Second Sunday in Lent – Series B
If last Sunday reminded us that we have the victory through Christ, this Sunday brings us right back down to earth. Our life is a faith journey and there are crosses to bear. There are difficult valleys to cross and often we must live by faith and not by sight. The victory is real, but it is also sometimes hard to see. Faith, of course, is what you have when you cannot see the victory but you need to live in the victory. You cannot see it because the world around you, and you yourself, are feeling like a miserable failure. Crosses can do that to a person. The Second Sunday in Lent is a reality check for the people of God.
Abraham will long for the fulfillment of the promise and the resolution of the faith tension in his life. If only Ishmael could find favor with God. It would be so much easier. How often our prayers don’t ascend with Abraham’s plaintive cry on our lips. “God heal the cancer, fix the problem, give me a job, take away this thing that hurts!” And God hears those prayers. Ishmael will be the father of 12 princes, just like Jacob fathered the twelve tribes, but the promise is greater than our desire. God does not want to heal the cancer so a stroke can take us in our sleep a few years later. We see only the cancerous growth and the pain and suffering of the chemo, he sees the eternal life and the perfection wrought in the suffering death of His Son Jesus. He might not take suffering away, but he may transform that suffering into something holy. And so he calls us to believe.
We have noticed this before. Greek has two words here and we really only have one verb where Greek has two. This is unusual. Normally English has about six words for every Greek concept, but in this case Greek vocabulary is richer. To believe is not exactly the verbal form of the noun “faith.” In biblical terms faith and belief are not entirely synonymous. Luke Timothy Johnson and before him E. P. Sanders, suggest “faithing” as about the only way to do it. To believe involves an evaluation of what has been said, either accepting or rejecting it. Belief is rather propositional. We might believe something, perhaps on the basis of its likelihood or perhaps on the basis of the speaker’s history with us, perhaps simply because we are feeling good that day.
Faith, on the other hand, is a much more relational word. Faith runs with words like “friendship,” “Fatherhood,” “Marriage,” and “Family.” It is not only about accepting the truth of the words said but also about the person who says them. God is not asking us to evaluate what he says and render a judgment of whether it is rational and therefore believable; God is asking us to trust the speaker, himself. We do not believe the words, we believe (faith) the speaker.
In this sense we might want to reconsider much of the way we conduct ourselves as a church. Argument about the validity of the Word or the plausibility of the Word is not only distant from faith, it can be positively counterproductive for the inculcation of faith. We do not further faith when we argue this way, we might in fact be making it more difficult. A father who embraces his tearful daughter is not asking her to evaluate and render a judgment about his love. He is just loving her and wants her to know that she is his and he is hers and he loves her.
When you are arguing with your teenage son about just what you meant by “by home by midnight” and “Here’s what will happen if you don’t,” you are in the realm of whether he believed your words. If you are arguing about them, the chances are he really doesn’t. When he comes to you and admits he wrecked the car or got the girl pregnant and he needs your help, that conversation is the world of faith. He knows, even counts on, the truth that you love him, despite what he has done. The “Our Father” of the Lord ’s Prayer, as Luther describes it, is a faith prayer, not a belief prayer.
The texts today invite us into that relationship, establish that relationship, bestow and strengthen that relationship in our hearers. That relationship empowers us to acts of great mercy and love. We are empowered to the confession of Christ in a world which would laugh and scoff at us or worse simply ignore us. This day serves to redefine our suffering. Jesus’ invitation to us to take up a cross and suffer with him means that our suffering somehow, perhaps clearly, perhaps mysteriously, is a point of contact between us and the mission of Christ. He suffered and saved the world, won the day. Our experience of the victory of Christ may well come through suffering too.
This is not the sort of life that has all the answers or at least has all the comfortable answers. It is often a life which takes that next step in some sort of anticipation and even dread of what will happen next, like opening the door into a room full of people you don’t know, but whom you have to talk to. It could be really good, it might be a really uncomfortable experience. We simply trust that God goes in the room with us. And thus we go in.
Collect of the Day
O God, You see that of ourselves we have no strength. By Your mighty power defend us from all adversities that may happen to the body and from all evil thoughts that may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
We have no strength. That is just hard for a modern and especially American person to say and mean it. I have some ability, surely, what do you mean I have no strength? It is true that I can buy a big truck, pull a ton of stuff up a ramp like in the Ford commercials, but that is not the strength this prayer is talking about. This collect speaks of the power to defend against death, and sin, and my big enemies of self and devil. Death again is clearer. I can try very hard, perhaps forestall the day of death with medication and surgery, but I cannot stop it. It will get me. The mortality rate of the human condition remains stubbornly high. Likewise, the man who sets about to eliminate sin from his life quickly realizes that he is trying to squeeze water in his fist. It just runs out. Bo Geirtz, former Bishop of Sweden, recounts a marvelous illustration about a guy who sets out to clear his field of stones. But beneath the stones are more stones, bigger stones. Finally he finds himself down in the bottom of a hole on solid bedrock. His field, his life, was fundamentally stony. Whenever he tried to get rid of one sin, another, bigger one was right beneath it.
