February 19, 2018
The Lent 2B Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Mark 8:31-38 from the Lectionary Gospel; Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 22:23-31 from the Lectionary Psalms; and Romans 4:13-25 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: OT Lectionary: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 78 (Lord’s Day 29)
Author: Scott Hoezee
Life has its ups and downs but rarely are they packed so closely together as in Mark 8. Only a few verses earlier Peter had answered one of history’s most powerful questions and he had answered it correctly. Mark’s spare style means that we don’t hear what the other gospels tell us as to Jesus’ reaction to Peter’s correct identification of Jesus as the Christ; namely, “Blessed are you, Simon bar Jonah!” (Of course, literary theory has it that Peter may have been a source for Mark and so perhaps modesty kept him from telling Mark this detail). But as Frederick Dale Bruner once said in connection to Matthew’s reporting of this incident, Peter had just been elected the first pope! He had received a blessing from Jesus that the other 11 did not get at just that moment. Life has its ups and downs, but this was definitely an upper moment.
And then . . . “Get behind me, Satan! You do not have in mind the things of God!”
Life has its ups and downs, and being called “Satan” by the Son of God . . . well, that definitely counts as a downer.
What went wrong? How did Peter go from blessed saint to accursed devil in the span of minutes? Most of us know the answer: the disciples had been pining for the moment when Jesus would “make his move” and start a more public assault on the powers that be. And if he really is the Christ of God, well then, it was only a matter of time. But how could Jesus make anyone’s life better by having his own life end? Jesus’ proposal for dealing with this life’s woes seemed counter-intuitive, the exact opposite of how most people operate. Yet Jesus goes on to tell everyone this very plainly and simply. “If you want to get behind me, then you’ve got to give up your clutching at this life, go under the sentence of death by having a cross-bar draped over your shoulders, and just die.”
But then comes one of the most famous things Jesus ever said. Starting in verse 35 Jesus talks about the human soul, conveyed four times in three verses through the Greek word psyche. The NIV first translates this as “life” in verse 35 but then switches to “soul” in verses 36 and 37, but in the original it is the same word throughout, the word psyche. Jesus is concerned about our souls, about that mysterious but undeniable spiritual center to who we are as marvelously complex creatures made in the image of God. If Jesus is who we Christians say he is (namely, the very Son of God), then we ought to take seriously what Jesus has to say about our souls. After all, we believe Jesus is the One who created those souls in the first place. Who would know better than Jesus how they work?
But what Jesus tells us is an apparent paradox. What we all want is to hang on to the life we’ve got. Diminishment, despair, and ultimately death is what we all rather dearly want to avoid. Unless depression or grave illness has eclipsed for us any sense of life’s goodness, most of us would have to admit that most days, most of the time, we like being alive.
We enjoy a good laugh. We relish good food. We get a kick out of creation’s beauties. We feel satisfied when we’ve done some task really well. We’d give almost anything to keep on watching our children and grandchildren grow. Just in general we’re intrigued by the idea of life’s having a “next,” a new horizon with new possibilities, new things to explore. The notion that there might not be another “next” for us is what can rather quickly induce a marrow-chilling fear and a clutching desire to head off whatever it is that threatens our being able to click along pretty much the way we always have.
We don’t want life to end, which is why when Jesus predicts his own end, Peter tries to shout Jesus down. “Don’t talk that way, Master Jesus! If you’re the Messiah, then you’ve got to save your own life first of all so that you can save and then improve the lot of our lives, too!”
But no, Jesus has to go another way. He has to die, and if we’re smart, we’ll let him drag us down with him.
[Note: We have additional Lenten Resources, worship ideas, and Sample Sermons on our 2018 Lent and Easter page ]
In the Greek there is a curious parallel between verses 33 and 34. In verse 33, following Peter’s wrong-headed criticism, Jesus calls Peter a “satan” and tells him to go opiso mou, which means “behind me.” Then in the very next verse Jesus says that if anyone wants to follow opiso mou, they need to deny themselves and take up the cross. The second use of that phrase opiso mou is not necessary in Greek since the Greek verb “to follow” automatically carries with it the sense of “behind me”–it is not necessary to spell it out and so it usually isn’t.
