Sunday 4th March, 2012 Second Sunday in Lent
If you want to become a disciple of Christ, deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Him.
Mark 8: 34
God of all times and places, in Jesus Christ Who was lifted up on the cross, You opened for us the path to eternal life; grant that we, being born of water and the Spirit, may joyfully serve You in newness of life and faithfully walk in Your holy ways, through Jesus Christ Who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen
Old Testament Lesson Genesis 17: 1 – 7 & 15 – 16
When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said to him, "I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous."
Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, "As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram , but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.
God said to Abraham, "As for Sarah your wife, you shall not call her Sarai , but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her."
Psalm 22:24 – 32
O praise the Lord al you who fear Him: hold Him in honour O seed of Jacob, and let the seed of Israel stand in awe of Him
For He has not despised nor abhorred the poor man in his misery: nor did He hide His face from him, but heard him when he cried.
From You springs my praise in the great congregation: I will pay my vows in the sight of all who fear You
The meek shall eat of the sacrifice and be satisfied: and those who seek the Lord shall praise Him – may their hearts rejoice for ever.
Let all the gods of the earth remember and turn to the Lord: and let all families of the nations worship before Him
For the kingdom is the Lord’s: and He shall be ruler over the nations
How can those who sleep in the earth do Him homage: or those who descend to the dust bow down before Him?
But He has saved my life for Himself: and my posterity shall serve Him
This shall be told of my Lord to a future generation: and His righteousness declared to a people yet unborn, that He has done it.
Epistle Romans 4: 13 – 25
The promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation. For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, as it is written, "I have made you the father of many nations")- -in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.
Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become "the father of many nations," according to what was said, "So numerous shall your descendants be." He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah's womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. Therefore his faith "was reckoned to him as righteousness." Now the words, "it was reckoned to him," were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.
GOSPEL Mark 8:31 – 38
Then Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, "Get behind me, Satan! You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things."
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels."
© New Revised Standard Version of the Bible
Copyright 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the
Churches of Christ in the USA, and used by permission. All rights reserved
NOTES ON THE READINGS
I suspect that this part of the Abrahamic sagas is fairly well-known – although I have added footnotes to underline the differences in the name changes for Abram and his wife. The real point at issue, especially on this Second Sunday in Lent, is to focus on the difficulties of being discipled to JHWH.
One might expect that, Abram having given allegiance to God, He would ensure that life would follow a peaceful and untroubled pattern. That rather normal human perception runs against the Biblical grain, for things did not work out that way for Abraham any more than it does for us. Being disciple is not a recipe for safety but very much for challenge. This ‘religion’ is no hidey-hole.
On top of that, it would soon become very clear to anyone with an ounce of brain, that such an escapist religion would be utterly useless to anyone. The Hebrew faith from the outset was designed to provide a real and transparent response to the human dilemma. Human evil would never be overcome by avoiding the real issues. And never forget that, please. This Faith is to be lived out in the real world.
Here is an interesting psalm – again fairly early in the history of Israel – that sees God as the answer for all humanity, if you take off blinkers to see it. This is not some sort of dogmatic statement, but rather the outcome of a conviction that stemmed from observation. The author was quite clear that a God and a Faith that held to the supreme value of justice and truth could never be overcome or outsmarted by anything lesser.
For all those who find Paul’s writing rather hard to follow, please remember that he had been a Pharisee! That is not being rude. However if ever you have been in a position of discussing Old Testament passages with anyone Jewish, you will soon discover that there is a rather odd but great chasm of approach and understanding between you and them.
It may make life a little easier if, instead of ‘faith’ you read ‘faithfulness’ all may fall into place more readily. For purists, that does not revert to ‘salvation by works,’ for heaven’s sake. It does mean that – in Abraham’s case as in yours – there is a need to remain true to the choice to be disciple. I fool myself (only) if I claim discipleship but yet to do live it.
And there you have it in spades. Even in Jesus’ case, had He not remained true to His calling as Son of Man, the entire Gospel would have been negated: in fact, it would have fallen to the ground totally. On top of that, going back to the notes on the Genesis reading, there would have been no impact or effect on the basic focus and issue of the Faith – that of a singular and entirely relevant response to the human dilemma. Thank God always for Jesus’ total commitment and persistence in the face of all manner of ugly reactions of people.