We chortle at the fellow who might do this, but at least he is trying to clear the field. Most of us just make do and plough around the rocks in our life, breaking a few cultivator tines once in a while, but figuring that is the price of being human. We have learned to put up with sin, factor its cost into our budgeting, and even tax it once in a while. Do we ever really try to be rid of it anymore? Is our accommodation not another way of admitting that we have no strength to do this job? The problem with accommodating and coping with sin is that it becomes normal and we forget to call it what it really is.
The prayer beseeches God for mighty power to defend us from all adversities that may happen to the body and all evil thoughts that may assault and hurt the soul. The body part is easy enough to pray for. We usually have a list at my church of folks who are facing surgery, cancer, and the like. I like to be free of sickness, pain, and the rest of the bodily ills. But the soul assault is getting a little personal. If God were to answer this prayer wouldn’t he have to get rid of our television? After all, how much of what we watch there actually improves our soul? How much of it doesn’t plant notions and images which are counterproductive? Do I really want God to exercise his might to smash the flat screen TV I just got for Christmas? Can’t I just watch another season of Game of Thrones, The Bachelor, American Idol, or the next season of college football before he does it?
What are the evil thoughts that afflict our soul? In past discussions we considered that such thoughts might be about cheap grace, the gospel taken for granted. We also thought that we suffer from the need to “do it myself” or that we take to ourselves burdens which really belong to God. Our study of Scripture, our prayer, our worship becomes not an occasion in which God helps us but these things become something which God is supposed to notice. What do we come to church looking for? If this is our worship, if we think this is our choice, doesn’t that get in the way of our own plan and our own salvation? Isn’t this really about God? Is the most destructive thought really a form of idolatry which puts ourselves into the center of the picture?
We often find that we think that we are somehow not happy with the life that I have, and we look at the vocation, the family, even the spouse whom God has given us and think that the grass would be greener on the other side with someone else. Is one of the really destructive thoughts that come to us the desire to have it “better” by taking the situation into our own hands which belongs to God? We wondered what we have done to ourselves.
And just what is our soul anyway? I am not sure that most of the parishioners I have served or the students I now serve really make any distinction between their thoughts and their soul. It is as if the mental conversation, the interior conversation they have with themselves is the extent of their spiritual dimension. Hence this prayer is almost non-sense for many folks. It is as if we are praying that we don’t have thoughts that hurt our thoughts. We don’t imagine that we have a soul, or that it is a real thing other than our rational being.
Do we even worry about our soul? If we did, what do we worry about? What is it? I think we are in need of a seriously philosophical discussion, but we have said that philosophy is a worthless 4
discipline and it really has nothing to say? We are caught in a world which only sees information and education instrumentally as a means to make money. We don’t imagine that we go to college to be better people who more richly perceive and consider world. We only imagine that we go to school so we can make money. It is sad, and sometimes I am grieved to the point of abandoning this work.
Alas, I find that I too have made my accommodation of sin in my life. It is not entirely comfortable. I know that this brokenness bears a terrible fruit, but I am at a loss to imagine what my life might look like without it. Sin so permeates my thoughts and emotions, a sinless world is an unimaginable place. Like the fellow said over a generation ago, I have met the enemy, and he is me. Do you see why we are powerless? I might be able to start the monster truck and pull the load up a hill, but will I ever be able to fly with the angels? My rocket might break the bonds of Earth’s gravity, but will the hairless apes in space be any different than those who kill each other on the ground?
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 I have included some context, not only the verses omitted in the middle of our text but also some verses after our text which complete the thought.
When Abram was ninety-nine years old the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, 2 that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly.” 3 Then Abram fell on his face. And God said to him, 4 “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. 5 No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. 6 I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. 7 And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. 8 And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.”
9 And God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. 10 This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, 13 both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” 5
15 And God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. 16 I will bless her, and moreover, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall become nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” 17 Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” 18 And Abraham said to God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before you!” 19 God said, “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him. 20 As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I have blessed him and will make him fruitful and multiply him greatly. He shall father twelve princes, and I will make him into a great nation. 21 But I will establish my covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this time next year.”
I often use this passage to illustrate the Law and Gospel tension when I am teaching.
Law – Abraham is old and incapable, Sarah is past the days of childbearing.
Gospel: God works miracles – old Sarah and Abraham have a child.
But the student of Law and Gospel is not done – it is never that easy. Consider the little phrase: “Walk before me and be blameless.” Is it a prescription or a description? Does it tell Abraham what to do or does it describe who he is? One is law, the other is Gospel.
The medieval Franciscan theologian, Bonaventura, once said something to the effect of “God creates from nothing and until I am nothing, God makes nothing of me.” Luther, as you can imagine, liked that quote.
A more modern observation may also be in order: In the middle of the word “pride” is always a big fat “I”
How do we get our hearers to understand that they are like 99 year old Abraham, no more able to father a child, too old and helpless to make this promise happen? How do we get them to feel like Sarah, long past the time of bearing children, who hears from God the same promise/command? Is God asking the impossible of this old couple? Yes he is. What do we ask of a person which is impossible today? Do we? Or do we always have a care to ask only the things which are possible for people to do? Do we always think inside the box and fail to ask people to be a miracle? Are we then surprised we never get to see one?
How do we articulate those limits? How do we limit ourselves and in limiting ourselves do we limit then the salvation of God?
