Covenant: Abraham and Sarah

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.

Amen.

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Images of God

Second Sunday in Lent, February 21st, 2016

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18, Psalm 27, Philippians 3:17—4:1, Luke 13:31-35

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, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

How do you see God? When you think of God, what do you see in your minds’ eye? Do you see Jesus hanging from a cross? Or do you see an old white guy in a bathrobe sitting on a cloud? Or Jesus carrying a sheep back to the flock? Or a judge frowning down at sinful humans? Those are probably the most common images of God that we have. And, certainly, they are good and right images for God who created us in his image, reaches out to us, who claims us as his children, who was born in human flesh, lived, died, and rose again that we might have life. But those shouldn’t be our only images of God, because they limit our understanding of who God is and what God does. The very nature of God is bigger than we can imagine—God, who created the universe and all that is in it, seen and unseen, is so far beyond us that we can’t understand it. God comes to us in human form so that we can see him and know him, but that doesn’t mean that that’s all he is. It’s tempting, looking at the pictures of Jesus, of God up in the heavens, to let our view of God get small.

There are actually a lot of different images for God in the Bible, and we get two of them I our readings today. In our first lesson, God makes a covenant with Abram, restating and emphasizing the earlier promise that he would give Abram and Sarai children. Abram, being very old and already having waited for many years, asked when it would happen. God didn’t give him a time frame, but he did make a covenant with him. A covenant is the very deepest form of promise there is. Marriage vows are covenants. Treaties are covenants. And, just like today, such deep promises got ceremonies to memorialize them and serve as a witness to them. Covenants in those days were accompanied by the sacrificing of animals. Each side made promises, and then you sacrificed a heifer, a goat, a ram, a dove, and a pigeon. You cut them in half, and you walked between them, and then you had a feast together celebrating the covenant—just like a wedding banquet today. But the thing is, when the time comes for God to walk through the sacrificed animals? God does not show up looking like a human being. God shows up as smoke and fire.

It’s not the only time God comes as smoke and fire. When God wanted to get Moses’ attention to send him back to Egypt to free his people, God appeared as a burning bush. When God led the people of Israel through the wilderness after freeing them from Egypt, God appeared as a pillar of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night. When God sent the Disciples out to preach and teach about Jesus, after the resurrection, God appeared to them as tongues of flame. This is a way God has revealed himself to us many times. So what is it about fire? What can this tell us about God? Well, life isn’t possible without fire. The sun is a burning ball of gas, and without it, nothing could live on Earth. It would be too cold, and too dark. We could not live—and neither could any other plant or animal. And the Sun’s fire is necessary in ways we don’t even realize. When we’re out in the sun’s light, the rays from that burning ball of gas help our bodies to create vitamin D, which we need. No sun, no Vitamin D, and we get very sick. On a smaller level, without fire we wouldn’t have light or heat in our homes, and we wouldn’t be able to cook. And yes, this is true even for electric light and heat—most electricity in this country comes from coal or natural gas or other things that burn. So fire is absolutely necessary for life, on a lot of different levels.

But at the same time, fire is dangerous. It’s unpredictable. It’s not something we can control, on a very fundamental level. When we take it for granted, when we don’t pay attention, we get burned. Not because the fire has it in for us, but because that much power just can’t be taken for granted without consequences. God is like fire, because without God there is no life, and God is at work in us like the rays of the sun even when we don’t notice God’s presence. And God is so powerful, he is beyond our control.

Then there’s the Gospel lesson, with a very different image of God. Jesus is warned that King Herod wanted to kill him, which he already knew. He knows that he is going to his death, he knows that he is going to die to save people, and he knows that the very people he wants to save are going to reject him. They’re not going to listen. They will turn from him, and he’s going to die for them anyway. And so he says a lament. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

So that’s another image right there. Ever thought of God as a mother hen, anxiously trying to shield her chicks from a big, dangerous world? That’s how Jesus describes himself here. Now, a hen is not a big dramatic animal. A hen is not something that goes around looking for trouble. Hens are small, vulnerable, ordinary things. But hens are very good at sheltering their chicks, at protecting them. And they were a common image that everyone in Jesus’ day would recognize. Ordinary love, ordinary protection, ordinary shelter from the storms of life. In big storms and gentle downpours, the hen is there for her brood, protecting them, leading them, and guiding them along life’s path. It’s not some big grand dramatic thing. It’s quiet. Ordinary. Easy for the world to overlook—and yet, it makes all the difference for the chicks who receive shelter, comfort, and guidance from their mother’s wings.

