Second Sunday in Lent
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
For our citizenship is in heaven, from where we also wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; 21 who will change the body of our humiliation to be conformed to the body of his glory, according to the working by which he is able even to subject all things to himself.
Abram came from a place and a time where people worshipped many gods. There were local gods to whom they prayed for specific reasons, like the sun and moon, rain and wind, fertility and anything else to meet their daily needs. They had shrines in their homes honoring their special gods, with idols created out of wood and stone. They talked to the idols, praying for their needs, but they never heard a word in response. They looked for signs in the heavens or on the earth and interpreted the signs to mean whatever they wanted it to mean, grasping on to anything to have the assurance that they have been heard. The signs were good and bad; a good sign meant they would be blessed, a bad sign meant they would be cursed. Yet the worship of these idols was based on nothing more than superstition. The idols were not worthy of their devotion. They had nothing to give except false hope.
Abram heard a voice one day, the voice of the LORD. There was something about this voice that was different than what he experienced with the idols. It was so different that he packed up his whole life - his family, livestock and material possessions - and traveled to a far place on His Word. That took faith.
And yet, Abram also doubted. He knew this voice, this God that was different from all other gods. The Lord God had promised that he would have a son, but he had not yet seen any signs that the promise would be fulfilled. He and his wife were already old enough to be beyond child bearing; they could have been great-grandparents! Abram was considering legal action to pronounce a servant as his son to ensure that there would be an heir to take over when he died. God responded to Abramís doubt and concern with a sign. It was more than a sign; it was a covenant promise. Despite Abramís doubt, God provided him with the assurance he needed to go on. ďI am your shield,Ē said the LORD to Abram, establishing Himself as King and Sovereign over Abramís world. As King, the LORD would provide everything that Abram needed, including a son. Abram trusted the LORD.
Abram received Godís promise of an inheritance beyond anything he could ever imagine. He was prepared to grant the inheritance of his estate to a servant, accepting the fate of his life void of children. God told him to wait and promised that his heir would be from his own flesh. God promised him even more: his offspring will be as numerous as the stars in the sky. Thatís a pretty big promise, especially to a guy and his wife who are both well beyond child bearing age.
Abram believed, but he lacked patience. Sarai was also impatient for the promise, so she presented Abram with her maid servant, an acceptable way of overcoming barrenness. The servant of a woman could act as the surrogate and the child would be counted as the mistressís own. This is a natural and culturally acceptable solution to their problem. They did not trust God to fulfill His promises, not so much because they did not believe but because they were afraid to wait too long. Perhaps they were even afraid that they had missed the promise somehow. They thought that this was the way God wanted His promise to be accomplished.
We do not like to wait. As a matter of fact, we live in a world where we really do not have to wait for anything. Microwaves cook our food in seconds. Cars get us around the city in minutes. Computers make communication instantaneous. We can know what is happening anywhere around the world at any moment just by turning on the television. We do not even have to wait for our favorite televisions shows; video on demand gives us the ability to watch what we want when we want to watch it.
We have lost the ability to wait, not that it has even been a common human trait. Abram and Sarai could not wait for Godís promises. They took matters into their own hands. We do the same every day by rushing into things, making decisions without careful discernment or prayer. We are afraid we are going to miss something, so we jump in head first. We forget that Godís time is not our time and that Godís way is not our way. We even justify our impatience and call it boldness, boldly taking the leap of faith.
However, our impatience is actually distrust. We take matters in our own hands, actually creating more chaos and disorder in our world. The child of Saraiís maidservant, Ishmael, has been the center of conflict in that family and in that region ever since his birth. The same thing happens to us when we do not trust in God. When we take matters into our own hands, rushing the will and purpose of God, we find ourselves suffering the consequences of impatience.
In the Psalm we are called to be patient, to wait on the Lord. When we keep our eyes and our hearts on the Lord we have nothing to fear; we do not even have to fear time. God is faithful; He will fulfill His promises. We are afraid that we have missed Him, afraid that we canít hear His voice, but God is faithful. We should not rush into anything, grasping control from God, because we do not know all that we need to know. There is a reason to wait, a reason that tomorrow is a better time. We can only know that God has our life in His hands and that by faith we can have the courage to wait.