Abraham’s limited vision did not limit God. God acted despite the limitations of Abraham. Do we perhaps need to simply proclaim this God, stand back, and watch what he does?
When Abram was 99 years old…that is a pretty old guy, by any measure. Sarai was no spring chicken either. God comes with what had to sound like the same tired old promise: “You will be the father of many nations.” God had been telling that for over 25 years and so far not much had 6
happened. By this point it appears Abraham did not really want many nations; he just wanted one son, one child to call his own. And he did not have one. His knowledge of reproductive biology may have been primitive compared to our own, but he knew enough to conclude that Sarai was not able to have a child. They had been fruitlessly married now for decades. He had no children. In the ancient world this felt like a curse. Or did it feel like God had failed him?
What promises do we hear that are like that. The temptation is to think that this is just an ancient issue, but God works this way often. Martin Rinkert was a pastor in Germany during the 30 years war. It was brutal and his small city was often the scene of massive influxes of people behind its modest walls looking for protection. While these refugees were crammed inside its insufficient walls the plague broke out in the crowded buildings and unsanitary conditions. For a while Martin was the only pastor standing and it is estimated that he performed no less than 7,000 funerals, one of them for his own wife because he was the only one who could do it. (Talk about needing a licensed diaconate!) Sometimes he did 70 per day. How often did he recite the words of Jesus, “I am the resurrection and the life?” Did they ever sound hollow to him?
Rinkert would write poetry in his sorrow, especially poetry that could be sung as a hymn. Some of these were published after his death and became popular. He wrote one which is regularly in our hymnals, “Now Thank We All our God.” How’s that for amazing?!
Of course, God kept the promise to Abraham, but he would have to believe it. Rinkert would put the stole on time and again, trudge out to that burgeoning cemetery and read the funeral service for another victim of the plague. He would finally die himself one year after the war ended. He never even got to see the peace, or did he? Did he in fact get to see the much deeper and greater peace? But how long did it take?
God calls Abraham to the walk of faith today. He is not called to the life of leisure because he follows YHWH. Things will not be particularly easy. In fact at times this seems pointless, this seems so hopeless. Old men and women don’t suddenly have children. But Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness. Dead bodies don’t live again, this world is always going to be broken, death and taxes are simply the way it is. Bankers will always be scoundrels, Wall Street types will make sure they get their bonuses even while everyone else’s pension fund is sucked dry. Politicians will always be corrupt, lions will always chase down and eat the gazelles. It is just the way it is. The big kids will pick on the little kids. He will dominate her, and she will need him.
But sometimes the miracles babies like Isaac are born, and the promise of God is that this is not the way it will always be. If I believe that today, what does that mean for me? Does that make me complacent with sin? Did creaky old Abraham come home that night and lead his aged wife to bed? If I am promised eternal life, how does that change the way I might live this moment? Might I not write a poem like “Now Thank We all our God” no matter what the weather is outside or the storms that rage in my heart? If I don’t write it, can I at least sing it? 7
Faith is this marvelous relationship with God in which he is God and I am creature, beloved and cherished, but he stays God, and I stay the limited and impotent creature. There is a marvelous peace that comes from that faith. I don’t have to solve all the problems, but I can live as they are solved, as if that cross really did make a difference, a difference I know that one day I will see.
The prior paragraph suggests something about the very nature of Faith which may need to change the way we talk about it in our sermons. Faith is much more about identity than what we do. We are God’s children. That means that when something bad happens we say “Abba, Father!” or “Daddy!” Those words do not make him our God nor do they make us his children. They are simply the words the children of God say. Faith is who we are, not what we do. What we do flows out of who we are. I am God’s child – so I pray, “Our Father…”
Perhaps Abraham went home and started building a cradle, perhaps he rewrote his will. He changed Sarai’s name to Sarah, his own from Abram to Abraham. The names actually mean the same thing, but it is the local dialect that is the change. It is a little like a Russian named Ivan moving to the United States and electing to be called “John.” For Ivan is the Russian form of John, and now that he is here, he needs to be here, “so call me, John.” This is his home. Abraham is the way the locals say Abram, and by taking that name, at this point in his life, Abraham was saying that he belonged here, he was putting down roots, and this was his family’s home. His son would be the son of Abraham of Canaan.
23 You who fear the LORD, praise him! All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him, and stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel! 24 For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted, and he has not hidden his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him.
25 From you comes my praise in the great congregation; my vows I will perform before those who fear him. 26 The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the LORD! May your hearts live forever!
27 All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you. 8
28 For kingship belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations.
29 All the prosperous of the earth eat and worship; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, even the one who could not keep himself alive. 30 Posterity shall serve him; it shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation; 31 they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn, that he has done it.
This psalm is wonderfully important. Of course it begins with the words “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” Jesus will speak these words from the cross and I encourage you read the whole thing because clearly the Gospel writers pattern their telling of the passion narrative after this psalm. The psalmist notes that his tongue sticks to the roof of his mouth. He is surrounded by strong men who pierce his hands and his feet. They gamble for his clothes. You can count his ribs, and his life is poured out. It is almost spooky to read this if you know the story of Jesus’ death and to realize that this was written about 1000 years before Jesus died. And if it is not spooky, that is only because it is wondrous.
