Texts: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Romans 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-38
When Paul says that Abraham is our father in faith, he means that just like Abraham, throughout our entire lives we are always learning to trust God. Although it is an ongoing process, the season of Lent is specifically focused on learning to trust God. During Lent, we meditate on our own sinfulness and mortality; we focus on our need to repent and to be forgiven; we focus on our need to return to God. We do not do this because we need a somber low point before the soaring high of Easter morning, not because Christian practice is to beat ourselves up over our failures, but because it is important for us to take time to intentionally remember that we are not perfect and that we need God’s help.
That is the point that both Paul and the storytellers of Genesis are trying to make: Abraham is not remembered because of how virtuous or faithful he was, he is remembered because of what God did for him. Where Abraham wavered, God was faithful; and every time Abraham screwed up, God was there to gently correct him and get him back on track. God never rescinded the promise because Abraham was too paranoid, never made the promise contingent on some action Abraham had to perform or some idea in which he had to believe. God simply said, “As for me, this is my covenant with you…” and God kept that covenant.
The 40 days of Lent remind us of the 40 years Abraham’s descendants spent wandering in the wilderness, learning for themselves how to trust God. Had they gone straight from Egypt to Canaan, they would have simply founded Egypt 2.0, done things exactly the way they had been used to in bondage, only they would have been the taskmasters. But that is not what God wanted; so, God brought them into the wilderness with nothing where they would learn to depend upon God for absolutely everything—even such bare essentials as food and water. During that time, God changed the narrative for the Israelites, prepared them for a new start.
Lent is our wilderness time when we, too, remember that we cannot rely on ourselves and our own strength or ingenuity or morality to get by. During Lent, we remember that everything we do is contaminated by sin and is bound to pass away: we are dust, and to dust we shall return; and so will the works of our hands. Instead of relying on ourselves, we remember that we must always rely on God. Lent is the time we take every spring to make a new start, to allow God to change our narrative.
Looking up from the bible to the newspaper, Lent reminds us that this is not an abstract theological position, but a necessary lesson to help us live in the world. Poverty and war, corruption and pollution, crime and injustice and violence all show us how the best and brightest creations of humanity always have a dark side. As we struggle under the burden of our own sin and mortality, we are caught between two ideas: the first, that we cannot rely on any human action to save us, but on God alone; and the second, that God has given us everything we need to fix the problems we have created. Both of these things are true, but they are both also catastrophically false.
It is true that there nothing we can do to solve the problems of sin and death; only God can address those; but taken to the extreme, this idea tells us we can do nothing but offer thoughts and prayers. In a world where people shoot up schools, thoughts and prayers are not enough. On the other hand, it is true that God has invited us to work alongside God in the project of creation, and to use our God-given gifts of authority, strength, courage and intelligence to shape the world according to God’s will. However, the moment we become too confident in our ability to create God’s kingdom ourselves through technological and legal means, we repeat the sin of Eden and believe we can be like God.
The path of discipleship lies somewhere between these two extremes. It would be nice to be able to say is that all we have to do is to find the straight, narrow path down the middle, but that would be a lie. Any attempt to reduce discipleship to a set of rules or guidelines or philosophical tenets or political planks is a corruption of the gospel. Faith is not about closing our eyes and walking in a straight line, but about always keeping our eyes open and fixed on Jesus.
These stories we read today are all about what it means to trust God. Part of trusting God is realizing that we cannot fully trust ourselves; we will get it wrong sometimes. Abraham certainly did. So did Peter; he correctly identified Jesus as the Messiah, but in almost the same breath demonstrates that he has no idea what that means. No sooner does he confess that he believes Jesus has been sent from God then he rebukes Jesus and tries to correct him. Sometimes, in our best attempts to follow, we stray. Lent is a reminder not to trust ourselves too much, but to always trust where Jesus is leading us, even when it looks like he is leading us in the wrong direction.
That might mean realizing that the solutions to our problems are not political. Or, maybe that they are. It might mean learning to listen to the people we are convinced are wrong because they have something to teach us. Sometimes, it might even mean making a complete about face and admitting that, as zealous as we have been, as convinced and we were, we were wrong—or at least not right.
That’s what Jesus means when he says that in order to follow, we must take up our cross. The way of the cross is death; not just the death of our bodies, but the death of our certainty, the death of our absolutism, the death of our political ideology, the death of our religious beliefs, the death of the way we have been taught to see the world. These might things that are central to who we are and how we operate in this world; to lose them is to lose our very selves, our very center. As we contemplate losing our whole selves, Jesus says to us, “Those who wish to save their life—their self, the core of who they are—they will lose it, but those who lose their selves for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
This is especially important now as we live in a country that is divided along party lines and strained by the threat of war and the grief of violence. As our people continue to yell at one another, to blame one another for our problems, to curse and insult each other, we as Christians have the benefit of knowing that none of us are blameless, that we are all cursed by sin. We have the benefit of knowing that the way forward is not to dig in our heels to but to extend our hands. We have the benefit of knowing that strength is not found in the refusal to compromise, but in the ability to confess and ask for forgiveness. We have the benefit of knowing that victory lies not in the utter defeat of our enemies, but in our utter love for them.
This path of discipleship always leads to the cross; because of that, it is a hard path to follow. We will stray, we will be distracted, we will fail; but we are children of Abraham and Sarah—maybe not biologically, but they are our ancestors in faith. Like our faith ancestors, God promises to patiently and lovingly call us back when we lose our way. God always keeps extending that promise to us. With God’s own Son to lead us, with the bread of life and the blood of the covenant to sustain us, we continue onward, trusting that even if we are marching to our deaths, the God in whom we trust is the God who brings life to the dead.