But Mark has Jesus repeat opiso mou as a way to create a parallel to Peter in the previous verse. Maybe what Mark is saying is that there are two ways to get behind Jesus: if you insist on holding onto this life, of seeking the solution to life’s difficulties by grabbing still more of that same life, then you can get behind Jesus as a satan.
But if you are willing to let go, to release your fierce grip on your own ego–and on the life you hope will boost and bolster that ego–if you can just die along with Jesus, then you can get behind Jesus as a disciple. Then you can be behind Jesus as a follower who is back there with a clear view of what Jesus does so that you can then imitate him. One way or the other everyone ends up behind Jesus. The question is whether you’ll be back there so you can go where Jesus goes or whether you’ll be back there to be left behind. If you are back there to follow, then even though you first die, you will end up with abundant resurrection life. If you end up back there because you decided to make the goodies of this life your be-all and end-all, then you also will die, but that will be the end of you, too.
Throughout much of her life actress Helen Hayes was regularly hailed as “The First Lady of the American Theater.” Clearly this was a lofty, flattering title. Ms. Hayes must have felt honored each time she heard it.
Or maybe not.
Because as it turns out, Ms. Hayes is the one who came up with that title for herself! She cooked it up, stuck it into a press release, and forever after journalists made use of this sobriquet or nickname whenever they wrote articles about Hayes. But really the same thing happens all the time. In our age of media hype it is not at all unusual for actors, athletes, and yes, even preachers to come up with their own sobriquets or designations.
Press releases from Christian publishing houses now regularly promote Rev. So-and-So by claiming he is “widely acclaimed as the most dramatic preacher of our times.” Or someone may be touted as “the most sought after speaker on today’s lecture circuit.” A few years ago Newsweek magazine ran an article on contemporary preaching which included a list of the top twenty current American preachers. Within weeks you could not read the names of most of those twenty folks without immediately reading also the line “Recently named by Newsweek one of the most influential preachers of the late-twentieth century!”
But of course the sign of really having made it is not just having such a distinction attached to your name. No, the truly stratospheric are themselves the point of comparison. So now we often hear the claim that a certain person is “The Michael Jordan of . . .” as in the Olympics some years ago when Hermann Maier was called “The Michael Jordan of downhill skiing” and George Hackl “The Michael Jordan of luge!” And the list goes on.
In Mark 8 Jesus had just admitted to indeed being “the Christ,” the Messiah who could save the world. Peter and the others were no doubt thrilled to have their suspicions confirmed. Talk about your sizzling designations! They were insiders to the Christ! Surely life would soon get very sweet very fast. Jesus had no place to go but up. The days of the Caesar were numbered. Israel would soon be back with Jesus sitting on a golden throne with inlaid mother of pearl even as the disciples would be co-rulers of this new empire. Gone would be the days of dusty feet, rumbling stomachs, and tattered fishing nets. Soon they’d eat red snapper that someone else had caught, steamed with capers and tarragon by the palace chef and served on silver platters by servants eager to please the Messiah and his buddies.
Except that to bear the name of “Christ” leads to a very different kind of path after all.
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Author: Doug Bratt
Our names are very important to many of us. We might even argue that they come close as close as anything to identifying who we really are. We are, at least in some ways, our names.
Names have throughout measured time had meaning. God asks Adam to name each creature as God creates it, so that creatures aren’t, in one sense, complete until they have a name. God also gives our first father a name that reflects his origins in the soil. On top of that, the Scriptures repeatedly insist God knows people’s names. What’s more, God even sometimes changes people’s names to signal their transformation.
For the first half of their story, we know Abram and Sarai by the names their parents gave them. It’s Abram and Sarai who may have gone out and bought a crib when God promised them a son. It’s Abram and Sarai who perhaps set up a nursery and started discussing names for their son. It’s Sarai who may have begun to make some baby clothes.
But all of that happened 24 years before Genesis 17 opens. If you don’t think that’s a long time to wait, think back 24 years. In 1994 South Africans elected Nelson Mandela to be their president. OJ Simpson was charged with the murder of his ex-wife and her acquaintance. 24 years ago a number of people to whom we proclaim Genesis 17 weren’t even born yet.
