Lent 2 February 28, 2021
There’s an old hymn called “Standing on the Promises.” I thought of it the other day when I saw the typo on the sign on a little grocery store in my neighborhood. It says, “No loitering is allowed on these promises.”
Well, thankfully we are still allowed to stand on the promises that God has made to us. and today we continue our Lent exploration of some of the most important promises in the Bible. Last week, we sailed off in the ark with Noah and heard God’s covenant with all of creation to never again destroy the world with a flood.
This week we have part of the story of Abraham and Sarah, patriarch and matriarch of both Judaism and Christianity. Their son Isaac and his wife Rebecca follow in their lineage; then their son Jacob, with wives Leah and Rachel follow them. When we hear God referred to as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – or to be inclusive, the God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob, Leah, and Rachel – we’re hearing about the covenant that God made to make a great nation from these people: “I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars in the heavens. All the nations of the world will be blessed through your offspring.” Of course, Abraham is also the patriarch of Islam, through his relationship with Sarah’s slave, Hagar. God promises that their son Ismael will also be the beginning of a great nation.
That’s a pretty cut and dried summary of the start of what we call the Abrahamic religions, the continuation of the covenant with all of creation has now focused in on these people. We could say that in these covenants, God has chosen to go “all in” with humanity. Some of the best stories in the Bible revolve around these ancestors. These are the heroes of our faith. But the thing I love best about their stories is that the Bible doesn’t leave out the messy parts. All of them are flawed human beings. In spite of knowing about God’s promises to them and promising themselves to be “all in” with God, they make mistakes, they have doubts, they try to make things happen on their own instead of following God’s way, they fail, they repent, they turn around and doubt again.
Sarah’s response to the promise that she’ll have a child (kind of a necessity if you’re going to be the mother of a great nation) is to laugh out loud in disbelief.
Then, as Abraham and Sarah journeyed to the place God said they would be shown, Abraham passed his wife off as his sister to King Abimelech of Gerar. The motivation for this rather odd act is fear. As Abraham says to Sarah, “Look. You’re a beautiful woman. When the king sees you, he’s going to say, ‘Aha! That’s his wife!’ and kill me. But he’ll let you live. So say you’re my sister. Because of you, he’ll welcome me and let me live.” So that’s what they did. But God appeared to King Abimelech in a dream to warn him about Abraham’s deception – and Sarah was saved.
Many years later, their son Isaac, proving that sins can be passed down through generations, also tried to pass Rebekah off as his sister. In the next generation, Jacob cheats his brother Esau out of his inheritance.
Let’s just admit it, these people are sinners. In spite of knowing that God has been and promises to always be all in for them, they succumb to fear, doubt, anger, jealousy, and every other kind of human failing. In other words, we can relate to them. So this notion of covenant, while perhaps not an idea we often think about in our own relationship with God, is actually pretty important. In a life of covenant, every moment of our lives exists at the intersection of God’s “I will be” and our response of “We shall do.”
The spiritual life is living within the naturalness of our natural lives,
as creatures of the earth who work and eat and labor and die,
but to try to turn these occasions into markers of praise and thankfulness
before God, the Life of all life. – Walter Brueggemann *
Of course, we know that standing on the promises of God on a daily basis in the midst of all our daily challenges is not always easy. How are we able to find a way to avoid at least the most egregious failures to follow on the right paths?
I don’t believe that I have ever quoted Ronald Reagan on anything, but this seems to apply here. When dealing with the former Soviet Union, Reagan used the phrase “trust, but verify.” He had to find a middle way between those who were pressing for some restraint on the arms race by leading with trust. But he didn’t want to appear too soft, so he qualified trust by requiring inspections, evidence, and verification. That combination might help us here as we continue in our Lenten journey into covenant faith.
It helps us to be reminded of both the promises of God and the fulfilments. That’s what Paul did in his letter to the church in Rome. He wrote to them as they were trying to decide how to move forward into the future. We can pick up some hints that they were getting bogged down in squabbles about what was required for faith and conduct and about who was most qualified to be in leadership. They also seemed to have had some divisions between the Jewish Christians, steeped in the past, who kept all the requirements of Torah and the Gentile members, who liked to brag about their freedom from the past.
