March 8, 2009
Gen. 17:1-7, 15-16; Mark 8:31-38
Our theme for Lent this year is “our lives are in God’s hands”. The main question we are asking is – can we trust God with our lives? Can we let God control our destiny?
Last Sunday we saw how God had become frustrated and sad at how human beings were treating each other. Because there was so much evil and violence in the world – God made a decision to destroy everything with a flood, except for Noah and his family.
But then after the flood, we learn that God makes a decision to “never again” destroy creation.
God decides that the flood did not work. The flood was meant as a judgment on the people for their sin – but it did not change their hearts or actions. After the flood the people are just as violent with each other as before.
I suggested last week that the main impact of the flood was on how it changed God. After the flood, God says – “I am not going to let the rebellion of human beings sway me from my vision and purpose for creation.”
No matter how destructive human beings are – God says, “I am going to work in the world to heal, forgive, and restore life to wholeness.”
And the rainbow became a permanent reminder that God’s will for us is life and not death.
Now, the question for us today is – how does God go about healing and forgiving and restoring human beings to wholeness?
After God’s covenant with Noah to “never again” destroy the earth – God makes a new covenant with Abraham and Sarah.
In Genesis 12:1-3 God decides to bless Abraham and Sarah – so they can be a blessing to others.
God says to Abram – “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
Instead of destroying evil with force, God begins to form an alternative community of people around Abraham and Sarah who will then be a blessing to others.
Now, the interesting thing about this story is that Abraham and Sarah are old. When they get this call from God to leave their homeland they are 75 years old and they have no children.
Right before this call to Abraham and Sarah we are told in Genesis 11:30 that Sarah is barren. Up to this point in the biblical story – Abraham and Sarah’s life is summed up in one word – “barren”. They had no children.
In the scriptures “barrenness” not only refers to someone who doesn’t have children, it is also a metaphor for “hopelessness”.
In blessing Abraham and Sarah, God is promising to bring life out of barrenness and hope out of despair. Abraham and Sarah know that if they have children it will have to be the doing of God.
So, the only thing Abraham and Sarah have going for them is this promise from God to make them a great nation.
Now, most of us, when we think about God blessing us, think that means God is going to give us a lot of money, or that we are special, or that we are better than other people, or that God will protect us from suffering.
But that isn’t why Abraham and Sarah are blessed. Their blessing is not for their specialness or personal comfort. God blesses them so they can be channels though whom God will bless the world.
They are blessed by God, not for privilege, but for service.
They are blessed by God, not so they can dominate others, but so they can share in the sufferings of a broken world.
They are blessed by God, not for personal comfort, but so they can participate in healing the pain of our world.
To be blessed by God always means that one is called, chosen, and claimed as a child of God through whom God will bless others.
Abraham and Sarah were called and sent by God to go and live among the Canaanites.
Do you know what the name Canaanite actually means? It means – “those who do not believe the promise”.
Abraham and Sarah, people of God’s promise, are to go and live among people who do not yet believe the promise of God.
The Canaanites symbolize all people who have embraced barrenness as a way of life and who have come to believe barrenness is life-giving. They don’t know any other way to live.
So, instead of destroying people again to try and change them, God forms a new people who will embody the promises of God and who will work in the world to heal, forgive, and restore life to wholeness.
God isn’t looking for people with great intelligence, great talent, great wealth, or great attractiveness to make a difference in the world.
God takes ordinary people, and many times God takes the least expected people, blesses them and sends them out to be a blessing to others.
What God is looking for is people like Abraham and Sarah who are ready to travel from barrenness to blessing. God is looking for people to live the promise in the midst of those who don’t believe the promise.
All that God ever needs is our availability, and if we are available, God will work through us to serve others.
Now, in the NT we also learn that God blesses us to bless others.
Last Sunday we looked at the passage in Mark’s gospel where God says to Jesus – “you are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.”
God delights in Jesus, but it isn’t just to make him feel good. Jesus, after his blessing and commissioning, immediately begins to form a new community around him.