These words come from the end, the hope, the Easter part of this message. All the ends of the earth remember and turn to the Lord. All the families worship today before the throne of the God of Israel. Indeed this morning people from all over the world gather in churches to sing the praises of Jesus, in China and Europe, in African and the Americas, on little islands in the Pacific. As Paul says at the end of the third chapter of his letter to the Galatians: God kept his promise to Abraham. We are all Abraham’s sons, heirs of the promise, whether male or female, slave or free, Scythian or Jew.
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2 Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— 8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death 9
of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. 11 More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
Where is the rhetorical hook in this passage for the preacher? Paul is speaking great words of grace, but the problem we often has as a preacher is that our folks are not coming looking for grace from God. They imagine that God is pretty happy with them, they are “OK” with God. They are not worried about the wrath of God. Here comes Paul preaching that God has reconciled enemies and they cannot imagine that they have ever been enemies of God. It sounds like nonsense to them.
1. Judgmentalism might be a good hook here – that is what Paul uses in Romans 2 and 3.
2. We imagine that we are God’s buddies because we do something right, even come to Church on a beautiful spring day instead of golfing or working in our garden.
3. Suffering? Paul seems to talk about suffering in a way which is largely incomprehensible to us. – He rejoices in suffering – that’s odd. Is this alien language perhaps occasion for us to get into the lives of people?
4. Do we just take the bull by the horns here? Our people are not afraid of the wrath of God, that doesn’t mean it isn’t real or that wrath is just a biblical idea that we can ignore. Are our people ready to hear us talk “wrath of God” language and not snicker at us? You might be surprised at how developed their wrath of God vocabulary is. But you may need to grab hold of the imagery and language of films. Ecological disasters, monsters from outer space, asteroids raining down on us, the sun growing too hot or too cold have all been proposed in films. We are concerned about the end of the world. We just don’t think God is involved.
Paul writes: “This grace in which we stand.” Just what do we mean by that? Paul says we have access to that. We are in the presence of God because of Christ, we are not like Isaiah in chapter 6, fearful for our lives in God’s presence. We can stand. Abraham was given to walk before God and be blameless. We have a peace with God, we are “shalom” with him. All is well. That means that nothing can move us from the peace we have. This section of Romans will conclude with chapter 8 in which Paul says that our current sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory to be revealed. And we can be sure that the love of God cannot be separated from us. This is really what the next paragraph, starting at verse 6 describes for us.
Too often when we suffer we get stuck on that, we focus so tightly on the pain and the difficulty, we lose sight of what Paul saw here. He knew that the suffering was not the real story here. Thus he could rejoice in that suffering too. It also was part of the great narrative that God had devised and into which he had placed Paul and the rest of us. It is not that the suffering is not real, it is very real, it is so real that it is connect to Jesus’ own suffering (Colossians 1:22ff.) But that suffering is not the only thing to be said about us. 10
The world defines “peace” as the absence of negative things. This is fundamentally a mistake. Peace is not the absence of troubles, but it is the presence of God in the midst of those troubles. Even though we were the enemies of God, he gave his own Son for us. That is what establishes the real peace, the real “health” the “well-being” which is at the root of the Hebrew concept of “shalom.”
Paul is beginning the substantive development of his great theological treatise we call Romans. In the first chapters he stated his thesis (1:16-17). Then in the two chapters that follow he laid out a very-hard-to-read antithesis (1:18-3:20). Then, in the famous verses which were so transformative for Luther, 3:21-28 in which he restates the thesis. Chapter four is an extended illustration on the nature of faith based on Abraham. It is a reformulation of the Jewish understanding of the Abraham story which was so central to the Jewish mindset. Abraham was justified before he was circumcised, not after. Paul argues from a midrashic technique which said that the order of the material in the text was just as important as the words which it spoke. Because it was credited to him as righteousness before the command to circumcise, the circumcision cannot be causative of the righteousness. Paul seems to be engaged in a sort of internal fight among the rabbis at this point. Jewish rabbinic tradition has it wrong. (Whether that is a caricature of the Rabbinic posture is another matter.)
As we start chapter 5, Paul is digging into his thesis which he stated in 1:16-17 and which is worth re-reading here:
16For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” (ESV)
Literally translated the phrase “from faith for faith” above is “out of faith into faith” which is difficult to make sense of. Luke T. Johnson and many others in contemporary scholarship think that this is built off of the illustration Paul uses in Romans 4 where it is the faith of Abraham. Here it would be the faith of Jesus. The salvation comes from the faith of Jesus, the relationship he has with the Father into which we are included by Baptism. This is picked up again in the restatement of the thesis in Romans 3:21-28.
Here in chapter 5 Paul is using some important metaphors, picture words, like peace, access, justified, reconciled, and saved. In all of these words he is revolving around the key concept that God has, through this mysterious mechanism of Christ’s faith, connected the individual Christian and the whole community of Christians to the very power and goodness of God. This results in a peace for the human being, there is no foe which is able to stand before the one to whom he or she is connected. The access is free, we have been given the same rights as the Son, who can always “pop in” on God and know that he receives the warmest of welcome. It results in a making right with God, a justification. There is nothing to fear about the ragged edges of my life, Christ has forgiven them – they 11
are made straight. And that means that though once I was an enemy of God by what I said, did, thought, and wanted, now I am his friend. It is a friendship which he established, not me, and that is terribly important. It is important because even my desire, even my will is fundamentally corrupted and everything I do is tainted by that corruption. If even the opening gambit of this relationship depended on me, I would never be able to be sure that my motives were perfectly pure, and when one is dealing with God, perfect purity is important. He is holy.
