Here we are, twelve days into Lent. We are 30% towards a 40-day goal of testing our metal in the wilderness of sacrifice.
Raise your hand if you have already given up on your Lenten resolution … or if you didn’t give up anything at all.
<look for raised hands>
Now, raise your hand if you are going to start back doing whatever you gave up, as soon as Lent is over.
<look for raised hands>
Now, raise your hand if you haven’t already raised your hand.
<look for raised hands>
That is what they call a control question … which acts to make sure everyone is awake, alert, and listening. Of course, it only works as long as no one gave up raising their hand for Lent.
Let me hear an “Amen,” if you gave up raising your hand for Lent.
Okay then. Everyone’s accounted for.
Myself, I have embarked on a “no sweets” diet, but that is something that needs to be made a regular part of my lifestyle – for health reasons – so it is not simply a forty-day sugar fast for me. I have used the beginning of Lent to initiate that life-changing commitment.
Actually, I was raised without any understanding of Lent, or Fat Tuesday (the translation of Mardi Gras), or even Ash Wednesday. I don’t remember my mother ever giving something up for Lent or advocating I do that.
As I have mentioned before, I have come to the conclusion that “Lent,” as a time associated with Jesus spending 40 days in the wilderness before beginning his ministry, should symbolize an individual’s test of commitment to Christ, before beginning a personal journey as a priest serving that Master. Lent marks the time when one becomes permanently filled with the Holy Spirit.
I remember hearing a priest somewhat scold us parishioners, saying, “I hope you are actually reading what you recite and understanding the meaning behind the words.”
My not being raised with a Prayer Book and memorized recitals meant I was reading those words while looking for meaning. The things we recite exemplify how one can quickly have the greatest impact of meaning by utilizing the most concise verbiage possible.
The people who set up the rites of the Prayer Book did not do it without deeply spiritual, meditative thought. I advise everyone here to take the time to contemplate those words too.
Likewise, the people who set up the readings that are offered each Sunday (and mid-week services) do so with deep thought. The readings are designed to match the seasons, such that during this Lenten season, the readings are set up to enhance one’s progress towards recognizing individual commitments to a ministry for Christ.
There is so much more expectation behind the reason for the season than a suggestion to sign on for a 40-day program of sacrifice.
We see that in the readings today, where God appeared and said to Abram, “Walk before me, and be blameless.” We see that when Jesus said to Peter (in essence), “Stop setting you mind on things that bring blame.” We see that when Paul told the Christians of Rome, “There is no ‘Get out of Blame Free’ card that comes by reciting you believe in Jesus Christ, thinking he died so you to inherit divine favor.”
God did not establish a covenant with Abram, if he could “walk before me, going forty days without sin.”
Last week, we read how Mark wrote, “[Jesus] was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan.” Last year we read Matthew expand on that thought, having Jesus tell Satan, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'”
Today, Mark tells how Jesus told the same thing (basically) to Peter, such that when Jesus said, “You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things,” the intent was, “Peter, you are worshipping Satan, not God.”
Peter was telling Jesus, “Look, we can’t survive more than forty days without you being here, so stop all this talk about dying. It is frightening the troops, by making them think they have to stop sinning without you.”
Paul wrote in his letter, “If it is the adherents of the law who are to be heirs, faith is null and the promise (of inheriting the world through offspring) is void.” That (basically) says, “If you read Scripture and think forty days of following a list of dos and don’ts is all it takes to be deemed blameless, then you are wrong.”
In Paul’s letter he directly referred to the covenant between God and Abraham as “guaranteed to all his descendants … those who share the faith of Abraham.”
As Christians, we must see Jesus as a descendant of Abraham, as was David. Now, in between Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, and Jesus were millions of people who shared a common blood and who professed to have the same “faith” of Abraham … as long as you call that “faith” Judaism … the “religion” of Israel … as “faithful” adherents of the Law of Moses.
Paul was explaining how “adherence to the law” is not the same as “the faith of Abraham.” Neither was it the faith of Jesus … a descendant of that faith held by Abraham.
You see, when God told Abram, “Walk before me,” God meant, “You walk, with me in your heart and mind.” God said, “Receive my Holy Spirit and that will make you blameless … for the rest of your life.”
Not just forty days.
So, when Jesus was teaching “his disciples that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again,” he was talking about how he had to demonstrate the “faith of Abraham,” so that those sitting there and learning would be capable of continuing that legacy.
Peter rebuking Jesus then speaks for how hard a pill that message is to swallow.
Forget about someone else telling you that he, to be truly faithful to the Lord, must welcome (more than simply being willing) great suffering, rejection, and being killed for his beliefs; but to have that imply, “You’re next”!
How many of us would be just like Peter and say, “Hold your horses there Jesus. I have a family. I have a commitment to my employer; and not to mention, I am a member of some important clubs and societies that like my input. Let me see if I can make some scheduling adjustments. Hmmmm. How about I dedicate 40 days?”