For Abram and Sarai, 24 years have also been a long time. During those years Abram tried to pass off his wife as his sister. Abram’s relatives separated, resulting in his nephew needing Abram to rescue him. Now for the third time in 24 years God has appeared to Abraham and Sarah to promise them a son.
However, Genesis 17’s 89 year-old Sarai is now a veritable spring chicken compared to her 99 year-old husband, Abram. Their dream of having one child, much less a world full of children has been slowly dying for nearly a quarter century.
And what happens our when dreams for our family, work, or the difference we’ll make die? Most of us, as Craig Barnes notes, pack those dreams away and get on with our lives. We settle for the making the best of it.
Abram and Sarai have done that. Abram fathered a child who is now 13 years old by their slavegirl. It certainly wasn’t what Sarai and he had hoped for. But they’d made the best of their infertility. Yet as Sarai and he are getting on with their lives, God again appears to Abram.
Do you wonder if the old man says to himself, “Well, here we go again. I know just what God’s going to say”? And when God again promises to make Abram what verse 4 calls a “father of many nations,” he perhaps thinks to himself, “Well, duh! Just look at my strapping teenaged son, Ishmael. I hear he’s going to have too many descendants to even count.”
Because that’s what we do when God’s promises just seem too extravagant. We tailor our expectations to reality. We begin to assume, says Barnes, that our busy but sometimes slightly empty lives are the extent of the blessing God promises us.
Yet our perception of blessing and compromises don’t cause God to compromise. As if to show Abram that, God changes his name. No longer will he just be “exalted father.” Now people will know Abram as Abraham, the “father of many” or “ancestor of multitudes.”
Yet this father of many still doesn’t have any children with his wife. Very little but his name has changed. Abraham’s wife’s arms are still empty. He still struggles to trust God’s promise to give Sarai and him a son. And they’re certainly not getting any younger.
But God isn’t done yet. In fact, God isn’t even yet finished changing names yet. “Oh, by the way,” it’s as if God goes on. “I’m also changing your wife’s name. Stop calling her ‘Sarai.’ That just means she’s a princess. Start calling her ‘Sarah.’ Because she’s going to parent a son with you.”
Yet if we’d wondered if Abraham’s character has changed with his name, we no longer have to. After all, it’s as if the strangeness of it all finally catches up with him. Abraham falls on his face again, this time not in worship, but laughter. Perhaps his giggle turns into a chuckle. Old Abe may even end up rolling around in the dust in laughter.
He may even think to himself, “God’s asking me to operate on the most sensitive part of my body just because God claims God’s going to finally turn our geriatric ward into a maternity ward?” “Can’t we just meet half-way?” it’s as if Abraham asks God in verse 18. “Save me the physical pain and emotional heartache and just keep your promises through my son Ishmael.”
But God is persistent. So in verse 19 God again promises Abraham he’ll have a son with his wife Sarai. What’s more, God reminds him, Abraham’s son Ishmael too will have countless descendants.
Yet God doesn’t repeat God’s promise to give Abraham countless descendants because he’s such a nice guy. God doesn’t change Abraham’s name because he’s become a model of faithful trust. God makes God’s promises simply and solely because God is gracious.
We see that mercy at work in Sarah’s life as well. After all, she too has doubted the promise. She gave her slave to Abram so he’d have a child by her. Even her name-change doesn’t change Sarah’s character any more than it changed her husband’s. After all, just as Abraham laughs at the renewed promise to have a child, Sarah too will laugh at the utter absurdity of it all.
In fact, Abraham’s whole family is caught up in laughter. But, at least initially, not happy laughter. Abraham and Sarah’s first laughter is that of doubt. Only their son’s miraculous birth will turn their laughter from incredulity into joy, from doubt into trust.
Yet in a story in which names play such a key part, we also note its names by which God identifies himself. The name by which Genesis’ narrator first identifies God is “Yahweh,” a designation that was familiar to Abraham and some of us. God next identifies himself to Abraham, as we already noted, as “El Shaddai,” “God Almighty.”
