Sunday, February 28, 2010

Second Sunday in Lent
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
Psalm 27
Philippians 3:17-4:1
Luke 13:31-35

Brethren, be ye imitators together of me, and mark them that so walk even as ye have us for an ensample.

My mom had a friend, in a roundabout way she was sort of a relative, that my mom could call on the spur of the moment to go out and have a piece of pie. They would sit in the restaurant for hours, talking about their lives, complaining about their husbands, sharing their hopes and dreams. She was a very good friend to my mom, and my mom was a good friend to her. When this woman was having marital difficulty, my mom was there to give her support, to comfort her and to give her advice.

This is a special kind of friendship that not everyone is blessed to have. A news report several years ago stated that the number of people without someone in whom they can confide is only 75%. That might seem to be a good number, but it means that 25% of the people have no one. Among the 75%, I suspect that a much smaller number have a best friend, or someone outside their immediate family, with whom they can share their thoughts and troubles. As a matter of fact, the report noted that more people are relying on their nuclear family for support.

The report also showed that people have fewer contacts with clubs, neighbors and organizations. In other words, people are becoming centered in self rather than in the world around them. This is not good for society in general, because it leads to loneliness, depression, mistrust and fear. It also means that we keep many of our problems bottled up inside, rather than getting them out in the open. If we have a fight with our spouse, and have no best friend with whom we can vent, our anger builds up until we explode. In the end, instead of finding a compromise or solution to the problem, we end up making everything worse with either separation or even violence. Loneliness, depression, mistrust and fear are not good for the community. The key to a strong community is strong relationships between people.

What must it have been like for Jesus? Yes, Jesus had a close circle of friends, but they often did not understand what He was trying to say. Jesus was never alone, but I have often wondered if He was often lonely in the crowd. His friends could not really identify with Him. The people looked to Him for their support and courage, but did He have anyone to whom He could find support and courage? Perhaps He didn’t have a human friend with whom He could confide, but He did have that kind of relationship with God.

Righteousness is about having a right relationship. It is about trusting and having faith that tomorrow is secure. Righteousness in our homes means a right relationship between spouses and with children. Righteousness in our neighborhoods means having a right relationship with our neighbors. Righteousness in our cities and states and country and the world means having a right relationship with the people who live with us there. We are righteous when we do what is right so as to build a relationship rather than destroy. The Hebrew understanding of righteousness is, “upright, just, straight, innocent, true, and sincere. It is best understood as the product of upright, moral action in accordance with some form of divine plan.” The divine plan always takes us toward stronger relationships with one another, toward community.

In today’s Old Testament lesson, Abram believed and it is reckoned to him as righteousness. What did he believe? Did he believe that he would have so many children that he would never be able to count them all? Certainly not: for it would be impossible for any one man to have that many children, even if he had a harem as large as Solomon’s. After all, have you ever seen the sky on a clear night? Perhaps if Abram were counting the stars we can see over the city at night, we might believe it is possible. But climb to the top of a mountain, or view the heavens from the middle of a desert, far from the light pollution of our modern age, and you’ll know: it is a number too large for any man to count.

So, Abram believed in a promise that he would never see fulfilled. And he believed that it would begin with the fruit of his loins. A servant would not inherit his house, a son would be heir. Abram was convinced by God’s words that the future of his life and his legacy had been secured. It was a promise that would not be fulfilled immediately. It would be shaped through time. It is a promise that is still being shaped for us today. Our relationship with God continues to be shaped by His promises daily,

God sealed the promise by making a covenant with Abram. Notice that faith came first. But though Abram had faith, he also needed some assurance to stay faithful. Abram didn’t need a covenant to believe in God’s promises; the covenant simply ‘sealed the deal’ so that Abram would continue to believe.

So, God followed an ancient ritual that established an unbreakable bond between Him and Abram. Cutting a covenant ensured that the deal was firm. The parties sacrificed several animals and laid them on either side of a path. The parties involved walked through the animals, in the blood as it ran from the carcasses, in essence saying “May what happened to these animals happen to me if I do not keep my promise.” God made the covenant with Abram, so that he would know God's promise is true. What is particularly fascinating about the covenant ceremony in today’s lesson is that Abram did not walk it with God. As a matter of fact, he fell into a deep darkness while it is happening. God walked the covenant path alone.

And yet, was He alone? The scripture says, “And it came to pass, that, when the sun went down, and it was dark, behold, a smoking furnace, and a flaming torch that passed between these pieces.” I had never noticed before that it was two separate items—a smoking furnace, or pot, and a flaming torch—that passed through the pieces. What do these symbolize?

One thing that has always bothered me about this scripture is that in the legal sense, how could only one walk the covenant path? Can a man witness for himself? Though it is not man but God, there is still a question of the legitimacy of a covenant between one party. But with two “walking” the covenant path, this is no longer a question. Though the covenant is still between Abram and God, God Himself has provided the second party. So, if (or when) the covenant is broken, the guilt will fall on one of those parties.

I have checked a number of websites, and found a number of different ideas on what this imagery might mean. Taking into consideration the thoughts in the previous paragraph, perhaps the smoking pot represents God and the flaming torch represents Jesus. Jesus is, after all, the Light of the World. If we think about the imagery of the Old Testament, smoke and fire were often used as ways of representing God. The Israelites were lead through the wilderness by smoke and fire. The rituals of the Temple centered on smoke and fire. Judgment was represented by smoke and guidance by fire. Sin is burned away, light leads the way. Smoke also represented affliction and the lamp offers comfort in affliction.