The world is full of role models, but they are not always sweet or well-behaved. Consider how many sports stars or celebrities are arrested for criminal activity. Politicians lie or think themselves above the law. We have seen disappointing stories of the people we trust most in our communities: police, teachers, and even clergy. Too many parents do not model good behavior for their children. We all struggle with the temptation to be one thing and do another. We get caught up in an attitude or situation and do not know how to respond. It does not take very much to turn a crowd into a raging mob. While a positive attitude can make things pleasant, a negative attitude can have as much power over a group. The group does not have to be something small like a congregation; it can be something as large as a culture. In a world that does not like to wait, this human tendency can create chaos.
As we look around us, we can see the impact of ideas and people on the world around them. In the right circumstances, one person can change the course of an entire nation. One designer can establish the clothing that millions of people will wear. One reporter can introduce an idea that will become a standard of policy and practice for many. One politician can set the agenda for the entire government. Good or bad, right or wrong, we can easily be led down a path of achievement or destruction by someone whom we look to as a role model.
It is not that we are all followers, blind or ignorant. It is simply that the human flesh looks for someone to emulate, to people who will be an example for us to help us to grow and mature. Intelligent, powerful people will grasp on to a policy or practice that seems right, to help it to spread and change the world. Sometimes, unfortunately, we grasp on to the ideas that are not right. With all good intention, we sometimes follow examples that are not centered in Christ.
Paul encourages us to emulate those who hold firm to the Gospel of grace. There were enemies of the cross in the community of Philippi. They may not have meant to destroy Christians or Christianity, but they looked toward a worldly salvation for their chaos. They chose to live a life of fulfillment and self-indulgence, impatient for the good life God has promised. This was not only in terms of satisfying lusts. Some well meaning people thought they had to satisfy the Law, and they did so by keeping their eyes on earthly things.
This is not the way God has called us to live. Christ lived as an example for us and Paul reminds us that we should not get stuck in the pattern of self-righteousness and self-indulgence. Too many role models in todayís world follow the wrong path; they have given us an example of the way we should not live. But those who trust in God, who believe in the covenant promises, are daily transformed into the image of Christ. By Godís grace they overcome the world which temps us to follow without question. The example we should follow is the life willing to step forth in faith, to do that which we have been called to do without concern for the opinions of others. As we live faithfully in Godís grace, we can stand as an example to the next generation.
A story circulated a number of years ago following a massive forest fire in the western part of the U.S. As a firefighter was combing an area that was burnt, he heard the sound of baby birds chirping. He did not know how anything could have survived because the area was complete destroyed. At the base of a tree, however, he found the charred remains of a mother bird with her wings outstretched over her babies. She gave her life so that her babies would live. Those chicks were received as a sign of hope in the midst of despair and that mother was recognized for her sacrificial love.
In another story, Indian evangelist Sundar Singh shared an experience during a fire in the Himalayas. Sundar was traveling through the area when they were trying to put out the fire. Along with a group of men he noticed a bird circling above a nest in a tree. She was frantic, knowing it was impossible to save her babies from the fire and yet unwilling to leave them alone. When the nest began to burn, the mother swooped in on top of the chicks and covered them with her wings. Everything was gone in seconds.
We certainly like the first story better because it has a happy ending. The babies were alive and we have a hero; the mother bird willingly giving of herself for her chicks. In the second story there is no winner. The chicks are dead, the mother is dead, and the nest is gone. We are amazed at her sacrifice, but find it foolish because we know that if she had stayed away she would have lived another day. She could have built another next and hatched more chicks. To us the story has an ending with no new beginning.
Yet, the second story is so much more an example of the work of Christ in our lives. Yes, Jesus covers us with His wings and He dies in our stead. Yet, in Christian faith we are called to die also, to share in His death and we will also share in His glory. Our death is not like His. We do not go to the cross of the Romans to suffer a horrific end. We arenít burned to ashes like the birds. However, in Baptism we enter into His death through the water and the Word.