NOTES FOR A SERMON
I have to say that I am left wondering how long this Faith of ours will persist in this land – not because of the irrelevance of Christianity, but rather because of the increasing intensity of the cult of the ego that seems to be overtaking almost everything in our culture. Have you ever wondered the same thing?
This is not a response of despair, but it is a signal that there is a threat, not just to the Faith but indeed to our very culture and country. I suspect that it all began deep in the hearts of rather too many human beings. In the USA, it tends to be expressed as the ‘right to happiness’ – whatever that really means. It exploded onto the sporting scene with enormous payments to players in football, cricket and basketball. It continues with the obscene remunerations to big company CEOs, and expectations of everyone that their pockets will be filled. Perhaps the most sinister emergence is the cult of youth that demands everything at no cost, and the ugliest challenge of the terrorist – because there lies exactly that profound demand that others conform to the terrorist demand ... or dies. If you think that I exaggerate, then please stop and ponder a little more.
Whilst this is not the whole picture, I ask you to ponder the extent to which the Gospel which means so much to you actually looks like extreme folly to much of the rest of the world, and particularly to those who are young – or at least younger than many of us. Baby boomers are into the ego well enough: Gens X and Y tend to be almost embedded. Thankfully, that does not mean everyone, but it does encompass far too many.
Go back over today’s readings and look at all that is being said about choice and discipleship. For those who use it in worship, today’s Sentence for the day covers the whole gamut: Jesus said, if you want to become a disciple of Christ, deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Me.
Now I have to admit that, in my childhood and youth, the value placed on this passage had to do with being holy, reading your Bible and saying your prayers, and bearing witness to Jesus in your life. All those decades ago, it must be said that far too few clergy, let alone people, saw past what was then called the ‘spiritual’ to see that the Faith has far more to say about life, attitudes and actions in the here and now. Then one ‘separated oneself’ from the worldly mob, and mentally cast them all out as infidels, somewhat in the way some Muslims do these days. We were not a pretty sight and of small value to anyone who did not speak out language, nor did they see past the growing boom times and high inflation. Thankfully, for most of us, those days are gone, but rather too much mystery remains for us as we try and offer a relevant faith in a decaying world. There is nothing new in the history of the Church; it is a pattern repeated often over the centuries. You just happen to be around in another one of these interesting and challenging times.
Take another long hard look at today’s readings if you will. Put yourself in the places of the various people involved in those readings. Like Abraham for instance. Should you wonder if old Abe persisted because of the promise of an extended family, then I suspect you miss the point. I have long considered that Abraham’s move from Ur of the Chaldees rested not upon some sort of selfish urging, but rather because he was searching for truth in faith and religion that would stand up to the exigencies of life. Reaching some level of certainty, he became aware that the direction he was looking was valid, even though at that stage it had not become either obvious or certain. This was a pilgrimage; Abraham was aware that what he was following remained quite different from the religion and philosophy he had left behind. While he still had lots of questions, he was also finding answers.
It may well surprise you that our Lord was no puppet on a string from God, and needed to find His answers in ways not different from you. Mind you, His hold on Scripture was rather different from His contemporaries in Judaism, particularly among those who were what may be called the professional religionists. They were so clearly hidebound and dogmatic, as religionists often become, mostly for the reason of ensuring their own power bases and positions. Tenet and dogma are rarely of much use to the searcher after truth in matters of faith. And nothing is different for searchers after truth in other fields of human endeavour, including science.
One of the great tragedies of human history, not only in matters of religion but most other fields, has been the extent to which people and history have been damaged by one-eyed and usually egocentric humans. There is nothing new about that! Look around and see the extent to which far too many people are bent out of shape in their attempt to conform to religious and theological follies of leaders. No denomination is exempt from the damage.
And there lies the reason for that clarion call from our Lord about being disciple. It is not a call to perfection, for Jesus of all people was and remains aware of the great capacity of us all to miss the mark. (You may well be aware of the fact that the New Testament word in Greek for ‘sin’ is hamartia. ‘And that word is not pejorative: it simply means ‘to have missed the mark.’ That does not reduce the damage – but it does indicate that we all have quite some way to go yet, me perhaps most of all.
So faithfulness in discipleship is the challenge before us all. And that means sticking by what we know to be true even if the rest of the world heads in opposing directions. Never lose sight of the fact that this Faith is designed to bring about reconciliation, not only between you and God, but between you and all other humans.