A Sermon preached by Assistant Curate Rev Richard Hutchins on
the 2nd Sunday in Lent 25 February 2018
Here we are on the second Sunday of Lent – we have our second evening with John Mark Comer on the Lent Course tomorrow evening, looking at the practices of Jesus. In the talk that some of us heard last week Monday he spoke of four influences that form us from stories, to habits, to relationships, to environment. But the key question that arose was one of self-examination – what is this doing to me? In other words, how is this “thing” changing me – is it for the better or for the worse? Is it moving me closer to God or away?
This morning I want to draw two simple things from our three readings. Firstly, God’s grace is magnificently bigger than our weaknesses – and secondly that God knows what it is to face weakness.
So my first short point – that God’s grace is magnificently greater than our weakness. Now while I have every reason to give thanks for the lectionary and the thought that has gone into the pattern of readings within it, every once in a while it tries to be particularly helpful. Today is one of those days.
You see today seems to be one of those occasions where some aspect of the specified readings is chosen in a way that spares the preacher’s blushes, where the awkward is left out to either avoid really tough verses, or as in this case to make scripture hang together just a bit better. The thought that the Word of God can be treated this way, can be somehow edited in a positive fashion, may make some of you feel uncomfortable. But that is just the simple truth of what happens in some of our Sunday Bible passages.
Take our Old Testament and Epistle readings today for example. The Genesis reading is probably familiar to at least some people here – the reading where God gives Abram a new name, calling him Abraham, and changes his wife’s name from Sarai to Sarah. There is a bit in the middle which we didn’t read where God hands down the mark of covenant in circumcision but that isn’t the edit I am talking about.
Our extract from the Epistle of Paul to the Romans is effusive about Abraham and about Abraham’s faith. We heard that “hoping against hope, he believed that he would become ‘the father of many nations’” and that “He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body…or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb”. In fact we heard that “No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God” and that his faith “was reckoned to him as righteousness”. Wow! What an obituary that makes. I don’t know about you but it also creates an almost impossibly high standard to follow. I mean, if bullet proof faith such as this describes is what is required to receive God’s righteousness – as verse 24 says “This righteousness will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead” – then what hope do I have?
If I were a hundred years old and my wife were 90 years old – and I was given a word that we would have a child – I think I would treat it with a certain degree of scorn and doubt…and frankly I wouldn’t probably have to be that old before I questioned the likeliness of that happening. Yet Paul says that Abraham did not weaken in faith. At the risk of creating outrage, I beg to differ – cue sharp intakes of breath perhaps!! But this is where that little edit, that choice of lectionary passage becomes influential. If our Genesis reading had extended to verse 17 instead of stopping where it did we read this:
“Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, ‘Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?”
Abraham then goes on to push Ishmael’s case as his heir. Does that sound consistent with “He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body??” – I mean, he fell over with laughter at this word from the Lord, from El Shaddai, God Almighty. Yet Paul states that Abraham’s faith was counted to him as righteousness – but that is actually taken from an earlier occasion of the Lord stating the covenant of descendants to Abraham (in Genesis 15 verse 6).
So was Saint Paul wrong? Is this insignificant little deacon taking on the Apostle to the Gentiles and The Word of God. I am sure you will breathe a sigh of relief when I tell you “Of course I am not!”.
Paul recalls that Abraham believed in the “presence of God who gives life…” and that he hoped against hope. Yes, in the midst of all of this Abraham and Sarah had taken matters into their own hands, trying to gee God along a bit by putting Hagar together with Abraham (then Abram) to have Ishmael. But in all of this, Abraham somehow kept his eyes fixed on the promise and Isaac was the result. As I said before, I think I too would be just a mite incredulous if I were in Abraham’s sandals at that moment – and perhaps his laughter was at himself – that he thought perhaps he was going a bit odd by believing that this could be a word of the Lord – and that the lack of faith that led to Abraham rolling on the floor with laughter was with his own discernment.