And that’s what Jesus wants to do for us. He wants to be our shelter throughout all the storms of life, big or small. And sure, we might be able to survive some of them without his help, but would you really rather struggle through on your own than face challenges with guidance, shelter, and love? It’s not just about the big, grand moments in our lives—it’s about the small, ordinary, everyday ones, too. Throughout all of our lives, big and small, God wants to wrap us with maternal love and devotion. We’re so used to thinking of God as our Father—and quite rightly, because he is our Father—but what does it mean that God is our Mother, too? And what does it mean that God is our shelter from the storm?

The way we see God affects how we understand God’s Word, and it affects who we are as God’s children. If you see God only as a stern judge, you may not even notice when God calls us to mercy and forgiveness. If you see God only as the Good Shepherd calling for the lost sheep, you may not even notice when God calls us to judgment. If you see God as some remote, far-off white guy in a bathrobe on a cloud, you may have trouble seeing God’s presence and relevance in your day-to-day life. Any one view of God can blind us to God’s nature, for God is too big and complicated to fit into the small boxes we try to stuff him into. God is the mother hen sheltering us under her wings, and God is our Father in heaven. God is the fire that lights up the world, and God is the water from which we are born. God is the Good Shepherd, and God is the sheep that was slain for our sins. God is the great judge, and God is the source of all mercy and forgiveness. God is the one who made promises to Abraham so long ago, and God is the one who still keeps his promises to us today.

Amen.

Your Father’s good pleasure

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 19), August 11, 2013

Genesis 15:1-6, Psalm 33:12-22, Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16, Luke 12:32-41

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, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Peter said, “Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for everyone?”  Raise your hand if that was your first thought when you heard Jesus say “Sell your possessions and give alms.”  Sell everything and give it to the poor?  Really?  That’s not a very popular thing to say in America, where we love our possessions. And I doubt it was very popular in Jesus day, either.  We accumulate stuff.  It seems no matter how much stuff we already have, pretty soon there’s something else we have to have.  We love money, too—it’s how we get more stuff, and it’s how we keep score.  It’s how we tell who’s important and who’s not.  Sell it all and give it away?  Really?

When you start to look at the reasons behind our dependence on money and possessions, it often comes down to fear.  We’re afraid of not having enough.  We’re afraid if we don’t get it now, the price will have gone up when we need it.  We’re afraid of what people will think of us if we don’t have the latest model.  There was a study done once of rich people, and it found that people with a lot of money and no debt were, on average, just as afraid of not having enough money as poor people were.  In fact, they were sometimes more afraid!  So here Jesus is, telling us to give up our money and our stuff and give them away?  It’s no wonder that many preachers choose to follow Peter’s lead on this text and others like it and find a way to explain why it doesn’t apply to them and their congregation.  They’re afraid of what might happen if they take it seriously.

But notice how our lesson starts out.  Jesus says, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”  Do not be afraid—the same thing the angels almost always start out with when they come to bring messages from God.  And Jesus also says “It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”  That’s the heart of the Gospel, right there.  Or, as Jesus puts it in the Gospel of John, “God didn’t send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but so that the world might be saved through him.”  That is the place where our relationship with God starts—God loves us and the whole world so much that God was willing to die for us, in the form of Jesus Christ.  We have been given the promise of the kingdom, the promise of a world where there is no evil, where no one goes hungry, where no one is sick, where no one hurts anyone else.  A world where all our sorrows and our ills are healed, and we are whole and filled with joy.  A world where the master—our Lord God—bends down to serve us out of love.  That is what we have been promised in the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  We can’t create God’s kingdom on our own; it can only come as a gift from God.  And God has promised it to us because he loves us, and because that’s the kind of life God wants us to live.  That kingdom will come when Christ comes again.