But when in verse 7 God speaks of himself as Abraham’s God, God uses the name “Elohim.” While that may not seem like a big deal, it is the first time God speaks of himself that way to Abraham. “Elohim” certainly isn’t a new name. It doesn’t reflect a change in God’s character. Yet as scholars note, it does present a new kind of reality for Abraham and Sarah. “Elohim” means, after all, “ruler of the nations.”
That name reminds Abraham, Sarah and us that while nations may make plans, God rules over them. While nations and families may think they grow simply by human reproduction, God is sovereign over them. So neither Abraham and Sarah’s home nor the nations will be filled with their descendants because they’re so fertile. No, their offspring will fill the nations because God rules over those nations and their people.
Of course, only some of those who proclaim and hear Genesis 17 have changed names. Many of us still have the names our parents gave us. And while some of us changed last names when we got married, our names are precious to us.
Yet when we were baptized, we were given another name. We were called “child of God.” What’s more, when we receive God’s grace with our faith, we receive yet another new name: “Christian.” Reformed Christians profess that means we’re members of Christ whom God has anointed to profess God’s name, present ourselves as living sacrifices and resist the devil’s temptations.
Yet even those who now bear Jesus’ name still much like Abraham and Sarah. While God has given us new names, our character hasn’t yet changed to fully match those new names. We don’t always act, talk and even think like God’s adopted children. You and I aren’t always very Christ-like in things like our prayers for and forgiveness of our enemies.
Yet God graciously gives us the Holy Spirit to help us to live up to our new names anyway. God graciously grants God’s adopted sons and daughters the grace to grow into the new names God graciously gives us.
Abraham can both live in renewed hope and circumcise the males in his family because God isn’t yet finished with him. God’s people too can live in similar hope. We also can let the Spirit put to death our own sinful ways. Our name “Christian” signals we can be patient with God, each other and even ourselves. God, after all, isn’t yet graciously done with you and me either.
Those who proclaim Genesis 17 might choose to share a bit about the genesis of their own names. I, for example, once asked my parents why they gave me the name “Douglas.” Did they perhaps name me for a military hero of the Second World and Korean Wars? Or did we perhaps live near some dark stream, as the meaning of my name suggests? “No,” my parents sighed. My name was a compromise. In fact, my mom and dad couldn’t even remember one of the names between which they’d chosen.
My wife and I vowed to be different with our own children’s names. They’d mean something we could later tell them. So Diane and I named our eldest “Jonathan” because he was, indeed, a gift from God. We named our second son “Timothy” because we hoped he’d live for God’s honor.
But by the time we were ready to name our youngest son, we’d run out of noble, biblical names that sounded okay with “Bratt.” So we decided to name him “Ryan,” at least if he was a boy. I no longer even remember what that name means.
But it’s okay in some ways. After all, we saddled our sons with the last name of “Bratt.” They weren’t even able to change that name by getting married. So no matter how noble their first names are, they’re always going to share their last name with a nickname for naughty children.
Author: Stan Mast
Psalm 22 is the quintessential Lenten Psalm. Most obviously, Jesus quoted verse 1 on the cross and many scholars think that he quoted the rest of the Psalm throughout that dark time of God-forsakenness. Certainly, the Psalm has lines that perfectly fit other moments of his crucifixion. And the first Christians used this Psalm more than any other to explain the meaning of Jesus’ passion.
In taking up “this anguished cry of a godly sufferer victimized by the vicious and prolonged attacks of enemies whom he has not provoked and from whom the Lord has not (yet) delivered him (NIV Study Bible notes),” Jesus identifies himself not only with a suffering humanity, but also with the entire tradition of messianic prophecy. In using Psalm 22 so passionately and frequently, Jesus and the early church were saying that the cross was not one man’s experience of punishment for (his own) sins. It was the fulfillment of the work prophesied by the entire Old Testament. Psalm 22 is just the clearest and most powerful pointer to the meaning of Jesus’ Lenten suffering.