But Paul wasn’t having any of it. He tells them that no one is really qualified because of their past, because all have sinned and fallen short. He also tells them not to absolutize requirements for faith in the present tense – because we are being summoned into the future that God is creating right now. We are required to trust that future and walk into it. In order to convince them that their trust wouldn’t be in vain, Paul reaches back to Abraham and Sarah. Despite having no heir and too old to get one, which in their world translated to being “as good as dead,” God enters into this dead-end existence and announces a future that required incredible trust: “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.”
“In other words,” God says, “I’m all in with you and yours from now on.” The ones with no future will have a full and rich future, all because of a gift from God. Paul then transposes this old memory onto the church’s future, a future that rests on grace, the unfathomable gift of God’s generosity that can shatter all our expectations. All it requires is faith, trust, and readiness to receive.
That depth of trust is not an easy matter. We hold ourselves back. We’re suspicious. We want to wait and see before we take such a deep plunge of faith. But that’s what’s required in covenant living with the One who has promised to always go all in for us. To go all in is to give ourselves over to the inexplicable power for life that breaks all of our defenses of fear, anger, anxiety, and despair. It’s the plunge into bottomless love that appears at the intersection of God’s “I will be” and our response of “We shall do” – the intersection when God tells Abraham and Sarah to pick up and go into the unknown to a place that God would show them and (as all Genesis says in stunning brevity) they went.
But Paul says more:
They never questioned or doubted God’s promise. They grew strong in faith and gave glory to God. They were fully persuaded that God could do whatever was promised. Did they make mistakes along the way? Of course they did. There was that “my wife is my sister” incident, after all. But the main point of their story is the story of walking into the future given by God. And we can read the same point in the stories of so many other biblical heroes, as well as those of people throughout the ages who went all in trusting the future given by God.
But what about verification? Trust but verify. I don’t want to give the impression that I’m comparing God to the former Soviet Union, as if we need to keep a watchful eye on a possibly untrustworthy covenant partner. But the truth is that we can verify God’s reliability. There is evidence of God’s responsibility to following through.
The stories are many. The birth of Isaac to Sarah and Abraham. From them, descendants were born, as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore. The reconciliation of brothers Jacob and Esau, the formation of a people, the liberation of that people from slavery and again from exile.
The stories of faith in the time of Jesus: from Mary and Joseph to Paul in 1 Corinthians, “Jesus appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve, then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.”
And of course, the story of Jesus, in whom we see the flesh and blood manifestation of the “all in” nature of the covenant. Although it’s hard not to think of those disciples, who had been drawn to this charismatic teacher and spiritual guide, only to be told that being his follower would be much harder and more all-consuming than they could imagine. They would be required to “take up their cross” in order to be part of the deal. Talk about all in! Wouldn’t you think Jesus would have found a way to describe discipleship that isn’t so off-putting? Who is able to be so fully, completely committed to upholding our end of the “I will be”/“We shall do” covenant?
In spite of their flaws and mistakes, the disciples were. They discovered their ability to take up the cross, to live sacrificial lives of love and service. Their stories are verification of the power of that plunge into bottomless love where anything and everything is possible.
We could say the same for disciples today. The definition of carrying a cross can change in every time and circumstance. Certainly today, we could ask, “What does taking up the cross mean right now, for us, in this pandemic? What does it mean for us to be “all in” – for God and for each other. Perhaps at no other time have we been so aware of how closely we are connected to people we don’t even know. But we know we need to be in solidarity with one another, to help each other stay alive. The threat is so universal that our response to it must be all in – we need to bear one another’s burdens not only for our safety but for that of others.
We take up our cross when we help one another get through this long slog to a day of greater security. This is but the latest response of “We shall do” to God’s promise of “I will be.” And we don’t have to look very far to find the stories of sacrificial love and service: from parents and teachers making sure children are cared for and education is continued; health care workers literally putting their lives on the line, generous donors to food pantries and shelters, volunteers staffing vaccination centers, chaplains tending to sick, dying, and grieving.
Verification of the goodness to be found in God’s creation can be found all around us – even in the midst of trial and tribulation. Verification of the never-ending source of love and spiritual renewal can be found in the stories of today’s heroes of the faith.