But Christ has established this relationship despite my enmity. He did it in his cross, through a terrible and suffering death. This is God’s act of love for me, despite me, not because of me. I cannot really stress this enough because our human nature craves to be part of this, and God lets us be part of this but it is a lie for the human to take what properly belongs to God. This is the problem with all the language about “accept” “receive” and “welcome Jesus into my heart.” It may well be that the human being felt that psychologically, but theologically, we have to admit that the relationship was established when I was God’s abiding enemy. I did not receive, or accept, or welcome. I hated it. The old man in me was repulsed by the very notion that I needed this rescue. It was only after God had already done considerable work that my articulated “yes” was ever possible.
But that is really a distraction from the real message here. It is unfortunately a necessary distraction, but it is not the real hope and message in this. Paul is not ignorant of the fact that this message of a perfectly restored relationship with God seems at odds with the human experience. How is it that if God is really on our side that so much crap happens to us? How is it that suffering is not diminished for the Christians, but sometimes it actually increases as we take up a cross and follow him? Paul starts off the development of this gracious salvation through faith by addressing this issue head on. The Jesus event has radically redefined human suffering.
Suffering has become for the Christian an occasion for joy, real joy. For suffering produces endurance. This is not entirely like the athlete who suffers through training so he can last through the fourth quarter of the game or have a surge left at the end of the race. That is too instrumental of an image or concept for the suffering I think. Suffering is more than just a pedagogical tool or some sort of training for another thing. No, suffering actually is the occasion for something valuable in itself. Faith that is never challenged, does not have a way to even know what it is. Perhaps another way to think about this, and there really is not a language basis for this, perhaps the better way to think about this is that suffering reveals the endurance that is already there. We access the real character of the God given faith in suffering.
That endurance in turn reveals to us our true character in this faith. We are not merely victims for death’s maw, nor are we the helpless cogs in some demonic machine called the world. When we suffer and our endurance is revealed, suddenly we are revealed to be people of considerable God-given strength, fortitude, even power. Remember the Gospel is the very power of God. This is not the power that the Devil wields which consumes and destroys, but this is the power of God, 12
who creates and is mighty to save. We are not the victims, we are not the helpless, we are the children of God, made so in our baptism, embraced in his family through Christ, and the world cannot touch that and the world fears us.
And so that character reveals to the world our hope. We are faced with the same challenges which confront every human being. The same death which stalks them, stalks us. We are also devastated by economic collapse, natural disaster, or familial strife, but we deal with these things differently, we deal with them in hope. Missionaries often comment on this. My colleague at Concordia is Herb Hoefer, who was a missionary to India. He often relates that one can almost always tell a Christian in India because they have hope. They walk differently, they deal with problems differently, and they see their children differently. Where the outcasts of Hindu society were trapped in a status which would not change, the Christians see that their children can go to school, can succeed, and can be something different. They have hope and hope is a powerful thing. It does not disappoint us.
That hope’s power is not the vacuous “hope” which the world and especially politicians often cite. The power of the Christian hope is nothing less than the very Spirit of God. Our hope does not disappoint, it does not bring us to shame. It is an act of God himself.
27 And Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28 And they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” 29 And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.” 30 And he strictly charged them to tell no one about him.
31 And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”
34 And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. 36 For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? 37 For what can a man give in return for his soul? 38 For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
The story immediately before this seems significant. The story of the man whose blindness is healed in stages seems to be a description of the vision which is coming to the disciples. They don’t get it right away, but slowly, in stages, the mission and the salvation which is Jesus Christ 13
is coming into focus. Peter has moments of clarity in which he confesses the Christ, then he gets it terribly wrong, even demonically wrong.
Jesus lays it on the line in the next passage. We are called to take up a cross and follow him. The cross was the ultimate sign of humiliation and subjugation for the people of Judea. No Roman Citizen, no person of power could be crucified, only a non-Roman, a second class person, the poor, the outcast. Jesus urges us not only to accept that fact but to embrace it. Take up that cross, don’t merely admit that it might come and it might be a difficulty reality, but take it up. In the strange economy of God’s kingdom giving away, losing oneself, is in fact the kingdom life. While surely many a martyr who has been lead into the arena or to the hangman took comfort that this death was in fact part of the kingdom, there is more than one way to lose self. In a few weeks (Lent V), James and John will make their request to sit at Jesus right and left when he comes into the kingdom. They do not seem to realize that this position has been reserved for a pair of malefactors who will be “seated” on crosses that day beside Jesus who wears a crown of thorns. But when Jesus asks if they can bear this cup, they say “Yes.” James will be the first of the martyred apostles. John, on the other hand, alone of the disciples will not be martyred but will spend his life in service. Both spend their lives, both lose themselves in this Jesus and both of them end up far more human and far more alive because of their connection to him.
