Sunday, March 12, 2006

Second Sunday in Lent
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Psalm 22:23-31
Romans 4:13-25
Mark 8:31-38

…yet, looking unto the promise of God, he wavered not through unbelief, but waxed strong through faith, giving glory to God…

When I first began this online ministry, I was just writing a brief devotional to a group of friends. Several people suggested I expand the audience by putting "A WORD FOR TODAY" on the Internet. I tried. I tried for months to figure out how to put together a web page. I tried several different free web hosts and editors. I bought a few inexpensive programs. I asked a few people who were building their own websites for advice and help. Most of the time they refused to share their secrets, occasionally even wanted to charge me for help. I gave up more times than I would like to admit, but every time I gave up, someone would suggest a website.

Six and a half years later, this ministry has expanded. Not only do I have a website, but it contains hundreds of pages with "A WORD FOR TODAY," "MIDWEEK OASIS" and dozens of pages dedicated to bible study, travel and other writings. How did it finally get started?

I was just about to give up when I 'ran into' a friend on the Internet who was trying to find his place in this world while overcoming a disability. He was learning web design. He eventually went to college for computer programming and is now working a great job in a growing company. When he learned what I was trying to do, he told me his story and asked if he could help. For several weeks we worked together building the website. He taught me code, helped me solve problems and showed me where to find the information I needed to do the work. The site has remained relatively unchanged in all this time. There is certainly more there, but I'm still using that simple code I learned more than six years ago.

Web site online editors have become more user friendly and it is now much easier for an amateur to build a site. However, the technology was just beginning to blossom in that day and I am sure that I never would have gotten past my initial difficulty without my friend. Since he shared his gifts and knowledge with me, I am now confident enough to upkeep my own site while also designing and maintaining my church's website. I'll never be a professional, but it has been a blessing to do what I can on the Internet for me, and I hope for those who are my readers.

Shortly after I began learning web design, I had the opportunity to share my knowledge with others. Several of my friends decided they wanted to build web pages to share their own experiences online. Since my friend had been so helpful, I wanted to share the wealth. After all, helping my friends would not change or diminish my own ministry. There was one moment, however, when it was not true. After helping my friend build a site, we both sent our links to one of those online awards sites. Her site was ranked and rated much higher than mine. This became a source of pride and arrogance. She removed all evidence of my participation and has even left my own photos on the site as if they were her own.

We don't want to share because we fear that we will lose something. If we share a toy, we fear that it will be lost or broken and we will not have it any more. If we share a friend with another friend, it might affect our relationships. If we teach someone how to do something, they will no longer need us to do it and we will become obsolete. I would even go so far as to say that we would rather not share our faith because we fear we will lose something as if we are giving it away.

In today's Old Testament lesson, we see Abram receiving a covenant with God. The promise in today's lesson is one that God made to Abram earlier. In chapter 12 of Genesis, 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. In this promise there was no reciprocal promise. The promise stood on its own, 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.

Though Abram was unable to see God's plan, God remained faithful to his promise, even while Abram was unfaithful. Abram and Sarai turned to Hagar, but Ishmael would never be the son of the promise. All along there was a promise of offspring and in chapter 15 God even tells Abram that his offspring, more numerous than the stars in the sky, would inherit the land. Abram believed and it was credited to him as righteousness. In today's lesson we see that Abram has grown old – ninety-nine years old. He still has no children; Sarai is barren and very old. Despite their failure, God appeared to Abram and confirmed his promise.

Now the promise is beyond the royal land grant. Now the promise 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, " am God Almighty; walk before me, and be thou perfect. And I will make my covenant between me and thee, and will multiply thee exceedingly."

Promises often bring about some change in the life of the one receiving the promise. When I promise something to my kids, they act a little better for awhile, as if the good behavior will earn the fulfillment of the promise. In the case of Abram, the change was not in Abram, but rather was a gift from God. Abram's name was changed as a sign of the promise. Abraham means "father of many nations." His name change confirms the promise. The name change also signifies something else. The letter 'h' in Hebrew represented the breath of God, His Spirit. 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 to become the father of many nations.

Sarai was also given the breath of God, and for her this meant the fulfillment of her greatest desire. Isaac was the promise; his life meant that she would become the mother of many nations. Her name was changed to Sarah. The name changes mark a significant point in the life of Abraham and Sarah. 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 their's.