Verification can be found in a church brave enough to try new technologies in order to remain in community, ready to go all in and imagine a new future, to hear God’s call to go to a place it will be shown, and willing to go. The stories of trust and verification continue to be written.
If we pay attention, we’ll find that the world teems with verification: life in the midst of death, hurts that have been healed, estrangements that have been reconciled, bondage that has turned to freedom, it’s all around us. Perhaps your story is one of them. I know that some of mine are verification enough for me. God has promised to be there. God has been there. I can trust that God will always be there. And when times get tough, I remember. And live my life accordingly.
And yes, just as Ronald Reagan’s “trust and verify” policy was, in fact, a complex, complicated, partial accomplishment, so our invitation to “trust and verify” is also complex, complicated, and partial. We are human after all, and despite our best intentions of being all in, there will be times when we fall off. Thank God for the promise – and verification – of grace. We never fall completely and are always welcomed back. The covenant is more than a contract that can be broken and discarded. Even if we try to break it, God never will.
In this Lenten season, as we contemplate what it means to live in covenant, to stand on the promises, what it means to live at every moment at the intersection of God’s “I will be” and our response of “We shall do,” we can look to the future – beyond the pandemic, beyond anything that threatens our life or well-being, to a place that God will show us. And even though we don’t know what that will be, we rest in the promise of the covenant. Hope, resurrection, new life, a new future of gospel possibility!
* Walter Brueggemann, “The Future: Trust but Verify” https://www.fourthchurch.org/sermons/2012/030412.html
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
When Abram was ninety-nine years old, Yahweh appeared and said, “I am El Shaddai. Walk in my presence and be blameless. I will make a covenant between you and me, and I will increase your numbers exceedingly.” Abram fell on his face before God, and God said, “This is my covenant with you: You will be the ancestor of many nations. You are no longer to be called Abram (“Exalted Ancestor) but Abraham (“Ancestor of a Multitude)” for you are the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you most fruitful, and I will make nations of you, and rulers will spring from you. I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you, and your descendants after you for generations to come. I will be your God, and the God of your descendants after you.” God continued, “As for Sarai (“Princess”), her name will now be Sarah.* I will bless her, and I will give you a child by her. I will bless her, and she will become nations; rulers of peoples will come from her.”
The promise made to Sarah and Abraham and their descendants did not depend on the Law; it was made in view of the righteousness that comes from faith. For if those who live by the Law are heirs, then faith is pointless and the promise is worthless. The Law forever holds the potential for punishment.
Only when there is no Law can there be no violation. Hence everything depends on faith; everything is grace. Thus the promise holds true for all of Sarah’s and Abraham’s descendants, not only for those who have the Law, but for all who have their faith. They are the mother and the father of us all — which was done in the sight of the God in whom they believed, the God who restores the dead to life and calls into being things that don’t exist.
Hoping against hope, Sarah and Abraham believed, and so became the mother and father of many nations, just as it was promised. Sarah and Abraham, without growing weak in faith, thought about their bodies, which were very old—he was about one hundred, and she was well beyond childbearing age. Still they never questioned or doubted God’s promise; rather, they grew strong in faith and gave glory to God, fully persuaded that God could do whatever was promised. So their faith “was credited to them as righteousness.” The words, “was credited to them,” were not written with them alone in mind; they were intended for us, too. For our faith will be credited to us if we believe in the One who raised Jesus our Savior from the dead, the Jesus who was handed over to death for our sins and raised up for our justification.
Then Jesus began to teach them that the Promised One had to suffer much, be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and religious scholars, be put to death, and rise again three days later. Jesus said these things quite openly. Peter then took him aside and began to take issue with him. At this, Jesus turned around and, eyeing the disciples, reprimanded Peter: “Get out of my sight, you Satan! You are judging by human standards rather than by God’s!”
Jesus summoned the crowd and the disciples and said, “If you wish to come after me, you must deny your very self, take up your cross and follow in my footsteps. If you would save your life, you’ll lose it, but if you lose your life for my sake, you’ll save it. What would you gain if you were to win the whole world but lose yourself in the process? What can you offer in exchange for your soul? Whoever in this faithless and corrupt generation is ashamed of me and my words will find, in turn, that the Promised One and the holy angels will be ashamed of that person, when all stand before our God in glory.”