is a conditional pledge between a great king and a subject king. As long as the vassal remains faithful and loyal, the suzerain would be there as guardian and protector. The sign of this covenant is circumcision. As long as Abram’s descendents continued to consecrate themselves before the Lord, they would receive His blessings. God said, “I am God Almighty. Walk before me, and be blameless. I will make my covenant between me and you, and will multiply you exceedingly.”

It is obvious in today’s text that something changed with Abram and Sarai, something was new. God gave them new names. The scriptures tell us that the new names represent their new place in God’s plan. Abram became Abraham; the childless one became the one who would be the father of many nations. Sarai became Sarah; the childless one became the one who will give rise to nations.

There is more to this name change than meets our eyes, however, and it has to do with the additional letter. The letter “h” in Hebrew is “hey” and means “to reveal” or “behold.” It also represents the divine breath and revelation. In other words, God has breathed new life into Abraham and Sarah; their lives will be different because God is irrevocably intertwined in them. By adding the “h” to Abram’s name, the Lord God Almighty added His breath, His life, His Spirit into the life of Abram. Abram was now fully a part of God’s kingdom; the vassal was to become the father of many nations. In this passage we see God offering a promise to the father and mother of many nations, and we see Him taking hold of them and giving them everything they need to become what He has planned.

Isaac was child of the promise; his life meant that Sarai would become the mother of many nations. Just as Abram was changed to Abraham, her name was changed to Sarah. The name changes mark a significant point in their lives. It was then that they were fully immersed into God’s covenant and the promise that was theirs was now very real to them and to the world. The grant of land would not be fulfilled for generations to come, but the child of the promise would soon be theirs.

It seems impossible that a ninety-nine year old childless man might become the father of many nations. The promise is equally impossible for Sarah who was well beyond the age of child bearing. Yet, Abraham believed God and trusted that He would be faithful. Do we live with such trust? We should. Although our names have not been changed, God has breathed His “hey” into our lives, too. We have been changed as He has revealed Himself to us through Jesus, by grace, in our baptisms.

God opened Abraham and Sarah’s hearts, revealed His purpose for their lives; He promised them greatness and took hold of them so that He could give them everything they needed to become what He planned. He does the same for us. We might not have a name change like Abram and Sarai, but we are God’s and He has a plan for our lives.

God had a plan for Jesus, and it wasn’t what Peter expected. Peter knew that Jesus was the Messiah because the Holy Spirit had revealed it to Him, but Peter’s expectations were much different. We, like Peter, might rebuke God for doing things His way, thinking that we know better. The text today asks us if know who Jesus is. Do we have an answer to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” Do we know that He is the Messiah and do we know what that means? We have the advantage of hindsight; we know the rest of the story, but that does not always guarantee that we understand how God is working in our lives. We are called to lives of trust and confidence in God’s plan, knowing that only He can make things work out right.

Faith doesn’t always lead to what we call blessing. A story is told that at some time when a certain country was persecuting Christians, a small gathering of faithful were in a church at worship. Suddenly the door slammed open and soldiers entered the sanctuary, with weapons pointed at the congregation. The leader of the soldiers yelled out to those who were gathered, “If you deny your faith and walk out of here right now, you will be safe.” A number of people rose and went for the door, but a few people stayed seated. They were unwilling to deny Jesus Christ. When the last of the deniers left the building, the soldiers closed and locked the door and then all sat in a pew. The leader said, “I’m sorry to frighten you, but in this day we had to be certain that we worshipped with true believers. We know those of you who risked your life for your faith will not betray us.”

I don’t recall the time or place, but I don’t think it matters. There are stories from throughout time and space of people willingly laying their lives on the line for their faith, and far more stories of people willing to deny Christ to live. I remember reading about a specific incident like this, but I no longer remember the details. We can hear a story like this and ask the question, “Would you have stayed or would you have gone?” I’m not sure we can really answer that question. We simply do not know how we will respond. Most of us, at least those of us who live in the United States, do not need to fear such intense persecution.