Our reading for today is the unexpectedly triumphant end of a Psalm that has been alternating between despair and hope, solitary suffering and solidarity with the faith of Israel. Psalm 22 has two easily identifiable parts: the prayer for help in verses 1-21 and the praise for help given in verses 22-31. Within those two parts, there are two more divisions. The prayer consists of verses 1-11 with its two laments and expressions of confidence and verses 12-21 with its two laments and pleas for help. Both sections end with the same refrain, “Do not be far from me.” The song of praise also has two sections. In verses 22-26 the Psalmist calls the congregation to join him in praise because God has come near in answer to his prayer. In verses 27-31 he broadens that call to include the whole world.
These two parts of Psalm 22 are so distinct in their tone and content that some scholars have suggested our reading was once a separate Psalm later appended to the earlier verses. But such a reading completely misses the fact that the movement of the Psalm powerfully captures the experience of nearly all believers. We always live in the tension between struggle and victory, between despair and hope, between crying for God to come and help and praising him for doing exactly that, between the agony of God’s absence and the ecstasy of God’s action on our behalf. A person could see Psalm 22 as an artificial joining of two separate Psalms only if that person is either stuck in verses 1-21 or hasn’t ever been in verses 1-21. For all other believers, this is the normal shape of life this side of the eschaton.
The radical shift between verses 21 and 22 simply points to the fact that the Gospel has happened between the two. How could such deep despair become such high praise? Grace intervened. Even as we walk the Lenten road, we know how this sudden change happened in the life of Jesus. It takes one verse in Psalm 22; it took three days in Jesus’ experience. One verse. Three days. Grace happened. Jesus rose.
So, even as we are invited to walk the Via Dolorosa in verses 1-21, we are called to the Via Jubilate here in verses 22-31. A bit strange for Lent, perhaps, but then again we cannot pretend that Easter has not happened. Even in our deepest sorrow, there can be joy because, again and again, we experience that God “has not despised or disdained the suffering of his afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cries for help (verse 24).” The passionate prayer of the forsaken one, “be not far off,” has been answered. Now it is time to praise the God who is always present even when he seems absent.
The Psalmist begins his summons to praise with the congregation of Israel, his brothers and sisters in the faith: “you who fear the Lord, all the descendants of Jacob, in the great assembly.” The reference to “the poor” in verse 26 is probably not a reference to economic poverty, though that would fit in with the reference to the rich in verse 29. Both rich and poor should join in praising God. The poor are those who are spiritually poor, the lowly who depend on God, that is, Israel. When he was deep in despair, the Psalmist had made a vow to give thanks in the great Temple assembly when and if he was delivered. So now he does just that, offering up a sacrifice of thanksgiving and praise for what God has done.
But his call is not limited to the believers who “seek the Lord.” In verses 27-31, he foresees the day when all of humanity will join God’s people in praise. Indeed, humanity will become God’s people. In response to Israel’s telling and retelling of the story of God’s grace, “All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord….” The word “turn” there is shub, the classic Hebrew word for repentance. “All the families of the earth will remember and repent and bow down before Yahweh, for [they will acknowledge that] dominion belongs to Yahweh and he rules over the nations.” Sounds a lot like the end of the great Christ-hymn in Phil. 2:6-11, doesn’t it?
This isn’t a reality yet; note all the future tense verbs in verses 27-31. This an eschatological vision of the world-wide scope of the work of the suffering Messiah. Not only the poor, but also the rich, often castigated in Scripture for their oppression of the poor; not only Israel, but the nations of the world; not only those who are vibrantly alive, but also those who “go down to the dust, who cannot keep themselves alive;” not only those who are children now, but even those who aren’t even born yet, present and future generations—all of these, all classes, all races, all ages, all those afflicted by the vagaries of existence will “proclaim his righteousness….” After a lifetime of wrong, a whole history of wrong, God will make it all right.
What a vision! But it’s not all future. Indeed, the theme of the Psalmist’s praise (verse 25) is spelled out in the last words of the Psalm– ”for he has done it (verse 31).” That is the Good News that must be told to this and future generations. Yahweh has done it. He seemed far away as we suffered our afflictions. We begged him not to be far off. And he has answered. He has come close. Indeed, he has come into our social and emotional and physical afflictions and, most of all, into our experience of God-forsaken. He has defeated all our enemies by being defeated by those enemies. Or so it seemed. And so it felt. “My God, my God, why…?” But in being so undone, Jesus did it. As he said in his last words, “It is finished, for God has done it.”