Jesus is sent by God into the world to form a new community so his life would be a blessing to others.
What is particularly interesting to me is that the group of people Jesus chooses to have around him don’t look all that impressive.
The disciples Jesus calls together are uneducated, a little rough around the edges, and for the most part they hated each other.
The fisherman in the group would have hated the tax collector, Levi. And Levi would have hated Simon the Zealot, who would have been willing to stab him in the back if he had a chance.
The community of disciples Jesus brought together had nothing to do with compatibility. It was not a fun-loving homogenous group.
The disciples didn’t get to choose who was a part of the group. These people were as different from each other as night and day.
These disciples also weren’t the smartest characters. They were dense and they often misunderstood Jesus.
In our scripture from Mark 8 Peter gets Jesus’ question right about who Jesus is when he claims “Jesus is the Messiah”.
And yet Peter doesn’t have a clue what the Messiah is suppose to do. Peter expected the Messiah to confront Rome by force and to destroy its oppressive regime.
Peter and the other disciples thought following Jesus would lead them to a palace somewhere and they wanted to be part of his ruling cabinet.
Most of the disciples were sick and tired of Roman rule and they wanted Jesus to march to Rome and lead a rebellion.
I think Jesus rebukes Peter so strongly here when he says – “get behind me Satan”- because the use of force to bring in the kingdom was a real temptation for Jesus.
Jesus was extremely popular among the people. He had just fed over 4000 people. He had healed many others and people by the thousands were flocking to him.
Jesus looked like a man who was going places and he had to make a choice between the use of power and might or the way of suffering servanthood.
So, Jesus calls over all of his disciples and he invites the crowd to join him as well. Then Jesus says to them – “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must put aside your selfish ambition, shoulder your cross, and follow me. If you try to keep your life for yourself, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake and for the sake of the Good News, you will find true life.”
Jesus, at this crucial fork in the road of his ministry, chooses to respond to injustice, oppression, violence, poverty and human rebellion – not with power and force – but with a patient, fearless, and self-giving love.
And then Jesus invites his disciples and the whole crowd to pick up their crosses and to take the road less traveled with him.
To pick up our cross is not about putting up with an annoying co-worker or relative. It is not about coping with a sickness or a catastrophe in your life. To pick up our cross is really describing a way of life – a way of living in the world.
When Jesus says we are to “shoulder the cross” or to “bear the cross” – he means we are to give up our selfish ambitions so that we can live life with an orientation toward others like he does.
An orientation toward service.
An orientation toward peacemaking.
An orientation toward self-giving love.
An orientation toward sharing our wealth
An orientation toward forgiving those who wrong
In Philippians 2:5-8 Paul also writes about this road less traveled that we are to take. He writes – “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.”
Jesus tells the crowds that true life in this world comes, not from trying to preserve it at all costs, but by surrendering it to God. By putting our lives in God’s hands.
Jesus calls together this motley crew of disciples to form a community that is learning to give up its selfish ambitions in order to serve others.
Jesus modeled a life of service to them and then he sent them out into the world with towels and basins to serve the world in his name.
Well, what might all of this mean for us today?
First of all, I think these texts say a lot about the kind of community we are called to be for one another.
For some reason, God always seems to pick the least expected people to carry out the work of the kingdom. The underachievers. The misfits. The people with broken halos.
If I was starting a church, I am sure I would have chosen a different set of folks than Jesus did. I would never have thrown Levi, the tax collector, together with Simon the Zealot. Jesus must have spent a lot of his time keeping those two from killing each other.
And yet the church is not made up of people we get to pick. God does the calling and inviting and changing.
Church is a lot like family – you don’t get to pick your siblings.
In a family, acceptance isn’t based on how smart you are, how beautiful you are, how talented you are, or how wealthy you are. Acceptance is based on the fact that we belong to each other.
In the same way, the basis for our fellowship in the church is our relationship to Jesus Christ. We are sisters and brothers in Christ and that transcends all of our other differences.