Indeed, the grasping of this life, the hanging onto this life as if we owned it, as if we were the ones who made the decisions and controlled it, that is the recipe to lose it. For at the end of time there will only be two who can lay claim to anything, including the claim to own you and me. It will either belong to God above or the infernal lord of this world, whose possession is terrible and the source of untold misery.
But what does this mean for us? It would seem that one thing to say is that we have to be careful about suggesting that our vision of Christ is ever the end of the visioning. At what stage of clarity do we find ourselves today? Too often we have been told that there is no other way to talk about this or to think about this. The truth has been found. True Christian humility always is interesting in hearing another way to speak this story, a way that might be better than my own or might reach another person. Paul became all things to all people. I have lately been reading N. T. Wright. I am late to his material. He says many interesting things, but for some reason he hates Lutherans. I grieve over some of the things he says, and yet I also learn much from him. I must always admit that I am only part way on the journey to the clarity of vision which is heaven. To think that I have arrived right now is always the surest way to be wrong.
But the other piece to take away from this is that Peter did occasionally get it right. His confession of Christ was a gift from God, it was accurate, and it was true. The terror of the preceding paragraph is that we never do know the truth. That is not accurate either. The truth is revealed, there is truth to grasp, know, and confess. God does care what we say, he does care what we believe, and he moves us to speak his Truth. 14
But of course the most significant piece of this pericope is the economy of God’s kingdom, it is a cross shaped kingdom and its citizens bear crosses. The world’s definition of success and failure has been reevaluated and rejected. The world’s aversion to suffering must be reconsidered. Salvation is achieved through suffering, how can we turn our back on suffering? Our master has gone to a cross, a real death, a real humiliation, a real suffering, and the disciple follows the master.
Last week we heard that Jesus won the victory. The human temptation is to turn the celebration of that fact into an expectation that we will not suffer, that all suffering is behind us. Today we get the sobering and encouraging reminder that our suffering is not at an end. That does not mean the victory is meaningless or that it does not apply to us. Indeed, our suffering could even be seen as proof positive that we are members of the kingdom. What is more, suffering is the mechanism of salvation, that is still true today as God’s suffering people continue to be witnesses of his love and occasions for his grace to change hearts and minds.
1. Faith is a bite – it would be so much easier if God just did it, I could see it, and the bad guys would get their just desserts. Waiting and not seeing, enduring and struggling is not fun.
2. The victory of Christ seems hollow to me at times. What is the point of victory which is never savored and never enjoyed? My life does not seem appreciably better because I am a Christian.
3. Perhaps the fault really is mine, perhaps if I just believed properly, or properly served or thought or acted, then things would go well for me. Perhaps it is a problem of my faith. Maybe I am not a member of this kingdom after all.
4. This is all really hard to keep straight in my head. Sometimes I get it that I am supposed to take up a cross and follow him, and other times it seems like I cannot see this at all.
1. Faith is the only way. The alternatives are not good. God’s power and glory don’t mix well with sinners, but in faith we experience the love of God by which he uses his power to save. What is more faith is more than simply a way of avoiding other problems, it is a positive good in itself. The very struggle that is faith reveals God, His love for us, and his presence in our lives for our blessing and good.
2. In fact the Christian life is a better life and blessed in Christ in countless ways. While the measurements of the world may tell us otherwise, the hope which infuses our lives through this faith of Jesus changes everything. I never face a foe which is bigger than my savior.
3. While I have many times faithlessly dealt with God, he has never done so with me. This relationship called faith does not hang on me, not even on my willingness nor my attitude toward God. Nothing changes the fact that while I was God’s enemy, Christ died for me. He did not wait for me to “come around” or even want it a little bit. He just saved me.
4. Christ is up front with us. He is the Truth, after all, and he has not deceived me. But having information and understanding are two different things. I often want to turn his victory into what it is not and then when I really need to remember the victory I forget. It is true. But His love doesn’t hang on my getting this right. It is true that the Christian life sometimes involves suffering, and I may not understand it, but I can trust that God has me and my best interests in mind all the time. Even when I am confused, he never is, and that is a very good thing.
1. Take up a cross and follow me… (Gospel and Epistle: That the hearer would with Paul rejoice in suffering – for God has redeemed and blessed even that. The whole of life belongs to Him now, even those parts and this is his mechanism of salvation.)
Last week we heard about the great victory that Jesus won over our enemy Satan. On the other end of this journey we will celebrate Jesus’ great victory over another enemy of ours, death. Christ is victorious! But today reminds us that the mechanism for this salvation is the suffering of Christ and that as His disciples, in his ministry on this earth, we will participate in that. Jesus is being right up front with us as Christians. This is not a picnic, nor is Christianity a promise that everything will go smoothly in your life. But we already knew that. Christian stock portfolios have plummeted like everyone else’s. Christians suffer from the 100% death rate that the rest of humanity does.