That‘s an important reminder for Lenten pilgrims. We are not saved by our Lenten observances—not our prayer, not our fasting, not our worship, not our penitence, not even our faith. We are saved by what God has done, is doing, and will do in Christ. All our expressions of faith are simply our feeble human way of taking hold of the God who has taken hold of us. He has done what we cannot do. As one scholar puts it: “All face and finally experience the three-fold losses experienced by the Psalmist: the loss of physical vitality, the loss of the possibility that family and friends can sustain and relieve us, and the loss of a conscious relation to the cosmic power that creates and maintains existence. In the passion of Jesus that three-fold loss is undergone and he dies. But his resurrection is the signal to all who dread and undergo that three-fold loss that death itself has been brought within the rule of the God of Jesus Messiah.”
In your sermon this Sunday, help people remember well so that they can tell a people yet unborn: “he has done it.” And we are saved.
[Note: We have additional Lenten Resources, worship ideas, and Sample Sermons on our 2018 Lent and Easter page ]
You simply can’t end this sermon or the service in which you preach it without some reference to the old hymn by Horatius Bonar, “Not What My Hands Have Done.” It moves us away from traditional Lenten disciplines to a laser-like focus on the work of Christ.
Not what my hands have done can save my guilty soul;
Not what my toiling flesh has borne can make my spirit whole.
Not what I feel or do can give me peace with God;
Not all my prayers and sighs and tears can bear my awful load.
Thy grace alone, O God, to me can pardon speak;
Thy power alone, O Son of God, can this sore bondage break.
No other work save thine, no other blood will do;
No strength, save that which is thine own, can bear me safely through.
I bless the Christ of God; I rest on love divine;
And with unfaltering lip and heart I call this Savior mine.
‘Tis he that saveth me and freely pardon gives;
I love because he loveth me; I love because he lives.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Life comes from death. Perhaps there has never been a more counter-intuitive statement but there it is at the very heart of the Gospel: life comes from death. But since none of us is capable of bringing life out of death, that paradoxical statement is also a huge red arrow pointing straight at grace. It’s the valley of the dry bones all over again from Ezekiel 37: only God can give life, only God can breathe into corpses and make them come alive again. God does that. We cannot. It is all grace.
We don’t know all of what was going on in the Roman church that made Paul go to the great lengths he does in early Romans to make this point. Apparently, however, that perennial temptation to see our salvation as a result of works, of obedience, of keeping some rules was alive and well in Rome. And among at least some of the believers there, the argument must have centered to some degree on Abraham and how it was he got saved in the first place and so kicked off the whole stream of saving actions by God that culminated in Christ Jesus.
So Paul takes pains to do a little biblical education in Romans 4. Basically his argument comes down to this: God’s promise to save the world through Abram and Sarai came from out of a clear blue sky. Abram had had no law to keep, no rules to follow in order to make himself deserving of the favor God would bestow on him. God took the initiative and somehow gave Abram the ability to believe the unbelievable, to imagine the unimaginable: from his and Sarai’s as-good-as-dead bodies would come new life. Not just a child born to them in extreme old age but from that child a host of descendants by and by who would cover the earth the way sand covers the seashore, the way the stars cover the night sky.
There was nothing concrete God could offer Abram and Sarai by way of evidence to persuade them this would be true. What’s more, it took another quarter century after the initial promise for a child to be born. One year shy of that quarter-century mark when God’s messenger returned to Abraham and Sarah to say that at long last this time next year it will happen, Sarah cannot do anything but laugh. This was ridiculous. This was impossible. This was a joke. Sarah’s womb was a dry as the Sahara. Her menstrual cycles were a distant memory. And Abraham was no longer the picture of virility either—he had ten whole years on Sarah even.