The church today, like the first motley crew of Jesus’ disciples, is the new humanity of God on display for the world.
God is not going to destroy the world again with another flood. Instead, God is at work healing our world by calling together a new people who are learning to honor one another, care for one another, bear one another’s burdens, pray for one another, forgive one another, love one another, and serve one another.
Being church is hard work because “putting aside our selfish ambitions” is an ongoing struggle.
And yet, from Abraham and Sarah on – God is at work to form a people who are learning to put aside their selfish ambitions and are learning to love others as God has loved them. This is God’s mission. This is what God is up to in the world.
Our task as a church is being willing to receive the folks God sends our way. Our task is being hospitable and welcoming to the strangers in our midst. Our task is to live the promise of God – among a people who may only know barrenness and hopelessness.
God’s task is to call and change people – our task is to receive and welcome and love the people God sends us. When we do that we become salt and light in our community and we display God’s extravagant gift of grace and mercy to a hurting world.
The opportunity to receive those whom God sends us is always with us, but our move to a different location will give us many new opportunities to listen to our neighbors and to receive from them.
Wherever we end up meeting together as a church, I believe God is already there doing some marvelous things and we need to be as ready to receive, as to give.
The other thing I see in these scriptures, though, is that we are sent by God to serve others. We also have something to give.
After his resurrection, Jesus met with his disciples and said to them – “As the Father has sent me, so I send you. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (Jn. 20:21)
Jesus sends us into the world to live in the world just as he did.
So much of the Christian church’s energy is focused on getting people to fill the pews on Sunday morning. We think we have to get people to church so they can hear the good news of the gospel.
Worship on Sunday morning is one place to hear the gospel, but for most people the only bible they will ever read is your life as you live it at work, in the home, and in the community. (Tell story of Wes helping woman)
Jesus told his disciples – don’t wait for people to come to you. Go on – Jesus says – get out there in the community and be the church!
We have defined church as what happens on Sunday morning for so long that we have lost sight of the fact that we are the church all week long.
When you go to work – you represent the body of Christ.
When you go to the grocery store – you represent the body of Christ.
When you go to a basketball game – you represent the body of Christ.
When you go to the movies – you represent the body of Christ.
When you go to a party – you represent the body of Christ.
When you go to school – you represent the body of Christ.
You don’t just go to church – you are the church.
No matter where you go, you are the church and Jesus has commissioned you to forgive the sins of the people as you go about living your life. You are to continue the work and ministry of Jesus in the world through your daily life.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I am glad when the church building is full on Sunday morning, but our goal is not to fill the pews. Church attendance is not the mark of discipleship.
Our task is to make disciples. To raise up citizens for God’ kingdom who embody the very life of Jesus in the world.
Too often we ask – how can we get more people to come to church? I think that is the wrong question. The question I think we need to ask is – how can we demonstrate the love of God more effectively in our homes, our places of work, and in the community?
In other words – how can we be a blessing to others? How can we serve our community in the name of Christ?
We all know the church is not a building. The church is people who live like Jesus in the world.
We know this, and yet too often our understanding of church becomes “building focused”. It is easy to think church happens only in a building. Our tendency is to measure success by dollars and programs and buildings.
Now, there is nothing wrong with buildings because buildings can play an important part in the mission of the church. This is why we are looking to find another building for us to worship in.
We need a place that will allow us to carry out the mission God has called us to.
Our challenge will be, even as it is here, to have the building serve us, rather than us serving the building.
I pray we will be able to see a new building as a wonderful opportunity for us to serve the community in new ways. That it will become a gathering place in the community and its doors will always be wide open to the community.
But I also pray that we will hold the building lightly – as a gift from God to bless others.
And most of all, I pray, that we will re-imagine ourselves as a church sent by God to bless and serve others on a daily basis.
May God continue to bless us for a life of service to others!
May we be agents of God’s healing and hope in a broken and hurting world.
Like Abraham and Sarah, may we live the promise of God and be good news people. Amen.