Yet, there is something else that God wants us to know about this cross bearing. It is through suffering that Jesus saves the world. No cross, no salvation. The invitation to take up a cross and follow Jesus is the invitation to participate in his life, his death, and the very salvation of the world. The resurrection has already begun with the beautiful life that Jesus now lives. We have his promise that his resurrection is our resurrection. Death itself will not hold us. But he has not simply slain us all and brought us to heaven right now. He has called us to join him in the holy task he set out to do through the cross on which he died. He is about the job of saving the world and today he tells you that you are part of that too. In fact, some of the most potent roles you play will be played in your darkest moments, in the days of your most profound suffering. When the world believes that you are at the bottom, when all is darkness and storm, and Satan has told you to give up all hope, then the light of Christ often shines brightest. Consider the story of Martin Rinkert, or the man or woman whom you know whose bravery in the face suffering from some cancer or other terror brought hope to the people who were around them. The woman I know was named Kay. I bet you know another one. 16
Christ wants you to remember two things about your suffering today. First of all, it is not a sign of his displeasure with you. He took care of that a long time ago. He loves you dearly and nothing can change that. Not even your worst sin. He already knows about that, and that is why he died. You do not suffer because he has grown angry with you. Secondly, your suffering, redeemed by his suffering, has become a time and place where he is working powerfully in you and in the lives of others. In you he is revealing the endurance, the character and the hope which are your real self. He is not only showing you, he is showing others. I don’t know if you will be able to rejoice with Paul or not in your suffering. But know these two things about it. God has not stopped loving you, and even this moment is a moment for his Kingdom to come and His will to be done.
This sort of a sermon begs for a narrative – an illustration – a story of how this might work. Best would be if you could talk about the people your congregation knows or from your own experience here. What time when you were at your lowest was Christ shining brightest?
2. The Grace in Which We Stand. (OT and Epistle: That the hearer would believe that God has given him/her the precious relationship we call faith in which God provides for all our needs and we are blessed beyond all measure.)
This sermon will first need to address a prevalent misconception. We like to think of faith as a virtue in our culture. And as many people understand the word, it is indeed a virtue. It is good to keep faith when you write a check, make a promise, get married, and many other times. That is a good thing. But that is only part of the story of what faith means for the Christian. We tend to take our understanding of faith and turn it toward this thing by which we relate to God. And this is a terrible burden some folks bear. We act as if God is somehow up there with a score card noticing how often we pray, read our bibles, attend church, etc. We turn our faith into a good work which we do, but that seems to be missing the biggest point of Biblical faith. Faith in the Bible is a one way street, at least at the beginning. And the traffic flows from God to us. Faith is not what we bring to God, but what God brings to us.
Consider the example of Abraham we get today. Here is shriveled up old Abraham, an old man, 99 years old. He has no child with Sarah his wife. We know that he did not hear this with an entirely straight face. They would name their son Isaac, eventually and that means laughter. Sarah laughed at this promise, it was just too much for her. There is not much Abraham can do about that, but God can. God calls him to a life of faithful waiting, but also some faithful doing. Miracle babies are still made the old fashioned way. Do you suppose old Abraham heard this promise and went home and led his aged bride to bed? Do you suppose she told him that he had paid off those angels just for this purpose? Abraham believed. Did he start building a cradle? Did he decorate a room to receive this new baby? 17
Many years later, Paul was sailing to Jerusalem to deliver a special offering to the suffering Christians of that community. He wanted to head other way, actually, toward Spain. He wrote the letter to Romans because he needed their help. He knew that what he was about to do would be dangerous, in fact, he begs the Romans to pray for him. But he does not turn the ship around. He goes where God has sent him, looking forward to the next place. Of course, it doesn’t work out quite the way he wanted. He gets arrested, put on trial, finally he will make that journey to Rome, in chains. They will kill him there, probably with a sword as befitted a Roman citizen. But along the way he would get to speak the Gospel to kings, perhaps even the emperor. He tells us in his letters to Timothy that some of the guards are starting to believe him. Abraham’s waiting, Paul’s unexpected change of plans, these all come back to one place, they are all cross bearing moments, bearing some affinity with that Friday we call Good when the Lord of Heaven and Earth was a sacrifice for the sins of this whole world.
Abraham and Sarah would laugh again when they held that baby Isaac in their aged hands. But I doubt they were laughing when they had to get up in the middle of the night to feed the little tyke. Paul would irrepressibly speak of this Jesus, because he knew that even the executioner could not snuff that good work God had begun in him on the day that Ananias baptized him into the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We are given the same faith, faith in which God works his miracles in his time in our life. Perhaps long after we thought it was impossible. We have that same faith which simply cannot be beaten down, no matter what the world throws at us. We stand in the Grace of God. We know the end of this story, it is Word of Life. For faith is not what we bring to God, it is what God brings to us, as he picks up his broken creation, restores and sustains it. Right now, like Abraham and Paul, through waiting and suffering, God brings that same to gift to another corner of his creation through us.
Many of our congregations probably feel a little like shriveled up old Abraham, they feel like their youth, their vigor, their fruitfulness is long in their past. God does not see them that way, and he calls us to proclaim his view, not ours view, not their view, but His view of this world.
Another great hymn “When Peace Like a River” might make a great choice today (LSB #763). The story behind the hymn might also be worth telling. The author lost three daughters at sea, his wife was spared. He hurried to Europe to join her. In the middle of the Atlantic he was given by the captain the opportunity to note the place where the ship bearing his daughters had sunk. He returned to his cabin and wrote this hymn. He was standing the grace of God. His suffering did not quell his rejoicing, rather in that suffering he was given endurance and finally hope. All is well with my soul!
