Sunday, March 4, 2007

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

Wait for Jehovah: Be strong, and let thy heart take courage; Yea, wait thou for Jehovah.

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.

There was an article in the newspaper this week about how we have raised our children to be narcissists because in the 1980’s 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. As we look at the show American Idol, we see that we have created a generation of people who think that they are the best and are worthy of being an “Idol.” Other reality television shows give average people the chance to be extraordinary. While this can be a wonderful opportunity, that is not the way these shows work. Instead of using ordinary people, they purposefully select people with extreme personalities who are given free reign. Though they video tape every moment of these people’s lives, they pick the forty-five minutes that are the most exciting – the events that will make you buy their product, both that of their advertisers and the show itself.

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 also fail.

Abram came from a place and a time when people worshipped many gods. They had local gods to whom they prayed for certain things. There were gods for the sun and the moon, the rain and the wind, fertility and anything else that might 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 both 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 – 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, in today’s lesson Abram doubts. He knows that this voice, this God that is different from all other gods, has promised that he would bear a son, but he has not yet seen any signs that the promise will be fulfilled. He and his wife were already well beyond child bearing – let alone child rearing. Abram was ready to take 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 Abram’s doubt and concern with a sign – but it was more than a sign, it was a covenant promise. Despite Abram’s doubt, God provided him with the assurance he needed to go on. “I am your shield,” said the LORD to Abram, establishing Himself as King and Sovereign over Abram’s world. As King, the LORD would provide everything that Abram needed. And Abram trusted the LORD.

Abram received God’s 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 would be as numerous as the stars in the sky. That’s a pretty big promise, especially to a guy and his wife who are both well beyond child bearing age.

Abram believed and it was credited to him as righteousness. How could we ever be like Abram or follow in His footsteps? Yet, we know the rest of the story. 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 mistress’s 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 – maybe this was the way God wanted it 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 – with video on demand we can 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 God’s 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 God’s time is not our time and that God’s 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 Sarai’s 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 – not even time. God is faithful; He will fulfill His promises. We are afraid that we have missed Him, afraid that we can’t 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.

But our world does not see the value of patience. It is not courageous to wait. We are expected to be bold, to step forth in faith. There are those who are even teaching that if you want something bad enough and if you believe in it hard enough, it will come to you just as you want. This new philosophy is yet another example of our narcissistic society. It is catching on very quickly – with books and other media presenting it like it is a way of life that will bring great blessings. It is yet another trend that has caught on in the minds and hearts of those who seek to be in control and satisfied.

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 look to emulate those who hold firm to the Gospel of grace. In the community of Philippi were those who were enemies to the cross. Though they were not necessarily people who meant to destroy Christians or Christianity, they sought after the things of this world. They chose to live a life of fulfillment and self-indulgence. This was not only in terms of satisfying lusts – some well meaning people were satisfying the Law, keeping their eyes on earthly things.

These two extremes were not the life God calls us to live. They are also not the life which Christ lived as an example for us. Paul reminds us not to get stuck in the pattern of self-righteousness and self-indulgence. We have been given the example to follow -- people who are being transformed daily into the image of Christ, overcoming the world which temps us to follow without question. The example we follow is the life willing to believe and trust in God, to do that which has called us to do without concern for the opinions of others. As we live faithfully in God’s grace, we can stand as an example to the next generation.

When I first read the Gospel passage, I was reminded of the story that has circulated the Internet for years about the mother bird in Yellowstone. The email claims that an article in National Geographic tells of an incident following a major forest fire in which a forest ranger discovers a scorched bird in the fire zone. He knocked over the bird with a stick and discovered three tiny chicks beneath their dead mother’s wings.

This story has long been an inspiration to many, offering a parabolic image of Jesus the mother hen protecting His chicks. We are awed by the overwhelming love of a mother bird who gives her life for her babies. Unfortunately, the story is not true. National Geographic hates to debunk such an inspirational story, but they have never published it. The rangers of Yellowstone; some of whom were present at the time of the fire, have no record of the event. Ornithologists say that it is impossible, that the bird’s body could never offer the chicks the protection they would need to live through such intense heat.

I came across another story. Indian evangelist Sundar Singh shared an experience in the Himalayas. Sundar was traveling through the area when they were trying to put out a huge forest fire. He was with a group of men who were watching 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 prefer the first story better because it has a happy ending. The babies are 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. The promise of our Christian life is that 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 aren’t burned to ashes like the birds. However, in Baptism we enter into His death through the water and the Word.

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.

Jesus stands as an example to us of one who stays on the right path. He does not take His own life into consideration or try to control that which He knows is not His to control. When the Pharisees warn Him that Herod wants to kill Him, Jesus tells them that He has to do what He has to do according to God’s will and purpose for His life. This is not a self-centered grasp for control, but a humble and willing obedience to what God intends 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. That’s what Lent is all about, remembering that even though we are saints, we are also sinners. Even though we are wonderfully and powerfully gifted, everything we have and everything we are is thanks to God’s 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 of the saints in the past. It is a life of humble and willing obedience to what God intends for our life.

Paul writes, “For our citizenship is in heaven; whence also we wait for a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ: who shall fashion anew the body of our humiliation, that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, according to the working whereby he is able even to subject all things unto himself.” 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. 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.

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