Lent II: God's promises to future generations
"Embracing the Unexpected"
Sermon by Jennifer Davis Sensenig
Scripture: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Romans 4:13-25
Click to read transcript
Those who lose their life for my sake and the sake of the gospel, will save it.
It sounds like martyrdom to me–or at least death and resurrection. Either way, Jesus' words sound too deep and too wide for our little lives. Are we those who lose our lives for the sake of gospel, and so save our lives?
The traditional Lenten disciplines of giving, fasting, and praying are about losing our lives in order to save them. In their most basic form–giving money to the poor, abstaining from food, and praying to a God we can't quite get our hands on–these are three irrational practices which work against our own human interests. Unless Jesus is speaking the truth–the unexpected absurd truth which gives life. Those who lose their life for my sake and the sake of the gospel, will save it.
As God's people, during Lent we open ourselves to what God will do with us. We give. We give to the poor and entrust the poor with the money that we might otherwise be tempted to hoard or worship, or control as if we knew how to rightly order the wealth of God's creation. We fast. We fast to create an emptiness, a hunger for things only God can provide. We pray. We pray to God because we are not God–we are not the center of the world or even the center of our own lives. Our cells and bodies orbit around a center of divine love that is God–who holds the universe together and catches it as it falls apart.
These Lenten practices of giving fasting and praying, remind us that God works in unexpected, counter-intuitive, seemingly irrational ways at times. And we are called to be early adopters of God's ways with us. When Jesus spoke about things like this–losing one's life to save it, his closest friends thought he was nuts. But he wasn't. He was speaking God's truth, and living it, even when it meant dying and trusting his disciples with the unfinished business. When we think about it that way, maybe Jesus was a bit crazy.
And when Abram heard God's truth spoken directly into his life, he laughed. This wasn't just a baby after months of infertility, this was a crazy irrational promise of a child to be born to a post-menopausal woman. Both parents–as good as dead–says the apostle Paul. Now, none of us wants to stand in the way of God's promises, but remember that there was a perfectly reasonable alternative approach that God could have taken, which was Ishmael who was already born to Abram. But God chose a different unexpected, quite unnecessary, path.
Abram and Sarai unexpectedly receive new names, and God promises them a son. And centuries later, in a letter to the Roman housechurches Paul explains that by embracing an unexpected new reality, Abraham demonstrated the kind of faith that should be common to all who believe in Jesus. So if you haven't already taken up some kind of Lenten discipline, or even if you have, this week let's pay attention to the unexpected events in our lives…and embrace them.
Expectations and Unexpected Events
We all have expectations–it's only rational to predict, assume, generalize, and expect things to fall together (or fall apart) in a certain way. And for some of us, who like routines, it's easy to resist unexpected events or manage the apm as best we can and then return to our familiar securities. But God's covenants in the Old Testament and the covenant in Jesus Christ are established with unlikely people through unexpected events and by seemingly irrational means.
There are four big covenants in the Old Testament. The first is the covenant with Noah. Actually, it's a covenant with every living creature, with all flesh. And it's really unexpected because God promises to withhold the power to destroy life. FYI gods don't usually place limits on themselves. The second covenant is the one we read this morning with Abraham and Sarah and their descendants–to make them a family that would be in partnership with God, bless all nations and give them a secure place to live. All of us who are descended from this family, or have been adopted into it are heirs to this promise. The third big covenant is with Moses. Actually, it's with the whole people of Israel–God will be faithful to them as they live according to God's law and teaching. A fourth covenant is with David and descendants from a royal family who will reign in Israel as an exemplary nation with a faithful king forever.
As you might expect, the covenant partnership breaks down because of human greed, gluttony and guns. OK, guns weren't invented yet, but it's a useful alliteration–greed gluttony and guns. Maybe instead of guns we should say humans trying to control the world through violence. So at the end of Israel's story in the Old Testament one wonders whether any of these covenants will be cobbled back together from their broken remains. Then, Jesus begins to live as an unexpected fulfillment of these very covenants. He is a surprise–from birth to death to resurrection life. He is God's new covenant with us. Instead of greed, gluttony and guns he counsels giving, fasting and prayer–losing life in order to save it.
