In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; Amen.
Welcome to the second Sunday of Lent, or God's Covenant part two – Abraham and Sarah! If you braved the snow and were here last week, you probably remember how the first covenant that we heard this Lent was the one that God made with Noah. It was signed with the rainbow in the sky, and it was a covenant promise of unconditional love: never again will I destroy the world in this manner! Far from being a naïve kind of “pinky swear” to a teenager's best friend, this is God's commitment to love us despite our unworthiness.
The covenant that God makes with Abraham and Sarah is somewhat different, and we might say that it reflects the way that humanity was maturing as those early years of God's creation rolled along. Humankind was growing and people were spreading out, political boundaries were being drawn, and cultures were developing. It was necessary for God to claim some family line to begin a deeper relationship with, and so God calls Abraham and Sarah and promises them two things: land and descendants.
Now if you knew nothing about these two people, you might not be too surprised about all of this; but if you know anything about the Biblical story, you know that not only did Abraham not have any political backing or an army or anything like that to invade an existing land with, but he was closing in on 100 years old, and his wife was nearing 90. It seems that these are the two least likely people for God to promise land and children! The obstacles to the fulfillment of these promises are too many for human logic to overcome. It is laughable: children in their old age? A new land as well? How will this come about?
Well, if you have read on in Genesis you know that it does. Abraham enters the land of Canaan and inhabits it. He receives blessings from the kings of the area including one mysterious figure named, “Melchizadek” who is named only in Hebrews as both a king and a priest of the area that would later be called, “Jerusalem.” Even after having a child with Sarah's handmaiden, Haggar, God promises Abraham that Sarah will also become pregnant. She laughs at this promise (just as Abraham himself laughed at one point), and when she does indeed bear a son he is named, “Isaac” which means, “one who laughs.” Abraham and Sarah are the first in a long line of matriarchs and patriarchs including Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel, Joseph, his brothers and all of the rest.
The Abrahamic covenant, as this has come to be called, is a wonderful example of God's Modus Operand – of the way that God works. God takes that which is seemingly useless or nothing in the eyes of the world, and makes some incredible things happen. When we think that it is over because we have nothing remember: “nothing” is God's favorite thing to make things with! And it all started when Abraham left behind his former self – his country of origin and even his name and allowed God to bless him in new ways.
I think that Abraham is a great model for what Jesus is calling his disciples to do when he says that his followers are to deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him. Abraham denied himself – he gave up those things that made him who he was, including his old name, “Abram.” Denying yourself means to leave behind whatever it is that defines you the most – that which makes you who you are. We are all building lives for ourselves out of something – maybe it is a job or career; perhaps friendships or a family. For others it is our reputation or the tendency that we have to do something. We build a resume that often we are proud of, that helps to define us. No matter who we are, we strive after things that benefit us: our lives, our health, our livelihood, or something. But to follow Jesus and take up a cross is to surrender ourselves to Jesus as God's way of creating a joyous, glorious life. The cross is both recognition of the victory that God has won over sin, death and the devil, and it is the truth-telling about what we face every day as disciples of Jesus Christ. It is a symbol of the fact that God's ways are not our ways: that as far as we go to avoid death or loss or defeat, God uses those times in our lives to create something new. Indeed, when Abram and Sarai lost their lives, Abraham and Sarah emerged as the parents of God's people. Indeed, in order to save their lives, they lost them.
A favorite seminary professor of mine, Walt Bouman, regularly told the story of how, before the Berlin Wall came down, he was spending time in Easter Germany. He found himself in the home of a German family who had some connections to the underground church that was meeting at that time. There was a teenage daughter in the family that had been identified by the East German government as a very gifted swimmer. So she was being trained with the Olympic team, groomed to compete in the Olympics. The family, though, purported to be Christian people. Walt asked if any of them had been baptized, and they told him no because it was of no benefit to them. You see, if they were to be baptized and the government would have found out, then the daughter would have lost out on this opportunity to train for and compete in the Olympics, and that was this family's only chance of having any kind of good life. Have you been baptized? No. It is of no benefit to us.
Thankfully we do not live in a country where, if we are baptized, we miss out on opportunities for benefits of life like this. But I wonder how many of us put a greater degree of importance on things that make us who we are in our families and our friends? From sports and athletics that distract us from opportunities to worship and serve God, to jobs that demand that we treat others without respect or in ways that we know Jesus would not have us treat people. Maybe it is our political affiliation, a tendency toward being conservative or liberal, or even an extreme pride in being an American. Many of us spend so much time and energy creating a persona - a life that is comfortable, secure, and happy – that we lose sight of the call to discipleship. Jesus' call to deny ourselves and carry the cross is a call to lose our very lives in order that God may build something out of the nothing that is left. What would have happened to that East German family if they would have been baptized? What would happen if a family were to come to worship instead of attending a son or daughter's sporting event? What would happen if I were to give more of my money to feed the hungry or house the homeless or to somehow further God's mission? That kind of denial is the discipleship that Jesus is calling us to. It is to carry the cross – the truth telling about what our human lives are all about. But it is also the way that we die to ourselves and embrace the cross, the very instrument that God uses to win victory over sin, death and the devil.
Abraham was a pioneer in denying himself and taking up his cross, many, many years before Jesus was crucified on that cross! He heard God's covenantal promises to him and he believed them. His very name was changed as he surrendered himself to the God who creates great things out of nothing. As we continue through this Lenten season, may we remember this covenant – this promise – that God makes to us. When we deny ourselves, we gain the life that God has in mind for us. And it is glorious indeed! Amen.