The passage from Romans for this week has an interesting verse. "…yet, looking unto the promise of God, he wavered not through unbelief, but waxed strong through faith, giving glory to God…" We often think, because Abraham was credited with righteousness through faith, that he never had doubts. Yet, if he never doubted, then why did he turn to his wife's maid to guarantee a child? Abraham's faith never wavered, this is true. He did not distrust God. He did doubt to the point of trying to control the outcome on his own. Perhaps he could make God hurry up on the promise by providing an heir himself?

How often do we do this? It comes back to the idea of sharing. We don't share because when we give something away we no longer have control of it. We hold on to the things we love or the things that we call our own so that someone else can't break it or steal it or lose it. Or change it.

I have seen in far too many congregations this rule of control over everything and anything. People will remain in a position far beyond their usefulness, not because they even love to do what they are doing but because they don't want it to be done differently. A pastor or the director of some ministry will stay for too long because they have built up the ministry with their blood, sweat and tears. Leaving will make room for another director to bring about changes – changes that are often quite necessary. Instead of building up one another in faith and hope and grace, there exists a power struggle for control. Letting go might mean losing a piece of oneself, a sort of death.

Peter did not want to let go. As a matter of fact, he was probably feeling pretty good about himself because shortly before today's Gospel passage he'd proclaim Jesus to be the Christ, the Son of the Living God. He said the words they'd all been longing to hear, that their Savior had finally come. Now that they knew who He was, Jesus knew it was time to fully reveal His purpose. It was not about feeding the poor or healing the sick, though those were wonderful works He accomplished. No, Jesus' purpose was to go to the cross.

When Peter heard Jesus saying that He would suffer and die, Peter became afraid of losing what he had. He had a Lord, a Teacher, a Master. The things Jesus was doing made sense and was leading Him toward what they all wanted – to lead the Jews into a new kingdom of freedom and peace. Peter took Jesus aside to rebuke Him. Death and the grave did not fit into their picture of God's kingdom. Suffering and pain was not part of His covenant. Blessings from blessedness, that's what God was all about. How could the world possibly benefit from Jesus' death? Peter missed the rest of the story.

Jesus told them that He would rise again, but they did not truly understand the kind of resurrection Jesus was promising. They knew that there would be a resurrection of the dead – some Jews believed in an after life, but that kind of resurrection still would do them no good. A dead Jesus, even if He was raised to some sort of new life in another world, was still a dead Jesus. Peter rebuked Jesus because His words stole their hope. It left them open to doubt. We fear doubt because we think it means we are being unfaithful. Yet, even when Abram was unfaithful, God remained faithful. Even when Abram doubted God, God gave Him the promised child.

Paul wrote, "…yet, looking unto the promise of God, he wavered not through unbelief, but waxed strong through faith, giving glory to God…" Abraham might have had doubts, but he did not waver. He gave glory to God even when it seemed that promises were beyond his reach. He doubted himself, thinking that he was failing God by not producing the heir. This is why it is so important to see that at this point in their story, God added His breath to their life and to their name. Their new names were a sign that this was not for them to do, but to believe. Through it all Abraham gave glory to God, and his faith grew stronger.

I've always seen my meeting with my friend on that day six and a half years ago as a divine appointment. I had been trying so hard to make a ministry happen. I had to learn to let go, to trust in God, to wait for Him to bring forth the ministry. My friend was a gift at the right time, God's time. That gift was meant to be shared so that others might be blessed by the blessing. It did not matter what happened to the gift once it was shared; it was up to God to produce the fruit. It wasn't about me, or credit given to me. It is about giving glory to God. And in doing so, faith grows.

Why do we find it so difficult to share the gift God has given to us so freely? Why do we withhold the Good News of Jesus Christ from the world? All too often we are afraid of what will happen to that gift and to ourselves. Our world is filled with people offended by the Gospel and any mention of things Christian. We might recall that many people refused to even say "Merry Christmas" a few months ago because they might offend someone with the words. If we can't say "Merry Christmas" how are we ever going to share the message of the cross with them? That's just the problem. We don't.