Admittedly, it is more frightening today than it was decades ago, but we do not really know what it is like to be afraid to believe in Jesus. We can go to church without fear of intrusion. We can live out our faith in daily life, displaying Christian symbols on our homes or wearing a cross around our neck. We can read the bible without censorship and we can speak comforting words of hope in God’s promises to the sad and lonely in this world. We don’t really understand what it means to face a firing squad for our faith. There are places, however, where faith is tested daily and people are dying for Jesus.

Instead of wondering if we would have stayed or left, perhaps we should ask how far we are willing to follow Jesus. We hear today’s Gospel lesson and wonder about what Jesus meant when He said “Whoever wants to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” What is our cross? For some, the cross is the suffering they experience, like when they are sick or dealing with the harsh realities of our world. Others say their cross is dealing with things they don’t like for the sake of others. Yet other will say that the good works they do is the cross they carry.

Jesus goes on to say, “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it; and whoever will lose his life for my sake and the sake of the Good News will save it.” Is death a requirement for faithfulness? We are reminded in the scriptures that Christ died once for all. So, what does this mean for us today? We may struggle with the question of whether or not we would stand firm when facing the wrong end of the gun, but are we willing to refuse to take our kids to soccer practice on a Sunday morning so we can attend worship? Will we tell our bosses we can’t do something because it goes against our faith? Will we stand up for the things that we believe matter in this world? Will we call a spade a spade even when the rest of the world says it is a shovel?

We may never have to make the choice of whether or not to stay in the pew when threatened by a gunman’s bullet, but there many opportunities to deny oneself for the sake of Christ and His gospel. Will we gain the whole world by keeping our faith private, but lose true life in doing so? Are we so ashamed of Christ that we will bury Him beneath our daily worldly activities because it is easier to do so than to stand with Him? These are the questions we should be asking ourselves, rather than wondering what cross we have to carry. For losing one’s life does not necessarily mean dying in the flesh, it means putting Jesus Christ before everything else in our life. It is there we find true life.

More than a decade ago, a girl named Kristi Yamaoka earned her fifteen minutes of fame in a terrible accident at a basketball game. Kristi was a cheerleader for Southern Illinois University and the team was building a pyramid during a time out near the end of an extremely important game. Kristi fell off the pyramid and fell on her head. They stopped the game while medical staff dealt with her injury. They were very concerned that Kristi would be permanently injured, so every care was taken to keep her still. Video of the fall hit the airwaves from national news reports to YouTube. The game was a close one, and the crowds were noisy with spirit. The minute Kristi fell, however, the gym went silent.

Kristy is remembered, however, for how she dealt with her injury. She did not want to leave the game. The medical team insisted that Kristi be taken to the hospital, but even as she was being taken on a stretcher, Kristi continued to cheer her team. Her coach cautioned her to stop, but the medical team said she would be fine, so Kristi showed her spirit by performing the fight song routine right on the stretcher. Though she was injured, her concern was only for the other cheerleaders and the basketball team. “My biggest concern was that I didn’t want my squad to be distracted, so that they could continue cheering on the team, and I didn't want my team to be distracted from winning the game,” she said.

Kristi recovered completely. She’d suffered a chipped neck vertebra, concussion, and bruised lung and was released from the hospital just two days later. She had no problem securing her place on the team for the next school year. The accident brought changes to the rules of cheerleading. The American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Administrators banned tossing or launching of cheerleaders and pyramids were limited to two levels without mats. The ban became permanent in July 2006, despite the negative reaction from cheerleaders and coaches.

Have you ever known a Christian who is so filled with Christ that he or she can continue praising God even in the midst of tragedy and pain? Kristi’s coach said, “She’s 100 percent school spirit.” Though the focus of her excitement was different, Kristi reminds us of a passionate Christian; faith-filled Christians can praise God from a wheelchair and speak about hope at a funeral.

