Sermons That Work

Perhaps Many of Us Will Think…, Lent 1 (B) – 2009

March 08, 2009

Father Abraham had many children.
Many children had Father Abraham.
I am one of them, and so are you.
So let’s just praise the Lord!

Perhaps many of us will think of this old-fashioned summer camp song when we hear these lessons about the promise made to Abraham in his old age. God had made these promises to Abraham before, mostly concerning the land of Canaan as his family’s inheritance. But here God declares the promise again in a slightly different manner: “You will be the ancestor of a multitude of nations.” And this time, Sarah is specifically included as well. She is to be the ancestral mother of nations and kings. As the stars in the clear night sky, so shall their descendants be.

We read these words today removed from their context by thousands of years and oceans of water. So much has changed in the world since the days of Abraham that is nearly impossible to describe the difference. However, the promise of God stands firm. The amazing truth is that today we are members of the great progeny of Abraham. Through the waters of baptism, God has adopted us into the covenant as children of Abraham. Though it looks different now than it did in the ancient land of Canaan, we share the faith of Abraham. We are part of the great spiritual heritage of Abraham that is now embodied by more than half of the earth’s human population. Jews, Christians, and Muslims all trace our faith back to the experience of a wandering Aramean.

But since our context is so vastly different, what does Abraham’s experience of the covenant mean for us who are living into this covenant in our day and time? How does Abraham offer a lens through which we can understand our relationship with the living God, known as El Shaddai to Abraham and Sarah?

When we are incorporated into the Body of Christ through the waters of baptism, we become adopted into the family of God. Abraham becomes our foster-father. In the old Celtic traditions, the bonds of fosterage have typically been considered equally as strong as those of natural birth, often even stronger. Historically, there are different kinds of foster parent relationships in Celtic lands. Some are considered temporary, like a kind of extended apprenticeship provided for a child to learn a specific trade. Others are permanent, and the acceptance of the foster child changes her ancestral heritage forever. She is now considered part of the new clan with all of the rights and responsibilities entailed therein.

The bonds of fosterage have been strong primarily because they involve the choice of free will. A commitment is made by the foster parents to embrace the child of another. In families of birth, we are not able to make choices of free will regarding our relationships. No one can choose his or her natural parents nor can parents choose their natural children. (Not yet at least, though this may be changing.)There is a wonderful grace in this, of course, as learning to live in healthy relationships with those placed around us offers great opportunities to grow in Christ-likeness.

But when an intentional choice is made to bring in a child from outside the clan, a commitment is made, and it is something like a covenant. Choosing to live with someone carries a different connotation than an unintentional cohabitation.

For us, our life in Christ begins with a simple act of free will. God has made a choice to bring us into the family of Abraham. God chose. We have been adopted and our relationships are now fundamentally changed forever. The first chapter of John tells us that we love because God first loved us.

The introduction to the liturgy of Holy Baptism in The Book of Common Prayer states this fact with outstanding clarity: “Holy Baptism is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body the Church. The bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble.” This staggering truth itself is enough to cause us to fall face-down in awe and worship before One who chooses to invest so heavily in us.

Of course, it was this same God who made the original choice thousands of years ago to enter into covenant with Abraham, who could have refused this gracious offer. But Abraham consented to this covenant offer, and for good reason. It would be hard to walk away from such an opportunity. But this covenant also demanded daily choices from Abraham. “Walk before me, and be blameless.”

What God began with Abraham and Sarah was brought to fruition in our Lord Jesus Christ. Nothing changed in the original covenant, but everything has been fulfilled.

In our reading today from the Gospel of Mark, Jesus begins to prepare his friends for his impending death. This, of course, is not at all what they had in mind. They wanted to follow a winner, be part of a victorious movement that would restore the honor and dignity of their people.

Death at the hands of the chief priests in Jerusalem did not seem to fit this plan. Oh, he spoke also of rising again in three days, but of course they had no idea what this meant. But this death was no tragic ending to his life. In fact, it was the master stroke, the coup d’état that changed the entire landscape of life on this earth. Our Lord chose the cross of his own free will.

In our life here on earth, we can never separate our faith from our works, for how we see the world around us has a direct effect upon how we act. Abraham’s trust in God allowed him to act in faithfulness, to walk before God, and to be blameless.

It is the same with us, particularly during this our Lenten journey. Our actions and our beliefs are closely intertwined. It may be that the next time we stand in church to confess the Nicene Creed, we need to seriously ask ourselves the question: Do I honestly believe this?

Or perhaps our sense of faith is strong, and the problem is that our actions are incongruous with our faith. Perhaps we need to ask ourselves: Why do I act the way I do? If I honestly trust in the living God who “calls into existence the things that do not exist,” why then do I fret with worry and anxiety? If I believe that God has chosen me and will never leave me nor forsake me, why then am I jealous of the success of another?

Whatever we lack, we can be sure of “the unchangeable truth” of God’s Word, Jesus Christ, as our Collect for today says. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. In Christ, our covenant responsibility before God is accompanied by an even greater promise than that received by Abraham: the promise of the Holy Spirit. Thanks be to God that with our responsibility to walk in holiness comes a never-ending supply of divine grace to transform our lives.

So let us not grow weak in faith when we consider our own frailty and our difficulty in upholding our end of the covenant. During this Lenten season, we must confess our failings, for this covenant relationship with the living God requires complete honesty and transparency. But with the eyes of faith, we know that the transforming grace of the Holy Spirit is ready to fill us, if we choose to walk in this path and open ourselves to God’s love.

God has made a choice, one that is unchangeable. For that we give thanks. Today it is our turn to choose. As it was also in the beginning, is now, and will be forever.

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Christopher Sikkema