Lent 2, Year B, February 25, 2018
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16, Psalm 22:23-31, Romans 4:13-25, Mark 8:31-38
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
This Lent, the Old Testament readings for Sunday morning take us through the covenants. A covenant is a solemn promise, like a treaty or a marriage. It’s code of conduct, a set of agreements about how people are going to live together or work together. A condo association might make a covenant, or the people living on the same floor of a dorm, to establish what the expectations are for people living together. A covenant is not a legalistic “you better follow the rules or else!” type of rulebook. A covenant is instead a model, an agreement of how to live together, in which expectations and boundaries are clearly set. The covenants in the Bible are all between God and humans. They set the standard for what our relationship with God is going to be like. Last week we heard of God’s covenant with Noah and with all the earth, in which God promised that no matter how broken and sinful the world got, no matter how much wickedness there was in human hearts, God would never again choose to destroy everything and start again. This week, we get God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah, the first inkling of what God is going to do instead.
Let’s give some context. Abram and Sarai started out as a well-to-do couple in Ur of the Chaldeans, the region that would later be known as Babylon and today we call Iraq. They were part of a large clan or tribe, and pretty important within that tribe—Abram was the oldest son of his father, set to inherit everything and become the new patriarch of the tribe. Like all people in that region, they were polytheists, worshipping a wide variety of gods and spirits, who were imagined to be capricious but powerful beings who didn’t care much about humans but could sometimes be bribed into helping them. Abram and Sarai had wealth, power, status. There was only one thing their society valued that they didn’t have: children. In a world in which having descendants to inherit your wealth and position was supremely important, Abram and Sarai had none, and were well past the age of even the faintest hope. But even there, Abram’s clan was large and wealthy, and as the future patriarch he probably had nephews he could adopt who would be thrilled to be his heir.
But that was not what God had in mind for Abram and Sarai. God called them to leave their family, their country, their culture, and all the other gods they believed in, to follow him into Canaan. And so they followed God into an uncertain future, a future that was radically different from anything that anyone might have expected. A future where they couldn’t depend on the way things had always been, where they couldn’t just coast along with old certainties and familiar ways of thinking and acting. They were strangers in a strange land, constantly facing new challenges. They brought with them a whole household of servants and livestock, but following God’s call brought them to a world much different than the one they had left behind. Instead of certainty and sameness and the protection of being leaders of their people, they were led into uncertainty and change and, sometimes, danger.
I sometimes wonder why God made them leave. Why they couldn’t have built a relationship with God in their homeland, where they were. Among other things, their old homeland was a far more fertile and prosperous place, with a correspondingly higher population density. If God was looking for getting numbers, surely that would have been the place to start, not Canaan. And yet, in their old homeland, would they have listened to God as well, or would God have stayed just one voice among many in their culture, just one god of a whole host to be worshipped and feared? Without that shock of a new place, would they have taken the time and effort to rethink their lives, or just gone on much as they always had?
God called them, and they came. God was building a new kind of relationship with Abram and Sarai, a deeper relationship. This wasn’t just a trading of favors, or an offering of sacrifices in the hope that the deity would do what you wanted. This was a friendship, based on love and commitment and communication. God talked with Abram and Sarai, and it wasn’t just a matter of God telling them what to do. Abram even argued with God, and sometimes caused God to change God’s mind. This was a relationship that changed Abram and Sarai, that changed how they saw the world and how they acted and what they did. And God made a covenant with Abram and Sarai, that God would always be with them, and with their descendants. God would give them children, and God would have this special relationship with their descendants to the end of time. God would keep speaking to them, keep guiding them, keep walking with them, showing them how to live and how to be the good people God had created them to be. And as part of that relationship, God gave Abram and Sarai new names, names that would forever after remind them of what God had done and would continue to do for them, names that would remind them that God had changed them. Abraham, father of many nations, and Sarah, princess or queen.
Now, even with this new relationship, even with God calling them to be new people, Abraham and Sarah were not perfect. Their descendants, too, the ones God gave them, were also imperfect. The wickedness of the human heart that had so enraged God in the days of Noah was still present in them. And if you read through the stories of Genesis, you will find many examples of them falling short of the good life God called them to. Deceit, treachery, jealousy, greed, fear, all lead them astray many times. Human nature was not changed by this covenant.
What changed was God’s nature. What changed was God’s commitment to be there with them even when they fell short, even when they willingly chose to do evil, even when God stood aside to let them experience the consequences of their bad behavior, God was there with them. No matter what happened, from then on to the end of time, God would always be with them. This was the first time that God had made such a promise, the first time that God had made such a commitment to any creature. The God of the universe, creator of everything seen and unseen, greater than any human being could ever comprehend, was going to be there for them and with them, in a relationship that would bring them closer to God. Even if they fell short, even if they strayed, they would follow God and God would be there for them and with them, forever and ever, world without end.
In the cross of Christ we are grafted into that covenant. Through Jesus Christ, we are made spiritual descendants of Abraham and Sarah, called to follow God just as they were called to follow God. And that call may keep us in our daily lives, and it may lead us out into the world, but wherever that call leads us it is a call to conform our lives and our hearts to God, trusting that God will always be with us.
In our Gospel reading, Jesus tells us to take up our cross and follow him. And sometimes we trivialize that command by thinking that any trying thing that happens to a Christian is a cross to bear. Sometimes, people even use it to justify trapping people in abuse, by claiming that the abuse is the cross God has given them to bear. But that’s not what Jesus meant. We focus so hard on the ‘taking up the cross’ part that we forget about the second part of Jesus’ command, to follow him. When we follow God, we find, as Abraham and Sarah did, that the way is not always smooth. That there are challenges and heartaches and problems that we would not have had if we stayed safely on the easy path. Those are the crosses we have to bear.
Just as God called Abraham and Sarah out of their easy, predictable lives, called them to follow him into a new life and a new land, God now calls us, through Jesus Christ, to follow him. And like Abraham and Sarah, the path won’t be easy, and it won’t be predictable, and we’ll go astray. But like Abraham and Sarah, God promises to be with us, now and always, our Savior and friend. Thanks be to God.