Sunday, March 4, 2012

Second Sunday in Lent
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Psalm 22:22-30
Romans 4:13-25
Mark 8:31-38

Ye that fear Jehovah, praise him; All ye the seed of Jacob, glorify him; And stand in awe of him, all ye the seed of Israel.

The basketball team did great in a regional tournament and was invited to the state semifinals. Unfortunately, they could not attend the game because it was on a Friday evening and the boys were all orthodox Jews. They could not participate and observe Shabbat, so they decided to stand firm in their faith, letting go of their opportunity to win a state championship. One of the commentators on the article was incensed that some Jews demand that the world revolve around them. Yes, the team asked the committee to change the date of the game, but when the request was rejected, they accepted the decision. Though they were disappointed, they willingly chose their faith over the chance to win a title.

Would a Christian basketball team be as faithful if the game were scheduled on a Sunday? Now, in these modern times we are not forced to be in church on a Sunday morning. We know that grace does not demand attendance. But do we know that the boys on that basketball team are going because they are forced? Or does their commitment to their faith make it impossible to disobey? They don’t ‘have’ to be there because someone is forcing them, but because their spirit draws them into worship and fellowship with others of similar faith.

Christians are more likely to think, “Yeah, I feel bad that I’m not there, but it doesn’t really matter.” This might be true, but that feeling in the pit of your stomach is not necessarily some sense of guilt laid on you by the Law, but the knowledge of the reality that by choosing someone of the world you are rejecting God. In the grand scheme of things it doesn’t really matter. Christ died for you, and your eternal life is not dependent on perfect attendance at church. But there may come a time in your life when the choice does matter, when the decision to chase after the worldly prize is forfeiting their true life.

We do not understand what it means to face persecution for our faith. Even that basketball team hasn’t really suffered in any way. However, there are more news stories today than we’ve seen for a long while questioning the very wisdom of faithful living. However you feel about the current debates, the question we ask today is at one point do we stand up for what we believe against the expectations and demands of society? The issues might seem unimportant, but what happens tomorrow when the demands go even further? At what point does it matter? At what point are we willing to be obedient to God?

Peter knew what he wanted: he wanted Jesus to lead them for a long time, to perhaps even sit on a throne and take the nation into a new golden era like that of Solomon. He certainly did not want, or expect, Jesus to die. Even if he understood that the leaders would reject Jesus, he didn’t want the idea of sacrifice to get around. “Be quiet, Jesus, let’s not talk about it.” He didn’t want to know what was going to happen. He didn’t want to accept the reality or deal with it at that moment. “Let’s put that off until another day,” he might have been thinking.

It is easy to see Jesus in the role of master, teacher, rabbi and friend. It is easy to accept Him as brother and to listen when He speaks about taking care of those in need and loving one another. It is much harder to deal with the cross. Dying on the cross is failure! Dying at the hands of those in control is a loss. The world loves a winner, and those willing to give up the possibility of the title or crown are losers. But is that title or crown worthwhile if you reject God’s will for your life? Is that popularity worthwhile if you turn your back on your God?

Living in faith makes us different. The Old Testament story tells us of the moment when Abram becomes Abraham. We see in this text another great promise of God. Here God promises Abram that he will be the father of many nations. In other words, through Abram’s faith that believers inherit, God will be the God of the gentiles as well as the Israelites.

Abram’s name is then changed to Abraham and Sarai’s name is changed to Sarah. The Hebrew letter which is inserted into these names to make these changes is the letter Hei, which is often used as a name for God. It is also thought to represent breath or spirit. So, by adding this letter to both Abraham and Sarah’s name, God becomes part of their entire existence; He is part of their name and part of their life. His Spirit is added to theirs. Our names are not changed, but at our baptism we receive that same breath, that same spirit. At our baptism, we receive the same faith as Abraham: we become one of Abraham’s offspring. The promise given to Abraham is given to us also. God becomes part of our entire existence.

Think about that: God becomes part of our every day. He is part of our successes and our failures. He is part of our virtuous and faithful life and He is part of our sinful life. We don’t want the people we love to see us at our worst, but God is in the midst of it. He is a longsuffering, forgiving God. He sent Jesus to die for our sake, even to forgive us for the unforgiveable. But at what point does our selfishness and self-centeredness send us walking away from God? We might not want to think about this, preferring to trust in God’s grace, but isn’t this exactly what Lent is about? Isn’t this journey a reality check about how we deny and reject Christ every day with the choices we make, even those that even seem like they matter?