In the Gospel passage from Luke, Jesus mourns the unbelief of Jerusalem. Jesus wants them to have the best of Godís 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 have been if Jerusalem repented like Ninevah! Yet, Jesus knew this is not the way it is to be. He knew that He is destined for the cross, for death. Perhaps if the city had repented the ultimate solution might have been pushed off to another time, but the cross was the only answer to the chaos in the world that came because of sin and death.
Abramís story is about the making of a covenant. Abram cut the animals in half, laid them side by side leaving a ďpathwayĒ through which the makers of the covenant could walk. This was the way of ďcutting a dealĒ in the ancient days. They did not have lawyers and a civil court system the way we do today. They did not write their promises on paper. The two parties involved walked between the sacrificed animals together, repeating the covenant aloud. In essence, they were saying ďIf I break my part of the covenant, you can do to me what we have done to these animals.Ē
Notice that Abram did not walk the covenant path. God knew, even then, that human nature would make this covenant impossible for His people to keep. While God did give the land to the people (beginning with Joshua), it was His peopleís unfaithfulness that lost it to them. So, when the time was right, God paid the debt of their failure to remain faithful to Him with Christ on the cross. Ultimately, He also paid the debt of our failure to continue keeping the promises which have already been fulfilled.
Could God have done things differently? Of course He could have, He is God. However, would the world have been a better place if He had stepped in at every turn to keep His people in His total control? Eventually every child becomes independent; we canít control them forever. God is like the parent that lets their child grow and mature through each phase of life, even when they know the children might get hurt or go the wrong way. However, in His mercy and grace, He planned for the redemption of the world long before it needed to be redeemed.
Salvation happened according to Godís time, in Godís way. Jesus refused to be moved from the path on which He was set, for it is the path of true life for all those who believe. He is the model whose life we should follow and emulate in the world.
Lent may seem to be a depressing time to some folk because it is a time of self examination, self control and self sacrifice. It is a time for looking at our sin, for understanding our sinfulness and for being transformed into something different. This is a strange perspective in our world.
I once saw an article about how we have raised our children to be narcissists because in the 1980ís we focused on creating strong self-esteem. We taught our children to see themselves as special, as good, as gifted and yet we did not give them the tools necessary to see their faults and their failures and to work at overcoming. Blame was placed on others and everything they did was encouraged for the sake of their self-image.
Unfortunately, what we have created is a world in which everyone not only wants their fifteen minutes of fame, but that they think they deserve it. Watch any of the reality competition shows and you will see average people given the chance to be extraordinary. While this is a wonderful opportunity for some folk, unfortunately that is not the way the shows usually work. Instead of using ordinary people, they purposefully select people with extreme personalities who are given free reign. The contestants are often those who believe they are great, but they really donít have the talent needed to accomplish the tasks.
In our world today we think of ourselves as saints, forgetting that all along we are also sinners. Our scriptures for this week - particularly the story of Abram - remind us that even those who have faith can fail. Abram believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness. However, it did not take very long for Abram to become impatient with Godís promises and step out on his own. Instead of waiting for God to fulfill the promise, Abram and Sarai decided to make the promise happen by their own power by using Hagar. That decision has affected the world for four thousand years.
Jesus stands as an example to us of one who stays on the right path. He did not take His own life into consideration or try to control that which He knew was not His to control. When the Pharisees warned Him that Herod wanted to kill Him, Jesus told them that He had to do what He had to do according to Godís will and purpose for His life. This was not a self-centered grasp for control, but a humble and willing obedience to what God intended for His life.
So, even though we are truly special, each of us uniquely created and ordained for some special purpose in this world, God also calls us to humility. Thatís what Lent is all about, remembering that even though we are saints, we are also sinners. We are wonderfully made and powerfully gifted, but this is true thanks to Godís incredible grace. There is a pattern by which God calls us to live, a pattern that has been laid out before us in the lives first of Jesus and then of the saints who followed His model for living. It is a life of humble and willing obedience to what God intends for us.
Paul writes, ďFor our citizenship is in heaven, from where we also wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; who will change the body of our humiliation to be conformed to the body of his glory, according to the working by which he is able even to subject all things to himself.Ē 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. Though this might be a depressing point of view to the people of this world, for those of us who have our citizenship in heaven, it is the very foundation of our hope and our faith.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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