Sunday, March 8, 2009

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

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.

A story is told that at some time when a certain country was persecuting Christians, a small gathering of faithful were in a church at worship. Suddenly the door slammed open and soldiers entered the sanctuary, with weapons pointed at the congregation. The leader of the soldiers yelled out to those who were gathered, “If you deny your faith and walk out of here right now, you will be safe.” A number of people rose and went for the door, but a few people stayed seated. They were unwilling to deny their faith in Jesus Christ. When the last of the deniers left the building, the soldiers closed and locked the door and then all sat in a pew. The leader said, “I’m sorry to frighten you, but in this day we had to be certain that we worshipped with true believers. We know those of you who risked your life for your faith will not betray us.”

I remember reading about a specific incident like this, but I no longer remember the details. I don’t think it matters, because there have probably been times throughout the history of the church that men have had to take similar precautions to worship the Lord. We don’t live in a time of such intense persecution. We can go to church without fear of intrusion. We can live out our faith in daily life, displaying Christian symbols on our homes or wearing a cross around our neck. We can read the bible without censorship and we can speak comforting words of hope in God’s promises to the sad and lonely in this world. We don’t really understand what it means to face a firing squad for our faith.

And that might just be our biggest problem. There is nothing to fear, so we are complacent in our religious life. We can hear a story like this one and ask the question, “Would you have stayed or would you have gone,” but we can’t really answer that question. It is beyond our experience.

When we read the Gospel text for this week, we usually focus on the line “take up his cross and follow” and wonder about what Jesus meant when He said this. Jesus told Peter and the disciples that not only was death part of His mission, but that they 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. But do we really understand what Jesus is trying to say? After all, how many of us experience any real persecution that would lead to our physical deaths? So, we try to define our crosses by the hard things in our life. We take our suffering and say, “This is the cross I have to bear.”

Another way people interpret this text is reflective of God's call to serve those who suffer. Our cross, in this way of thinking, is to feed the poor and free the prisoners. To be of service to others, we do have to die to our own lusts and desires. We are blessed to be a blessing, so it is our calling to share everything we have with those in need. This is how we respond to the gift of the Gospel. Is this really a cross we have to bear? It can be, because it is very hard to share our time, resources and talents.

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 by doing so, as if we are giving something tangible away. On a daily basis we have opportunities to tell our neighbors and co-workers about Jesus. Do we? If we don’t, what do we think we have to lose?

Jesus says, “Whoever loses their life for my sake and the gospel’s shall save it.” It is pretty frightening to think we might lose our life for the sake of the Gospel, but do we really have to die to carry our cross? We are reminded in the scriptures that Christ died once for all. So, what does this mean for us today? Perhaps we should be asking ourselves is not whether or not we would face the wrong end of a gun for our faith, but whether or not we are willing to do the hard things in life for Christ’s sake. Would we refuse to take our kids to soccer practice on a Sunday morning so we can attend worship? Will we tell our bosses we can’t do something because it goes against our faith? Will we stand up for the things that we believe matter in this world? Will we call a spade a spade even when the rest of the world says it is a shovel? Do we step out on that limb when our culture might call us intolerant? Do we hide our Christianity on our resumes or pretend that we aren’t people of faith with our neighbors? Dying for Christ in our world might just be stepping out of our comfort zone to do and say the things the world does not want to see or hear.

Jesus speaks even harder words for us. “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. He has given us life and has promised that if we share a cup of water in His name with someone who thirsts, we will be blessed.

Our cross is not some suffering we have to face alone in this world. It is not some work we have to do. We take up Christ’s 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. People don't want to hear that they are sinners in need of a Savior and that the only way to inherit the kingdom of God is through death—Jesus’ death. The message of the cross is such foolishness that we are even ashamed to speak the words to our neighbors. We are especially embarrassed when things are not going well for us. Who would believe our witness if we are suffering in some way?

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.

How many people can say “I am a Christian,” and live their life so fully immersed in who they are in Christ that they can’t help but live in praise and worship to God in everything they do? There are a few, but very few, people about whom it might be said, “He (or she) is 100 percent spirit,” because we get caught up in the troubles and pains of this world. It is much easier to wallow in our misery than to stand firm in faith through tough times.

Abraham was given a promise but it didn’t seem possible for it to ever be fulfilled. Abraham believed, even though he would never see it happen. The fulfillment was given to his offspring. But in Isaac’s bright newborn eyes, Abraham saw the spark 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.

Paul writes about Abraham in today’s Epistle lesson. The promise God made to Abraham was not just for him, it was for all people. As God blessed His chosen people through Isaac and Jacob, then the judges, kings and prophets, they saw the promise becoming a reality. Along the way God taught them how to live rightly, by giving them rules to help keep them safe. But obeying those rules would never bring the fulfillment of the promise. Like their father Abraham, faith would keep them moving forward.

Unfortunately, in the days of Paul, many people thought that God’s faithfulness was dependent on their ability to keep God’s rules. They thought that obedience avoided punishment and brought reward. Paul tells the Corinthians that the laws will never save them. We are called to faith just like Abraham, for it is in faith that we will do what is right. Paul doesn’t reject the rules God has established because they are helpful for keeping God’s people safe. However, justification comes through faith in Jesus, not in obedience of the Law. God calls us to live in that faith, doing what is right because it is right, not because we think we will benefit.

It is obvious in today’s Old Testament text from Genesis that something has changed with Abram and Sarai, something is new. God gives them new names. Though the names themselves are quite similar to the names they were given by their parents, their new names show at least a difference in dialects. The scriptures tell us that the new names represent their new place in God’s plan. Abram became Abraham; the childless one became the one who would be the father of many nations. Sarai became Sarah; the childless one became the one who will give rise to nations.

The English language alphabet is much different than the Hebrew alphabet. We do not necessarily understand what really happened because our letters are simply building blocks for words. They do not mean anything separate and alone. An “m” is just an “m” and will always be so. However, in the Hebrew language the letters have special meaning. As in some other languages, you might be familiar with the fact that the Hebrew alphabet has a numerical equivalent. Alef=one. There are those who study the numerics of the language, finding meaning in the numbers of the words as well as the words in context.

There is more to this name change than meets our eyes, however, and it has to do with the additional letter. The letter “h” in Hebrew is “hey” and means “to reveal” or “behold.” It also represents the divine breath and revelation. In other words, God has breathed new life into Abraham and Sarah; their lives will be different because God is irrevocably intertwined in them. If we take this study of the Hebrew letter even further, we discover that “hey” is a combination of two other Hebrew letters, “dalet” and “yod.” “Dalet” is understood to mean “door” and represents broken humanity. “Yod” the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet means “hand” and represents the divine spark. So, in adding the “hey” to Abraham and Sarah’s name, God is opening the door into their beings with His hand, to enter in and bring out His purpose for their lives. In this passage we see God offering a promise to the father and mother of many nations, but we also see Him taking hold of them and giving them everything they need to become what He has planned.

It seems impossible that a ninety-nine year old childless man might become the father of many nations. The promise is equally impossible for Sarah who was well beyond the age of child bearing. Yet, Abraham believes God and trusts that God will be faithful. Do we live with such trust? We should. Although our names have not been changed, God has breathed His “hey” into our lives, too. We have been changed as He has revealed Himself to us through Jesus, by grace, in our baptisms.

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; share with them the forgiveness of God. Tell them of the God that is both 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 grace 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.

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