From the stretcher on her way out of the game Kristi said, “I am a cheerleader.” She had to cheer. It was who she is and what she does. How many people can say “I am a Christian,” and live their life so fully immersed in who they are in Christ that they can’t help but live in praise and worship to God? Do we walk around living in the Spirit of God? There are a few, but very few, people about whom it might be said, “He (or she) is 100 percent spirit,” because we get caught up in the troubles and pains of this world. It doesn’t take much for us to lose sight of God. His greatest gift is life, the true life that comes from the forgiveness that our Lord Jesus Christ won for us on His cross. We are called to live fully in that gift so that the world might see the grace of God and believe.

Jesus said, “For what will a man give in exchange for his life? For whoever will be ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man also will be ashamed of him, when he comes in his Father’s glory, with the holy angels.” Is He asking for us to give a cup of water to the thirsty in exchange for the life He has given us? No. He has given us life and has promised blessing to those who a cup of water in His name.

Our cross is not some suffering we have to face alone in this world. It is not some work we have to do. We take up Christ’s cross with Him. It is His cross we are called to share with others. This is incredibly hard, especially since we know most people do not want to hear the message that comes through the cross. People don’t want to hear that they are sinners in need of a Savior and that the only way to inherit the kingdom of God is through faith in Jesus. The message of the cross is foolishness. We are often ashamed to speak the words to our neighbors.

This is the cross we are called to carry; we are to be witnesses for Jesus in this world. It isn’t easy in a world that rejects Christianity. However, if we are ashamed of our faith, if we do not take Christ’s cross into the world, He will also be ashamed of us. It is a heavy burden for us to bear, but we are reminded that we do not carry this cross alone. God walks with us as we faithfully follow Him. He is with us, holding us up, loving us and giving us everything we need to speak those words of grace into people’s lives. We might suffer, but we won’t suffer alone and in the end we will join Him in His glory in the Day to come.

In Romans, Paul gives us a list of ways in which we can love, encourages us to live in the love of God. Without a doubt, none of us could do it without God’s abiding love. We could not care for others, consider others first, serve the Lord if He had not first loved us. The world knows that God is supposed to stand for love, that He is love. It is hard for the world to see God’s love when Christians often appear so unloving.

Unfortunately, we live in a world filled with sin and though we have been changed by God’s love, we still fail, we want to be in control, to be like God and do God’s work in our own way. Sometimes we are impatient, thinking that God is taking too long. We see the sin and pain in the world and wish He would do something to make problems end. At other times, we question whether God is taking care of the matter in the right way. Our motives are not always self-centered, but we are led by our own biases and experiences. Unfortunately, our way is always imperfect because we can’t see the world as God sees it.

Like Abram and Sarai, we think that we need to be in control. We want to avoid suffering and pain, and yet sometimes it is in the very suffering that God does His best work as we learn to trust in Him. Look at what happened on the cross: Jesus Christ died, but in His death we find true life. Paul reminds us that we grow through our suffering, which produces perseverance, which produces character and that character produces the hope that is already within us through faith in Jesus Christ. The character that comes from deep within holds on to a hope that is real and trustworthy because it comes from faith in Christ, a hope that was given through the blood of Jesus on the cross through which we are saved.

God does not fail. He knows the right time and the right way to accomplish His plan. He knew exactly how to overcome the sin of this world. He sent Jesus exactly when we needed Him to come, to do exactly what needed to be done. We do not understand why. We can’t quite grasp the need for the cross or for Christ’s blood to cleanse us from our sins. It isn’t up to us to decide whether or not God did things the right way. We are called to trust in Him, to believe in Jesus and to follow Jesus wherever He might lead us. Things might not be as we hope they will be, but they will be exactly as God intends. So, let us take up our cross, His cross, and follow Him, speaking the Gospel into a world that so desperately needs God’s salvation. It won’t be easy, we may even suffer, but in the end we will see God’s promise of reconciliation be fulfilled and we will share in His glory forever.

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