When we become followers of Christ, He expects us to deny ourselves. That might just mean giving up the chance for a title or a crown for His sake. It might mean speaking unpopular words or losing friendships. It might mean facing actually suffering and perhaps even martyrdom. This doesn’t seem possible in our modern world, but people still die for their faith; Christians still suffer for Christ’s sake.

Peter had great plans for Jesus. By the power of the Holy Spirit, he knew Jesus was the Messiah and he had everything figured out. He thought Jesus would go to Jerusalem to win the prize, to gain the title and the crown. But Jesus knew that God’s plans were different. When Jesus began to speak about death and the cross, Peter took Him aside and rebuked Him. Then Jesus rebuked Peter. “Get thee behind me, Satan; for thou mindest not the things of God, but the things of men.” Jesus was not calling Peter Satan, but Peter was trying to make God fulfill his own plans, which is exactly what Satan tempts us to do every day. Satan tried to tempt Jesus to turn away from God and go a different way in the wilderness. Satan tried to get Jesus to build a huge ministry, to be that king, to do miraculous things, but the path of God was to the cross.

In today’s scripture, Satan is back, not in the form of Peter, but in the attitudes and expectations of the disciples. Jesus faced rejection all the time, but in this story it is coming from His closest circle. Satan is no longer working with demons and strangers; Satan is in the hearts of the believers. To truly follow Jesus, however, we have to accept His way of fulfilling the covenants of God. We might think we have a better way, but we don’t. God’s way sometimes means living our life for His sake: giving up the things we love and refusing to do that which keeps us from doing what He wants us to do.

Death was not just part of what would happen to Jesus, but He warned the disciples that they also must be prepared to give up their own lives. Following Jesus meant death; it meant taking up their own crosses and following Him. It means the same for us. We try to define our crosses by those things we have to suffer, saying that every illness or rejection is “My cross to bear.” But taking up our cross is more. It is rejecting the expectations of the world to do what God calls us to. It is giving up the life we want to live for the life He has given us.

Peter rebuked Jesus for teaching them that the Son must die. He was afraid. What would they do? They would be alone without Jesus, without His wisdom and authority. They could not go on, because who would follow a dead king? Jesus answered, “Get behind me, Satan!” Peter is not Satan, but Satan was standing in Peter’s way. He could not see the truth through this earthly focus. Notice that Jesus turns to face the other disciples and then rebukes Peter. This simple action put Peter behind Jesus. “Follow me,” He says. The path does not lead to a title or a crown, it leads to the cross.

Not every suffering is a cross we are called to bear. We face testing and temptation every day, decisions we have to make. What is the difference between the two? Testing will lead us to Christ, but temptation will lead us away. We may never have to choose between church and the big game, but every decision we make will either lead us toward the cross or away. Some of those decisions may not seem to matter, but they do matter if they lead you away from the life God has called you to live.

The promise to Abraham was ridiculous. How could a nearly hundred year old man because the father of anyone, let alone multitudes? Yet, Abraham believed. The promise we have been given is far easier to believe: forgiveness and eternal life. Yet, how many of us believe it so deeply that we are willing to lose our lives for it? 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. We rarely have doubts, but we waver every day. We choose our own path; we choose to turn our back on God’s plan to do what we think is right.

We are reminded in this story not only of the promise, but also that God changed Abraham and Sarah’s names. Their new names were a sign that this was not for them to do, but to believe. God not only promised to fulfill the covenant, but He also promised to be with them always. They did not have to make it happen in their own way. They did not have to rush God’s plan. They simply had to believe and live in faith. With the new names, God became a part of their being, just as He does for us at our baptism. Abraham never saw the fulfillment of the promise; he did not see the Promised Land for Himself. But Abraham gave glory to God and his faith grew stronger.

We might be disappointed when we are faced with those tough decisions. We might be ridiculed or rejected when we choose to stand firm in our faith. We might suffer even death for the sake of the Gospel. But with every decision we make to continue following Christ wherever He might lead, we’ll find ourselves filled with even more faith and courage and peace. We will feel like we truly are a son of Abraham, part of a Kingdom that will never end. The cross we bear along the journey may seem hard, but we do not carry it alone. God is always with us and He is faithful. We have every reason to praise Him for He is our God.

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