THE PROMISES OF GOD: 2 GOD COMMITS TO US
SCRIPTURE: Genesis 17: 1-7; Mark 8:31-38
In the name of the God who creates us, redeems us, and gives us life. Amen!
During this Lenten season, the sermons are entitled “The Promises of God.” Last week I mentioned that God creates skylights, to bring us hope. The two scriptures were the story of God’s promise of the rainbow and Jesus’ baptism.
Once again, I turn to the book of Genesis and the Gospel of Mark, for the scriptures for you to hear the promise for this week.
The writer of Genesis is a suburb storyteller. The law comes a bit later in Exodus, and is necessary because we need both for a balanced life. Yet here we have some of the most remarkable stories of all literature. Genesis doesn’t give us principles or systematic theology. Rather, we are told multiple stories of our ancestors and their relationship with God. These are stories about flesh and blood people, with their curious limits, in their limiting circumstances. Their warts, worries, and failures show up as much as their faithfulness.
In our scripture reading today we see one such story. It is not a story that tells us a law. Rather, it demonstrates the nature of God. Here is the principle, the theological statement: God commits to us. It is a nice enough statement --- positive, but not terribly instructive, or encouraging. The story, on the other hand, is instructive, inspiring, and encouraging. It paints a vivid picture of Abraham and Sarah, and God’s relationship with them.
The story opens with the statement: “When Abraham was ninety-nine years old…” Any reader of any time, even those ancient times, would automatically think, “This guy is as good as dead.” Yet God commits to him.
First God gives him a new name, Abraham. It is a way of saying he is a new person. Then God promises Abraham that he will be “exceedingly fruitful: I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you” (17:6). Then the heart of the promise is made: God says, “I will be God to you and to your offspring after you” (v.7). This is God’s commitment to us.
We are told Abraham falls on his face, which is a way of saying Abraham worshipped God. Everything is good at this point. This is a nice reciprocal spiritual relationship. God commits to Abraham again. God gives Abraham’s wife, Sarai, a new name, meaning God makes her a new person too, and God promises Abraham a son by her, and that she too will give rise to nations and kings.
This time Abraham’s response is to fall on his face and laugh. Abraham does not believe or trust God can do this. Notice our human ego: Abraham doesn’t laugh when the promise of offspring is made to him. He only laughs when he is told his wife, nine years his junior, will bear his son.
However, God is not deterred. God commits to Abraham again. Sarah will bear a son and God will establish his promise with the son. Abraham, in his doubt, had tried to bargain with God by offering his child by the servant Hagar as a substitute for the blessing. Now God promises to bless both Isaac and Ishmael. God commits to us, through Abraham and Sarah, through Isaac and Ishmael, through Jew and Arab. Here God commits to all of us.
In this story, we learn about Abraham and Sarah, and their faith or lack of it, but most of all, we learn about God and the very theological and spiritual idea of commitment. Here belief is made believable because it is made evident. Here we are invited to trust because we see God is trustworthy.
Grace has been defined as that which gives life to the soul. In this story, we see the graciousness of God does not test Abraham by making a conditional commitment and then withdrawing support when Abraham responds inappropriately. Rather, we see God giving life to Abraham’s soul when Abraham responds appropriately and not so appropriately. What a great picture of the nature of God and the depth of God’s promises.
In the passage from Mark, Jesus speaks to the disciples about the extent to which he will go, to embody God’s commitment to the world. Jesus says he will suffer, be rejected and killed. Peter, strongly influenced by the purity law tradition of the Pharisees, wants a pristine messiah who will not get his hands dirty but by supernatural means cleanse their land and lives of everything foul. The Gospels remind us that Jesus repeatedly tried to help the disciples and others understand his new vision of the messiah. God commits to us.
I have mentioned Brian McLaren, a contributor to Sojourner magazine, states that salvation involves judgement (naming evil as evil), forgiveness (breaking the vicious cycle of cause and effect, making reconciliation possible), and teaching (showing how to set chain reactions of good in motion). All of these elements are present here, yet what is most evident is the depth of Christ’s commitment to us. As the Apostle Paul states at the end of chapter eight in Romans, nothing can separate us from the love of God, not even death itself.
Do you remember several years ago there were some people who wanted to change the wording in the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”? Verse four ends with, “As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.” The people who wanted it changed, wanted this, “As he died to make to make men holy, let us live to make men free.” It is a reasonable thought.
We should live to make all people free. However, such a change weakens the depth of our commitment in response to the totality of Christ’s commitment. Jesus states pointedly in the Mark passage, if we seek to save our lives we will lose them. God commits to us; our full response is to commit our all as well.
Doula is a word that you may not be familiar with. It is a Greek word meaning “servant-woman”. The goal of these women is for a new mother to feel safe and comfortable, enhancing the goal of doctors and nurses. Doulas have no clinical role, duties or decision making.
In a newspaper article a doula was interviewed about her experiences: the woman said, “When I went into the room, I didn’t think I could do it. But when the young mother-to-be spoke to me, I heard God speaking to me.” From reading the rest of the article you could say a doula judges, shows mercy, and teaches – the three elements that McLaren said, comprise salvation.
Like Abraham we all fall on our face from time to time – and I don’t mean in laughter. I mean with mud in our eyes, or egg on our face. I mean in failure. Yet, God’s creative power is always toward good. God commits to us. The spirit of Christ, which knows no limits, fills us. In a call and response pattern, we then can commit to others.
A pastor reported a parishioner to Child Protective Services. The man was arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to a year in jail. The pastor visited him in jail. When the man was released the pastor met with him on a couple of occasions. Their discussion focused on what the man had done wrong, how God loved him still, and how he could live a positive life in the future. In other words they talked about judgement, mercy, and teaching. They talked about his salvation.
In John 17 Jesus prays for his disciples. He asks God not to take them out of the world but to protect them in the world. Jesus invokes God’s power toward good on our behalf that we might have power, physical and spiritual, toward good. When we fall on our face, God’s power helps us get up and go on, in living witness and service.
A United Methodist minister by the name of Richard Cheatam wrote a poem many years ago. Here are a few lines:
Then, some say, the silence was broken.
This time the Word was not heard through the cosmos,
But through human flesh.
“For unto us a child is born…”
He dined with sinners and chided the good people.
He gave sight to the blind, food to the hungry and to the poor.
Finally, he was oppressed and afflicted, like a lamb led to the slaughter.
On a cross at Golgotha this disturbing word was silenced.
Death had won again.
Love could not triumph over fear that bred bigotry, greed and hatred.
Then on a Sunday morning – by an empty tomb,
The Word could be heard again: LAUGHING. (Cheatham, MAC,3/75)
God has the last laugh. God commits to us. Thanks be to God.
MAY THESE THOUGHTS GIVE YOU STRENGTH