by Pastor Chris Parkman, A Rocha, Les Courmettes, France
NOTES ON THE READINGS
Genesis 17.1-7, 15-16
The renaming or Abram to Abraham and Sarai to Sarah is part of a restating in renewed form of God’s covenant with Abraham which first appeared in Genesis 12, then Genesis 15. Three aspects stand out.
First, the word of God dominates the passage. The term God Almighty (El Shaddai) in v1 conveys the sense that ‘God is sufficient’. It also has a sense of ‘rock’ and may refer to mountain (i.e. God of the Mountains) and speaks of the grandeur of God, by providing simile with the majestic mountains of creation. The title is common in the book of Job, a book where God’s majesty is contrasted with the frailty of humankind. In Genesis, it appears at times when God’s people are hard-pressed and need reassurance.
Related to the first point is the fact that the context shows God’s purpose will not be stopped. In Chapter 16, Abram and Sarai have attempted to ‘fulfil’ God’s earlier promise of fruitfulness, by their own solution of Abram fathering a son through their slave girl Hagar. The reader knows not why, but 13 years later (!) it seems this is not the whole solution that God purposes. God’s promises are beyond our manipulation.
Finally, the name change of Abram to Abraham represents a shift in focus outwards; from that of ‘exalted ancestor’ to ‘ancestor of a multitude.’ This reconfirms the original blessing in (12.2) which is that Abraham is blessed to be a blessing.
Psalm 22 is famous for the fact that Jesus quotes v.1 on the cross. It is a psalm that explores the tension between groaning and suffering on the one hand, and their resolution in trust and praise. The section today focuses on the element of trust and praise.
Two aspects stand out in this trusting and praising. First, that ‘the poor shall eat and be satisfied’ (v.26). The psalmist trusts that the direction of events is always in God’s sustaining hands, however hard to live through. And this is emphasised by the fact that those who have it hardest to live through (the poor) will still see satisfaction. Second, the psalmist trusts God’s purposes will be fulfilled to the extent that ‘all the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord’. God’s dominion will not be limited to those places and peoples who might appear God’s obvious followers today, but will extend everywhere.
This passage challenges all those who believe in Jesus as Messiah to recognise Abraham as children of Abraham and Sarah. This link is there because it is faith, Paul says, which was reckoned to Abraham as righteousness, and it is faith to which we, as followers of Jesus Christ, are called. For Abraham, it was faith that he would have numerous descendants, in the face of the fact he and Sarah were ageing and way beyond the years they might expect to become parents. For us, it is faith that in fact, we believe in a God who ‘gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.’ (v.17). Many implications flow from this which could be drawn on for the sermon.
This passage comes immediately after thew watershed moment in Mark’s gospel when Peter confirms Jesus’ as the Messiah (8.29). Until that point, the gospel has been concerned with demonstrating the power of Jesus through his teaching and (particularly healing) miracles. From this point onwards, Jesus sets his face towards Jerusalem and the suffering he must and will endure there. And in this passage, Jesus immediately widens out the fact that he will suffer, to the fact that anyone who would follow him will suffer too.
In Peter’s rebuke of Jesus’ words that he must suffer (v.32, 33), Jesus actually says ‘Get behind me Satan!’ This might hint at a link with Jesus’ temptations for it hits on the same challenge at Jesus: will he just (ab)use his earthly power and authority for his own selfish benefit and self-protection, or will he submit to God’s will to use it to save and redeem the world, at the cost of his own suffering?
The fact that Jesus summons the crowd to hear his next teaching (v.34), rather than telling his disciples to keep it secret, emphasises that this next teaching is at the core of Jesus’ message, which he knows must be promoted hard (because of the obvious unpopularity of self-sacrifice) before the equally important but easier to hear message (of humanity knowing it is loved and cared for). By using the shocking symbol of the cross (the execution device for a condemned criminal), Jesus is making clear how deep this suffering will be, at the same time emphasising that it is pointless unless it is ‘for the sake of the gospel.’
DRAFT SERMON/SERMON OUTLINE
Living by faith is hard, and it is never the obvious path
All the readings today show how living a life faithful to our true human call and God’ purposes is neither always immediately obvious nor will it avoid suffering, in fact, it will necessarily lead to our suffering. But paradoxically, it is through that way of life that we will experience the more deeply fulfilled life which will see us sharing in the ‘life of eternity’ with God.
When we hear the call to care for and live at peace with God’s creation, it can feel hard to bear. So much evidence points to the fact it might be pointless, that we might have passed beyond a tipping point, that it is simply impossible to see how the environmental problems of today can be addressed. Is it really worth it? What difference can we really make? Doesn’t all the evidence point to a depressing conclusion?
For Abraham and Sarah, the idea of becoming ancestors of many peoples seemed impossible. But it was precisely their faith to carry on, in the face of ‘all the facts’, that God honoured and has indeed placed at the heart of the way to live in line with God’s way.
In the face of deep suffering and questioning, something wells up from within the psalmist such that he is able to experience God’s blessing in the face of that suffering now, and go on to proclaim that that blessing will be seen by all, in that he knows that God is ultimately sustaining the earth whatever he sees now in front of him.
Part of the challenge which the environmental crisis presents to our faith is that it might feel extremely difficult to see (with human reason) the way out. Often, at other crisis times, it might just be a matter of remaining positive and hopeful enough in what basically seems a solvable situation. For example, we might move to a new place, and feel profoundly challenged by the fact that we might find adequate housing for our family; but maybe, at the (seemingly) last minute, a suitable house becomes available at the right price. Such situations can feel enough of a challenge to our faith!
But the environmental crisis can feel different. The crises of climate change and species loss start to feel like insurmountable and insoluble problems. But this is a challenge to us to live faithfully now, and trust God will also act beyond our imaginings in due time. We must learn not be limited by our own (lack of) imagination, as Paul challenged the Romans.
For may of us, living more sustainably can start to feel very difficult and ultimately challenging to the way we might honestly prefer to live, and also futile. What specific examples in our lives can we think of? Perhaps it will be about limiting the way we eat, travel, invest our savings, or enjoy holidays? But let’s encourage each other, in our Christian communities, to walk this path of ‘self-sacrifice’ (however we each specifically apply it) and realise that even now, we will experience some blessings which we might never have imagined.
by the prayer and discipline of Lent
may we enter into the mystery of Christ’s sufferings,
and by following in his Way
come to share in his glory;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
you see that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves:
keep us both outwardly in our bodies,
and inwardly in our souls;
that we may be defended from all adversities
which may happen to the body,
and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Quote from Jurgen Moltmann (from Theology of Hope: On the Grounds and Implications of a Christian Eschtology, 1967, SCM Press)
‘The resurrection is not only a consolation in a life….. doomed to die, but it is God’s contradiction of suffering and death.’
Hope against Hope, R.Bauckham and T.Hart, 1999, Darton Longman and Todd
by Chris Parkman, Les Courmettes, France