Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 lacks the psychological drama of chapter 18’s fleshing out of the impossible promise. I love it that Abraham was 99. Almost 100! But not quite. God’s counsel, “Walk before me,” is good, but then the addition “Be blameless” confounds all of us. Easy for a Christian to say our blamelessness isn’t our own purity but being cleansed by the shed blood of Christ – but still. I think God meant “Be blameless.” Not surprisingly, Abraham “fell on his face,” reminding us of the disciples at the Transfiguration (which weirdly is an alternate Gospel text for this day – but we were just there 2 weeks ago!). I do want more sermons that try to achieve just this: no big moral, no go-thou-and-do-likewise lesson, but just leaving our people in awe, “lost in wonder, love and praise.”
On this text, Jonathan Sacks provides an eloquent summation: “Faith is the ability to live with delay without losing trust in the promise; to experience disappointment without losing hope, to know that the road between the real and the ideal is long and yet be willing to undertake the journey. That was Abraham’s and Sarah’s faith.”
Romans 4:13-25 is like an early Christian sermon on the Genesis text, coopting Abraham for the Christians. We strive to avoid supersessionist readings, or anything that would demean our Jewish neighbors. Sometimes, if I’m fretting about his, I’ll call a rabbi friend, tell her what I’m thinking, and see how she feels about it. Without a hint of anti-Semitism, there is plenty of preaching fodder in “Hoping against hope,” this origami of contradictory notions! C.E.B. Cranfield gets to the heart of things: “Abraham believed God at a time when it was no longer a human possibility for him to go on hoping. Human hope’s utmost limit had already been reached and passed.” And in a somewhat obscure hymn, Charles Wesley expressed something similar: “In hope, against all human hope, Self-desperate, I believe… Faith, mighty faith, the promise sees, and looks to that alone; laughs at impossibilities, and cries: It shall be done!”
I wonder if there’s a sermon in “He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body” (verse 19). What does the culture say to us about our bodies? Some sleek, fit, curvy ideal? Too fat? Too skinny? Too feeble? Fatigued? Ill? Paul presents us with a counter-cultural, hopeful vision of the body as “the temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 6:19). The preacher can invite people to look down, like right now, at their bodies. Not much? How fantastic: when you consider your own body, your faith can and should be strengthened!
If your setting allows it, you could reflect on what our society has done to black bodies. Or to women’s bodies. Secular culture might blaze the path for us. Rachel Hollis, TV personality and author of Girl, Wash Your Face, posted an Instagram photo of herself that went viral – with this caption: “I have stretch marks and I wear a bikini because I’m proud of this body and every mark on it… They aren’t scars, ladies, they’re stripes and you’ve earned them.” Our Gospel story ultimately is about a broken, wounded, scarred body, as we see in our Gospel.
Mark 8:31-38. In the Synoptics, the turning point in the plot comes at Caesarea Philippi, far to the north, on the border, amidst a warren of temples honoring the fake god, Caesar. It is here that Jesus turns his face to Jerusalem. He’s been a powerful, impressive character, striding across the stage of history up to this point. From now on, he is passive, acted upon, handed over, walking meekly into the teeth of danger to be acted upon. W.H. Vanstone, in his lovely book, The Stature of Waiting, suggests that this matches the plot of our lives. We work, we are productive, but then we increasingly are acted upon, handed over to nursing homes or family or the seeming bondage of feeble older age. Jesus’ glory comes in the 2nd half of his story, and therefore he renders our seemingly bad years as our glory. And, we realize Jesus' mission wasn't to impress, heal everybody, and attract a big zealous following with divine razzle-dazzle. He came to save, to love, to lay down his life, to suffer for and with us and redeem us and all creation.
No passive spectators allowed here. From the sidelines, we’ll just admire Jesus for suffering “in our place”? Jesus says “Take up your cross and follow me.” Not watch, but make the walk to death row and suffering with me. This “taking up your cross” might sound like bearing your burdens, but that’s not it at all. In the Roman world, if you picked up your cross, you were on death row, you were walking that “green mile” toward your execution. Joel Marcus, in his commentary on Mark, wisely refers us to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s thoughts on the gulag: “From the moment you go to prison you must put your cozy past firmly behind you. At the very threshold, you must say to yourself. ‘My life is over, a little early to be sure, but there's nothing to be done about it. I shall never return to freedom. . . I no longer have any property whatsoever. . . Only my spirit and my conscience remain precious and important to me.’ Confronted by such a prisoner, the interrogation will tremble. Only the man who has renounced everything can win that victory.”
The logic of the Gospel is illogical to the world, always paradox. Deny yourself to find yourself. Lose your life to save it. Clearly Jesus is utterly uninterested in our niceness, our goodness, our political ideologies or our smug judgments of others. We put our cozy life behind. My property isn’t mine. It’s not what I want to do, and not even what I want to do for God, but what God wants me to do. The preacher errs by saying It might be costly. No, it will be costly – because we follow in a world that is terribly out of sync with Jesus, a culture that does not love the Lord Jesus. The preacher urges this with a soft, plaintive voice and maybe even some tears, never wagging a finger or stridently insisting. We dream that they might actually follow, at least with a few baby steps, to discover that the only thing that is more grievous than the cost of discipleship is the cost of non-discipleship.
Check out my book on preaching - not a how-to preach book, but how we continue preaching. The Beauty of the Word: The Challenge and Wonder of Preaching.