Though it might be a stretch to say that God and Jesus walked the covenant path together that night, it isn’t a stretch to realize from our post resurrection point of view that Jesus stood in the covenant for Abram. He went willingly to the cross. He took the punishment for all humankind’s rebellion against God. No man, including Abram, could pay the price for sin. So Abram was not taken down the covenant path. Jesus stood in his place then, too.

In my notes I wrote, “The covenant was unilateral and unconditional.” In a sense that is true, because it is only God who can provide the ultimate sacrifice for our sin. Yet, the covenant was made with the end already known to God. He knew we’d fail. He knew we could not live up to our part of the bargain. So, He planned to send Jesus long before we could fail. No conditions were placed on human shoulders for this covenant. It didn’t depend on us in any way. The entire burden was placed on Jesus.

The covenant established a lasting relationship between God and Abram. The covenant is extended to all Abraham’s offspring. Abraham’s offspring are all those who have the faith of Abraham: to believe is to trust that God has secured the future. Our righteousness is founded in the righteousness that was reckoned to Abram on that night, and secured in the covenant ceremony that God walked with Jesus. This was not a covenant that was fulfilled immediately. As a matter of fact, Abraham never saw his offspring as numerous as the stars. The relationship between God and His people has been shaped through time. Righteousness means waiting because we know God is faithful. Our relationship with God is built on this reality.

The psalmist writes, “Wait for Jehovah: Be strong, and let thy heart take courage; Yea, wait thou for Jehovah.” In this passage, we see fulfilled all those needs that we have. God provides us a place to go to vent, to lent go of our anger, to find peace in our doubt and comfort in our fear. The one thing the psalmist asked was to dwell in God’s temple forever. This is where we start our right relationships with people. Then we can, as the psalmist writes, “see the goodness of Jehovah in the land of the living.” Believing in God gives us the place to begin believing in others. Dwelling in God’s Temple is where we begin really living in the world today.

Paul writes, “For our citizenship is in heaven; whence also we wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” The cross and its benefits are ours today, but they will not be fully realized until the Day of the Lord. Though we have been transformed, we continue to be transformed daily. Though we share in His glory, there will come a day when that promise will be fully realized. For now we have to wait and remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return. That is what Lent is all about—being transformed by God’s Word into something new, something humble, something real. We are transformed and conformed: this is sanctification. We are conformed not to the ways of the world but to the body of Christ, made children of God and children of Abraham by His grace.

In the passage immediately before our Gospel lesson, someone asked Jesus, “Lord, are they few that are saved?” (Luke 13:23b) Jesus answered that many would try to enter into the kingdom of God in their own way, and they would wait until it was too late. The only way in is by faith in Jesus Christ. We might think that we can fulfill the covenant on our own, with our own strength and abilities. We might think that we could have walked that covenant path with God. Self-righteousness has always been a problem for human beings; it is only those who realize that it is in relationship with God that we are made citizens of heaven who enter into the Kingdom. Faith in Christ is the open door. And faith does not come from our actions but from God’s grace.

We don’t know very much about the Pharisees who came to see Jesus in today’s Gospel lesson. Were they friends concerned about Jesus? Or were they enemies who just didn’t want to deal with Jesus? Perhaps Jesus’ teaching didn’t bother them, but they just wanted Him to go somewhere else to do it. By sending Jesus away from Jerusalem, they would not have to deal with the questions and accusations. Jesus could quietly disappear into the wilderness to teach and preach to the animals. Outside Jerusalem, He would not rock so many boats. Jesus was unwilling to submit to the temptation. He knew His task took Him to Jerusalem. The covenant was broken; it was time to pay the price.

Jesus calls Herod a fox. Foxes are not trustworthy, and that was certainly true of Herod. But the word “fox” is understood among the religious leaders as being someone who was worthless and insignificant. Herod Antipas might have been the ruler, but he was worthless and insignificant. He was a puppet prince with no authority, a pretentious pretender, doing someone else’s bidding. Herod might have seen himself as a lion, a king, but in reality, he was just a fox, an insignificant peon.

Herod might try to kill Jesus, but it wouldn’t be done according to anyone’s will but God’s. Jesus had no need to fear, He was in a right relationship with His God. He dwelt in the Temple, lived daily in His presence. He knew His purpose and knew that it was necessary to finish His journey to Jerusalem and the cross. The promise to Abraham depended upon it. Our future depended upon it.

But it made Jesus sad. In this passage, Jesus mourns the unbelief of Jerusalem. Jesus wants for them the best of God’s Kingdom—the hope, the peace, the joy. He wants to gather them under His wings, to give them fully and freely the gift He has to give. Perhaps He even wants all this without having to face the cross—how much more wonderful would it be to have Jerusalem repent like Ninevah! Yet, Jesus knows this is not the way it is to be. He knows that He is destined for the cross, for death. Salvation will happen according to God’s time, in God’s way. Jesus will not be moved from the path on which He was set, for it is the path of true life for all those who believe. If Jesus were a narcissist, He would have grasped onto the temptations of the devil and gone for the self-control and self-satisfaction. But Jesus dwelt in God’s presence and willingly submitted Himself to the plan of God.

We will never be expected to give our lives the way Jesus gave His for us, but we are called to live our faith in this world while we wait for that day God promised. We live that life of faith by building relationships with people, by being part of a community. We may not all have a friend like my mom’s, but we can’t be alone. We begin our community in the heart of God and then share His grace with the world. We continue what was begun with Abraham, living in the righteousness of faith. Just like Abraham, we might not see the completion of what Jesus began, but we wait in hope knowing that God is faithful.

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