You see, that is what Paul alluded to when he wrote about Abraham, saying “He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old).”
Peter weakened in faith by rebuking Jesus.
In Genesis 17 we find, “Abram was ninety-nine years old.” That is close to one hundred, and in today’s life expectations, that would certainly be, as Paul wrote, “as good as dead.”
(Offer apologies to anyone close to turning 100.)
However, Abraham lived to be 175 years of age. Yet, Abram (before God appeared and spoke to him) was 99, and he was “as good as dead,” as far as being named Abram. After God offered that covenant, Abram changed. He became Abraham.
Out with the old, in with the new.
Still, if one takes the percentage of years Abraham lived in total, and divide that into 175, you see he was approached by God after he had lived 56.57% of his life.
When you figure Americans live an average of 85 years these days, Abram was at the equivalent of 48 years of age. In other words, Abram had been somewhat avoiding undergoing great suffering, and facing the rejection from those who clung to the ways of a physical realm.
It took Jesus took 30 of his 33 earth years to be baptized by the Holy Spirit … permanently.
In the same way, Abram had an epiphany. The skies opened and a dove lit upon him. Immediately, God told Abraham to pack up and leave Ur. He told him to go to some unknown place.
Abram died and Abraham walked before God. Jesus was ready to endure great suffering as a sign of his faith in God.
Paul wrote, “Therefore, Abraham’s faith was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Likewise, Jesus was killed, as he told the disciples he would be. But, neither did this just for their sake, but for ours too.
It will be reckoned to us who believe in God, the God who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, Jesus who was caused to be killed because of our sins, but who was raised so we would see how a life without sin is better than one where sin is allowed.
We are “justified” by our decisions. We are justly rewarded for our present sacrifices … or lack thereof.
Now, I know that every week I sound judgmental, even coming off as better than thou, from time to time. That is not the intent.
Just this week, while figuring out the percentages of Abram’s age, I realized that I turned 48 in 2001.
Maybe that is a coincidence, and only God knows how long I will live; but when I first started hearing God whispering to me, from within, and knowing it was God, was 2001.
Over the past 13-plus years, I have been following the lead of those whispers, and writing sermons is something that has become more important to me – over the past seven years, in general, and over the last two years especially.
To be honest, I do not write any sermons for you. I do not aim my criticisms at anyone here, other than myself.
When I speak of sinners and failures to commit to God and Christ … when I say “we, us, our,” I am talking out loud to myself. I speak from many years of personal experience, about my history and about my future. I point my finger at myself and myself alone.
Therefore, I write sermons to tell myself what I need to do, in order for me to serve God. It helps me to remember when I tell myself these things.
I speak them in front of an audience, in part because that reflects what Mark wrote when he recalled, “Jesus said all these things openly.”
Jesus told the disciples what Jesus had to do. Peter took offense, directly confronting Jesus about making others feel inadequate. Perhaps, Peter wanted the status quo to remain as it was, or to enjoy the comforts of someone being the leader who would tell him and the others how to feel special a little longer. We know that Jesus would cause the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes to feel insulted by what he would say openly.
Jesus spoke to a world that should have been acting as Jesus would have the world act. So, Jesus referred to “we, us, and our” as God and I … more than him and them.
Still, even if they did not know it then, the disciples heard what Jesus told them openly; and they later found themselves saying similar things to other people … for the same reasons. After all, a disciple can only become an Apostle with the help of God. No gang of men and women can make that happen.
All of my sermons state my beliefs, based on my faith in the words written by Biblical authors. I believe it when Mark recalled Jesus saying, “If any want to be my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
I recommend re-reading the rest of what Mark wrote, that Jesus said about saving lives and losing lives (it is in the bulletin); but let me remind you about what I said last year: When Jesus said, “Take up a cross,” the word translated as “cross” is actually better stated as “stake.”
Jesus did not tell the disciples, “I must be killed by crucifixion.” While I can see that image in hindsight, from knowing the ending of Jesus’ story from our perspective now, Mark made no reference to the cross as a symbol of death. He used “cross” as a form of responsibility, of personal maintenance.
It takes many years to upright a fallen stake … much more effort in maintenance than forty days a year can right a lifetime of selfishness.
You “take up” your “stake” by ensuring it is firmly in the ground, so it stands up straight and tall. The “upright cross” is then what the good grapevines drape along. The bad grapevines rest on leaning “stakes,” which lowers the vine towards the ground, where the snake of Satan slithers, searching for low-lying ears to whisper influence into.
“Get behind me, Satan!” means, get back on the ground where you belong snake, while I raise my face to the Lord, as one of the descendants of the faith of Abraham, and faith that Jesus is the Son of God.
“Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
I say what I say so that I will be reminded not to be ashamed of God’s appearance as Jesus, and His saying to me, “walk before me.”
“Praise the LORD, you that fear him;”
“stand in awe of him, O offspring of Israel;”
“all you of Jacob’s line, give glory.”