3. God’s big plans (OT That the Spirit of God leads the hearer to faithful trust in God’s bold promises and big plans for us.)
This sermon would be good for the smaller parish which is tempted to get comfortable with its small and insignificant status in the community. It is easy sometimes to be small and not terribly important. Little is asked of such places. Little is expected of them. One can simply serve on a committee or two and coast along with little or no real problems and very little effort.
God, however, has big plans for us. This might be a good time dig out the congregational mission statement or the articles of incorporation for the parish. Chances are there were some lofty goals articulated there, good goals. People rarely say that their goal in founding a parish is to erect a modest building and barely pay a pastor. They want to be a light in this community. They want to proclaim the Gospel. They want to serve neighbor and world. They want to lead the lost to Jesus. These are all good and noble goals, but in the realities of budgeting, aging membership, and not enough volunteers to serve soup supper on Wednesday night, this can all get lost, or at least neglected if not lost.
This sermon wants the hearer to realize that Jesus has never lost sight of his kingdom nor has he lost sight of your and my place in it. Like Peter, we don’t always get this right, but God always gets this right. We are engaged in a mighty, even cosmic conflict with sin, death, and devil. God has assured us the victory. Christ’s death on the cross and his glorious resurrection have won the day. But the battle still goes on and the forces of evil will not meekly retire from the field. God has plans for us, see. His kingdom comes and his peculiar battles are won through the work of people like you and me.
We are not responsible for the victory. That belongs to God. We cannot take that credit. But for some strange reason which defies human logic God has elected to work his kingdom through us, yes, even us, a little and seemingly forgotten corner of his kingdom. We are not situated in some distant outpost, far from the center of the action. Christ’s kingdom breaks in through every forgiveness spoken. When the hungry are fed, the child loved, the grieving comforted, He defeats the foe.
The preacher now needs to make a choice. Does he challenge his parish to think differently about their ministry and service? Do we need to remember that God is working through our efforts and redouble them? Or does he need to celebrate that God is working through the ministry of this parish and re-inject some joy into the good things we are doing. It is entirely possible that both in some measure could be done.
4. Suffering – not what you think it is (Epistle and Gospel – that the Spirit of God would redefine and shape our suffering into the vehicle of Christ’s kingdom coming)
This sermon was initially occasioned by a discussion of what is happening in Venezuela several years ago, but the world is seldom without a contemporary example. People were starving, they had no basic necessities, there was a shortage of toilet paper. The dictator had declared all unsupportive speech to be treasonous and arrested the mayor of the 19
capital city who had the temerity to be critical of the government. People were afraid and they feel as if God had abandoned them. Change a few details and you can probably find the same story being played out in this morning’s news feed.
But you don’t have to look to foreign lands to find folks saying that God has abandoned them. Cancer has a way of getting folks to wonder if God has it in for them. A heart attack, the death of a loved one, losing your job, or many more could be the occasion for folks to think they have an enemy in God.
Our texts today speak of God’s suffering people. Abraham and Sarah suffered long years of longing for a child, fruitlessly. Paul speaks of rejoicing in suffering. Jesus enjoins us to take up a cross and follow him. The kingdom of God is not a suffering free zone. That is good. To suffer is not a sign of God’s wrath against us, but often is the mechanism by which God’s kingdom comes. Suffering was what happened when a ninety year old woman went into labor with Isaac. It was when Jesus carried that brutal cross up a hill. Suffering attended all of Paul’s missionary journeys. He rejoiced in all of them because he saw in them the reality that Jesus was coming to him.
This is the strange thing about suffering. God is often afoot in suffering in ways which utterly befuddle us. We can point, as Paul does, to the benefits of suffering which make sense. The athlete suffers through conditioning workouts to be a better athlete, but even Paul admits there is more to this. Suffering builds a strange hope in us, an expectation of God which transcends our human understanding.
Peter did not get God’s thoughts on this and it is hard for us too. We like to think we have this life figured out. We don’t and Christianity does not necessarily make it any easier to figure out. God does some mighty strange things and one of the strangest is that he sometimes uses suffering to bring his kingdom into our lives. Jesus suffered the cross for the joy which was set before him.
Paul embraced his suffering, even rejoiced in it. I am not sure he rejoiced while they were beating him with rods or stoning him, but that suffering never really quenched his joy and it became a proof of his participation in Christ. He was suffering with Jesus. (See Colossians 1 – end of the chapter.)
Several years ago 21 Egyptian Christians were beheaded in Libya for simply being Christians. That makes them martyrs. Martyr means witness. The witness of the 21 was brave and bold. Suffering is not the sign of God’s abandonment of the Christian, but it is one of the ways that God works. It worked through Jesus; it works through us too.
This requires some discernment and care on the part of the preacher. We don’t want to say that the questions and feelings of the person who is suffering are wrong. After all, Jesus himself wondered why God had abandoned him. At the same time, he died on a Friday we all call “Good.” The work he wrought on that cross is our salvation itself and 20
because it happened in his suffering, it has changed the way that we view suffering, even our own suffering. It has become something holy and sacred in a sense. Jesus suffered and that has changed everything, including suffering.