Pay Attention to Unexpected Events
Brothers and sisters, the God who loves you has provided some of the order and routine in your life that gives you a sense of being at home, centered, secure and peaceful. And this same God who loves you is also providing some unexpected events in your life that will help you discover the meaning of your life, and the way your life is connected to the life of Christ, the fulfillment of all God's covenant promises. These unexpected events may be quiet moments in the midst of fast-paced living. They may be hardships or difficulties that arise. These may be good surprises. These may be the satisfaction for which we've longed.
Among us there have been some unexpected events in recent weeks. Last week the US experienced another mass shooting. As a country we have actually come to expect these. With few regulations on weapons, even semi-automatic weapons and the bump stocks that make them even more deadly, we expect our national life to be regularly interrupted by devastating mass shooting. What has been unexpected this time around is the young student activists who are calling adults, especially elected leaders, to account for their moral and political failure to make change in US gun laws. In a tired and stuck debate about gun control vs. 2nd amendment rights, these are unexpected voices. Is the God who hung up the war bow in the sky and refused to destroy all life addressing the US through our public school children? Are these our sons and daughters who prophesy?
Last week as a congregation we began grieving together when we learned Paul Longacre died early Monday morning. Paul was dying. His CLL was advanced and he was receiving hospice services at VMRC. Even though he had expressed years ago that he was ready and willing to die, some of us expected that it might be a long while until his strong heart and large frame would yield this life to the next. Dying on Monday was unexpected. Those who lose their life for my sake and the sake of the gospel will save it. What might God be showing us when the unexpected occurs? Has God's covenantal love been active all along?
As my husband Kent shared recently, this month my father was diagnosed with Lewy Body dementia, a fatal disease that will bring challenges and hardships to him and those of us who love and care for him. We still have much to learn about this diagnosis. Some of the challenges are already wearisome and aspects of his near future trajectory bring stress and anxiety. That my parents are aging was expected, the diagnosis and new caregiving responsibilities was unexpected. Because of some things that friends familiar with Lewy Body have said, I'm looking for the ways in which God's covenant promises are being fulfilled through these unexpected events.
Last Tuesday author and spiritual director Sharon Clymer Landis, who now attends Shalom Mennonite Congregation, encouraged readers of our online Lent devotional "to welcome this moment with all it includes, the wanted and unwanted." The story of God promising a son to Abram and Sarai is one of embracing the unexpected, and that's not a bad message. It surely brings some of us comfort to consider embracing rather than resisting the unexpected events of the days ahead. Maybe we will learn and grow from these experiences.
But I think a sermon, that is preaching the word, requires a bit more than this counsel to let surprising, unexpected, events be. God's promise to that old couple was to bring a son, a family, a blessing to all nations of the world, a land-based security and sense of home. The promise was contingent on Abram's sacred relationship with God, Paul calls it faith. For Christians this ancestral story of Abraham and Sarah is like a divine wink. We share a chuckle with God because the promise is a son of our own, a child of human flesh and blood who would be humankind's greatest legacy, a life lived to redefine family, to bless all nations, to create a community in harmony with the land and all creation. This Son, whom we called Jesus, makes good on the human-side of covenant partnership. And so it is our privilege to embrace him, to embrace the unexpected son of God and son of Humanity. And so we give away our money and other false gods in order to share life with Christ. We not only give. We fast. We remain hungry for this Son of peace and justice and forgiveness to replace the violence, injustice and revenge that plague our society. We give. We fast. And we pray. We pray–sometimes with the very words of Jesus–as if our Son is keeping God's promise in us and keeping God's promise to us.
I don't know how God will invite us to embrace the unexpected in the days ahead. But if you fall down on your face or bust a gut laughing, like Abram, we as the church will be here to wonder with you what it is all about. And if you resist the losses and suffering like one of Jesus' early disciples, the church will be here to struggle with you and seek forgiveness. And if you somehow grow strong in faith through unexpected developments as the apostle expected we would, then we will be here as church to hear your good news and give glory to God.
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