But there it was: the promise of new life emerging from death. The promise that God would do something no human could do. And the promise was not earned. It was just granted, just spoken. And Abraham’s ability somehow to believe that is what made him a righteous man. He had no law to keep, no hoops to jump through to impress the Almighty. He just stepped out onto thin air and embraced the idea that maybe, just maybe, God could bring life from death. And if God did that, it would be clear it was all grace from first to last.
All of this, as Paul well knew, was the beginning of the story. Where a story begins has a pretty big shaping effect on both the nature of the larger story and where it will likely end up, too. For God, he has a whole world of people to choose from, including lots of fertile young couples who could bear a child with which to begin a nation out of which the salvation of all the nations would come. Choosing almost anyone other than Abram and Sarai was surely the sensible thing to do.
But had God done that sensible thing, it would have been easier to conclude that it was mostly human effort that got the job done. There would have been nothing striking, nothing out of the ordinary if a couple in their 20s had conceived a child. But it’s more than that: a couple in their 20s would not have sounded the necessary note of death. The fact is that when God wanted to kick off his salvation of the world, it was necessary to make it clear that life—real, true, lasting life—would come only through death. That way no one could conclude that we had earned it, concocted it, finagled it, or anything else. God gives life, and he is the only one who can.
Of course, that did not stop the Romans apparently—and it has not stopped all kinds of people in history right down to this present day—from concluding that salvation is somehow earned by our own efforts after all. Maybe it is pride. Maybe it is arrogance. Maybe it is being in denial that the human condition in a sinful world is as bad as God seems to think it is. Whatever the case, we hear the message that it is all by grace alone—a message you would think would be an unending source of joy—and we cannot quite swallow it. We want to insert ourselves into the salvation equation somehow and say that God loves us because we are so moral and so good. Or at least that helps to seal the deal, finish what Jesus got started for us.
But no, Paul urges, it is only the grace-generated ability to believe the incredible, to embrace the impractical, to imagine the unimaginable that salvation and new life really does come from death.
One could point out, I suppose, that Paul has scrubbed up Abraham’s image a bit here in Romans 4. The fact is that Abraham’s walk of faith after being called by God had its share of fits and starts. Paul says Abraham “never weakened in his faith” and in the long run that is certainly so but it does not quite describe every moment of Abraham’s life. He feared for his life and so lied about Sarah to Pharaoh. Along with Sarah he doubted if this whole promise of a child would really come true and so tried to force the issue with Hagar and Ishmael. Sarah was not the only one to laugh at God’s promises eventually—Abraham did too now and then.
All of that, though, only highlights Paul’s larger point that salvation could never have been up to us humans. We would have never pulled it off. We even find it mighty hard to believe at all as often as not. That’s OK. The spotlight needs to stay on God’s promises and God’s faithfulness and God’s grace anyway. In Lent we journey to the cross. We none of us could have done what Jesus did. We none of us could ever rack up such a bounty of moral achievements in keeping the Law or doing much of anything else that would ever be remotely tantamount to what Jesus did on Golgotha. Life has to come from death for lots of reasons, not least of which is making it crystal clear who it is that deserves ALL of the praise and the glory.
And it’s not us!
[Note: We have additional Lenten Resources, worship ideas, and Sample Sermons on our 2018 Lent and Easter page ]
From Frederick Buechner’s Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1977, pp. 49-50.
“The place to start is with a woman laughing. She is an old woman and, after a lifetime in the desert, her face is cracked and rutted like a six-month drought . . . She is laughing because she is pushing ninety-one hard and has just been told she is going to have a baby. Even though it was an angel who told her, she can’t control herself, and her husband can’t control himself, either. He keeps a straight face a few seconds longer than she does, but he ends by cracking up, too. Even the angel is not unaffected. He hides his mouth behind his golden scapular, but you can still see his eyes. They are larkspur blue and brimming with something of which the laughter of the old woman and her husband is at best only a rough translation. The old woman’s name is Sarah, of course, and the old man’s name is Abraham, and they are laughing at the idea of a baby’s being born in the geriatric ward and Medicare’s picking up the tab. They are laughing because the angel not only seems to believe it but seems to expect them to believe it too. They are laughing because with another part of themselves they know they do believe it . . . They are laughing at God and with God.”