There is nothing we could ever do to earn God’s love and forgiveness; nothing we could do to be worthy of it.  When Jesus says “Store up treasure in heaven!” he isn’t saying “Do good deeds so you can buy forgiveness from me.”  What Jesus means is, “I love you and have already given you a place in my kingdom.  It’s a much nicer place than this rat race you’re trapped in, and all the things like money and power and all your possessions won’t be worth anything in my kingdom.  Why not get out of the rat race?  Why not focus on what you have that’s a sure bet—a place in my kingdom—rather than on stuff that’s going to rot and decay and get stolen.”

So when Jesus starts telling us to do things like give away all our possessions, it’s not a test.  Jesus isn’t saying that the only way to get to heaven is to condemn ourselves to poverty.  When he gives us a warning to be ready, there is no sinister undertone implying that if we aren’t ready in the right way, we won’t get to heaven.  Instead, it’s an invitation to live as God’s people.  It’s an invitation to take salvation seriously.  It’s an invitation to live like the kingdom were already here.  Because we have been saved, we should act like it.  We should love God, and wait for his coming, and love our neighbor as ourselves.  And in this world where poor people have fewer opportunities than rich people, in this world where medical bills can wipe out a family’s whole life, in this world where some people go hungry and others don’t have a safe place to live, part of loving your neighbor is helping those in need.

In God’s kingdom, nobody will go hungry.  So we should feed the hungry.  In God’s kingdom, nobody will be sick, so we should heal those who are sick or injured.  In God’s kingdom, nobody will hurt anyone, so we should stop doing things that hurt people.  In God’s kingdom, there will be justice for all, so we should work to make sure everyone has justice here.  In God’s kingdom, everyone will have a safe place to live, so we should help people have safe places to live.  And if that takes money, well, everything that we have comes from God, so we are spending what God has given us to take care of God’s people.  Whenever we feed the hungry, heal the sick, visit the lonely, work for justice, we are waiting for God’s kingdom to come.  We are looking forward to the day when our Master returns.  We are looking forward to the day when the promise of salvation becomes a reality.  We are preparing for what life will be like on that day.

In the meantime, we don’t need to be afraid.  We don’t have to be afraid that we’ll miss out on the kingdom; we don’t have to be afraid that we aren’t good enough to be saved.  We don’t have to be afraid that we’ll run out of money or possessions and calamity will strike.  We don’t have to be afraid of what life will bring, because we know that God is with us and that God’s kingdom will come.  Now, we don’t live in that kingdom yet.  We don’t live in that world of milk and honey, that land where all people are welcome and happy and whole and good.  So things in this life won’t always be good.  There will be hard times.  There will be times of wandering in the wilderness.  There will be times of grief and pain and loss.  None of the people in the Bible had an easy life, not Abraham and Sarah, not Moses and the people of Israel enslaved in Egypt, not the prophets, not Jesus.  And I’m sure you all know many good, faithful Christians whose lives have been hard, and sometimes heart-breaking.  I know some good and faithful Christians who have lost everything they had—possessions, but even more importantly, they lost loved ones.

But even in the midst of their loss, God was with them.  Even when it seemed like there was no hope, God’s promise stood firm.  God has never broken a promise, and God will not break the promises God has made to us.  God promised Abraham and Sarah a child, and God gave them a child and grandchildren and literally millions of descendants.  God promised Moses and the Hebrew slaves freedom, and they walked out of Egypt through the wilderness to the Promised Land.  God promises us that we are saved, that we are God’s own beloved children, and that God’s kingdom is near.  God has never broken a promise, and God never will.

So what do we have to be afraid of?  Why do we need to hoard possessions and money and ignore the needs of those around us?  Why do we get so caught up in the cares of life that we forget whose people we are and where our home really is?  We are the children of God, and God’s promises are sure.  We look forward to the kingdom and the life God has promised us.  May God help free us from our fears to live in the light of that promise.

Amen.