Peter rebuked Jesus for teaching them that the Son must die. What would they do? Not only would they be alone without Jesus, but they'd have nothing to give to the people. Who would follow a dead king? Jesus' answer to Peter's rebuke seems rather harsh. Jesus turned toward the other disciples and said to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan!" Peter himself was not being identified with Satan, but Peter's earthly focus continues the temptations from the wilderness.

Also, by Jesus putting Peter behind Him, He is called Peter to follow Jesus down the true path. Following Jesus does not mean a cushy life free from pain and suffering. Following Jesus means letting go of the human things to follow God. It means denying ourselves, our desires, our lives for the sake of the Gospel. "And he called unto him the multitude with his disciples, and said unto them, If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me." We are called to follow Jesus.

Jesus continues, "For whosoever would save his life shall lose it; and whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel's shall save it." During the temptations in the wilderness, Satan offered Jesus the whole world. Peter too was offering Jesus the chance at the world. "Never, Lord, those things will never happen to you!" Suffering and death had no place in Peter's conception of the Messiah. But Jesus said, "For what doth it profit a man, to gain the whole world, and forfeit his life?"

Jesus told Peter and the disciples that not only was death part of what would happen to Him, but that also must be prepared to give up their own lives for the sake of the Gospel. Following Jesus meant death. It meant taking up their own crosses and following Him. It means the same for us. This is often where we lose sight of what Jesus is saying to us today. After all, how many of us, at least those Christians who are reading these words, experience any real persecution that would lead to our physical deaths? We try to define our crosses by those things we have to suffer. We take our suffering and say, "This is the cross I have to bear."

Another way this is seen is that our cross is reflective of God's call to serve those who suffer injustice. Our cross, in this way of thinking, is to feed the poor and freeing the prisoners. My own experience certainly shows that sharing gifts and resources is often seen as a burden. We have to die to our own lusts and desires if we are going to take our resources and share them with another. We are certainly called to share our blessings so that the world will be blessed. It is part of our response to the Gospel of Christ to give away that which God has given us. Is this really the cross we have to bear?

Jesus goes on to speak even harder words to us in today's world. "For what should a man give in exchange for his life? For whosoever shall be ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of man also shall be ashamed of him, when he cometh in the glory of his Father 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. Jesus tells us that whoever gives a cup of water in His name will be blessed. In His name.

Our cross is not just some suffering we have to face in this world. We take up His 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. We don't want to hear that we are sinners in need of a Savior and that the only way to inherit the kingdom of God is through death and the grave – Jesus' death. The message of the cross is foolishness. We are even ashamed to speak the words to our neighbors.

There is no doubt that God calls us to live a life of service, seeking justice and peace in this world. But this is not our cross. We are called to proclaim the promises of God to those who have not yet heard His Word. Our cross is to live a life that glorifies God in word as well as deed. It is not by water that people are cleansed, but by water and Word. It is not by bread that people are fed, but by the bread of Christ and His Word. Bread might save the body for a season, but God's Word – Jesus – will save a person for eternity.

The psalmist writes, "A seed shall serve him; It shall be told of the Lord unto the next generation. They shall come and shall declare his righteousness unto a people that shall be born, that he hath done it." The promise of the Promised Land was never fulfilled in Abraham's lifetime. It was given to His offspring. But in Isaac's bright newborn eyes, Abraham saw the fulfillment of God's promises. His faith is reckoned to us who believe in God who raised Jesus from the dead. And we are called to carry the message to the next generation, for the promise is for them also.

Why don't we want to share this gift? Are we afraid that we will lose control? Are we afraid that the next generation will misuse or abuse the gift? Are we afraid that it will be lost or broken? Are we afraid that they will receive some greater benefit than we? Are we afraid that we will suffer at the hands of those who refuse to believe? Are we afraid that we will die?

It is time to take up our cross and follow Jesus. To die and live again so that others might have life. Give the word to your neighbors. Share the Gospel with your friends. Don't just wish them a "Merry Christmas" but share with them the forgiveness of God. Tell them of the God that is fearful and merciful, about the God that died so that they might live. Tell them about Jesus, so that they might be saved. Give it freely, for there is more than enough to go around. And do not worry about what might happen tomorrow, for God is faithful and His promises are real. He's breathed His life into your life so that you will pass it on to the world. Give glory to God and your faith will grow, even in the midst of your doubts and fears. And His world will change the world. Thanks be to God.

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