But whether or not he was laughing at himself or at God, God was still faithful to Abraham. Abraham who had trusted God, who had faith that led to righteousness in him through the work of God – Abraham who is the Father of faith – Abraham who, it sounds like, laughed in the face of God Almighty…God remained faithful to the covenant. Even in Abrahams relative weakness of belief, God upheld his end of the covenant and did not count this weakness against Abraham. Indeed, if Paul’s words are inspired by the Holy Spirit as the book of Timothy suggests scripture is, then it seems that Abraham’s laughter was insignificant to God – and that God knew Abraham’s heart even in his weakness.
Now I suspect that I am even weaker than Abraham when I look at what he did. Abraham didn’t have all of scripture to look back on to bolster faith in the Lord who kept speaking to him – but he listened and went and did. How often have you thought you may have heard something from the Lord but then felt a developing sense of incredulity, even laughter building, thinking that can’t have been of God as we allow our weaknesses to dominate the still, small voice. And yet God counts our meagre faith to us as righteousness – through our Lord Jesus Christ.
And this leads me to my second and very short point. That is that God knows what our weakness feels like – because Jesus lived a life like ours. Last week the lectionary reading, as usual for the first Sunday in Lent, covered the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness by Satan; this is when we looked instead at mercy as part of our verse for the year reflections. Now, when I was on pilgrimage we visited that wilderness between Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley and it is a bleak and barren place indeed. Here Jesus was tempted – and resisted that temptation. But I suggest that the time in the wilderness wouldn’t have had the importance that it does if Jesus hadn’t actually felt tempted in his humanness to succumb to the offer. I firmly sense that it cost Jesus a lot in his humanity to turn down the offer of bread and of kingdoms and to throw himself into the protection of God in Heaven.
So what has this got to do with our bible readings today? Well, Jesus’ reaction in rebuking Peter is pretty strong and I sense there is a reason behind this. Here is Jesus sharing the hardest of truth, and it must have been something he was really steeling himself for. One of the commentaries I’ve looked at offers the reminder that when Jesus was a child the Romans made a point of Caesar’s supremacy by crucifying 2000 Galilean insurrectionists. Jesus must have known what was coming from an all too horrifying familiarity with the way of the Romans. Even with the promise of resurrection, the prospect of this death must have been truly dreadful – and this is borne out by the extreme emotion of Gethsemane that we will encounter on our Passion journey later.
Into this moment, sharing the horror of what was to come, one might see the disciples listening with a growing sense of “No! No, this cannot be true” and then turning to the impetuous one, the firebrand, to Peter and saying – “Tell him! Tell him he is wrong about this”. So Peter takes Jesus to one side and starts talking – we don’t know what is said by Peter, but the reaction of Jesus indicates to me that, at least on a human level, what Peter said was beguiling, was tempting to hear and listen to. But Jesus turns and looks at the disciples and then says to Peter that almost horrific line “Get behind me Satan!” – Satan the deceiver. Jesus knew temptation from his time in the wilderness, and here it was again, on the lips of someone so dear to him that six days later he is one of only three disciples to witness the Transfiguration. Jesus knew the fullness of humanity and all of the emotions that went with that – he knows just how beguiling it is to be called to an easier path than the one God sets before us.
God knows what it is like to face human weakness because that is just what Jesus did. And in that we can be sure that God knew just how hard it was for Abraham to accept the truth that he and Sarah would have a child. In this difficulty, God counted Abraham’s faith, however it was, to Abraham as righteousness.
This is the magnificent grace of God. We know that we are known in our humanity because Jesus lived human existence. We know that God cherishes our faith, no matter how small, because of the status given to Abraham by Paul, inspired in scripture by the Holy Spirit, and despite all the weaknesses we read about; this is the same God that loves us. We know that God can put great big things before us that we consider unimaginable but that God is also faithful in the promises made.
Two simple points – God’s grace is bigger than our weakness – and God knows what that weakness feels like because Jesus lived through it.
But what about John Mark Comer? Well, there is another session tomorrow evening from 7.30 and it would be great to see you there as we continue our shared Lent journey looking at the practices of Jesus. But also, how are you going to let today change you? May I offer in closing, that taking the Liss List away and meditating on those readings (Gen 17:1-7, 15-16; Rom 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-38) , while seeking God’s voice to show you where the big things are, the incredible parts of God’s promise to you are, would be a place to start. What is revealed may seem unimaginable, but so is God’s grace and that is sufficient to overcome all our weaknesses.